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Agile Organization: Project Based Organization

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

The Project Based Organization Model

You all know this one.  You pick all the resources needed to accomplish a project (phase of development on a product), have them do it, then reassign them!

project

Benefits Of The Project Based Model

  • The beancounters love it. You are assigning the minimum needed resource to something “only as long as it’s needed.”

Drawbacks Of The Project Based Model

Where to even begin?

  • First of all, teams don’t do well if not allowed to go through the Tuckman’s stages of development (forming/storming/norming/performing); engineer satisfaction plummets.
  • Long term ownership isn’t the team’s responsibility so there is a tendency to make decisions that have long term consequences – especially bearing on stability, performance, scalability – because it’s clear that will be someone else’s problem. Even when there is a “handoff” planned, it’s usually rushed as the project team tries to ‘get out of there’ from due date or expenditure pressures. More often there is a massive generation of “orphans” – services no one owns. This is immensely toxic – it’s a problem with shipping software, but with a live service it’s awful, as even if there’s some “NOC” type ops org somewhere that can get it running again if there’s an issue, chronic issues can’t be fixed and problems cause more and more load on service consumers, support, and NOC staff.
  • Mentoring, personnel development, etc. are hard and tend to just be informal (e.g. “take more classes from our LMS”).

Experience With The Project Based Model

At Bazaarvoice, we got to where we were getting close to doing this with continued reorganization to gerrymander just the right number of people onto the projects with need every month. Engineer satisfaction tanked to the degree that it became an internal management crisis we had to do all kinds of stuff to dig ourselves back out of.

Of course, many consulting relationships work this way. It’s the core behind many of the issues people have with outsourced development. There are a lot of mitigations for this, most of which are “try not to do it” – like I’ve worked with outsourcers trying to ensure lower churn on outsource teams, try to keep teams stable and working on the same thing longer.

It does have the merit of working if you just don’t care about long term viability.  Developing free giveaway tools, for example – as long as they’re not so bad they reflect poorly on your company, they can be problematic and unowned in the long term.

Otherwise, this model is pretty terrible from a quality results perspective and it’s really only useful when there’s hard financial limitations in place and not a strong culture of responsibility otherwise. It’s not very friendly to agile concepts or devops, but I am including it here because it’s a prevalent model.

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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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Agile Organization: Embedded Crossfunctional Service Teams

This is the second in the series of deeper-dive articles that are part of Agile Organization Incorporating Various Disciplines. Previously I wrote about the “traditional” siloed model as Agile Organization: Separate Teams By Discipline.

Basic agile doctrine, combined with ITSM thinking, strongly promulgate a model where a team owns a business service or product.  I’ll call this a “service team” for the sake of argument, but it applies to products as well.

The Embedded Crossfunctional Team Model

Simply enough, a service team has specialists from other groups – product, QA, Ops, whatever – assigned to it on an exclusive basis. They go sit with (where possible) and participate with the group in their process. The team then contains all the resources required to bring their service or product to completion (in production, for services). The mix of required skills may vary – in this diagram, product #4 is probably a pure back end service and product #3 is probably a very JavaScriptey UI product, for example.

embedded

Benefits of Embedded Crossfunctional Teams

This model has a lot of benefits.

  • Since team members are semi-permanently assigned into the team, they don’t have conflicting work and priorities. They learn to understand what the needs are of that specific product and collaborate much more effectively with all the others working on it.
  • This leads to removal of many bottlenecks and delays as the team, if it has all the components it needs to deliver its service, can organically assign work in an optimal way.
  • It is amazing how much faster this model is in practice than the separate teams by discipline model in terms of time to delivery.
  • Production uptime and performance are improved because the team is “eating its own dog food” and is aware of production issues directly, not as some ticket from some other team that gets routed, ignored, finger-pointed…

