Using Transparency for Building Strong Organizations

I have broken down below a simple six part outline of what a technology platform organization is and how to run it. The platform organization is the bottom of the technology stack. The top of the stack will differ from the platform, in that, it will have external customers and more focus on product design and the user interface. However, this outline can still largely apply. This plan is built up over 20 years of working in an around technology organizations. You will find my ideas on Open Source First is the rallying cry of how to run a better platform organization. All the steps that follow have the Open Source First behavior mixed in. Coming from my Open Source First post, transparency is the key thread throughout this outline.

1. What Are You?

A platform organization can be defined as all the underlying functions required to build and / or support customer facing software applications. That includes the data center, server, network, load balancer, firewall, storage, datastore, service bus, service registry, data search, data analysis, data visualization, application server services, monitoring, and alerting (did I miss anything?) in all their various forms and sizes. All that follows is how to run a platform organization with transparency, not what technology to utilize.

2. Know What You Support

Services

Each platform organization supports various services. I loosely call services as something that is listening for requests from a client that the customer is using. There are a variety of service support levels. A Network Operations Center (NOC) is a form of a service. The NOC is listening and waiting for requests. A Service Bus that is implemented at each data center and supported by a centralized team is a service. Each implementation of the Service Bus is listening for and relaying messages.

 

The new sexy is Functions as a Service (FaaS) or Serverless. These are still services. The main point of the new names is that you are building software utilizing well defined cloud based services that are always available. By the services being considered Microservices, you can assume that they are fully portable with the same functionality and that they can be spawned and destroyed for specific short term implementations. Susan Fowler wrote a book on the subject.

Products

The software developer creates a software product. A product can utilize services as outlined above. A service can be defined as a product as well. A software product is versioned with specific features and bugs. A product has customers with expectations. A service that is also a product will have similar customer expectations. The critical attribute of a product is the customer. A product has a customer. For example, when you acquire a product and your expectation is that it will continue to function as is for a year. When the product fails after a month, you expect to have it replaced or be compensated. A product has transparently communicated iterations of increasing functionality or also called versions. Each product version has advertised, expected functionality. Product bugs happen, but are expected to be corrected in a reasonable period of time.

 

So the point here is from a platform leadership perspective, you always have customers. Therefore you manage products for your customers. You have services as part of your product(s) functionality. If you were to only focus on the services, then you miss the customer aspect of your responsibilities. You have products that you stand behind and guarantee of level of service delivery to your customers.

Now Define What Products You Support

Make their versions, service levels, end of life, outstanding customer requests, support, documentation, current features, and features to be implemented transparent to everyone. Being transparent means starting with everything being public information. 

3. Know Your Customers

So often, we rush through designing and implementing a great product that has little to no customer interest. You must understand and personally know your customers. Schedule recurring meetings with your customers and key product managers. Hold those meetings on time no matter what. Delivering bad news in person is just as important as good news. Remember that the platform organization exists to serve its customers. And that your platform customers are the people that make the profit in the P&L.

4. Define your Roles

Every organization needs well defined roles with responsibilities. I have used the RACI model to help describe the roles. I have outlined below the most critical roles for a platform organization with a few of their most important responsibilities.

 

transparent platform
transparent platform leadership roles
Image 1: Platform Organization Hierarchy

 

In my definition of the platform organization, everyone reports up through the Platform SVP. There are four Development VP positions for Services, PaaS, IaaS, and Hardware, one Product VP position, and one Operations VP position. Six VPs report to the SVP. The Network Operations Center with the first and second level operations engineers report up through the Operations VP. The Development VP positions oversee their slice of the platform technology and are accountable for the third level operations engineering. The Product VP oversees the Product Managers, Scrum Masters, and Release Managers. The Product Managers report directly into the Product VP, while the Scrum Masters and Release Managers for each technology slice can be dotted line to the Product VP.  This allows the Scrum Masters and the Release Masters to be closer to the developers that they support. As long as there is accountability, it should not matter who reports direct to whom.

 

Each and every person in the organization is expected to be involved in development and operations practices through CI / CD. That means everyone practices DevOps and the resulting agile behaviors.

