Mind the platform execution gap

Share Our Content With ⤦

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
Share on whatsapp
Share on telegram
Share on reddit
Share on pinterest
Share on print


Leaders of software development organisations are under great pressure to
ensure that their employees spend their time on value-adding activities. One
way to achieve this is to use SaaS to outsource functionality that isn’t
part of their organisation’s core business. Another way is to consolidate
infrastructure capabilities required by many teams and services into a
digital platform (which might in turn rely upon SaaS and cloud providers).
Usually, internal platforms are curated combinations of internally developed
and externally procured capabilities.

Evan Bottcher has a great description of the key elements of a digital
platform:

A digital platform is a foundation of self-service APIs, tools,
services, knowledge and support which are arranged as a compelling
internal product.

Evan Bottcher

When well executed, a platform strategy promises to reduce costs,
improve developer effectiveness
and allow product development teams to focus on innovation. When it goes
wrong, problems with the platform are passed directly onto the entire
software development organisation. In our work with clients, we have
observed that there is a substantial amount of industry enthusiasm
(otherwise known as hype) around building internal platforms, but we also
see a potential execution gap that has to be navigated.

Please mind the gap between the hype train and the platform.

Building an effective platform and an organisation to support it is a
worthwhile but ambitious goal that takes greater maturity than directly
provisioning infrastructure for services. As with other ambitious technical
maneuvers, for example microservice architectures, there are foundational
competencies that are prerequisites for sustainable success. They do not all
have to be mature before you embark on a platform journey, but you must have
the appetite and resolve to develop them along the way, otherwise your
digital platform is unlikely to deliver a return on the substantial
investment you will put into it.

Business value

The decision to commit to an internal developer productivity platform
is an economic one. The argument in favour depends on efficiency, quality
and time-to-market benefits exceeding the financial, talent and
opportunity costs incurred in its construction and evolution. If you can’t
articulate the business case for your platform, then you aren’t in a
position to responsibly adopt it. Your calculations must take into account
the capabilities of commercially available services because unless your
platform offers features, specificity to your context or convenience that
a commercial offering cannot, you may be better off leaving it to the
market and avoiding the maintenance burden – after all your platform
strategy depends upon reducing the amount of undifferentiated work, not
increasing it!

The decision to build a digital platform is only the beginning of your
responsibility to substantiate the business value of your digital
platform. The motivation for a platform strategy may be compelling at a
high level, but there are many fine-grained decisions involved in deciding
which features to offer and how to offer them. To complicate matters
further, the business justification for your features will shift over time
as the state of technology progresses, the needs of your organisation
evolve and cloud providers and other vendors release new and improved
offerings that compete with your homegrown solutions.

To deliver the promised value to your organisation, plan for a greater
proportion of continuous improvement versus product innovation than
end-user facing products. To keep the platform manageable and costs under
control, operability-related items must have a place of honour in the
backlog. Your users appreciate consistency, stability and dependability
over a stream of new features. Also, every product that you offer you must
some day deprecate in favour of a new product on the market, an internally
built successor or even devolving responsibility for the capability back
to your product development teams. Deprecation is a fundamental part of
the platform product lifecycle, and failure to consider it may undermine
the business benefits you hoped to gain by offering it in the first
place.

Product thinking

You must never forget that you are building products designed to
delight their customers – your product development teams. Anything that
prevents developers from smoothly using your platform, whether a flaw in
API usability or a gap in documentation, is a threat to the successful
realisation of the business value of the platform. Prioritise developer
experience – a product that no one uses is not a successful product, no
matter its technical merits. In order to achieve return on investment for
your internal platform, your product development teams need to use it and
use it well. For that to happen, they need to appreciate it, understand it
and be aware of its features. As Max Griffiths describes in his article
on Infrastructure as Product,
platform products require customer empathy, product ownership and
intelligent measurement, just like other kinds of product.

One advantage of internal products is that you have users that are
highly invested in your products’ evolution and success. Like any group of
customers, your colleagues will be a mixture of the skeptical, the neutral
and the enthusiastic. Harnessing the enthusiasts and helping them to
become early adopters and champions of the platform will greatly benefit
perception of the platform in your organisation. Communicating your
roadmap, accepting feedback and harvesting experiences from your users
will contribute to your platform’s ongoing relevance. Luckily, you all
work for the same organisation, so you have rich communication channels
available. Internal platforms need marketing. It won’t look the same as
marketing a product to the public, but it’s marketing nonetheless.

