Product for Internal Platforms

What’s so hard about product for (internal) platform?

Customer Group Size

Platform product decision-making is something of a unique discipline. When many people think about product managers, the image that springs to mind is a product manager for large consumer-facing products. Metrics, metrics, metrics! A/B tests and user studies and KPIs and design sprints and revenue models. I’m sure that any time you are building products for a large user base, this is a factor, and PMs for AWS probably have a lot of metrics to guide them. But A/B testing for an audience of hundreds doesn’t usually teach you much. When you’re building platform for internal customers at a small-to-midsized company, a metrics-driven strategy is harder to apply.

Captive Audience

Not only do we have a small group of customers, we have a captive audience. Other teams can and sometimes do decide to go off on their own and build their own platforms, but for many types of products, we provide the only option. You can ask customers what they want or how they like your products, but they may not want to complain to their colleagues. Of course, platform products also suffer from the problem that some engineers always think they could build something better, if only they had the time, so you also have a customer segment that seems to never be satisfied no matter how hard you work.

It’s Hard To Think Like Your Customer

Finally, there is the universal challenge of platforms. Good software products for engineers tend to come from someone with a clear problem in front of them, who built specifically to solve that problem. They are intimately familiar with the customer because they are the customer. They are building for one person or one team, and they can clearly see what needs to be solved. But the platform team doesn’t build solutions for only one user. The whole value of a platform team is providing broadly-useful systems, so we are rarely presented with a well-specified need to fill.

So how do you solve this?

If the challenges can be summed up as: a small, captive audience, that is hard to truly empathize with, and a tendency to build thoughtlessly, what can you do? Here are a few approaches I’ve found to help:

Assimilate and Expand

You don’t have a huge customer base to test things on, so how do you find a successful product? Don’t be ashamed to take over a system from a team that built it with themselves in mind, if that system seems to be the right general concept for the wider company. A lot of platform teams don’t like doing this, because they think that it means they will have to live with decisions that they don’t agree with. They forget that when you take a product from a team that built it, you already have a reasonably satisfied customer to start with! For better or worse, someone showed that they had a problem, and they solved it, and you wouldn’t be taking it over if you didn’t think this problem was worth solving in a holistic fashion, right?

Partner to Prototype

Another way to identify promising new opportunities is to partner with another team, and even embed someone into that team, to understand a problem better. Partner teams are likely to come by and ask if you are planning to build something to solve their various problems. When you believe that this is a good specific example of something that will become a general pattern, take advantage of this request to learn more! In fitting with the goal of really understanding the feel of a problem, having platform engineers build an application with a prototype idea for a platform within it, then using the lessons from that project to extract a more general system, is a productive way to quickly iterate an idea into something that is usable. After all, the hardest part of the product side of platform engineering is figuring out usability. Want to know how people will actually write code around this offering? Well, writing code around the offering yourself is a good way to figure that out.

Make a Migration Strategy Early

In platform teams a lot of the product job is figuring out how to make open source products or popular strategies work for your company. Take kubernetes. The product challenges around internal kubernetes are in the decisions you make on how to integrate it into the existing ecosystem in order to get people to adopt it without too much argument. If you are a company of a certain age, you may already have an old private cloud solution running around. Everyone is used to running on VMs, but you think kubernetes will give you some operational improvements and also encourage the company to start to rethink its software practices to be a bit more modern.

You Aren’t Google, So Don’t Build When You Don’t Have To

My final piece of product advice to platform teams is to remember that you aren’t Google (unless you are, in which case, hi!). When you have a platform team of 7, or even 100, you must be extremely thoughtful about what you choose to build. Platform teams of all sizes can get bogged down trying to imitate systems that have been built up over years at big companies. Even when those big companies provide their solutions as open source software, they often encode all kinds of assumptions about the surrounding ecosystem of available products and the culture and needs of the engineers using the product that may not work well in your company. It is not good product management to say “Google does it, therefore we should.”

Summing Up

Great platform teams can tell a story about what they have built, what they are building, and why these products make the overall engineering team more effective. They have strong partner relationships that drive the evolution of the platform with focused offerings that meet and anticipate future needs of the rest of the company. They are admired as strong engineers who build what is needed, to high standards, and they are able to invest the time to do that because they don’t overbuild.

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