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How to Build a Product Delivery Organization: Lessons from Jonathan Nolen, Senior VP of Engineering & Product at LaunchDarkly

Carmo Braga da Costa
Carmo Braga da Costa
July 27, 2022
5 min read
“Our job is not to write software. It is to deliver software in production to customers, so they get value out of it.” - Jonathan Nolen

A long overdue mindset shift is happening in software engineering: we’re beginning to understand that companies are not building or shipping software - they’re delivering a service. And modern engineering organizations that understand this have started to blend Engineering, Product, and Design (EPD) into one team. 

These teams might have different functions, but ultimately, they share the same goal: to deliver value to customers. Our recent conversation with Jonathan Nolen, Senior VPE and Product at LaunchDarkly, shines the light on how to make EPD work as one "Product Delivery Organization.".

We take advantage of his 12-year tenure at Atlassian and 4-year journey at LaunchDarkly to deep dive into building and scaling these teams. So, keep reading to find out: 

  • What is a Product Delivery Organization and How to Structure It 
  • How To Foster a Culture of Shared Responsibility
  • Who are the Right Leaders for Product Delivery Organization
  • How to Measure The Impact of EPD

What is a Product Delivery Organization and How to Structure It

Although EPD has been around for a handful of years, the Product Delivery Organization is a term coined by LaunchDarkly to encompass:

👉 Balance: Giving equal weight and importance to the three aspects of the Triad (Product, Engineering, and Design.).

👉 Representation: Making sure everyone has an equal voice and seat at the table.

👉 Mindset: Focusing on delivering a service by shifting the mindset from building and shipping software.

The teams are structured so that squads of six to eight engineers have three leaders: a product leader, a design leader, and an engineering leader. These leaders report to a single person who will push one voice at the top (CPOs or CTOs could assume this role.). 

Traditional reporting lines are kept within the functions - i.e., a Product Manager still reports to a Senior Product Manager.

The Product Delivery Organization shares goals, outcomes, impacts, and roadmaps. Every decision involves the three leaders, which requires a healthy relationship between them.

⚙️ At Github, the triad reports to the CEO directly, even though Jason Warner argues that this is a mistake because EPD needs its own person outside the CEO.

To set up the structure, you must first understand the priorities, then look at the Engineering team (because it is the largest organization) and finally Product and Design. 

The goal is to figure out how all three can work together, so the team’s autonomy and mission setting should be the organizational design drivers. 

When designing the structure, ask yourself: 

  • Can the team make decisions and move quickly, unlimited by overlaps, dependencies, and proxies?
  • Can a goal/mission/outcome be articulated for that team? 

As far as scaling is concerned, more layers can be added in the middle, where the triad is responsible for multiple squads.

How To Foster a Culture of Shared Responsibility 

Having Engineering, Product, and Design in the same team with the same executive sponsorship aligns everyone around the same goals. It also promotes information sharing and collective decision-making. 

However, it is a big shift in mindset for many companies, especially those with a strong culture of individual responsibility.

For a Product Delivery Organization to work, you need to excel at: 

👉 Hiring: Aim for diverse skills and the right mix of personalities. Recruit people who understand why we are building what we are building or eager to find out.

👉 People development: Identify people with strong opinions and good product sense, then, empower them to propel the whole team forward—gauge people not only on their technical talent but on their impact on the product and the business.

👉 Information sharing: Make sure that, when problem-solving, you share the context with everybody from the earliest phase and build trust between the individuals by sharing expectations.

💡 In the age of remote work, building a collective-minded culture requires more work and effort, especially when onboarding new hires. Process documentation, training, cross-disciplinary / cross-squad pollination are some of the tools that can be leveraged to achieve the expected results. Here are some more knowledge-sharing tips

The Right Leaders for the Product Delivery Organization 

A modern engineering organization, especially one with a Product Delivery Organization, needs great leaders committed to continuously improving and understanding the nuances of their role. 

With all the overlaps and interdependencies between functions, the leaders need in-depth expertise on their function and a broad vision of others. These are what we would call T-shaped individuals.

A T-shaped individual possesses excellent knowledge of and skills in specific areas and is good at collaboratively working with others. These qualities make up valuable leaders and employees and are something to look for when growing your team.

T shaped individual diagram - cross discipline + deep discipline

Great leaders recognize that what is working today might not work tomorrow and can smoothly implement the changes needed over time by creating a culture of Continuous Improvement. This mindset is essential when scaling and rapidly increasing the number of people in your team.

Finally, since they set the goals, Product Delivery Organization leaders must be business-minded. The product and the customers are their North Star. 

Finding someone who can run all three functions simultaneously is challenging, but you can recognize these leaders as curious, energetic people who constantly make connections between individuals, teams, and topics.

Measuring The Impact of EPD

As the Peter Drucker quote goes, "You can't manage what you can't measure.", and it certainly holds true for an organization with intertwined and overlapping teams. 

However, watch out for the visibility trap: what is visible is impactful and what is invisible is not impactful (classically, product and design vs. engineering). This isn’t always true, especially when it comes to engineering orgs. 

To show the impact of EPD, you have to look at the product and its value for the customer: healthy, available, scalable, and able to handle growth. 

By having one set of goals, targets, and roadmap, teams are measured against the same value measurement framework: balancing service health, feature progress, user experience, and bug fixing. The squads and the individuals should then be able to tie and articulate their contribution to the goals.

⛔ Of course, we can't forget context! The product, service health, infrastructure, and delivery mechanisms - all these elements come into play when building your goal-setting framework. 

If you want to learn more about Product Delivery organizations, I highly recommend listening to our episode of Developing Leadership with Jonathan Nolen: 

If you want to find out how metrics & data can help you scale your organization, let’s chat

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