Digital Transformation

Three teams that drive successful digital transformations

Digital transformation isn’t easy. Scaling it is even harder. Mark Solomon, our DevOps Practice Director, shows how you can achieve both in 2021.

Emerge Stronger

According to Gartner, the gap between digital aspiration and digital achievement is widening. Figures from Couchbase suggest that 81% of transformations have hit roadblocks that led to failed, delayed or scaled-back projects.

Sounds like the odds are stacked against you? Perhaps.

But the good news is that there are proven ways to put the odds back in your favour. Practical approaches that are based on the most important resource in any digital transformation: your people. I’ve seen these approaches work time and time again in the enterprise-wide change programmes I’ve led for large global teams.

As you’ll see, successful transformations aren’t just about getting the right people. They’re about getting the right teams of people. Here’s how.

People first – really

The guy who came up with that idea was – drum roll –a computer programmer: a hardcore geek called Melvin Conway. He noticed that IT systems tend to mirror the communication pathways and structures of the teams that build them. Which stands to reason. If you’re in a database team and I’m in a web team, our systems aren’t going to talk if we never get together.

Identifying the hottest tech and then looking for the ‘right’ skills to drive its adoption is the wrong way around. Before you begin thinking about technology, you need to create the right “teams” with the right interaction skills and practices.

This ‘teams-first’ approach has a name: The Inverse Conway Manoeuvre. It sounds like a cool high dive and, like successful dives, it’s an efficient, effective and, dare I say it, beautiful approach to digital transformation.

The Inverse Conway is about designing the structure and interactions of your teams with your end-state architecture in mind. This empowers them to make the right decisions, and gives you the confidence of knowing that your architecture will evolve according to best practices.

Here are the three teams you need to unleash a spirit of innovation and make your digital transformation a success (with thanks to the great work on Team Topologies by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais).

1. The value-driven product team

This is the team that delivers value to your customers through new products and customer experiences. They’re more than yesterday’s ‘front-end’ or ‘back-end’ team. They’re people with a novel combination of soft and hard skills.

Let’s talk about the soft skills first.

The product team seizes opportunities to engage with customers and understand their perspectives first-hand—perhaps even by joining customer-facing meetings. They embrace the business side of their products and strive to understand how these fit into the bigger picture of the organisation’s strategies and value streams.

I call them the organisation’s ‘value detectives’, for as Mark Schwartz writes in his excellent The Art of Business Value: ‘Business value is not given, but something specific to the organisation that must be discovered.’

These value detectives also need the ‘hard’ skills of a full-stack engineer, and a deep architectural understanding that enables them to recognize how new technologies and products will improve their systems. They’re avid learners of new tech, such as high-speed reactive development languages, lightweight document databases, and distributed data architectures. (And let’s not forget all the hot new services that the major cloud providers are putting out there. Constantly.)

When creating this team, look for strong collaboration skills, a passion for improving customer experience, business savvy, and a mastery of full-stack architectures and technologies.

It’s a demanding role so make sure you give the team the bandwidth they need to excel. They’ll need time away from development to attend those customer-facing meetings. And opportunities not only to learn new tech but to experiment with it—and figure out how best to use it to evolve their systems.

2. The outstandingly supportive platform team

These are the people who lay down the track for the product teams to deliver value to your customers—fast.

They may look like SysOps people but they’re a new breed. They aren’t just taking tickets and responding to incidents. Their remit is the creation of great developer experiences.

Like the product team mentioned earlier, they’re building a system for a customer. Only in this case, their customer is the product team, and their system is the platform (also known as the ‘continuous integration-continuous delivery engine’) that accelerates the product team’s ability to deliver value to the end customer.

To do this, the platform team must think and act like developers. They’ll need to leave their keyboards and actively collaborate with developers to understand exactly what they want. In fact, a successful platform team has such a profound understanding of what developers need that they can capture those needs in a data contract: You give me this, I give you that. You give me a set of code and test artefacts, I’ll give you test results. And so on and so forth. Automatically.

The key objective for the platform team is to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, speed and reliability of the product team’s value stream—and nothing enables this better than automation. In setting up a platform team, look for those who are comfortable collaborating with developers on the product team to gain a deep understanding of how they work. In order to do this, the platform team must already be well versed in agile ways of working, and DevOps practices and technologies.

They’ll also need cloud-native skills, and an understanding of how to assemble the latest cloud vendor innovations to reduce friction for product teams. Award bonus points for teams that understand event-driven architectures as this will enable even more automation of event management processes.

So, check for strong collaboration skills, a passion for enhancing developer experience,  mastery of DevOps technologies, and fluency in the latest cloud technologies.

3. The enabling DevOps team

Your product teams and platform teams have to be good at DevOps. But let’s be realistic here: in the context of digital transformation, they don’t start that way.

Which brings us to the role of the enabling team—enabling the adoption of DevOps by the product and platform teams. They don’t build customer products or developer platforms. However, they help build both by ensuring that the product and platform teams are adopting DevOps.

The enabling team is made up of facilitators who work between teams, surveying and understanding their needs and mapping those needs to the best DevOps offers. They are teachers and coaches who not only understand the challenges but can actively help teams overcome them. They are drivers of enterprise best practices who develop reusable templates—time-saving code—based on the experiences of the teams they work with.

And if they do their job well, they work themselves out of their role—sooner rather than later. If the DevOps enablers are still enabling after say two years, they’ve probably failed the platform and product teams they were meant to be supporting. They may have even created yet another silo in your delivery process.

If you’re building an enabling team, think ahead about where and when the team can be ‘sunset’. I’ve designed roadmaps where the enabling team is absorbed into platform teams and product teams, or moved to another programme after 12–18 months—either can work, but you need to have a plan in place.

In terms of skills, look for the very best capabilities in DevOps architecture and a good understanding of the various vendors. Integration skills are key because this team is the glue between other teams who may be using different tools. Finally, this team must be full of teachers, coaches, and evangelists who are passionate about spreading the DevOps story.

Scaling for success

The 3-team model is built for scalability. The enabling team helps the platform team interpret needs and grow new capabilities. But they’re also helping the product team adopt and absorb these capabilities with templates. Top notch DevOps talent is hard to come by and having a team of DevOps enablers is vital for your transformation to scale.

QA has a dedicated DevOps practice that is focused on helping organisations to attract, develop and grow the latest DevOps talent.

We can help you assess and then build the DevOps talent engine your digital transformation needs to succeed. For example, our Squad-as-a-Service offering can provide you with DevOps talent that can hit the ground running now while our Level 4 DevOps apprenticeship programme can develop a longer-term pipeline of DevOps talent.

If you have gaps in the 3-team DevOps model outlined above, get in touch to talk to one of our experienced team.

This is one in a series of blog posts on digital transformation. In previous posts, we looked at how to emerge stronger from this crisis, how to lead an L&D revolution, how IT leaders can develop tech talent, how to win the war for tech talent, why digital capability assessments matter, and why it’s time to change our attitude to aptitude tests. Don’t miss them.

Related Articles