Why product teams are better “on tap”


Mark Orttung

It’s easy to understand how Danny became a senior developer. His code was fast and elegant, and after four years in the company, he understood the product well. But there was a problem. His team was no longer hitting scheduled milestones, and attrition was high. Colleagues privately confessed that Danny’s “my way or the highway” development approach was demoralizing and disruptive.

The truth is, there isn’t much room for lone wolf coders — even talented ones like Danny — in this era of Agile, real-time software collaboration. Modern software development is a team sport, and its tempo is increasing rapidly. Success means beating your competitors to market and quickly improving what you’ve built. For software companies (especially venture-backed ones with a limited runway), time is the most precious resource.

Unfortunately, assembling a high-performing team takes exactly that — time. Time to reflect. Time to interview. Time to ramp new members. Time to develop workflows and establish a cadence.

Many software companies that need to accelerate faster than they can hire will supplement their teams with on-site contractors or offshore teams. But while this kind of augmentation can certainly get development talent onboard quickly, it can introduce friction of its own around culture, work style and communication.

Just as Agile is replacing waterfall development, older piecemeal talent sourcing approaches are starting to fall by the wayside. What’s emerging is a model better-suited to the turn-on-a-dime nature of modern software collaboration. Another way of thinking about this new trend is domestic “product teams on tap.”

From prototype to product in 90 days

A Silicon Valley software company exemplifies the model well. The fintech company had a big revenue opportunity ahead — but only if it could execute a complex product integration in just three months. In-house engineers were swamped with developing their next-gen product. It would take months to hire and onboard enough developers to build the integration … assuming they could even find enough local talent in the hot Bay Area employment market. Company leaders had experimented with outsourcing but weren’t happy with the quality or speed of offshore teams.

So, they tried a new approach: a domestic product team on tap. Within a few days, an experienced cross-functional team had assembled for an intense, on-site kickoff with company engineers in California. Within the first two weeks, they had deployed code to production. The team then returned to its home base in Michigan, but stayed in close touch through daily video standups, real-time messaging throughout the day, and demos with company product managers every two weeks.

The company was able to deliver that first integration on time, expanding their potential customer base by a million small businesses. They’ve since added more integrated product teams — composed of developers, quality engineers, UX designers, and analysts — to take on new assignments.

You might expect this “teams on tap” approach to hold natural appeal in places like Silicon Valley where the war for engineering talent is most intense. However, it’s catching on more broadly for a number of reasons:

1. Play like a team

Collaboration is everything in software development. The natural rhythm between developers, quality engineers, UX designers and product managers takes time to develop. Will that rock star engineer who nailed your coding challenge have the right chemistry with your current team?

A 2016 Deloitte survey puts the cost of attrition at $121,000 per exiting employee. That’s hard to believe until you factor in the cost of job ads, onboarding, and lost productivity. Turnover is also hard on team members who have to cover for their lost coworker. When a position isn’t filled quickly, people get stretched thin, and work falls through the cracks.

Instead of gambling with team dynamics, many software companies are choosing on-tap product teams that have ironed out the kinks and established a strong cadence.

2. Instant expansion

Some fast-growing software companies are struggling to find not only the people but also the physical space needed to support additional teams. Top tech talent markets — locations like Palo Alto, CA, and East Cambridge, MA — command premium rents and still have vacancy rates below 4 percent.

3. Accelerate to market

According to a 2015 Glassdoor study, it takes 35 days to hire a software engineer: almost three working weeks longer than the average employee. But hire a product team, and within a week or two, you can have the right blend of senior and junior engineers, UX designers, quality engineers, and a product manager or business analyst all at the same time — and on the same page.

Plugging in a cross-functional team can get a product tested, refined, and out to market ahead of the competition. Speed matters, because software is a go-to-market arms race. If you don’t move quick enough, a competitor may beat you to the punch — or even worse, the market will have moved on.

Software companies need to see products improve incrementally over weeks, not months. That likely means going to market sooner than you think you’re ready. This concept can be scary to businesses accustomed to a predictable cycle of R&D, planning, development, and documentation. But launching in beta provides invaluable market feedback that helps complete the product more responsively. Your team can then incorporate that feedback, adapt the product, and ship again.

Now pouring

You may recall the adage about applying the “three Ps” to get the greatest ROI:

  • Product
  • Process
  • People

It’s as true of software as any other product. It’s just that filling the “people” part of the equation under the pressures of modern development is extraordinarily difficult. “Product teams on tap” delivers the right people using the right processes. That in turn provides the best guarantee of getting the product right, too.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with traditional sourcing. It’s just a question of what solution best meets the demands of the time. Software companies will undoubtedly use a mix of approaches, but “product teams on tap” looks like the way of the future — a way that helps companies stay competitive and meet the demands of an ever-more-rapid business cycle.

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