Embracing a Product Model for IT Agility

  • Dell

As part of our digital transformation, Dell Digital, our IT organization, has been aggressively adopting agile development methodology, new technology, automation and DevOps best practices over the past five years. But supporting these changes has meant we needed an organizational structure to address perhaps the most important aspect of our transformation – the way our people work to deliver technology services. The solution: restructure our IT organization from the ground up leveraging the product operating model.

In the same way we’ve gained agility by breaking down our development environment into smaller components, the product model lets us break down our organization into smaller groups with specific responsibilities and accountability. Rather than working in the traditional siloed IT structure where development teams write code and hand it off to separate teams to test, deploy and support, the product model organizes IT software and services as products. These “products” are defined by the business problems they solve and are organized into “product lines” – logical groupings of multiple, related products that deliver a cohesive business and/or user capability.

Organizing our more than 10,000 team members worldwide around clearly defined solutions and services that address user needs in a simple and understandable way makes product teams responsible for their solutions and services from the time they are built throughout their entire lifecycle. This results in our teams rapidly delivering high quality solutions that are closely tied to business needs.

Why the product model

The product model originated in startup and product-driven software development organizations. It is geared toward driving agility by having autonomous teams working directly with users to rapidly deliver business value. Many large companies have been using the product model for some time. For Dell, it fits perfectly into our agile development methodology and cultural approach that we call the Dell Digital Way. This focuses on strategic evolution of IT through people, process and technology.

Organizing people into small product teams, generally six to eight members, helps them work with great focus and clarity on what they are delivering. Working closely with users, product teams can deliver new business capabilities faster and increase the quality and security of our software ecosystem. Products evolve based on user needs and continuous feedback, truly creating a user-centered experience instead of the traditional project-driven development mindset.

As part of a product team, members own their products from end to end. They are responsible for the solutions they put into production throughout its lifecycle – a big incentive to stay very focused on quality. The product model replaces what used to be a segmented IT structure, made up of large teams focused on specific functions (i.e., Operations) with many handoff points and distributed accountability and responsibility. It goes hand in hand with our pursuit of DevOps and is an extension of our transformation over the past five years to agile software development with small, balanced teams, paired programming and a user-centric iterative design process.

Making the shift

Transitioning a global IT organization to a product model is a big job. We started slow, establishing a small product model enablement team to drive the change and scaled it across Dell Digital. It established standards and training for IT groups, a product model website and a system to measure product team maturity. It also offers a Product Model Toolkit to help teams make the transition and a network of product model champions. By using a small, centralized enablement team, we worked across the organizations to teach and train the teams on how to operate in the product model, how to think through the definition of products, product lines and experiences and to create an approach that most importantly made sense to the business stakeholders.

We used early product model adopters to inspire other teams to make the transition. Our eCommerce team was the first one out of the gate in setting up a product model taxonomy and showcasing early wins. That team used the product model to transform key customer functions on the Dell.com ecommerce site – from explore to configure to check out – into more responsive and customer-focused products. It showed there was a way to deliver increased quality and reduce user incidents. This naturally became more interesting to the rest of the organization. Delivering with higher quality and decreasing user incidents is what all IT professionals strive to achieve. Their example was crucial to our transformation, since the key to getting an organization to make any major change is by showing and not telling of success.

Delivering transformation benefits

Three years into our shift, we are now delivering IT services via some 200 product lines with more than 900 product teams. We are still evolving the model and we expect to have 70% of our Dell Digital organization operating in the product model by January and be fully transformed by the end of 2022.

More importantly, our customers and our teams are seeing the benefits of working this way. Productivity is up, user incidents have drastically decreased and more developers are leveraging our automated CI/CD pipeline.

Getting to the right organizational structure is an evolving process that we are still working on. We don’t always get product lines right the first time. Or sometimes we find that we have applications doing the same thing in two different product teams. But we keep fine tuning what the structure looks like and, in the end, that’s what will help us rationalize our operations and maximize the efficient use of resources. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but we’re thrilled with what we’ve achieved so far.

You can learn more about Dell’s own digital transformation, or read about how we’re Cracking the Code for a World-class Developer Experience.

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