The software industry has come a long way from its early anti-establishment roots. In fact, if metrics like cultural influence, market capitalization or employment mean anything, software is the establishment. The software industry directly employs 2.9 million Americans, and indirectly supports 10.5 million more, with job creation that far outpaces the rest of the economy.
But you wouldn’t know that from how the tech business and the process of creating software are depicted in TV shows or movies.
Everything I Know About Software Dev I Learned from ‘Hackers’ and ‘Silicon Valley’
The popular image (and self-inflicted myth-making) of app building suggests that great code is the result of barely-socialized coders hacking through an all-night miasma of Cheetos, Red Bull and Jolt cola. And the supposed result? Inspiring, sui generis breakthroughs.
As for the poor suits who need to manage this chaos? The best they can hope for is a process that’s worse than herding cats. The very attempt at providing structure is a target for snark, as in this exchange from the TV show “Silicon Valley”:
Dinesh: I don’t want to point fingers, but we wouldn’t be here if you hadn't let Gilfoyle and me waste so much time being picky.
Richard: What? I was dying to move faster. I was just respecting your process.
Gilfoyle: Our process sucks. Your inability to stop us from sucking is a failure of leadership.
I say this with love for Gilfoylian misanthropes everywhere: Repeatable product success comes from the right process, not hacker genius.
With Product Management, One Size Won’t Fit All
That’s not to say there’s only one way to approach product management.
Brian Tworetzky, who is senior vice president of product management at InVision, summed up the problem in a 2016 blog post on Medium. Recalling that, earlier in his career, he had “20-odd people with the title product manager” reporting to him when he became executive vice president of product at tech firm XO Group, he wrote:
In my first week I asked most PMs the same simple question: 'What is a product manager? What do they do?' and received twenty-odd different answers. Software engineers, accountants, and salespeople don’t share such confusion in their role definitions, why do product managers?
Some of that ambiguity comes from the multiple goals of the job, and from the way the role has morphed and adapted to new contexts and requirements.
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Classic Product Management
Classic product management has its roots in the consumer packaged goods business, where people deal with things like laundry soaps and breakfast cereals. It made the leap to tech around the same time Apple and IBM were pitching dueling versions of personal desktop computers. That is not surprising, perhaps: Early software products competed for attention on store shelves in much the same way soaps and cereals do.
While product management of consumer packaged goods heavily focuses on marketing and revenue goals, the version that has grown up in the tech world incorporates a healthy dose of project management as well. This large-scale project planning comes from infrastructure engineering practices that long predate the world of software. Consider one classic tool: the Gantt chart. Named after Henry Gantt, the Gantt chart traces its roots back to at least 1912. It offered one of the earliest formal methods of documenting a project’s life cycle, outlining the stages of an undertaking from initiating to planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and closing.
In the software business, many of the software engineering project management models were pretty similar, aimed at getting a product ready to release to manufacturing and then to ship on disks and into the hands of the sales department. Today, we call that sequential progress toward a big, dramatic delivery “waterfall” style management.
From Product Management to Service Management
But the discipline of product management has grown and evolved over the past couple of decades in the era of the internet, software as a service (SaaS) and web apps.
What has changed? To be glib, a lot. But among the most significant changes is that we no longer need to manufacture and ship physical artifacts of the software. In an era when the network and devices are always practically instantaneously available — i.e., the world we live in today — software does not have the same constraints as physical goods. That has radical implications for how product managers shepherd their offerings at every stage.
For software delivered as a service, the success of a product also depends on solid and continual execution of updates, upgrades, growth surfaces and more. So project management models have had to adjust to the new complexities of continuous delivery. That’s where today’s product management processes shine. Let’s take a look at the most popular frameworks for SaaS product development and management.
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Which Came First, the Agile or the Scrum?
If you’re new to tech product management, you might be excused for wondering if you didn’t inadvertently sign up for a rugby league. You’ll hear the terms agile and scrum get bandied about a lot, along with other secret code words like stand-ups, sprints, planning poker and the like. For a neophyte, it can be intimidating, but it’s a dialect you can pick up on quickly, especially if you know the story behind it.
