DevOps is more important than product management for startups

Building software can seem deceptively easy in the early days of a startup because small teams can get by without much process and structure. Communication, strategic alignment and collaboration between engineers can be effortless when you’ve only got a few people. As you grow, though, things get complicated. Strategy becomes difficult due to competing priorities, so you adopt prioritisation processes. Collaboration between engineers becomes onerous, so you split your team into smaller teams. New features fail to meet customer needs, so you invest in more upfront feature scoping. Usually, much of this becomes the responsibility of your first product manager. As crucial as product managers are to software companies, I think DevOps is more important, and you should invest in it first when facing these issues.

DevOps is the practice of operationalising how you deliver software through automation, process and instrumentation/analytics. Key aspects of DevOps include:

In aggregate, the foundations above enable tight feedback loops, which empower teams to make better decisions, move faster, and deliver tangible outcomes for the business. Before DevOps, you need to manually test, manually release, manually survey customers and wait for bug reports before you know if the feature you built solves the intended problem and doesn’t introduce new issues. After adopting DevOps, the time it takes to learn from previous decisions will reduce radically. You can move fast, easily pivot, and quickly learn how to make better decisions. In short, excellent DevOps practices solve many of the same problems that product management intends to solve. These technical foundations mean many teams won’t need a product manager urgently because engineers and designers are empowered to build, measure, and learn independently. Additionally, teams that still choose to work with a product manager won’t need micromanagement — they will retain much more autonomy than is otherwise possible without DevOps.

Product managers should embrace DevOps because it will help them to make better decisions, move more quickly, and operate from a higher vantage point (potentially overseeing multiple teams). A product manager empowered by continuous integration, automated testing, and product analytics can confidently encourage their team to move quickly without fear of failure. These operations reduce the damage potential of suboptimal decisions and implementation mistakes. DevOps implements the build, measure, and learn loop, making it possible to innovate through experimentation.

Both DevOps and product management seek to solve the following problems:

As you can see, you can solve many problems with either more product management or DevOps. As most companies scale, they will eventually adopt product management and DevOps. DevOps may be the best initial approach because it will keep engineers empowered to own the outcomes of their work for longer and will double as a fantastic foundation for future product management.

22 August, 2022

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