by Jon Slade
In recent years the teams I’m responsible for have worked ever closer with colleagues in Product and Technology. Simply put, we can’t do our jobs in the Commercial teams without strong working relationships and understanding of how the professionals elsewhere in the company do their jobs.
A recent trip to our excellent new development centre in Sofia, Bulgaria reminded me that I still had a lot to learn about Product and Technology if we were going to work in the most collaborative way necessary for success. So with that thought in mind I asked Cait O’Riordan, the FT’s CPIO, if she could put up with my ignorance for a week via a short ‘internship’. I was delighted when Cait agreed, and I spent a week in early July shadowing teams across Cait’s department in London.
It was a terrific learning experience for me, and thanks to the very warm welcome (and patience!) that the teams gave me I feel I came away with just a little bit more insight into the great professionalism going on at the FT and how we might work better together.
At times it felt like I had joined a new company — meeting people I didn’t know worked at the FT, visiting new places at Bracken House (our new London offices), and hearing discussions and plans that are vital to how the FT functions, but which for me were completely (or at least, largely) new.
What follows are some thoughts on the week.
The definition of done is very different between Technology and Commercial
Commercial teams work to regular calendar-driven business rhythms: daily run rates for ad bookings, weekly acquisition targets for subscriptions, monthly team profit goals, quarterly department forecasts and annual operating plans. ‘Done’ is largely determined by whether the financial objective is hit in the time given.
In technology, ‘done’ has a different definition: the code base is ever-expanding (and a desire to keep it in a manageable state is a real driver in thinking), cyber security is an endless vigil, Trello boards never empty, and an agile methodology means projects are completed when objectives are hit, not by looking at the calendar.
We would do well to better understand these differences in rhythm when planning projects and business targets.
Culture and ways of working
I thought Commercial was full on, but communication in P&T is relentless. Slack never, ever stops… and communication is literally 24x7 (unsurprising given our global business, I guess).
Documentation is also relentless, and so important. I was really struck how the rotating teams on OpsCops support emerging issues, about which they might have known nothing when they walked into the office that morning, by tuning into a problem and using the supporting documentation.
Relatedly, I noticed a culture of always iterating and improving together — a ‘hive mentality’ — something embodied by that ever-growing and improving documentation base.
And I noticed a real desire to share knowledge, via blog posts, stand-ups and wikis. I think we could learn a lot from this way of working in Commercial.
Product and Technology have been working to a system of OKRs in 2019 — Objectives and Key Results — as a way of tracking outcomes and progress. It seemed to me that this was a really good way of trying to get everyone rowing in the same direction. There’s work to be done in learning how OKRs are best used, but I definitely see the opportunity for teams working closely with P&T to also adopt the system (for example, the B2C teams) and making sure that the joined up forward momentum is not just in one department, but working across company-wide missions, like subscription growth. At the Board Subs Summit last week we discussed how we might roll the framework out more widely — more to follow.
The work that teams are doing on audio demonstrates there is huge potential in departments working closely together and experimenting rapidly.
Coming from a relative silo, what I saw in UXD, Customer Research and elsewhere was somewhere where it all centralised, with work being undertaken for pretty much every team.
And I could feel and see the value of the open space we have at Bracken House to help with collaboration.
A different language
For my sins, I can now tell you what each of these means:
- Tab vs space (turns out you do need an opinion on this… I think I’m a tab kinda guy)
- Pull requests
- Run books
If anyone in P&T wants a crash course on DSPs, SSPs, CpH and BUD I’ll be happy to oblige.
The FT has a Tech Strategy and also a Product Strategy, and just in my world we have strategies for B2C marketing, customer services, Specialist, Circulation and Advertising.
Given the interdependencies between us all it’s more important now than ever before to ensure that these strategies complement one another (see: OKRs…).
There’s a real risk that they might not, and I do wonder if we have the right forums in place to make sure that they do.
One to work on.
Living with the past
There’s a lot of wrestling with decisions we made in the past and how they impact our ability to do what we want to do now.
Next FT, the ‘new’ FT.com launched in 2017, was a major piece of work for us because the previous publishing stack — Falcon — was a monolith, meaning we couldn’t make any rapid changes without threatening the entire piece. Next FT is based on microservices, meaning one small change doesn’t necessarily crash the remainder. That’s a huge step forward.
But we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the past: there is a constant trade off between building technology to help us grow, versus just getting stuff completed, maintained and improving quality.
I guess in part it’s a factor of being a business with a history — we are living with technology that made sense in the context of the time we built it.
But a constant refrain in the week was ‘we could move faster if we focussed on fewer things’.
Getting the balance right on growth versus maintenance is going to be our key challenge going into 2020. Longer term thinking and planning around investments will help.
Understanding our customers
At the FT we pride ourselves on understanding both our internal and our external customers. We are right to do so.
Customer Research handles dozens of projects at any one time: hundreds of hours, thousands of customers telling us about our products each week. And there is a consistency of themes — ‘you can hear the picture’, as Caroline, a senior researcher, put it to me.
I really like the mantra in research of ‘Trying to find the best What for the best Who’. That seemed to sum up well the focus of the effort.
And I was really struck by the amount of preparation that goes into design workshops and design thinking. It paid off handsomely in a workshop I attended on B2B Newserve, with some solid thinking and conclusions emerging from the session. I promised, and managed, to keep my mouth shut and just observe…
On the internal product side, I attended a user testing session for Spark, our new CMS, and I was interested to see how the team are seeking to find a balance between keeping the tool light and usable and not being overloaded with all the various needs from each desk.
User testing and customer workshops are a real art form — how far do you guide, how far do you just observe?
Real-time O&R and failing-over…
Spending a morning with Operations and Reliability (O&R) underlined the very real-time nature of the Technology operation — dealing with issues immediately as they emerge.
The issues were all very different — security, failed tech, upgrades — and I was struck by the power of dashboards to help manage 1800 separate services.
But a heart-hammering highlight for me was failing-over FT.com from US servers to those in the EU. I’d like to thank Kev for calmly walking me through the procedure while I turned off our US servers — and I’m pretty confident our US audience didn’t notice a thing. The flatline on the chart below proves we did it…
Finally, and the future
Once again, a huge thank you to the teams for welcoming me into their domain. I’ve come away with a huge sense of pride in the organisation I work for and the professionals who work with us, and a definite sense of enlightenment. I spent a week being the most ignorant person in the room, and I do at least now have a little bit of knowledge.
But you know what they say about a little bit of knowledge… ;-)
I’m delighted that Cait O’Riordan wants to try the same process with the Commercial teams. I look forward to that, and thinking how we might expand this concept to a wider group. Our future success depends on us understanding one another’s business and a joined-up, collaborative way of working. I hope that the week I spent with Product and Technology was a step in the right direction.