Monday, September 2, 2013

It takes three to tango

In the age of SaaS, lean and a world where rate of improvement of technology is outpacing the rate at which development processes can catch up, understanding roles of various stakeholders in a software development organization becomes more critical than it has ever been.

For building a successful product, there are three key stakeholders who need to work closely together. These are the CEO, the head of product, and the head of software development. All three have unique perspectives, differing priorities, and different roles to play in order to make the product & business successful. This post was motivated by our mission at Sefaira, as well as posts by visionaries such as Ben Horowitz.

Head of development

  • Asset quality - Code is a software company's top asset (some would say customers are, and I would agree but this is a chicken & egg scenario), and the product is an extension of the code. There are many other things that play a role in how a user experiences the product, but it turns strongly on the quality of code. I see high quality as a very important goal for head of development. This implies everything from right approach to testing, understanding requirements, ensuring collaboration between developers, etc. Further, I view asset quality & velocity as virtuous traits, and that there is no tension between these two.
  • Deployability of assets - In line with the lean approach, especially relevant for start ups, is the ability to deploy code quickly. This implies that code should be movable & deployable at very short notice based on business needs. This requires very good architecture, which starts with accepting that business needs can change, and assets shouldn't become brittle. This ranges from architecture itself, and includes technology choices, language choices as well as infrastructure choices.
  • Lead time to creation of assets - How quickly a team goes from raw materials to shipped product is a key KPI for a development team. Assets by definition need to be shipped, otherwise its just inventory which is a liability for software teams. (We have all heard of feature-branch management, and how this can sap valuable time).

Head of product

  • P+L of product - Head of product needs to absolutely make sure that all decisions are weighed by cost-benefit analysis (first & life cycle), and benefit is defined by core metrics, which can vary from company to company (market share vs. revenue or some mix of the two). For SaaS companies, engagement is vital & can be defined by new customers using & paying for the product, as well as existing customers increasing time spent using the product continues. This is a key leading indicator.
  • Realizing the product vision - Coming up with strategies such that the product roadmap is always in sync with the product vision, and enacting product vision while maintaining a watchful eye on P+L of the product is key. This becomes very critical if there is tension between what sales teams might need, vs. the product vision. Breaking this down further, the head of product needs to keep an eye on day to day execution in terms of requirements of product being translated into assets, constantly ensuring that the product doesn't creep away from original intent.
  • Business needs vs. state of assets - It is vital to ensure that assets are being created, & moved to fulfill business needs, and this is the responsibility of head of product. Further providing visibility to the business on the state of assets, and the direction being taken with assets (in terms of how this is the right thing for business needs). In order to do this, head of product is constantly investing in small bets, always course correcting to minimize the gap between what the business needs, and what assets exist & their deployability.


  • Standard bearer for product vision - The CEO is the standard bearer for product vision for most start ups. The CEO maintains and encourages the drive towards realizing product vision. She enables the head of product to drive towards execution of vision, always ensuring that there is a viable strategy of reconciling short term business needs with long term vision.
  • Voice of the business - Before you cry out loud about how the head of product is the voice of business, read on. With goals of heads of product & development stated above, the CEO needs to spell out what the business needs from product to enable day to day execution. The CEO understands (and should understand) the customer journey end to end, and will know what various functions need from the product to execute successfully. A simple example of this is integration of customer engagement platforms such as Totango with the product, to drive customer segmentation & success.
  • Magic - I don't know what to call this, or how to quantify this in terms of core metrics but this is pure CEO craftsmanship ranging from aspects of customer experience to good citizenship. I welcome examples of this. Absent of better classification, we'll just call them "nobody's problems but the CEO's"
I wonder how other start ups organize around these stakeholders as they pursue their mission.