Production vs Software Development

When I started working in media, there were no “Product Managers” or “Product Developers”. These titles only started to appear around 2006. Before that, people performing similar functions were called Producers.

Most people started as Production Assistants to learn the ropes and then would move up to Associate Producer where they would develop valuable project management skills while supporting the Producer. As a producer you were responsible for overseeing everything from developing the business model, creative concepting, interface/experience design, design, development, partner/talent management, day to day production, marketing and user/community management. Once you had worked as Producer for a while you might manage multiple projects and/or other producers. Eventually you would move up to Director at which point you have more budget and senior management communication responsibilities. From there it would be Vice President, Senior Vice President, etc. With each step you would grow your knowledge base and skill set.

This very much follows a traditional film or TV production model of working. Apprenticeship and mentorship are built into the process. There are clear delineations of roles and responsibilities, but it would be easy to reorganize the team for someone to step into another team member’s job if “someone got hit by a bus.”

Working in a production environment, there is no room for ego. Everyone does whatever they are capable of and is necessary at the moment to get the job done. Dates in film and TV are not flexible. You can’t change the date of the Superbowl because you’re not ready. Pushing a day of production out because you weren’t prepared can have catastrophic effects on your budget, not to mention cast and crew availability. If you’re short a PA and everyone else is busy, you as the Vice President are not too good to fill that role.

Web development in the early days of the internet was not really software development. Just about anyone could write or borrow code and tweak values for their needs. Efficiency and rigor was not necessarily a requirement for web developers at media companies. If you were at a big media company, you either farmed out or acquired the true software development part of your business (primarily related to content management systems) or you developed one-off experiences that didn’t require large scale software development practices. Your day to day business was about creating and packaging content and/or discrete interactive experiences.

A few forces caused media companies to change and adopt software development workflows and processes. First, as a business they decided it might be cost efficient to take over development that they would normally outsource — for tools, games, video players, content management systems, search etc. This usually began by acquiring an agency or tool provider they were already working with. The relationship between this new team and the existing team was not very different from a vendor-client relationship, Producers remaining the clients.

With a continued push for cost efficiency and introduction of tools that standardized site development, Producers were pushed to accept out-of-the-box experiences and site/infrastructure development was moved to be managed by a central team made up of the “former vendors”. This squarely pushed Producers out of the software development side of the business.

The growth of web/mobile applications and services further evolved digital groups at media companies. Creative teams found they needed to have a deeper understanding of technologies in order to manage development of some user experiences. Producers became specialized around games, mobile, video or content production. In order to develop software at scale, traditional software development workflows and processes needed to be adopted. These specialized Producers would eventually take on Product management titles.

Over time, content creation and production became removed from user experience development. More and more people developing user experiences for content have never worked in site production or content production. Success began to be measured in clicks and visits and content began to be treated as commodity. A video is a video. An article is an article. Never mind that to a user a preview clip vs a full episode vs a exclusive interview has different value. Never mind that breaking news is different from an episode recap.

Thus begins my conundrum.

Product management at many media companies has evolved to focus on execution and overseeing software development without a whole lot of say in terms of content or strategy. Working in production means not having much control over how users access or experience the content.

The split in these responsibilities creates constant tension between the production and technology teams in an organization where one group is seemingly unable to speak the language of the other. In the best of worlds, product owners act as translators between these two worlds but more and more they are relegated to acting as technology project managers who are supposed to quietly execute the bidding of producers or business leads or report into the head of tech as managers of development.

I want nothing to do with this way of working because it means operating with half a brain. It means never being able to fully execute against and test a vision. For now, it means parceling myself out as a tool, a service provider and living a split existence as a creator.

Is it that I’m too early or too late? Will the next generation of creators be tech savvy enough to no longer separate these two worlds? I sure hope so and it can’t happen soon enough.

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