Product Ops and the Mini-CEO Dilemma

In 2017, I joined ServiceTitan as director of technical project management. My top priority was to create better and more efficient processes for the product and engineering organizations.  The company’s overall strategic focus was to onboard enterprise customers and gain market share. To facilitate these goals, our team was split into separate “squads.” Each squad was run by a product manager, who served as the “mini-CEO” for that particular user persona or software segment. 

Theoretically, each product manager was empowered to make decisions for their squad or product area. Realistically, everyone was working on the same two things — throwing all our resources at developing features needed to onboard new customers, and fixing quality issues that resulted from moving very fast. Product managers had little autonomy or control over their time. They fought onboarding fires, supported hundreds of questions from the customer success managers, and had little or no time to think strategically about the customer problems that needed to be solved. 

Fast forward two years. We’ve achieved incredible success and have over 3, 500 customers and more than 80,000 users. While the chaotic and fire-fighting approach made sense at the time, we are now in the next phase of our journey: scaling our platform. 

We care deeply about our customers; in fact, we consider them our family. However, it’s impossible to satisfy each customer request. At this stage of the company, we’ve found we need to think holistically, to find patterns and common solutions to problems faced across market segments and user personas. And that means we need to move away from the “PM as mini-CEO” organizational structure, and to something more scalable.

Enter product operations. 

The Mini-CEO Dilemma

With more than twenty squads and mini-CEOs, it was very hard to pull in the same direction. In addition, it made seeing the “big picture” much more difficult. Each of our mini-CEOs followed their own processes and used either their own data sources to make decisions. As a result, redundancy, inconsistency, and transparency become real problems. As we aggressively execute against significant large strategic initiatives, coordination and alignment between the squads become more and more imperative.  

To solve this problem, we are forming a central command center or product operations team with ownership over: 

  • Visibility into key metrics and KPIs
  • Structure/process to facilitate rapid experimentation
  • Mechanisms to ensure a dependable/consistent feedback loop  

As a starting point, we are developing dashboards with metrics that answer one key question: How are we actually doing as a whole?

In addition, these dashboards will address related questions such as the following:

    • How are customers receiving our changes?
    • Are we solving our customers’ biggest problems?
    • What is our quality level? (rate of escaped defects, bugs discovered by customers, etc.) 
    • How stable or reliable are we? (number of production incidents, uptime percentiles, etc.) 
    • What is our velocity or speed of delivering value to customers? 
    • How much are we spending on support?
    • Are we meeting the promise we make to our customers during the sales cycle? Are we really making their businesses more profitable and operationally efficient? 

Ready, Set, Go

To measure the effectiveness of the product operations organization, we need a baseline. This means a dashboard with metrics and trends that we can review and discuss at regular intervals. Also, we’ll need a good idea of how our product and engineering teams spend their time (which we are gathering via surveys and interviews). 

Within the product operations org, we formed a program management group to lead initiatives that go across squads. We also own a prioritization process so we can make resource allocation decisions.  

We aligned our technical project management team with squads and the SDLC (software development lifecycle) so that we can make continuous process improvements that result in faster delivery of value to our customers.  Finally, we formed a P.I.G. or “process improvement guild.” The P.I.G provides a forum for squads to share their best practices and experiment on making process changes that result in faster value delivery and more rapid testing. 

Work to Be Done

Currently, we are actively hiring a product operations manager to own Pendo strategy and common metrics for our org. We’re also looking to bring a product tools owner on board to help us own the strategy and execution for all of our third-party tools. We are just getting started and are eager to gather best practices from other SaaS companies, as well as product operations resources like the “The Rise of Product Operations” e-book.

For us, product operations is in its infancy. However, we believe it is imperative to our continued success as a scaled product development organization. Product ops will keep us marching in the right direction, unified under the same set of strategic objectives. The era of the mini-CEO is over and is being replaced with better collaboration, greater transparency in decision-making, and improved alignment across teams.