Drawbacks of Embedded Crossfunctional Teams

  • Multiple masters is always an issue for an engineer.  Are you trying to please the service team’s manager or your “real” manager, especially when their values seem to conflict? You have to do some political problem-solving then, and engineers hate doing that. It also provides some temptation to double-resource or otherwise have the embedded engineer “do something else” the ops team needs done, violating the single service focus.
  • It’s more expensive.  Yes, if you do this, you need at least one specialist per service team. You have to play man-to-man, not zone, to get the benefits of the approach. This should make you think about how you create your service teams; if you define a service as one specific microservice and you have teams with e.g. 2 devs on them, then embedding specialists is way more expensive. Consider basing things on the business concept of a service and having those devs working on more than one widget, targeting the 2-pizza team size (also those devs will be supporting/sustaining whichever services aren’t brand new). (Note that this is only “more expensive” in the sense that doesn’t bother with ROI and just takes raw costs as king – you get stuff out and start making revenue faster, so it’s really less expensive from a whole-company POV, but from the IT beancounter perspective “what’s profit?”)
  • While you get benefits of crosstraining across the disciplines, the e.g. ops folks don’t have regular all-day contact with other ops folks and so you need to take care to set up opportunities for the “ops team” to get together, share info, mentor each other, etc. as well. Folks call these “tribes” or “guilds” or similar.

Experience with Crossfunctional Teams

It can be hard at the beginning, when teams don’t understand each others’ discipline or even language yet.  I had a lengthy discussion with an application architect on one team – he felt that having ops people in the design reviews he was holding was confusing and derailing. The ops people spoke some weird moon-man language to him and it made the reviews go longer and require a lot more explanation.  I said “Yes, they do.  But we have two choices – keep doing it together, have people learn each others’ concerns and language, and start a virtuous cycle of collaboration, or split them apart and propagate the vicious cycle we know all too well where we have difficulty working together.” So we powered through that and stayed together, and it all worked out well in the end.

When we piloted this at Bazaarvoice, one of the first ops to embed got in there, worked with the devs, and put all his work into their JIRA project.  The devs got sticker shock very quickly once they saw how much work there was in delivering a reliable service – and when they dug into those tickets, they realized that they weren’t BS or busywork, but that when they thought about it they said “yeah… We certainly do need that, all this is for real!” The devs then started pulling tickets on monitoring, backups, provisioning, etc. because they realized all that workload on one person would put their delivery date behind. It was nice to see devs realize all the work that really went into doing ops – “out of sight, out of mind,” and too often devs assume ops don’t do anything except move their files to production on occasion. The embedding allowed them to rally to control their own delivery date instead of just “be blocked on the ops team.”

No one approach is “best,” but in general my experiences so far lead me to consider this one of the better models to use if you can get the organizational buy-in to the fundamental “you built it, you run it” concept.

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Agile Organization: Separate Teams By Discipline

This is the first in the series of deeper-dive articles that are part of Agile Organization Incorporating Various Disciplines. It’s very easy to keep reorganizing and trying different models without actually learning from the process. I’ve worked with all of these so am trying to condense the pros and cons to help people understand the implications of the type of organizational model they choose.

The Separate Team By Discipline Model

Separate teams striated by discipline is the traditional method of organizing technical teams – segmented horizontally by technical skill.  You have one or more development teams, one or more operations teams, one or more QA teams.  In larger shops you have even more horizontal subdivisions – like in an enterprise IT shop, under the banner of Infrastructure you might have a data center team, a UNIX admin team, a SAN team, a Windows admin team, a networking team, a DBA team, a telecom team, applications administration team(s), and so on. It’s more unusual to have the dev side specifically segmented horizontally by tech as well (“Java programmers,” “COBOL programmers,” “Javascript programmers”) but not unheard of; it is more commonly seen as “UX team, services team, backend team…”

separateteamsIn this setup in its purest form, each team takes on tasks for a given product or project inside their team, works on them, and either returns them to the requester or passes them through to yet another team. Team members are not dedicated to that product or effort in any way except inasmuch as the hours they spend working on the to-do(s). Usually this is manifested as a waterfall approach, as a product or feature is conceived, handed to developers to develop, handed to QA to test, and finally handed to Operations to deploy and maintain.

This model dates back to the mainframe days, where it works pretty well – you’re not innovating on the infrastructure side, the building’s been built, you’re moving your apps into the pre-built apartment units. It also works OK when you have heavy regulation requirements or are constrained to extensively documenting requirements, then design, etc. (government contracts, for example).

It works a lot less well when you need to move quickly or need any kind of change or innovation from the other teams to achieve your goal. Linking up prioritization across teams is always hard but that’s the least of the issues. Teams all have their own goals, their own cadences, and even their own cultures and languages. The oft-repeated warning that “devs are motivated to make changes and ops is motivated by system stability” is a trivial example of this mismatch of goals. If the shared teams are supporting a limited number of products it can work. When there are competing priorities, I’ve seen it be extremely painful.  I worked in a shop where the multiple separate dev teams were vertical (line of business organized) but the operations teams were horizontal (technical specialty organized) – and frankly, the results of trying to produce results with the impedance mismatch generated by that setup was the nightmare that sent me down the Agile and DevOps path initially.

