Throughout my career I’ve tried to do things differently and experimented with new techniques or frameworks. It’s been a bit of a winding road: big companies and small companies, different people, different technologies, processes and products – all of which have had their own respective learning curves.
What’s brought it all together is a desire to do things better, to trim the fat, to deliver value as efficiently as possible and to become more adaptive to consumer demands while at the same time having a bit of fun.
Here are 8 key lessons that have helped guide me to where I am today. Many of these lessons are timeless even though technology has advanced exponentially and the way we work has changed.
1. Being agile at British Airways
I was involved in my very first ‘agile’ project at the UK’s national carrier. This was pre-agile manifesto back in the days of the dynamic systems development method (DSDM) and IBM’s journal identifier (JID) and joint application design (JAD).
For me it it just made sense, after only 12 months of using traditional software delivery practices, I needed to find a different way, a better way to get things done. Back then you were involved in everything, we didn’t have BAs, testers, experience designers, in fact we were all called analyst programmers.
In certain circles, the term ‘agile’ has become a bit tarnished but I still believe its focus on delivering incremental value, getting features into the hands of customers early and not investing too much time in big up front design when the likelihood is it will change are still as valid today as they were back in 1997.
2. Learning how to sell at CVL
I joined CVL (an early internet and e-commerce consultancy) in the middle of the dot.com bubble. We helped organisations define and deliver their product strategy in the new digital age. My exposure to different industries, business models and management styles was both fast and intense.
The most important thing I learnt was you are always selling, people buy people and whether that was from you in an interview, getting an idea over the line with an executive team or requesting funding to support a missed opportunity – you’re always selling. It’s important to define and cultivate your personal selling approach; it’s a skill you will use every day for the rest of your career.
3. Gaining a shared understanding at BBC
Before I joined the BBC, I hadn’t worked with many large cross functional teams, engineers, testers information architects, experience designers and product managers, and it was eye opening. How do you bring together a group of hugely different personalities, backgrounds and skill sets and set them up to function cohesively, especially when you all work in very different ways?
Having a shared purpose is key, knowing what success looks like and agreeing on the ‘must haves’ versus ‘what can wait till later’. In addition, look to create a shared appreciation for each others’ background and capabilities; this takes time and there are always a few bumps along the way but having a diverse group of people tackling the same problem space in different ways ultimately means you end up with a better outcome.
4. Mastering platform management at Sensis
There’s a consensus out there that platform management should be easier than product management. This is because a consumer-facing product must satisfy a diverse group of consumer wants and needs and even with the best research, this group can often be quite faceless. With a platform your customer group tends to be more finite and if you are lucky and are looking after an internal platform you know all of your customers.
What I found was when you are running platforms, your customers are teams with their own customers and that what you deliver will affect their end strategy. This means effective stakeholder management is key as is a prioritisation mechanism that gets the diverse groups to discuss success drivers. This means you’ll get as far away as possible from HiPPOs shouting at one another.
5. Being DevOps-led at Vodafone
At Vodafone, I had responsibility of an operations team for the first time. This was a major shift for me as I hadn’t been involved with a 24/7 team before, and after a few overnight incidents, I realised things needed to change.
As a development team lead you know the value of continuous integration, however when you look after an operational team the value increases 10 times. Continuous integration allows you to go faster and deploy with less risk.
Automated infrastructure removes snowflake servers; instrumentation tools help track real-time activity; graphing capabilities can identify trends; embedding operational people in product teams so quality and operational support are baked into the product development process from the very beginning.
To paraphrase a talk from the Google SRE team, your most important feature is your site or application being up and running, the people who work through the night to keep you going have the scars to prove it, so whatever we can do to make their life easier should be a no brainer, in this day and age anything less is just plain lazy.
6. Being design-led at BCG Digital Ventures
I initially became exposed to design thinking concepts when I was at Vodafone but it wasn’t until I joined BCG that I became a full convert. You can use design thinking techniques to look at any issue or opportunity, however, I love to use the framework for the big rocks that are the linchpin of the business.
Design thinking to me is similar to the concept of the beginners mind. The beginner’s mind is open to all possibilities, don’t close your thinking off too early based on your standard frame of references as you may miss out on a critical opportunity.
I believe that it is the divergent and convergent thinking approach that brings together ethnographic research, quantitative data analysis, iterative design and prototyping that can help identify potential disruptions within a market and solve problems in a totally different way.
7. Harnessing the power of small teams at Atlassian
The notion of small teams (5 to 7 people) as was prevalent at Atlassian was a fundamental shift for me. In the past, I have worked in larger enterprise environments where I was running projects and building products with involvement from external groups that were more waterfall in nature.
With corporate governance and reporting requirements, we ended up having 12-15 people in each delivery team. This is quite a bit different to the two-pizza team model Amazon espouses about.
At Atlassian, teams have a product manager, ensuring the team is working on the right things, a tech lead who ensures the team delivers what it should and to an agreed level of quality, an experience designer and 4 engineers.
Communication is simplified, meetings take less time, everybody knows what is going on and you can react faster to the changing environment.
8. Prioritising efforts and staying focused at Unlockd
We all know that prioritising your effort and focusing on what’s important is critical to success – in a start-up it’s the difference between moving forward or standing still. Over the years I’ve tried different prioritisation methods, however at Unlockd I’ve been able to implement a single framework across the entire business, not just in the product area.
For this to work I needed a framework that supported robust discussions between groups and also a platform for creating consensus: cost of delay ticked the box for me.
It looks to define a portfolio that delivers the greatest amount of value to the organisation in the least amount of time. It focuses thinking on what the company’s key success drivers are and then facilitates a discussion around how to impact those drivers as effectively as possible.
Each initiative is reviewed to see how it contributes to the delivery of success and as a group you land on a rating for each of the key business drivers. This approach tends to move the group involved in the prioritisation away from pushing their pet projects and to be more considered about overall impact to the business.
So in summary, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing people over the past 20 years. The lessons I have learnt, both those mentioned above and others, were discovered with colleagues who were also all looking for a better way, and who were tired of the status quo.
It’s these lessons that I think have given me the platform from which to lead the product and engineering teams at Unlockd. I look forward to continually sharing these lessons with my new team and learning additional ones from them.
Craig Rees is chief product and technology officer at Unlockd.
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