Platform Management

The next step for SaaS platform product teams

That cloud solutions are steadily devouring the enterprise software market isn’t really news now. We’re steadily moving into a future in which much, perhaps most, of the software any modern business needs to run is hosted in the cloud, upgraded automatically, and billed by subscription. In that world, not everything will run in the cloud, but an awful lot will. This is great for customers of enterprise software, because it means more flexibility, better security, easier/automatic upgrades and more responsive vendor relationships.

A while ago, I wrote about the challenges facing product managers in enterprise software, comparing them with our counterparts in consumer. Honestly, what I wrote there barely scratches the surface, but I still think it stands up. There’s a second theme emerging now, particularly in enterprise SaaS, that I’ve been thinking about a lot too: the role of platforms, and how building, managing and planning for them is becoming more central to enterprise product management.

The platform vs. the product

The problem with discerning who’s selling a “platform” versus a “product” today is that the former has become something of a buzzword. Building and selling a “platform” kinda sounds cooler than a “product,” right? Maybe because “product” primes you for a sales pitch, but “platform” sounds wonkier. The marketing has run away with these terms to some extent and treated them as interchangeable, which they aren’t.

The dominant SaaS platforms in the enterprise today share a couple of characteristics: they offer common frameworks, definitions and, often, services that enable or complement products build on top of them. In other words, platforms provide critical infrastructure that’s shared by multiple products. Platforms like Salesforce, Adobe Marketing Cloud, HubSpot, Demandware or Workday fit this definition — as does, of course, the “uber-platform” in SaaS today, AWS.

A cynical view would be that many of these “platforms” are as much inventions of marketing as they are technical realities, and that isn’t completely untrue. There’s clearly a lot of value in platform-level marketing, particularly when you’re pursuing a portfolio software strategy. Yet the very best SaaS enterprise vendors today each truly do build on their own infrastructure, which offers services to both internal consumers (ex. databases, microservices, aggregations, internal APIs) as well as external ones (ex. authentication, UIs, external APIs). This makes it tremendously easier to rapidly build, deploy and scale new features and products that don’t each have to re-invent the wheel.*

Enterprises, particularly big ones, don’t just buy standalone products anymore — they’re increasingly adopting these platforms, which can more efficiently solve bigger, complex business challenges from multiple user/functional groups with less friction and better economics. Products (modules of the platform) are built to meet users’ requirements, while the platform itself must target executive sponsor needs.

Sound familiar? This architecture plays right into the enterprise product manager’s understanding of their customer vs. their user.

Adapting the PM model for SaaS

SaaS is changing almost all aspects of the enterprise software business, including how we, as vendors, operate, are organized, financed and managed. Yet the software product management function is still mostly structured as it was in the stand-alone, on-premises days. As an industry, we’re still learning as we go.

This is how your enterprise users are now trained.

As we’ve seen, SaaS makes enterprise-wide adoption of platform solutions a lot easier than back in the bad old ERP system days. But it also introduces greater dependencies between platform products and raises user expectations for seamless connections between them. This goes way beyond single sign-on — for everything from data formats, definitions and workflows to design elements and UI, your enterprise SaaS user naturally expects a high degree of consistency between products. (Partly thanks to our consumer-facing friends who’ve raised the stakes!) What this implies is a lot of platform-wide decisions with product-level implications.

Who makes those platform decisions today? In my experience, it’s often a scrum of PMs, designers and developers in a conference room, each with their own product/user bias, agreeing to disagree about the least bad option. I think we can do better.

In the traditional model, you have group product managers, or some equivalent, that essentially manage individual PMs who each own particular products. This works reasonably well, except that the group PM often winds up being the voice of the “platform” — when it is given a voice at all. I don’t think this makes sense for where we are in the evolution of SaaS platforms in the enterprise.

The Platform Needs a Voice

The platform itself is a product. We need to treat it more like one.

Often, I’ve seen platform services mostly managed by DevOps or operations teams, who are somewhat insulated from the product org. This robs critical infrastructure services of valuable customer feedback-driven development, as well as opportunities for integration with the products that they support. I’m curious how representing platform ops teams within product management — Platform Managers? — could help improve their user-facing features and harmonize platform-wide services.

Does this role exist? My guess is that it will, if it doesn’t already. I don’t know of any teams doing this today. Do you?

As enterprise product managers, half our job is listening — to customers, users, people they work with, and folks in their industry. We take feedback and build or enhance our products to address use cases, while making them work with our business plan. At a platform level, we already do this with our business plans; but as it becomes a more popular method of packaging, organizing and distributing software products to the enterprise, the platform should be intentionally managed like a product too. The Platform Manager could be a fixture of an enterprise Saas platform’s product team, helping to streamline the development and maintenance of each person’s product, while also managing the critical, shared high-touch features of any platform’s UX.

We’re still in early days of SaaS’s disruption of the enterprise software market. There’s a lot of change yet to come in how software companies are organized to adapt to this new model. More emphasis on the platform is one area I’m watching.

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