Maintaining goodwill is key to adoption. So if you have any unavoidable
outages, communicate them and perhaps adapt your plans to reduce impact on
your users. If something goes wrong and you have an outage (hint: you
will) then apology and transparency will reassure them. Resist the
temptation to rely on managerial mandates as an adoption strategy. You may
have captive users, but compelling them to use products supposedly for
their own good does not foster a productive relationship.

Operational excellence

When you adopt an internal platform, you ask your product development
teams for a great deal of trust. Your platform is now a key dependency of
the systems your organisation uses to fulfill its function. Your
operational competence needs to be sufficient to justify that trust.

This means that your platform teams need to have a sound grasp of the
fundamentals of software infrastructure, like networking, scaling and
disaster recovery. If your platform engineering teams have difficulty with
the underlying technology, they will not build robust products for your
product development teams. Furthermore, modern operational excellence
extends beyond infrastructure and into practices that ensure reliability.
The book Site Reliability
Engineering
is a good account of the state of the art in this area.
If your platform organisation doesn’t have skills in SRE practices like
observability, monitoring and SLOs, not only are you at risk of breaking
the trust of your product teams, you are at risk of doing it and not
knowing that you did it.

Your platform organisation must also have the maturity to manage
incidents efficiently and to learn from them. Out-of-hours support,
alerting systems and blameless incident retrospectives should be a
priority. You may need to establish processes, modify wording on employer
contracts and budget for fair compensation to make this possible, as well
as make on-call a sufficiently pleasant
experience to encourage broad participation
. It will also affect
your planning. When you need to make significant changes, for example
migrations, you need to invest in making them gracefully so as to minimise
downtime for your users.

Software engineering excellence

A platform organisation is not just an operations department, so it
needs more than operational capabilities. Even if you do not plan on
writing substantial custom applications, your scripts, templates and
configuration files will rapidly accumulate complexity. If you want to
retain the ability to quickly and safely change your platform, you need to
build it the right way.

Our favourite summary of software engineering excellence in an
infrastructure context are the three core practices of infrastructure as
code, as defined by Kief Morris in his book
Infrastructure as Code
:

  • Define everything as code
  • Continuously test and deliver all work in progress
  • Build small, simple pieces that you can change independently

If your organisation is able to consistently apply these practices,
it’s much more likely to be able to execute on your platform vision.
Without them, you may be able to get your infrastructure into a good state
at a point in time, but you will not be able to sustain the pace of
evolution your development teams’ changing needs will demand.

Using internal products places demands on product development teams
too. Good product development teams are aware of the service levels
offered by their dependencies, factor them into their own designs and use
engineering practices to mitigate those risks that could impact their
service level objectives. This is even more important when those
dependencies are provided internally, because no matter how high quality
your platform is, it is unlikely to reach the level of polish of a
commercial SaaS provider.

Healthy teams

Individual skill is important, but sustaining excellence over the long
term requires strong team-level disciplines. When your platform systems
are depended upon by the rest of the business, it’s not acceptable for the
expertise to maintain them to be held only by a few busy individuals. You
need autonomous teams with clear missions who avoid individual code or
system ownership. They must invest in knowledge sharing, documentation and
onboarding. A single person winning the lottery should never be a threat
to the viability of your platform.

To keep these platform engineering teams productive, their systems for
planning work need to be mature. They must have backlogs of items
described in terms of their value and have processes for prioritisation,
otherwise the urgent may overwhelm the important. Incidents and unplanned
work are inevitable, but if too much of the team’s time is consumed with
toil, then it will never have the capacity to invest in the improvement of
its products. Teams should not try to manage too many platform products at
once.

We find the idea of cognitive load, as discussed in Matthew Skelton and
Manuel Pais’s book Team Topologies,
a useful one for keeping teams’ missions manageable. If a team constantly
switches context between completely different tasks, then the cognitive
load is too great and, when this happens, not only will the team be less
capable to undertake their day to day work, but it will also be difficult
for new team members to gain the confidence they need to work on all the
systems.

Getting started

If you do not already have these capabilities in your organisation,
does that disqualify you from adopting a platform strategy? How, you might
ask, are you supposed to build these capabilities without lessons
obtainable only from experience?

