Mind the platform execution gap

Prerequisite capabilities for successful platform strategies

Developer productivity platforms are increasingly recognised as a way to manage the cognitive load of engineering teams and decrease time to market for new features. However, there are baseline capabilities that organisations need to cultivate in order to successfully execute on a plaform strategy. The platform team needs to think of the platform as a software product, needing dialog with its users, attention to reliable operations, and a healthy team environment.

27 April 2021


Photo of Cristóbal García García

Cristóbal's career has centred on leading engineering teams in the IT Service Provider industry. Two years ago he joined ThoughtWorks to work in product and infrastructure teams. His focus areas are distributed systems, engineering practices and software development processes and, from time to time, data science and programming languages.

Photo of Chris Ford

Chris has worked as a consultant for ThoughtWorks for a decade and is currently Head of Technology for ThoughtWorks Spain. His professional expertise includes functional programming, continuous delivery, Data Mesh and scaling engineering organisations.


Leaders of software development organisations are under great pressure to ensure that their employees spend their time on value-adding activities. One way to achieve this is to use SaaS to outsource functionality that isn’t part of their organisation’s core business. Another way is to consolidate infrastructure capabilities required by many teams and services into a digital platform (which might in turn rely upon SaaS and cloud providers). Usually, internal platforms are curated combinations of internally developed and externally procured capabilities.

Evan Bottcher has a great description of the key elements of a digital platform:

A digital platform is a foundation of self-service APIs, tools, services, knowledge and support which are arranged as a compelling internal product.

-- Evan Bottcher

The purpose of a developer productivity platform is to allow teams who build end-user products concentrate on their core mission. Examples of platform services include delivery services like pipeline infrastructure, application services like Kubernetes clusters, operational services like monitoring and security services like vulnerability scanning software. An internal platform team will usually take tools and services offered by cloud providers and other vendors and host, adapt or extend them to make them conveniently available to their software developer colleagues. The aim is not to reinvent commercially available functionality (the world does not need another homegrown Kubernetes) but to bridge the gap between what you can buy and what is really needed (your teams may appreciate a simplified Kubernetes experience that takes advantage of assumptions about your infrastructure and makes it easier to manage).

These services are often infrastructure-heavy, but we regard this as an implementation detail. We take a broad view of platform where we include any internally provided tooling that promotes developer effectiveness. Following Evan's definition, we embrace documentation and support as vital aspects of a platform. We believe that a what-it-is-for rather than a how-it-is-made view of platform is preferable because offering platform services to internal teams is an institutionalised approach to reducing friction. It is incumbent upon platform engineers to keep an open mind about the best way to reduce that friction. Some days that will be provisioning infrastructure. Other days it might be making a build script a little easier to use or facilitating a workshop to help a team to define their SLOs.

When well executed, a platform strategy promises to reduce costs and allow product development teams to focus on innovation. When it goes wrong, problems with the platform are passed directly onto the entire software development organisation. In our work with clients, we have observed that there is a substantial amount of industry enthusiasm (otherwise known as hype) around building internal platforms, but we also see a potential execution gap that has to be navigated.

A person leaving a train labelled       'hype train' beneath a warning saying 'Mind the gap!'.

Please mind the gap between the hype train and the platform.

Building an effective platform and an organisation to support it is a worthwhile but ambitious goal that takes greater maturity than directly provisioning infrastructure for services. As with other ambitious technical maneuvers, for example microservice architectures, there are foundational competencies that are prerequisites for sustainable success. They do not all have to be mature before you embark on a platform journey, but you must have the appetite and resolve to develop them along the way, otherwise your digital platform is unlikely to deliver a return on the substantial investment you will put into it.

Business value

The decision to commit to an internal developer productivity platform is an economic one. The argument in favour depends on efficiency, quality and time-to-market benefits exceeding the financial, talent and opportunity costs incurred in its construction and evolution. If you can’t articulate the business case for your platform, then you aren’t in a position to responsibly adopt it. Your calculations must take into account the capabilities of commercially available services because unless your platform offers features, specificity to your context or convenience that a commercial offering cannot, you may be better off leaving it to the market and avoiding the maintenance burden - after all your platform strategy depends upon reducing the amount of undifferentiated work, not increasing it!

The decision to build a digital platform is only the beginning of your responsibility to substantiate the business value of your digital platform. The motivation for a platform strategy may be compelling at a high level, but there are many fine-grained decisions involved in deciding which features to offer and how to offer them. To complicate matters further, the business justification for your features will shift over time as the state of technology progresses, the needs of your organisation evolve and cloud providers and other vendors release new and improved offerings that compete with your homegrown solutions.

