Agile Organization: Fully Integrated Service Teams

This is the third article in the series of deeper-dive articles that are part of Agile Organization Incorporating Various Disciplines.

The Fully Integrated Service Team Model

The next step along the continuum of decentralization is complete integration of the disciplines into one service team. You simply have an engineering manager, and devs, operations staff, QA engineers, etc. all report to them. It’s similar to the Embedded Crossfunctional Team model but you do away with the per-discipline reporting structure altogether.

integrated

Benefits Of Integrated Service Teams

This has the distinct benefit of end to end ownership. Engineers of every discipline have ownership for the overall product. It allows them to break out of their single-discipline shell, as well – if you are good at regression testing but also can code, or are a developer but strong in operations, great!  There’s no fence saying whose job is whose, you all pull tasks off the same backlog. In general you get the same benefits as the Crossfunctional Team model.

Drawbacks of Integrated Service Teams

This is theoretical nirvana, but has a number of challenges.

First, a given team manager may not have the knowledge or experience in each of those areas. While you don’t need deep expertise in every area to manage a team, it can be easy to not understand how to evaluate or develop people from another discipline. I have seen dev managers, having been handed ops engineers, fail to understand what they really do or they value, and lose them as a result.

Even more dangerous is when that happens and the manager figures they didn’t need that discipline in the first place and just backfills with what they are comfortable with. For a team to really own a service from initiation to maintenance, the rest of the team has to understand what is involved. It’s very easy to slip back into the old habits of considering different teams first class vs second class vs third class citizens, just making classes of engineer within your team. And obviously, disenfranchising people works directly against energizing them and giving them ownership and responsibility.

Mitigations for that include:

  1. Time – over time, a team learns the basics of the other branches and what is required of them.
  2. Discipline “user groups” (aka “guilds”) – having a venue for people from a horizontal discipline to meet and share best practices and support each other. When we did this with our ops team we always intended to set up a “DevOps user group” but between turnover and competing priorities, it never happened – which reduced the level of success.

A second issue is scaling. Moving from “zone” to “man” coverage, as this demands, is more resource intensive. If you have nine product teams but five operations engineers, then it seems like either you can’t do this or you can but have to “share” between several teams.  Such sharing works but directly degrades the benefits of ownership and impedance matching that you intend to gain from this scheme. In fact, if you want to take the prudent step of having more than one person on a team know how to do something – which you probably should – then you’d need 18 and not just nine ops engineers.

Mitigations for this include:

  1. Do the math again. If the lack of close integration with that discipline is holding back your rate of progress, then you’re losing profits to reduce expenditures – a bad bet for all but the most late-stage companies.
  2. Crosstraining. You may have one ops, or QA, or security expert, but that doesn’t (and, to be opinionated, shouldn’t) mean that they are the only ones who know how to perform that function.  When doing this I always used the rule “if you know how to do it, you’re one of the people that should pull that task – and you should learn how to do it.” This can be as simple as when someone wants the QA or ops or whatever engineer to do something, to instead walk the requestor through how to do it.

Experience with Integrated Service Teams

Our SaaS team at NI was fully integrated. That worked great, with experienced and motivated people in a single team, and multiple representatives of each discipline to help reinforce each other and keep developing.

We also fully integrated DevOps into the engineering teams at Bazaarvoice.  That didn’t work as well, we saw attrition from those ops engineers from the drawbacks I went over above (managers not knowing what to do with/how to recruit, retain, develop ops engineers). In retrospect we should not have done it and should have stayed with an embedded crossfunctional team in that environment – the QA team did so and while collaboration on the team was slightly impeded they didn’t see the losses the ops side did.

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