With software making its way into the products and services of most companies, it can be hard to determine where the work of IT stops and where product development starts. As executive teams begin to redraw the lines of accountability for “technology” versus “product,” CIOs would be wise to start bringing a product management mindset to the table.
That means shifting the discussion from “development initiatives” and “project managers,” to “the customer experience” and “product managers.” It means assessing the performance of technology teams based on the business outcomes they drive, not on whether they deliver a solution on time or on budget. And increasingly, it means bringing product and technology under one roof, with blended teams of designers, architects, developers and product managers.
When Barry Vandevier, CIO of Asurion, joined the $6 billion global provider of technology support and mobile device warranty products, technology and product were in different departments.
Remove communications barriers
“We had great people in each department,” says Vandevier, “but we had too much translation going on between them.” A program manager would take product development requirements and pass them to the technology organization, and that hand-off made communication too complicated and indirect.
So, Vandevier made a change. “We started by bringing product and technology closer together by colocating the teams and literally shifting where people sit, even though they weren’t yet in the same organization,” he says. “We did a lot of work on the communication between the two groups and we built a culture of collaboration.”
Having made significant progress in getting product and technology to work well together, Vandevier and his peers decided to bring product and technology together into one department. “We’ve created an organization where product and technology work as one with everyone responsible for delivering the full customer experience for the products we use to support our customers,” says Vandevier. “The idea is that you can’t separate the two. You have to drive a product-based mindset across all of technology. Our goal is to drive the behavior of our technologists toward the highest quality product.”
Vandevier’s organization consists of a product development group that provides support to customers, whether they are internal or external to the company. He has a group that runs IT operations, which includes production systems, and he has a DevOps group that works directly with the product and technology teams. He also has a small organization focused on internal systems.
One end-to-end product team
Why bring product and technology together? “Take our device protection product: when your device is stolen or lost, we can replace it typically in less than 24 hours,” Vandevier says. “That product involves consumer websites, agent tools, mobile apps, supply chain, and repair operations — a whole host of systems, applications and products. The product has to roll up to one team that supports device protection end-to-end rather than to a bunch of people in different departments.”
If Vandevier and his colleagues hadn’t pulled those teams together, the device protection product would have suffered from a lack of clarity and unhappy customers. “When you have product and technology in separate groups, you wind up leaving out critical requirements and scrambling to squeeze in features late in the delivery cycle,” he says. “When we are all in this together, there is no finger pointing or confusion about accountability and it results in high quality products developed faster.”
Every product team has a product leader, a technology leader, a designer, developers and someone in DevOps. “The product leader is the CEO of the team,” says Vandevier. “This is a key role. Product leaders have to understand that a product is not just a technology initiative with a start and finish date. They need an understanding of design, which is critically important and something companies tend to undervalue. They also need to be great communicators and focused on the customer experience.”
The right talent is key
With the product leader as the lynchpin of combined product and technology teams, Vandevier has spent a lot of energy on recruiting. “We brought in a new head of recruiting, specifically to help us build out our product organization,” he says. “If you don’t have a great team, you will not be able to make this work.”
Vandevier looks both to people with backgrounds in technology and in product design for the product leader role. “There are some good technologists who can be product people, and there are product people have a strong enough grasp of the technology,” he says. “But it’s the focus on how the customer will use the product that allows a product leader to be successful.”
With a combined product and technology organization, Vandevier has seen dramatic improvements in product quality and time to market. “We just launched a product called ‘same unit repair,’ which allows us quickly to repair a device at the home or office,” he says. “Think of how many systems that requires — technicians, inventory management, logistics, supply chain. Every component of our business is involved, and we did that seamlessly. With a single point of accountability, you have simplicity of ownership and no chance of a misfire.”
About Barry Vandevier
As CIO of Asurion, Vandevier provides global leadership for the company’s core operations, including product management and technology. He is responsible for efficient end-to-end business processes that span product design and development, technical architecture and operations, supply chain planning and logistics, and multi-channel customer care and operations.
Vandevier began his career as an industrial engineer in the travel and transportation industry, where he focused on business process optimization and staffing algorithms for most aspects of airport operations. As he took on senior technology leadership roles, including CTO at Travelocity and later as CIO at Sabre, he gained experience in both startup and global corporate environments across traditional, SaaS, and cloud-based product development teams. Vandevier also oversaw architecture, technical infrastructure and operations, multi-faceted transformation efforts, and technology company acquisitions.
Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.