To deliver the promised value to your organisation, plan for a greater proportion of continuous improvement versus product innovation than end-user facing products. To keep the platform manageable and costs under control, operability-related items must have a place of honour in the backlog. Your users appreciate consistency, stability and dependability over a stream of new features. Also, every product that you offer you must some day deprecate in favour of a new product on the market, an internally built successor or even devolving responsibility for the capability back to your product development teams. Deprecation is a fundamental part of the platform product lifecycle, and failure to consider it may undermine the business benefits you hoped to gain by offering it in the first place.

Product thinking

You must never forget that you are building products designed to delight their customers - your product development teams. Anything that prevents developers from smoothly using your platform, whether a flaw in API usability or a gap in documentation, is a threat to the successful realisation of the business value of the platform. Prioritise developer experience - a product that no one uses is not a successful product, no matter its technical merits. In order to achieve return on investment for your internal platform, your product development teams need to use it and use it well. For that to happen, they need to appreciate it, understand it and be aware of its features. As Max Griffiths describes in his article on Infrastructure as Product, platform products require customer empathy, product ownership and intelligent measurement, just like other kinds of product.

One advantage of internal products is that you have users that are highly invested in your products’ evolution and success. Like any group of customers, your colleagues will be a mixture of the skeptical, the neutral and the enthusiastic. Harnessing the enthusiasts and helping them to become early adopters and champions of the platform will greatly benefit perception of the platform in your organisation. Communicating your roadmap, accepting feedback and harvesting experiences from your users will contribute to your platform’s ongoing relevance. Luckily, you all work for the same organisation, so you have rich communication channels available. Internal platforms need marketing. It won’t look the same as marketing a product to the public, but it’s marketing nonetheless.

Maintaining goodwill is key to adoption. So if you have any unavoidable outages, communicate them and perhaps adapt your plans to reduce impact on your users. If something goes wrong and you have an outage (hint: you will) then apology and transparency will reassure them. Resist the temptation to rely on managerial mandates as an adoption strategy. You may have captive users, but compelling them to use products supposedly for their own good does not foster a productive relationship.

Operational excellence

When you adopt an internal platform, you ask your product development teams for a great deal of trust. Your platform is now a key dependency of the systems your organisation uses to fulfill its function. Your operational competence needs to be sufficient to justify that trust.

This means that your platform teams need to have a sound grasp of the fundamentals of software infrastructure, like networking, scaling and disaster recovery. If your platform engineering teams have difficulty with the underlying technology, they will not build robust products for your product development teams. Furthermore, modern operational excellence extends beyond infrastructure and into practices that ensure reliability. The book Site Reliability Engineering is a good account of the state of the art in this area. If your platform organisation doesn’t have skills in SRE practices like observability, monitoring and SLOs, not only are you at risk of breaking the trust of your product teams, you are at risk of doing it and not knowing that you did it.

Your platform organisation must also have the maturity to manage incidents efficiently and to learn from them. Out-of-hours support, alerting systems and blameless incident retrospectives should be a priority. You may need to establish processes, modify wording on employer contracts and budget for fair compensation to make this possible, as well as make on-call a sufficiently pleasant experience to encourage broad participation. It will also affect your planning. When you need to make significant changes, for example migrations, you need to invest in making them gracefully so as to minimise downtime for your users.

Software engineering excellence

A platform organisation is not just an operations department, so it needs more than operational capabilities. Even if you do not plan on writing substantial custom applications, your scripts, templates and configuration files will rapidly accumulate complexity. If you want to retain the ability to quickly and safely change your platform, you need to build it the right way.

Our favourite summary of software engineering excellence in an infrastructure context are the three core practices of infrastructure as code, as defined by Kief Morris in his book Infrastructure as Code:

  • Define everything as code
  • Continuously test and deliver all work in progress
  • Build small, simple pieces that you can change independently

If your organisation is able to consistently apply these practices, it’s much more likely to be able to execute on your platform vision. Without them, you may be able to get your infrastructure into a good state at a point in time, but you will not be able to sustain the pace of evolution your development teams’ changing needs will demand.

Using internal products places demands on product development teams too. Good product development teams are aware of the service levels offered by their dependencies, factor them into their own designs and use engineering practices to mitigate those risks that could impact their service level objectives. This is even more important when those dependencies are provided internally, because no matter how high quality your platform is, it is unlikely to reach the level of polish of a commercial SaaS provider.

Healthy teams

Individual skill is important, but sustaining excellence over the long term requires strong team-level disciplines. When your platform systems are depended upon by the rest of the business, it’s not acceptable for the expertise to maintain them to be held only by a few busy individuals. You need autonomous teams with clear missions who avoid individual code or system ownership. They must invest in knowledge sharing, documentation and onboarding. A single person winning the lottery should never be a threat to the viability of your platform.

To keep these platform engineering teams productive, their systems for planning work need to be mature. They must have backlogs of items described in terms of their value and have processes for prioritisation, otherwise the urgent may overwhelm the important. Incidents and unplanned work are inevitable, but if too much of the team’s time is consumed with toil, then it will never have the capacity to invest in the improvement of its products. Teams should not try to manage too many platform products at once.