Benefits of Disciplinary Teams

The primary benefit of this approach is that you tend to get stable teams of like individuals, which allows them to bond with those of similar skills and experience organizational stability and esprit de corps. Providing this sense of comfort ends up being the key challenge of the other organizational approaches.

The second benefit is that it provides a good degree of standardization across products – if one ops team is creating the infrastructure for various applications, then there will be some efficiencies there.  This is almost always at least partially, and sometimes more than entirely, counteracted in value by the fact that not all apps need the same thing and that centralized teams bottleneck delivery and reduce velocity. I remember the UNIX team that would only provide my Web team expensive servers, even though we were highly horizontally scaled and told them we’d rather have twice as many $3500 servers instead of half as many $7000 servers as it would serve uptime, performance, etc. much better. But progress on our product was offered up upon the altar of nominal cost savings from homogeneity.

The third benefit is that if the horizontal teams are correctly cross-trained, it is easier avoid having single points of failure; by collecting the workers skilled in something into one group, losses are more easily picked up by others in the group. I have to say though, that this benefit is often more honored in the breach in my experience – teams tend to naturally divide up until there’s one expert on each thing and managers who actively maintain a portfolio and drive crosstraining are sadly rare.

Drawbacks of Disciplinary Teams

Conway’s Law is usually invoked to worry about vertical divisions in a product – one part of the UI written by one team, another by another, such that it looks like a Frankenstein’s monster of a product to the end user. However, the principle applies to horizontal divisions as well – these produce more of a Human Centipede, with the issue of one phase becoming the input of the next. The front end may not show any clear sign of division, but the seams in quality, reliability, and agility of the system can grow like a cancer underneath, which users certainly discover over time.

This approach promotes a host of bad behaviors. Pushing work to other people is always tempting, as is taking shortcuts if the results of those shortcuts fall on another’s shoulders. With no end to end ownership of a product, you get finger pointing and no one taking responsibility for driving the excellence of the service – and without an overall system thinking perspective, attempts at one of the teams in that value chain to drive an improvement in their domain often has unintended effects on the other teams in that chain that may or may not result in overall improvement. If engineers don’t eat their own dog food, but pass it on to someone else, then chronic quality problems often result. I personally spent years trying to build process and/or relationships to try to mitigate the dev->QA->ops passing of issues downstream with only mixed success.

Another way of stating this is that shared services teams always provide a route to the tragedy of the commons. Competing demands from multiple customers and the need for “nonfunctional” requirements (performance, availability, etc.) could potentially be all reconciled in priority via a strong product organization – but in my experience this is uncommon; product orgs tend to not care about prioritization of back end concerns and are more feature driven. Most product orgs I have dealt with have been more or less resistant to taking on platform teams, managing nonfunctional requirements, and otherwise interacting with that half of demands on the product. Without consistent prioritization, shared teams then become the focus of a lot of lobbying by all their internal customers trying to get resource. These teams are frequently understaffed and thus a bottleneck to overall velocity.

Ironically, in some cases this can be beneficial – technically, focusing on cost efficiency over delivering new value is always a losing game, but some organizations are self-unaware enough that they have teams continuing to churn out “stuff” without real ROI associated (our team exists therefore we must make more), in which case a bottleneck is actually helpful.

Mitigations for the weaknesses of this approach (abdication of responsibility and bottlenecking constraints) include:

  1. Very strong process guidance. “If only every process interface is 100% defined, then this will work”, the theory goes, just as it works on a manufacturing line.  Most software creation, however, is not similar to piecing components together to make an iPod. In one shop we worked for years on making a system development process that was up to this task, but it was an elusive goal. This is how, for example, Microsoft makes the various Office products look the same in partial defiance of Conway’s Law – books and books of standards.
  2. Individuals on shared teams with functional team affinities. Though not going as far as embedding into a product team, you can have people in the shared teams who are the designated reps for various client teams. Again, this works better when there is a few-to-one instead of a many-to-one relationship.  I had an ops team try this, but it was a many-to-one environment and each individual engineer ended up with three different ownership areas, which was overwhelming. In addition, you have to be careful not to simply dedicate all of one sort of work to one person, as you then create many single points of failure.
  3. Org variation: Add additional crossfunctional teams that try to bridge the gap.  At one place I worked, the organization had accepted that trying to have the systems needs of their Web site fulfilled by six separate infrastructure teams was not working well, so they created a “Web systems” team designed to sit astride those, take primary responsibility, and then broker needs to the other infrastructure teams. This was an improvement, and led to the addition of a parallel team responsible for internal apps, but never really got to the level of being highly effective. In addition those were extremely high-stress roles, as they bore responsibility but not control of all the results.

