Monday, August 4, 2014

Stacking responsibilities

TL;DR - Support decisions with automation and information; give people breadth of responsibility; let them learn from the results of their choices.

When I started writing software in 1999, The software development cycle was divided into stages, ruled over by project management.

Business people decided what to build to support the customers. Developers coded it. Testers tested it. System Administrators deployed and monitored it. Eventually the customer got it, and then, did anyone check whether the features did any good?

These days Agile has shortened the cycle, and put business, development, and QA in the same room. Meanwhile, with all the tools and libraries and higher-level languages, feature development is a lot quicker, so development broadens into automating the verification step and the deployment. Shorter cycles mean we ask the customer for feedback regularly.

Now developers are implementing, verifying, deploying, monitoring. The number of tools and environments we use for all these tasks becomes staggering. Prioritization - when the only externally-visible deliverable is features, who will improve tests, deployment, and monitoring? We automate the customer's work; when do we automate ours?

The next trend in development process helps with these: it divides responsibilities without splitting goals. Business works with customers, developers automate for business, and a slice of developers automate our work. Netflix calls this team Engineering Tools; at Outpace we call it Platform. Instead of handoffs, we have frequent delivery of complete products from each team.

Meanwhile, when developers own the features past production, another task emerges: evaluation of results. Automate that too! What is success for a feature? It isn't deployment: it's whether our customers find value in it. Gleaning that means building affordances into the feature implementation, making information easy to see, and then checking it out. We're responsible for a feature until its retirement. Combine authority with information, and people rise to the occasion.[1]


Learning happens when one person sees the full cycle and its effects, and that person influences the next cycle. Experiments happen, our capabilities grow.

In this division of responsibilities, no one delegates decisions. Everyone shares a goal, and supports the rest of the organization in reaching that goal. The platform team doesn't do deployments. It creates tools that abstract away the dirty details, supplying all information needed for developers to make decisions and evaluate the results. At Outpace, the Platform team is composed of people from the other development teams, so they share background and know each others' pain. The difference is: the platform team has a mandate to go meta, to improve developer productivity. Someone is automating the automation, and every developer doesn't have to be an expert in every layer.

The old way was like a framework: project managers take the requirements from the business, then the code from the developers, and pass them into the next step in the process. The new way is like libraries: the platform team provides what the developers need, who provide what the business needs, who provide what the customer needs. Details are abstracted away, and decisions are not.

When a developer's responsibilities end with code that conforms to a document, it's super hard to get incentives aligned to the larger needs. Once everyone is responsible for the whole cycle, we don't need to align incentives. Goals align, and that's more powerful. Remove misaligned incentives, give us a shared goal to work for, and people achieve. Give us some slack to experiment and improve, and we'll also innovate.

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[1] via David Marquet

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