The secret is not to compromise on the quality of your execution, but
to be modest in the scope of your ambition – at first. A platform
initiative, no matter how small, should produce business value, be guided
by product thinking, be implemented with operational and software
engineering excellence and be backed by a team structure that can sustain
the new platform service. Anything less than that, and the boost you hoped
to deliver is likely to become a drag that tarnishes the reputation of
your fledgling platform with developers in your organisation.

Small, focused platform services targeted at well-understood parts of
your technology estate have a lower degree of difficulty. They don’t let
you off the hook for considering platform from a holistic perspective, but
they let you get started and build from there. For example, providing a
logging cluster that can ease the operational burden on product teams and
improve visibility across services has clear business value that does not
require sophisticated financial modelling to establish. It still requires
product thinking to ensure that it serves its customers (does its
availability, freshness and search UI meet the needs of the developers?)
but that product thinking does not need to have the maturity of that
required to, for example, offer a unified developer portal. And it still
requires software engineering, operational skill and a healthy team to do
well, though not as much as to, for example, build an observability
sidecar for all your organisation’s microservices.

The first question to ask yourself is what is the smallest thing
we can build
that would help the product teams?
The second is how could we upgrade or migrate away from this when the time
comes? The state of the art is evolving rapidly and vendor lock-in is no
less painful because the vendor is your very own organisation. If
deprecating your platform service would require a painful transition over
years, it is probably time to go back to the drawing board and simplify
your product. You do not need to have a detailed calendar and a plethora
of substitute technologies ready to go, but factoring in a realistic
lifetime (three to five years) and architectural seams for replacing
solutions will force your designs to be simpler and more decoupled.

We recommend that adoption of your platform be voluntary. This supports
your platform strategy in two ways. Firstly, when product teams have the
ability to opt out of platform services, it encourages you to keep your
services loosely coupled, which will benefit the platform when the time
comes to launch a new generation of the service or to replace it with a
commercial offering. Secondly, when your platform organisation is
dependent on product teams’ appreciation of the platform’s benefits, it
puts a strong pressure on your platform organisation to keep customer
delight at the forefront of their minds. Mandatory migration to the
platform is a shortcut that has the long-term risk of eroding your team’s
product thinking discipline.

You may find a simple classification system useful to set expectations
about the maturity of new platform features, for example to indicate that
a new feature is in beta. You might want to associate SLOs and support
tiers with the maturity classification as an experimental feature needs not
to offer the same high availability as a core feature or your platform. It
may not, for example, require round the clock support. Once the feature is
promoted to full support, users of the platform can expect SLOs strong
enough for them to build mission critical components on top of, but before
then a less demanding set of expectations gives the platform team freedom
to experiment and to validate their assumptions about the product before
making a strong (and long-term) commitment to it.

If you are able to keep the above in mind, you will have an additional
advantage. Your platform teams will manage small portfolios of very
effective products. Their cognitive load will be small and their focus
will be able to stay on continuously reducing the development teams’ time
to market instead of just on keeping the lights on.

Conclusion

Digital platforms are portfolios of technical products. Like all
products, platforms generate value through use. With the right underlying
business justification, careful product management and effective technical
execution, digital platforms succeed by reducing cognitive load on product
development teams and accelerating an organisation’s innovation. Platforms
take considerable investment in terms of money, talent and opportunity
cost. They repay this investment by positively impacting product
development teams’ ability to quickly and efficiently develop high quality
customer-facing products.

Developing a digital platform is a strategic decision and not to be
taken lightly. Besides the direct financial considerations, digital
platforms also exert pressure on the relationships within your
organisation. Product developers’ have experienced the offerings of
commercial cloud providers and to live up to those raised expectations
platform engineering teams must be mature in both product management and
technical implementation. Product development teams also have to learn to
be good partners of your platform organisation and accept their share of
responsibility for the operation of their services.

Digital platforms are force multipliers, so there is a fine line
between developing a competitive advantage and introducing a significant
productivity blocker. The decisions you make along the product lifetime
will determine whether you walk on one side or the other. The good news is
that just like with every other kind of software development, if you start
small, empathise with your customers, learn from your successes (and your
failures) and keep your overall vision in mind, you have every chance of
success.




Source link

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on reddit
Reddit
Share on telegram
Telegram
Share on email
Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *