I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Competency Lost

The captive corporate IT department was a relatively early adopter of Agile management practices, largely out of desperation. Years of expensive overshoots, canceled projects, and poor quality solutions gave IT not just a bad reputation, but a confrontational relationship with its host business. The bet on Agile was successful and, within a few years, the IT organization had transformed itself into a strong, reliable partner: transparency into spend, visibility into delivery, high-quality software, value for money.

Somewhere along the way, the “products not projects” mantra took root and, seeing this as a logical evolution, the captive IT function decided to transform itself again. The applications on the tech estate were redefined as products, assigned delivery teams responsible for them with Product Owners in the pivotal position of defining requirements and setting priorities. Product Owners were recruited from the ranks of the existing Business Analysts and Project Managers. Less senior BAs became Product Managers, while those Project Managers who did not become part of the Product organization were either staffed outside of IT or coached out of the accompany. The Program Management Office was disbanded in favor of a Product Portfolio Management Office with a Chief Product Officer (reporting to the CIO) recruited from the business. Iterations were abandoned in favor of Kanban and continuous deployment. Delivery management was devolved, with teams given the freedom to choose their own product and requirements management practices and tools. With capital cheap and cashflows strong, there was little pressure for cost containment across the business, although there was a large appetite for experimentation and exploration.

As job titles with "Product" became increasingly popular, people with work experience in the role became attractive hires - and deep pocketed companies were willing to pay up for that experience. The first wave of Product Owners and Managers were lured away within a couple of years. Their replacements weren't quite as capable: what they possessed in knowledge of the mechanical process of product management they lacked in fundamentals of Agile requirements definition. These new recruits also had an aversion to getting deeply intimate with the domain, preferring to work on "product strategy" rather than the details of product requirements. In practice, product teams were "long lived" in structure only, not in institutional memory and capability that matter most.

It wasn't just the product team that suffered from depletion.

During the project management years of iterative delivery, something was delivered every two weeks by every team. In the product era, the assertion that "we deploy any time and all the time" masked the fact that little of substance ever got deployed. The logs indicated software was getting pushed, but more features remained toggled off than on. Products evolved, but only slowly.

Engineering discipline also waned. In the project management era, technical and functional quality were reported alongside burn-up charts. In the product regime, these all but disappeared. The assumption was, they had solved their quality problems with Agile development practices, quality was an internal concern of the team, and primarily the responsibility of developers.

The hard-learned software delivery management practices simply evaporated. Backlog management, burn-up charts, financial (software investment) analysis and Agile governance practices had all been abandoned. Again, with money not being a limiting factor, research and learning were prioritized over financial returns.

There were other changes taking place. The host business had settled into a comfortable, slow-growth phase: provided it threw off enough cash flow to mollify investors, the executive team was under no real pressure. IT had decoupled itself from justifying every dollar of spend based on returns to being a provider of development capacity for an annual rate of spend. The definition of IT success had become self-referential: the number and frequency of product deployments and features developed, with occasional verbatim anecdotes that highlighted positive customer experiences. IT's self-directed OKRs were indicators of activity - increased engagement, less customer friction - but not rooted in business outcomes or business results.

The day came when an ambitious new President / COO won board approval to rationalize the family of legacy of products into a single platform to fuel growth and squeeze out inefficiency. The board signed up provided they stayed within a capital budget, could be in market in less than 18 months, and could fully retire legacy products within 24 months, with bonuses indexed to every month they were early.

About a year in, it became clear delivery was well short of where it needed to be. Assurances that everything was on track were not backed up by facts. Lightweight analysis led to analysis work being borne by developers; lax engineering standards resulted in a codebase that required frequent, near-complete refactoring to respond to change; inconsistency in requirements management meant there was no way to measure progress, or change in scope, or total spend versus results; self-defined measures of success meant teams narrowed the definition of "complete", prioritizing the M at the expense of the V to meet a delivery date.

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The sharp rise of interest rates has made capital scarce again. Capital intensive activities like IT are under increased scrutiny. There is less appetite for IT engaging in research and discovery and a much greater emphasis on spend efficiency, delivery consistency, operating transparency and economic outcomes.

The tech organization that was once purpose built for these operating conditions may or may not be prepared to respond to these challenges again. The Agile practices geared for discovery and experimentation are not necessarily the Agile practices geared for consistency and financial management. Pursuing proficiency of new practices may also have come at the cost of proficiency of those previously mastered. Engineering excellence evaporates when it is deemed the exclusive purview of developers. Quality lapses when it is taken for granted. Delivery management skills disappear when tech's feet aren't held to the fire of cost, time and, above all, value. Domain knowledge disappears when it walks out the door; rebuilding it is next to impossible when requirements analysis skills are deprioritized or outright devalued.

The financial crisis of 2008 exposed a lot of companies as structurally misaligned for the new economic reality. As companies restructured in the wake of recession, so did their IT departments. Costly capital has tech in recession today. The longer this condition prevails, the more tech captives and tech companies will need to restructure to align to this new reality.

As most tech organizations have been down this path in recent memory, restructure should be less of a challenge this time. In 2008, the tech playbook for the new reality was emerging and incomplete. The tech organization not only had to master unfamiliar fundamentals like continuous build, unit testing, cloud infrastructure and requirements expressed as Stories, but improvise to fill in the gaps the fundamentals of the time didn't cover, things like vendor management and large program management. Fifteen years on, tech finds itself in similar circumstances. Mastering the playbook this time round is regaining competency lost.