Director of Avenga Labs
Internal platforms are a set of technical components plus environments used by development teams that develop business digital solutions. They are technological foundations for building customer facing solutions, as well as internal operational teams.
Internal platforms are growing, in terms of popularity, especially in the enterprises that want to deliver digital products faster and more efficiently which, of course, really means potentially all companies.
Until recently these platforms were managed differently than products, but now there’s a strong trend towards managing them as products.
What are the expected benefits of this approach? What are the obstacles for the wider adoption?
Treating internal platforms as a product means taking advantage of all the product management techniques.
When the internal platform is treated as a product, it enables the platform team to be focused on delivering the best value proposition, to think ahead, and to introduce solutions and features that are needed but not directly requested by the clients.
In the traditional model, the disconnect between the platform and its users usually creates tension when the team is always blamed for not delivering the changes to the platform as fast as desired, and in response the platform maintainers are frustrated because of the reactive type of work they perform.
Marketing? Yes, when an internal platform is treated as a product it can be marketed internally. It can have a nice name, logos, blogs, and social media accounts. It makes the customers feel like they are using a true product, which can help motivate both the platform team and the development team.
Product management also calls for clear and up to date product development strategy, support strategy, and versioning strategy. Applying these rules can help to ensure better structure and more predictability, because of product thinking.
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Proper management of the features, their lifecycle (including also removing unnecessary elements), priority versioning, and upgrade strategies are also very useful for internal platforms. The product approach definitely helps to build a platform that is useful.
Building right means applying professional measures and tools to the building process. Requirements written, accepted, and in the repository, along with architecture, architecture evolution, test scenarios and test data, development pipelines, deployment pipelines, logging, and monitoring . . . all these things and more are part of the modern product development process.
The first obstacle is the definition of the customer. Product management emphasizes close communication with the customer.
And who is the customer in this case?
A fellow developer from the next room (slack channel / teams group) who suddenly becomes a customer instead of being just a colleague. Why? Because now we introduced the product approach and they stop responding as a colleague and start acting like a customer. Sounds like a joke, it could be one, except that these types of situations really happen when there’s a strategy shift towards product development.
One of the options is to complain. “They’re not really customers; it’s artificial”. The product approach fails because they are not paying actual money for the platform and there are no subscription fees for the licences.
The other and much better route is to use empathy. Include them in the platform design process and allow them to have influence in the platform’s future, of course with structured feature management. In other words, relax a bit about how ‘true’ they are as customers.
→ Read about 10x developer – devs are not the same, embrace that
Another important aspect of the product is its target market. In the case of internal platforms, it’s the developers’ community consisting of both local people and software partners (such as Avenga).
There’s no competition between the internal platform and anything else, so as a market it’s kind of a monopoly which is not a healthy situation.
Again, there’s the option to complain and announce that the basic element for the product management is missing or the option to take a more flexible approach.
Another similar complaint is that it may not truly be a product.
Truly means the selling price, full blown sales strategy and team, and a huge marketing effort around it.
Fans of the product approach for internal platforms may respond with the usual “so what?”
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Product management is very different from project management or maintenance management. Project managers are usually very proud when they are distinguished by the new more motivating title of ‘product managers’. But it does not mean that things will suddenly be better, as there’s a significant learning curve with unavoidable mistakes due to a lack of experience.
So, in other words, people who are against this trend usually say that all these elements are not real but fake: customer, product and the market. So in their opinion, experiments with the product approach will not end well.
Another approach that can help mitigate the problem of the proximity between customers and their colleagues and the product team is to use an external partner who would be in charge of product development. This can help to create a situation in which it separates a little bit more the teams and creates more products, like in the business context.
The trend of everything being managed as a product also includes internal digital platforms. There are many proponents of this approach and it’s certainly not just another buzzword.
As always, when used properly in the right context it can be very helpful in building the right platform in the right way.
The lack of a traditional customer or market makes some product management practices less relevant, but for many it’s just the problem of traditional product management fanatics, and not a real business one.
The right approach for every customer is not to be customer centric to please customers by repeating how ultimately they are in the center of attention. The center of attention will always be a problem, and efficient problem solving is what makes a product team or a business partner truly customer friendly.