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DevOps and the “Product-centric” approach

When doing the research for our BrightTalk Webinar on DevOps I came across this quote from Jez Humble on “products not projects”, which really struck a chord with our thinking about what we call the “product-centric” approach to DevOps.

Products not Projects quotation

Figure 1 – DevOpsGuys BrightTalk Webinar

One of the key elements of DevOps is to ensure that IT strategy is directly linked with Business strategy.

One of the critical scenes in “The Phoenix Project” is where our hero Bill gets to meet with the CFO and they work through the list of “pet IT projects” in the organisation and find that many of them can’t really be tied back to any business strategy or organisational goal.

This is, we feel, one of the major problems with the “project-centric” view of IT and why we need to push for a “product-centric” view.

The “project-centric” view, whilst important for mobilising resources and organising activities, can easily get disconnected from the original business objectives. Any “Project”, just like the “Phoenix Project” in the novel, runs the risk of becoming its own “raison d’etre” as it becomes more about getting “the Project” over the line than whatever business benefits were originally proposed.

In contrast a “Product-centric” viewpoint is focussed on the Product (or Service) that you are taking to market. By keeping the focus on “the Product” you are constantly reminded that you are building a product, for customers, as part of an organisational objective that ties back to over-arching business strategy.

For example if you were in the travel sector you might be adding a new “Online Itinerary Manager” product to your website to enable your customers to view (and possibly update) their itinerary online as part of your business strategy to both empower customers online and reduce the number of “avoidable contacts” to your call centre (and hence reduce costs).

One of the other benefits of the “product-centric” view is also highlighted in Jez’s quote above – “From Inception to Retirement”.

The “product-centric” view reminds us to think about the “Product lifecycle” and not just the “software development lifecycle”.

The “product-centric” view reminds us to think about the “Product lifecycle”
and not just the “software development lifecycle”.

You need to understand how this product is going to be deployed, managed, patched, upgraded, enhanced and ultimately retired… and that means you need close cooperation between the business, the developers and operations (= DevOps!).

So how do you introduce the “Product-centric” view into an organisation that might already have existing website that offers products/services to customers?

Well, firstly, you need to stop referring to it as “the website”.

A “website” is a platform and a channel to market, it’s not a “product”.

A product is a good or service that you offer to the market in order to meet a perceived market need in the hope that you will in return received an economic reward.

For some “websites” there might be a single product e.g. Dominos sells pizza online (food products) and for other there might be multiple products e.g. theAA.com sells membership (breakdown services), Insurance, Financial Services, Driver Services (mostly training) and Travel Services. If you’re ever in doubt on the products your website sells your top navigation menu will probably give you a pretty good indication!

What Products does the AA Sell?

Figure 2 – what products does the AA sell?

It’s worth mentioning that the AA has another product too – the “RoutePlanner”. Although the route planner is “free” is has a value to the organisation both indirectly (by drawing traffic to the site that you might then cross-sell too) and intangibly (by offering a valuable service for “free” it enhances the brand).

Secondly, you need to identify the “product owners” for each of the core products that use your website as a channel to market, so in our AA example you’d probably have separate product owners for Membership, Insurance, Finance etc.

If you’re ever in doubt about who is, or isn’t, the right product owner then there is a simple test – “Do you have a significantly financial incentive (bonus) for Product “X” to succeed in the market?”.

The “Product Owner” Test:
“Do you have a significantly financial incentive (bonus) for Product “X” to succeed in the market?”

If the answer is “no” keep going up the hierarchy until you find someone who says “yes”. A product owner who doesn’t have any “skin in the game” regarding the success of their product line is a bad idea!

Thirdly, you need to work with the product owner to map out the product lifecycle of that product, and then identify the IT dependencies and deliverables at every stage along that product lifecycle. Within your product lifecycle you might also want to map out the “feature roadmap” if your product devolves into multiple features that will be released over time. Creating the “big picture” can be vital in motivating your teams and helping them to understand what you’re trying to achieve, and this in turn helps that to make better decisions.

Fourthly, you need to “sense check” your product lifecycle and feature roadmap against your business strategy and organisational goals. If they don’t align you either need to re-work the plan or you might decide to drop the product altogether and re-deploy those resources to a product that *IS* part of your core strategy.

Lastly you need to re-organise your DevOps teams around these products and align your delivery pipeline and processes with the product lifecycle (and feature roadmap). Your DevOps teams are responsible for the “inception to retirement” management of that product (*Top Tip – just like your “product owner” it might be a great idea to incentivise your DevOps teams with some “product success” (business) metrics in their bonus, not just technical metrics like “on-time delivery” or “system availability”. It never hurts for them to have some “skin in the game” to promote a sense of ownership in what they are delivering!).

So, to summarise, the key elements in a “product-centric approach” are:

(1)    Breakdown your “website” into the key “Products” (that generate business value)

(2)    Identify “Product Owners” with “skin in the game”

(3)    Map out the product lifecycle (and ideally feature roadmap) for each product with them

(4)    Sense check this product strategy with your organisational strategy

(5)    Align your DevOps teams with the core products (and incentivise them accordingly!)

So next time you’re in a meeting and someone proposes a new “Project” see if you can challenge them to create a new “Product” instead!

 

image source: - CC  - jeremybrooks via Flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeremybrooks/5401494223/sizes/s/
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