The principles of what we know as “agile” were first set out in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which originated when a group of software developers met in Snowbird, Utah, in 2001 to share their ideas. The methods and practices based on the values and principles expressed in the Agile Manifesto included collaboration, self-organization, frequent delivery of business value, cross-functionality of teams and more.
In the past 15 years, something clicked. A 2016 Deloitte survey found that 67 percent of high-technology and IT companies were using some form of agile product development, while just 9 percent were using traditional waterfall approaches and 24 percent were using a hybrid of the two.
In a study of 10,000 software projects, the Standish Group found small projects using agile frameworks were 30 percent more likely to succeed than those in which traditional frameworks were used. Likewise, midsize projects were 400 percent more likely to succeed with agile, and large, complex initiatives were 600 percent more likely to succeed with agile.
Enterprises using agile practices even claim a 98 percent project success rate — though I’m sure there’s a bit of aspirational exaggeration in that figure.
Scrum: A Lightweight Heavyweight
Scrum is a framework devised by the nonprofit Scrum Alliance for implementing agile methodologies. Or as someone once put it: Agile is the diet you’re on, and scrum is a recipe you use to prepare a meal that follows your diet.
As recipes go, scrum is a hit: It is used by 58 percent of the companies that embrace agile practices, according to a report by VersionOne, a maker of agile management software.
Scrum is built to be a lightweight development framework leveraging iterative and incremental techniques, prioritizing development work so complex projects can be broken down into manageable chunks. That means SaaS products or updates can be delivered with greater frequency, in a constant cadence.
In the scrum approach, products are built in a series of iterations called sprints. Each sprint is a two-to-four-week workflow that includes “daily scrums” to review progress. At the end of a sprint, a team’s work should be ready to be demonstrated to stakeholders and tested. The team then launches into the next sprint, and sprints are repeated until all the necessary items in the “product backlog” are completed, the budget is used up or the team hits a deadline.
Scrum isn’t the only framework for agile implementation; it is just one of the most widely used options. The other 42 percent of agile implementations are divvied up between other frameworks, the most notable being extreme programming (XP), Kanban and lean development. Here is a look at each of those:
- Extreme programming (XP) is a more technically prescriptive agile framework. It dictates specific practices, including pair programming (where two developers work on the same code at the same time, on the same computer) and test-driven development, where automated tests are created before code is written. Scrum/XP hybrid forms of this framework are about 10 times more common than straight-up XP.
- Kanban is Japanese for “visual sign” or “card,” and its namesake is a lightweight and flexible visualization and workflow tracking framework that integrates well among other frameworks and is often used alongside scrum (in which case it may be nicknamed “scrumban”). Kanban asks a team to visualize the work first, often using a visual management board to lay it out the project in discrete units and states, such as backlog, ready for dev, in dev and so on. The goal? To maximize flow and throughput. Kanban doesn’t set project end dates; a project simply keeps on going as team members and resources continuously take on new tasks.
- Lean development takes ideas from Japan’s lean manufacturing methodologies and applies them to SaaS to eliminate waste, amplify learning, empower teams and deliver results as quickly as possible. Unlike scrum, it has no set roles or “rituals,” and is therefore highly configurable. And like Kanban, it can be hybridized with scrum or another framework.
Related Article: 4 Agile Principles for the Modern Marketer
The Circle of Product Management Life
Product managers have a dizzying array of options to choose from when they are considering a project management framework, with agile and scrum-inspired variants being promoted by various industry groups, academia, think tanks and consultants.
But no single framework is an end-all solution. Every product may be unique, requiring its own approach. The framework you choose will be exactly that: a framework, intentionally incomplete, waiting to be adapted and customized until it’s more than just a framework and has been transformed into a path to SaaS product success.
Do processes like these make for must-see TV like the popular images of hacker anti-heroes? Maybe not. But coming full circle, businesses that don’t think of themselves as software companies are looking to the tech world for inspiration and “product thinking” — they are adapting processes for taking a product from ideation to launch to updates and beyond.
I guess I can live with that.