Why should companies build a Partner Solutions team?
What exactly does a Partner Solutions team do? They hire people of similar profiles as a product manager and a business development manager, yet they are deep in technical expertise as an engineer, and quick wit and fast to act as an operations manager. This jack-of-all-trades role or a catch-all function is what belongs to a Partner Solutions team.
In 2006, I was assigned my first partner as an associate Technical Account Manager. Easy! You get on calls with partners, listen to their constraints and capabilities, draft up project plans, get internal and external buy-ins, before implementation starts. I partner with a Strategic Partner Manager (SPM), understand the scope of the deal that’s been handed to us from the Strategic Partner Development Manager (SPD) and scope out any custom features needed. Then you switch to q&a and troubleshooting mode once they are diving into the integration or implementation phase on their staging server. There is usually an onboarding process where a whitelist or a capabilities file must be touched to enable access. In some cases, if the partner is sending us a data feed, other kinds of tools and platforms are involved. After the partner’s done integrating, our team begin validating and testing. A pre-generated list of test cases are helpful to share with partners to create mutual understanding and expectation setting. The bug fixing back and forth stage can take up to 2 weeks, depending on the complexity of the product and the bug. Sometimes, there are issues identified that are internal and require engineering prioritization in order to resolve. Then comes launch once all things check off the list. The business team is responsible for sharing that great news cross-functionally. After launch, we will start tracking metrics and performance and identify ways to improve that performance. And there are other times that the integration and implementation is divided in phases, or there are features that are custom built for the partner, which comes at a later time. Of which, we would continue post launch support throughout the lifecycle of the partner.
At this point, if you are still confused about why a partner solutions tech team is needed, the short answer is — you don’t want to distract your core product & engineering time to project manage and develop partner integrations. Instead, you need a team of technically savvy folks, who understands your product and tech stack inside out, who also understands the partners’ needs to scale your business.
Even within a partner solutions org, roles & responsibilities can be further divided up from pre-sale to post-sale, from account management to program management. For example, sales engineers are usually tasked to partner with SPDs, if the product is technically complex in nature, to draw out integration details and discuss custom features, before the deal is signed. This is precisely what happened when Google and Twitter are working on search integration. For a large scale partnership like this, usually at least one engineer and product manager is also involved. Program management is also important in such an organization as the SEs and TAMs are busy focusing on individual partnership, while a program manager would be overseeing the overall needs and priorities of the product from partners perspective. Then comes tooling and processes. Technical people are best used to perform technical tasks, non-technical tasks (most likely scaled) is best suited for operationally driven people. Partner operations manager role is introduced, if the business is mature to that point.
Structuring a partner solutions team really depends on the complexity, maturity and scalability of the product supporting.
In the past 10 years working inside a partner solutions org, I have put on many hats. I have managed complex technical partnerships for a variety of products, identified and executed systemic optimizations resulting in 20% performance uplift, built analytic tools used by business team, finance team, and product and eng team that outlived my time inside the org, written many many product requirement docs (PRDs) to enable BD to close deals, streamlined many many processes to reduce operational overheads, and most recently 4 years, managed and grew talents on the team. Amongst it all, I effectively dealt with organizational changes and built meaningful and lasting relationships with peers. What I’ve enjoyed is I continue to push my own boundary, to put myself in uncomfortable situations, to make mistakes and learn from them.
So…. at what point does an organization need to consider adding a partner solutions team? This is a mostly a judgement call from an experienced leader. If you can afford to embed someone with that skill set early in the product life cycle, you might benefit immediately from day 1 of partner facing interactions. Truth be told, I see this team adding the most value when your organization is at a point that requires scaling! Can you do without it? Maybe! In a startup, most employees wears multiple hats anyways. If your partner engagement are mostly lightweight and straight forward, you don’t really need dedicated team for support. For others that are heavy on partnership to enable product success, a high functioning partner solutions can scale support effectively.
If I think about what makes a partner solutions org successful, it really is being an effective linchpin that scales sales and product. I still remember my first all hands in partner solutions, the director of the team at the time said to all of us, our job is to make our job disappear, then we can all go to Hawaii.