 

Platform SVP role

  • Responsible for the annual strategy derived from the CTO strategy
  • Accountable for leading the organization
  • Accountable for hiring practices of the organization
  • Responsible for the organization budget
  • Accountable for the platform products
  • Accountable for on-boarding new customers through platform operations
  • Recognize the the buck stops here with the SVP. The SVP delegates responsibility to the chain of command.

Development VP role

  • Responsible for the annual strategy for their slice of the technology organization
  • Accountable for quarterly objectives
  • Responsible for leading their slice of the organization
  • Accountable for hiring in their slice of the organization
  • Accountable for their part of the organization budget
  • Responsible for their technology slice platform products
  • Accountable for layer three operations engineering support

Development Manager role

  • Very similar to the Development VP role, except they are responsible for the capabilities of the VP in their slice of the organization

Product VP role

  • Accountable for quarterly objectives
  • Responsible for the Platform Product Managers and Scrum Masters
  • Accountable for regular meetings to determine the status of the release schedule
  • Accountable for planning and organizing the product roadmaps, releases, and reporting
  • Responsible for the Product Management retrospective and Product Management roadmap review scoring processes
  • Accountable for the platform products schedule
  • Responsible for coordinating product release schedules and product milestones across the entire organization
  • Consults with Security, Operations, Open Source, Legal, and other horizontal teams on requirements and assistance

Product Manager role

  • Very similar to the Product VP role, except they are responsible for the capabilities of the VP in their slice of the organization
  • Responsible for prioritizing the Product Roadmap(s) features while working directly with the Scrum Master and Development Manager
  • Responsible for product backlog scoring used during scrum retrospectives
  • Collaborates with other Product Managers on Product Roadmap risks and dependencies
  • Responsible for demonstrations, roadshows, and product showcasing
  • Accountable for engaging with customers through Customer Advocacy meetings
  • Responsible for marketing the product for customer adoption and on-boarding new customers
  • Responsible for accepting or rejecting product delivery from the development team for a release based on product reviews and quality

Operations VP

  • Accountable for quarterly objectives
  • Accountable for general operations support (layer one and two) including the Network Operations Center
  • Responsible for managing alerting and monitoring services
  • Responsible for managing the CI / CD infrastructure
  • Accountable for the Data Center Operations. This includes public (AWS, GCE, Rackspace, Azure) and private (owned, leased, colo) based infrastructure
  • Responsible for on-boarding new customers into the platform organization

Release Manager role

  • Responsible for their own personal quarterly objectives
  • Accountable for software pipeline quality
  • Responsible for tracking unit and build test application. Are the tests doing anything useful? Do the tests get set to noop during the push for release?
  • Responsible to work with the Development Manager(s) on how testing can be improved. Are the same tests being run for gate and build? Can some of the tests be run pre patch submission by the developer? Are there some project teams that are having problems with test implementation?
  • Responsible to work with developers and/or the Infrastructure Manager reviewing software pipeline logs for information and errors.
  • Responsible to work with the Infrastructure Manager on maintaining the software pipeline. Especial focus on keeping the software pipeline functional towards the end of a product release cycle when there will be heavier than usual load.
  • Responsible to work with the Product Manager and Development Manager on the product release cycle.

Scrum Master role

  • Responsible for their own personal quarterly objectives
  • Accountable for managing scrum or kanban boards for measuring progress against the roadmap
  • Accountable for holding scrum or project retrospectives
  • Responsible for working closely with the Product Manager and Development Manager on backlog prioritization
  • Responsible for working with the Product Manager on the product release
  • Accountable for managing appropriate engineers’ time management during sprints
  • Consulted by the Development Manager on feedback around engineers’ performance, productivity, and quality
  • Responsible for identifying and removing risks and dependencies in coordination with the Product Manager

Developer role

  • Responsible for their own personal quarterly objectives
  • Accountable for completing work assigned by the Scrum Master
  • Responsible working within the DevOps software pipeline(s)
  • Accountable for personal technical capabilities
  • Responsible for mentoring junior engineers
  • Responsible for practicing transparency and collaboration

5. Communicate on a Well Defined Schedule

Communication milestones that your customers can come expect is critical to gaining trust. Most importantly these milestones provide transparency to the product development process for customers and collaborators. If delivering on these milestones becomes difficult, consider moving the Scrum Master and Release Manager roles under the Product VP for more accountability for the product management process.