Conclusion

Though this is the most typical organization of technology teams historically, that history comes from a place much different than many situations we find ourselves in today. The rapid collaboration approach that Agile has brought us, and the additional understanding that Lean has given us in the software space, tells us that though this approach has its merits it is much overused and other approaches may be more effective, especially for product development.

Next, we’ll look at embedded crossfunctional service teams!

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Agile Organization Incorporating Various Disciplines

I started thinking about this recently because there was an Agile Austin QA SIG meeting that I sadly couldn’t attend entitled “How does a QA manager fit into an Agile organization?” which wondered about how to fit members of other disciplines (in this case QA) in with agile teams. Over the last couple years I’ve tried this, and seen it tried, in several ways with DevOps, QA, Product Management, and other disciplines, and I thought I’d elaborate on the pros and cons of some of these approaches.

Two Fundamental Discoveries

There are two things I’ve learned from this process that are pretty universal in terms of their truth.

1. Conway’s Law is true. To summarize, it states that a product will tend to reflect the structure of the organization that produces it. The corollary is that if your organization has divisions which are of no practical value to the product’s consumer, you will be creating striations within your product that impact client satisfaction. Hence basic ITSM and Agile doctrines on creating teams around owning a service/product.

2. People want to form teams and stay with them. This should be obvious from basic psychology/sociology, but if you set up an organization that is too flexible it strongly degrades the morale of your workers. In my previous role we conducted frequent engineer satisfaction surveys and the most prominent truth drawn from them is the more frequently people are asked to change roles, reorg, move to different teams, the less happy they are. Even people that want to move around to new challenges frequently are happier if they are moving to those new challenges with a team they’ve had an opportunity to move through Tuckman’s stages of group development with.

I have seen enough real-world quantified proof of both of these assertions that I will treat them as assumptions going forward.

Organizational Options

We tried out all four of these models within the same organization of high performing engineers and thus had a great opportunity to compare their results.

Separate Teams

When we started, we had the traditional model of separate teams which would hand off work to each other.  “Dev,” “Ops,” “QA,” “Product” were all under separate management up through several levels and operated as independent teams; individual affinities with specific products were emergent and simply matters of convenience (e.g. “Oh, he knows a lot about that BI stuff, let him handle that request”) and not a matter of being dedicated to specific product(s).

Embedded Crossfunctional Service Teams

Our first step away from the pure separate team model was to take those separate teams and embed specific members from them into service oriented teams, while still having them report to a manager or director representing their discipline. In some cases, the disciplinary teams would reserve some number of staff for tool development or other cross-cutting concerns. So QA, for example, had several engineers assigned to each product team, even though they were regarded as part of the permanent QA org primarily.

We (very loosely) considered our approach to be decentralized and microservice based; Martin Fowler is doing a good article in installments on Microservice Architecture if you want more on that topic.

Fully Integrated Service Teams

With our operations staff we went one step farther and simply permanently assigned them to product teams and removed the separate layer of management entirely. Dev and “DevOps” engineers reported to the same engineering manager and were a permanent part of a given product team. Any common tooling needed was created by a separate “platform” engineering team which was similarly integrated.

Project Based Organization

Due to the need to surge effort at times, we also had some organizations that were project, not product, based. Engineers would be pulled either from existing teams or entire teams would additionally be pulled into a short term (1, 2, 3 month) effort to try to make significant headway across multiple products, and then dissolve afterwards.

Hmm, this looks like it’s getting big (and I need to do some diagrams).  I’ll break it up into separate articles for each type of org and its pros and cons, and then a conclusion.

  • Separate Teams By Discipline
  • Embedded Crossfunctional Service Teams
  • Fully Integrated Service Teams
  • Project Based Organization
  • Combos and Conclusions

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