We find the idea of cognitive load, as discussed in Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais’s book Team Topologies, a useful one for keeping teams’ missions manageable. If a team constantly switches context between completely different tasks, then the cognitive load is too great and, when this happens, not only will the team be less capable to undertake their day to day work, but it will also be difficult for new team members to gain the confidence they need to work on all the systems.

Getting started

If you do not already have these capabilities in your organisation, does that disqualify you from adopting a platform strategy? How, you might ask, are you supposed to build these capabilities without lessons obtainable only from experience?

The secret is not to compromise on the quality of your execution, but to be modest in the scope of your ambition - at first. A platform initiative, no matter how small, should produce business value, be guided by product thinking, be implemented with operational and software engineering excellence and be backed by a team structure that can sustain the new platform service. Anything less than that, and the boost you hoped to deliver is likely to become a drag that tarnishes the reputation of your fledgling platform with developers in your organisation.

Small, focused platform services targeted at well-understood parts of your technology estate have a lower degree of difficulty. They don’t let you off the hook for considering platform from a holistic perspective, but they let you get started and build from there. For example, providing a logging cluster that can ease the operational burden on product teams and improve visibility across services has clear business value that does not require sophisticated financial modelling to establish. It still requires product thinking to ensure that it serves its customers (does its availability, freshness and search UI meet the needs of the developers?) but that product thinking does not need to have the maturity of that required to, for example, offer a unified developer portal. And it still requires software engineering, operational skill and a healthy team to do well, though not as much as to, for example, build an observability sidecar for all your organisation’s microservices.

The first question to ask yourself is what is the smallest thing [1] we can build that would help the product teams? The second is how could we upgrade or migrate away from this when the time comes? The state of the art is evolving rapidly and vendor lock-in is no less painful because the vendor is your very own organisation. If deprecating your platform service would require a painful transition over years, it is probably time to go back to the drawing board and simplify your product. You do not need to have a detailed calendar and a plethora of substitute technologies ready to go, but factoring in a realistic lifetime (three to five years) and architectural seams for replacing solutions will force your designs to be simpler and more decoupled.

We recommend that adoption of your platform be voluntary. This supports your platform strategy in two ways. Firstly, when product teams have the ability to opt out of platform services, it encourages you to keep your services loosely coupled, which will benefit the platform when the time comes to launch a new generation of the service or to replace it with a commercial offering. Secondly, when your platform organisation is dependent on product teams’ appreciation of the platform’s benefits, it puts a strong pressure on your platform organisation to keep customer delight at the forefront of their minds. Mandatory migration to the platform is a shortcut that has the long-term risk of eroding your team’s product thinking discipline.

You may find a simple classification system useful to set expectations about the maturity of new platform features, for example to indicate that a new feature is in beta. You might want to associate SLOs and support tiers with the maturity classification as an experimental feature needs not to offer the same high availability as a core feature or your platform. It may not, for example, require round the clock support. Once the feature is promoted to full support, users of the platform can expect SLOs strong enough for them to build mission critical components on top of, but before then a less demanding set of expectations gives the platform team freedom to experiment and to validate their assumptions about the product before making a strong (and long-term) commitment to it.

If you are able to keep the above in mind, you will have an additional advantage. Your platform teams will manage small portfolios of very effective products. Their cognitive load will be small and their focus will be able to stay on continuously reducing the development teams’ time to market instead of just on keeping the lights on.

Conclusion

Digital platforms are portfolios of technical products. Like all products, platforms generate value through use. With the right underlying business justification, careful product management and effective technical execution, digital platforms succeed by reducing cognitive load on product development teams and accelerating an organisation’s innovation. Platforms take considerable investment in terms of money, talent and opportunity cost. They repay this investment by positively impacting product development teams’ ability to quickly and efficiently develop high quality customer-facing products.

Developing a digital platform is a strategic decision and not to be taken lightly. Besides the direct financial considerations, digital platforms also exert pressure on the relationships within your organisation. Product developers’ have experienced the offerings of commercial cloud providers and to live up to those raised expectations platform engineering teams must be mature in both product management and technical implementation. Product development teams also have to learn to be good partners of your platform organisation and accept their share of responsibility for the operation of their services.

Digital platforms are force multipliers, so there is a fine line between developing a competitive advantage and introducing a significant productivity blocker. The decisions you make along the product lifetime will determine whether you walk on one side or the other. The good news is that just like with every other kind of software development, if you start small, empathise with your customers, learn from your successes (and your failures) and keep your overall vision in mind, you have every chance of success.


Footnotes

1: “Thinnest viable platform” according to Team Topologies.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Brian Goetz, Emma Baddeley, Evan Bottcher, Fergus Orbach, Georgina Giannoukou, Martin Fowler, Mayur Wadhwa, and Michael Fait for their insightful suggestions and comments.

Significant Revisions

27 April 2021: published