 

Bi-weekly communication to the platform organization

  • Progress on features
  • More in-depth information from blog posts

Monthly communication to the company

  • New product updates
  • Few blog posts to highlight

Weekly to bi-weekly project retrospectives

  • Backlog progress scoring based on backlog reviews by the Product Manager
  • Project epics are created and updated by the Development Manager, Product Manager, and Scrum Master. Then the epics are kept up to date throughout the quarter

Monthly Product Roadmap reviews

  • Each Product Manager updates their published roadmap monthly
  • Each Product Manager publishes a Product Roadmap quality score for each product they are responsible for. The roadmap quality score is based on: are all the roadmap details available, is the roadmap published on-time, and the quality of the roadmap details.

Monthly updates on product, project status based on Product Roadmaps and Releases

  • Report published with last quarter product releases, scoring metrics, progress on features, status of risks, dependencies, and the status of customer requests
  • Updated, published annual product release schedule

Quarterly product roadmap reviews

  • Features, bugs, risks, and dependencies
  • References to epics for cross-project discussions

Quarterly Headcount and Finance review

  • Travel, equipment, events, sponsorships
  • Headcount adjustments by project, product, and roles
  • Fine tuning from the annual review

Quarterly Customer Advocacy meetings

  • Each functional group of products holds quarterly Customer Advocacy meetings
  • These customer meetings can happen as often as required, but with the Product Manager(s) attending, representing the product

6. Create a Culture Based on Transparency

Every organization needs a strategy. But very few organizations have a strategy that makes sense to the organization. That is because most people start with blue sky planning. That is a mistake. This is not a company you are running, rather a team that supports an existing company with a strategy and goals of their own.

 

After putting the platform organization together around products and customers, you have a solid baseline for what your strategy and goals need to be. Before you would have wasted your time. Now you can be clear and spend the minimum time planning.

 

Using that baseline, along with the CTO strategy mixed in, the Platform SVP maintains no more than 5 annual goals, created two months before the new year starts. Those annual goals are the strategy for the organization. The strategy must be clear and timely, so everyone can reference their part in delivering the strategy. The platform leadership, Platform VPs, will need use the annual goals to plan out their annual year products and headcount.

 

To publish and communicate the strategy, use the method of OKRs. My best OKR experience was when each employee started with a blank gdoc indexed to the organization structure. Transparency of everyone’s goals, starting with senior leadership, builds organizational trust and confidence. OKRs can be a key tool for organization change. Transparency of leadership’s goals is an important aspect of open source behavior derived from Open Source First. Once the Platform SVP publishes the annual goals as OKRs, everyone can read, write, discuss, and debate the annual strategy.

 

The organization then updates their OKRs quarterly. Senior leadership should take no longer than a week to create and publish their OKRs. Senior leadership and the rest of the organization publishes their OKRs for the next quarter 2/3’s of the way through the previous quarter. Take no more than a couple of weeks following the first round of OKR publishing, to debate and revise any major inconsistencies. That means timing wise, the whole organization will have their OKRs completed for the next quarter, weeks before that quarter starts.

 

Do not be tempted to create a hierarchy of OKRs from leadership on down. I have never seen it work well. If your leadership understands your products and customers, then their goals will be very similar to the rest of the organization. Senior leadership cannot understand all the details of the working parts of the organization. Additionally, if everyone waits for the leadership goals, before starting their own, it will cause delays of weeks to months. It is better to get 80% accuracy in your quarterly goals while publishing them on time. Think quarterly OKR train release.

 

Points to highlight:
  • Each person maintains 3-5 OKRs each quarter. OKRs should be their priorities only.
  • OKRs are not meant to be a project or product management system
  • Transparency of everyone’s goals to improve collaboration
  • Each manager holds their directs responsible for their OKRs. Use your directs OKRs as part of their leadership mentoring.
  • Each person rates the success of their OKRs. 60-80% OKR success rate is what you want. You can also call this stretch goals.

Let Transparency Take Hold

In conclusion, take this outline as just that, the broad strokes. This outline is focused on the process steps that can allow development teams to independently create their own way of running their teams within the platform organization. When you have a well structured organization with milestones, transparency, and good communication, it encourages merit based work from everyone. And that is a place, I want to work at.