The Agile manifesto, created 20 years ago, has radically changed the process of software development, introducing new principles and emphasizing breaking tasks down into small chunks for more innovation and greater productivity. Although some companies improve their productivity by 100-200% in one year in developing and maintaining applications, most still complain that their IT teams are not running fast enough and not meeting the needs of the business. What makes the difference? A critical factor that needs to be put in place in Agile methods to improve productivity is product stewardship, but it has not been introduced into the IT departments of most companies.
Product management is a complementary component of the Agile methodology and DevOps operations. Product management creates a product manager – someone responsible for the software product – who sits outside of the development team. Product managers work closely with three groups:
- Users – To help the product manager understand use cases and user stories
- Management – To help the product manager understand and defend investments and align with company direction
- Development Team – To help the Product Manager provide direction and make decisions regarding the roadmap, the projects the team needs to work on and the timeline for that work
Product managers have a clear set of skills and techniques in how they do their jobs and how they identify what the North Star is (what the company wants to accomplish with the product).
But product management has not been introduced into the IT departments of most companies. Instead, the IT departments of many companies have a large fleet of applications with people responsible for their maintenance. They have user liaison organizations – IT people sitting down with users – but that doesn’t make any headway in the evolution to product management. For this to happen, business leaders need to redesign how they can structure their IT organization even more.
Product management requires IT rethinking
Product management requires reconsidering the way a business organizes and thinks about applications, including:
- How it invests in applications and who is responsible for driving this investment
- Who is responsible for drawing the roadmap
- Who is responsible for communication within the development team, users and senior management of the organization
For this to happen, companies need to start thinking less about single applications and focusing on assembling platforms and their associated technology stack. These platforms are more usefully viewed as products that drive results rather than bundles of applications. Once this shift in mindset occurs, businesses can apply agile and product management tools to traditional IT. IT managers can redesign traditional IT and its towers into product lines rather than application areas, infrastructure, etc.
Imagine, for example, the technology stack that supports the Finance and Accounting (M&A) department not as a set of applications but as a product that enables the M&A department to achieve its goals. If a business goes through the process of redesigning, they’ll put a product manager in place to manage this tech stack to create a North Star. The North Star rules based on what the company wants to accomplish with the technology. It explains how to meet business requirements, how to advocate for investments, and how to lead or control the roadmap for the DevOps team supporting the product.
Where companies are implementing product management, we see IT solving the perennial dilemma of how it serves multiple masters at once. How does it help business departments or business lines meet their needs? How does it control costs and safety? How does it do all of this cost-effectively while maintaining stability and resiliency across the organization?
The move towards product management (rather than traditional IT project management) may seem like a modest move. But this has difficult consequences for IT governance.
Impact of product management on third-party services
Product stewardship also has implications for working with third-party service providers. Previously, these vendors often captured much of the maintenance work for the large application parks that businesses depend on.
Product management should be owned by the customer company of the service provider. Thus, it disrupts the traditional supplier-buyer relationship driven by SLAs. This is not a bad consequence. But it requires rethinking service provider contracts in terms of how the business manages and operates them, how it measures performance, and how it evaluates them in terms of success or failure.
Challenges vs Benefits
Product management in IT is an innovation that requires structural change to be successful. This structural change threatens the status quo. It also requires significant investment and attention.
That said, the benefits far outweigh the challenges and the costs. The benefits of better aligning IT with business needs and establishing a closer relationship between IT and business, achieving higher productivity, better controls and lower costs seem worth the trip.