Why Successful Platform Engineering Teams Need a Product Manager
We’re all aware platform engineering isn’t new. It’s the formal approaches and team structures, which have come into focus in recent years, that are justifying headlines. And at every juncture, organizations trying these new approaches hear a common refrain: “It’s not a project — it’s a product.”
To be successful with platform engineering, which is something I’ve researched at Puppet and have experienced through my work with NatWest, I believe it’s imperative to have a product manager and that we should continue to trumpet the “product” refrain. Here’s why.
Platform Engineering Is Not a One-and-Done Activity
Most organizations approach toolchains and workflows with a project mindset, meaning that they’re looking to deliver a set final goal, potentially with a temporary team. Conversely, a product approach recognizes the platform is an evolving product that responds to feedback from customers to adapt the platform to meet their ongoing requirements.
Platform engineering needs clarity of purpose to work. It’s an ongoing function, not an end state. That clarity comes from someone who approaches this in much the same way a product manager approaches their product.
There’s a dedication and skillset needed to evangelize the platform, justify changes to the platform and inform stakeholders and users how and why things are changing (as well as why they matter and what value they provide to the end user). Platform product management is much more than a “check the timeline and click the boxes” approach.
The End User Is Always Top Priority in Product Management
Product management helps keep platform engineering focused on solving users’ needs. It helps reduce waste and accelerates the delivery of new technology by creating and supporting an organization-wide platform that people actually want to use. This is key.
In platform engineering, you can’t just build it and then expect them to come — you must build something that makes the end users’ lives easier and makes them want to change their behavior.
One of the clearest contrasts that can be seen is in the operating system (OS) build and provisioning platforms. There, a Windows or Linux team would provide a system to build and configure virtual machines, but only aimed to provide the features required directly for their own team to meet their written build standards and approach. This would fail to prioritize customer-driven requirements such as new OS releases, self-service APIs and integrations with other tooling, since these sorts of deliverables would not directly affect the OS build team itself but are central to platform engineering.
Platform engineering product managers are responsible for monitoring how the platform is running, communicating with users to avoid and address issues, and ensuring that the platform roadmap is up to date and being presented to consumers in a way they can actually use.
The exact role of a product manager in platform engineering might be shaped to match the platform they support, but it’s always focused on treating the platform as a product, with ease-of-use front and center.
We Need to Invest More in Product Management
Today, product managers are present in only about a third of the platform teams surveyed in “The State of DevOps 2023” report. Of course, investing in product managers can mean hiring for the skill, but existing staff make great candidates for platform product management. They already know your organization’s culture and processes, which greases the wheels of communication and enables trust right out of the box.
Either way, investing in product managers for your platform means more than getting them in the door. Product management can enhance the careers of the people who choose to do it — it’s not a short-term decision or part-time job. Supporting them includes training and giving them the time and space to grow with the platform and become a trusted conduit of user feedback.
To learn more about platform engineering, check out the “State of DevOps Report, Platform Engineering edition,” on the Puppet website.