The Power of Ops in your Tech Org: 5 ways Ops helps unlock tech team’s full potential
Ops roles are quickly becoming a fundamental part of tech company’s organizational structure — taking on highly impactful work of continuously facilitating interdisciplinary coordination, improving team cohesion, and optimizing people, processes, and systems. But why has this role seen such a sudden surge in popularity? What work does Ops do that makes it a critical addition to tech team’s sustainable growth? And when’s the right time to hire your first Ops person.
I dig into all of this and more after speaking with Ops leaders at Gusto, Spendesk, Design Ops Assembly, and Skyscanner on why investing in Ops can be a game changer for product companies and how they play a key role in team design.
What is the Ops team mission?
Have you ever taken a vacation planned by a travel agent? Wasn’t it much easier to focus on the actual vacation when an expert had everything organized and structured ahead of time? The same can be said for building a product. In a company, it’s the operations team's job to manage and optimize the details that allow the team to perform at their peak effectiveness.
Operations team accountabilities span a wide range, but they generally focus on five main areas:
- People. Manage team structures, including setting responsibilities and expectations around each role, onboarding new team members, encouraging team accountability, and facilitating employee training and development.
- Processes. Responsible for streamlining workflows and setting up and managing performance dashboards. Ops also routinely identify and kill friction-adding processes or steps in processes that slow tech teams or stifle creativity.
- Systems. Promote documentation, including setting standards for it and making documentation easy to access. Ops also work on optimizing tools and integrating them for a smooth workflow.
- Practices. Facilitate team coordination and interdisciplinary collaboration. Also take on headcount and budget management while effectively communicating the impact of the tech team’s work.
- Tooling. Lead the research, recommendations and implementation of the tools that help support the product.
Tiffany Dubois, Product Ops Manager at Spendesk, gave a great summary of the Op team role, “we’re the product managers for the product managers. We listen to the product team's needs, build our roadmap, then test and learn with the ultimate goal of making their job easier.”
Why the sudden surge in popularity?
A Product Board study shows that 39% of product teams have an ops function, and we expect this number to continue to rise.
The fact is: the tech landscape is getting more competitive and the need to deliver innovation at speed is key to success. However, all of this is not possible if tech companies don’t build strong foundations of streamlined work processes, encourage team coordination, and actively engage talent.
It’s here that Ops come into the organizational structure by bringing a crucial set of structural skills that bring about team cohesion and create a productive environment for product builders to do their best work. In short, the Ops team is what makes scaling your team’s product development possible.
Different ways to structure ops within tech orgs
There is no perfect way to structure a team, despite the attempts of many researchers, psychologists and consultants to try and do so. What has been concluded by Google is the importance of the team dynamics and intention of building how the team functions together. Mason Mitchell, Product Operations Lead at Gusto, further shares that “what’s most important to ensure the Ops Team is most effective is to have each Ops team member nested directly within a product squad or pod to build specific product expertise.” He is also an advocate for having Ops folks with Product Ops managers to “maintain consistencies across the discipline.”
Here’s the typical three ways Ops are structured within the product org to maximize team collaboration:
Minimum hierarchical structure
There’s a loose hierarchy in this structure, with the Product Ops team heading other Ops teams including ResearchOps, DataOps, and Design Ops. Its benefit is that it can easily scale due to its hierarchical nature, making it simple to define the scope of work too. The disadvantage, however, is that although other teams under ProductOps focus on their discipline-specific work, they may not feel any real autonomy.
Flat hierarchical structure
In this case, there’s no hierarchy - so the Product Ops team doesn’t head other Ops teams as in the minimum hierarchical structure. Instead, all Ops teams manage their discipline’s work with their respective team leaders, communicating and aligning with other Ops teams’ leaders. Since no team owns any team, the advantage of this model is that everyone gets the same level of control. That said, there's a risk of siloing Ops teams in this structure. It’s also hard to scale.
Matrix structure (is multidisciplinary)
People from different Ops team make a central multidisciplinary Ops team in this structure. As a result, Ops from various disciplines get authority. Ops team also tend to be more connected and the multidisciplinary team can think more broadly as well. The downside, however, is that this structure is hard to scale.
Types of Ops Enablement Teams to add to your organization
Now that you have your team structure in place, let’s look at the types of Ops Enablement Teams you can add to your organization to help the product builders be more efficient and effective in hitting your product roadmap goals. Here are the five most common types of Ops teams:
Product Ops aims to simplify the daily life of the product teams so they can focus on their core mission: building a product that meets the needs of the user. Blake Basset, Senior Director of Product at Tubi, says "at its core, product operations enables product teams to achieve better outcomes. In practice, that means creating quality, operational, and organizational communication programs that help product teams spend more time on their hightest leverage activities.”
The scope of Product Ops can be very different from one organization to another, depending on the size of the team, its maturity and priorities, but universally there is the issue of overlap. Jason Girouard, Product Operations Manager turned Product Manager at Uber emphasizes the importance of clear responsibilities and a divide-and-conquer mentality. “As a rule of thumb, product ops prioritizes the urgent so that product managers can prioritize the important.”
To this end, the common Product Ops responsibilities include:
- Standardizing operating procedures
- Helping cross-functional product team with alignment, communication, and coordination
- Choosing the tools and defining processes around regularly sourcing and studying user feedback
- Supporting the product team in creating a clear product strategy and pursuing subsequently defined objectives
- Sharing product knowledge across the company
Carles Barrobés, former DevOps at Skyscanner and Founding Ourspace Engineer, shared "I’ve seen an important and impactful shift in which teams are embracing the DevOps culture. At Skyscanner we embraced Wenery Vogel’s motto of ‘You build it, you run it.’ By having a dedicated developer enablement team that empowers teams to own Dev+Ops, you give engineers more ownership and accountability for building, shipping and running the service end-to-end.”
DevOps is about removing the barriers between two traditionally siloed teams, development and operations. DevOps combines software development (Devs) and IT operations (Ops) teams to increase the speed, quality, and efficiency at which software is developed and delivered. To achieve this, DevOps has the following best practices:
- Continuous Integration
- Continuous Delivery
- Infrastructure as Code
- Monitoring and Logging
- Communication and Collaboration
The benefits? Efficient teams, better team culture, faster product releases, better quality products with increased security, and repeatable deployments.
Similar to the other Ops teams, DesignOps owns a vast scope and is not a one size fits all. Dave Cunnighman, Head of DesignOps in UK government, shares “In some organizations, it's more akin to programme management, others team shaping. There are many different flavours and that’s cool.”
However, in contrast to Product Ops, the latest State of Design Ops Report by the Design Ops Assembly found that the smaller the company, the quicker a DesignOps practices gets established. The report spotlights a growing number of designers transitioning into DesignOps with both the growing need for this expertise and interest in this maturing field. It’s no surprise that 75% of a DesignOps team's work is helping to keep people informed, aligned, and empowered.
The typical DesignOps responsibilities include:
- Knowledge sharing
- Team updates
- Design systems & brand guidelines
- Training & upskilling
- Playbooks & toolkits
ResearchOps is a specialized area of DesignOps that’s most concerned with optimizing the tools, people, and processes involved in user research. Kate Towsey, Research Operations Manager at Atlassian, gets credited with making this discipline official when she created the ResearchOps Community.
Since then, this has been an in-demand role that directly coincides with the rise in investment in dedicated user research teams in tech.
As with other Ops teams shared above, the importance of ResearchOps lies in creating an efficient team. It’s a known best practice that in order to best solve the pain points for your customer, you need to do regular research.
However, recruitment for research and maintaining a habitual process is a challenge. ResearchOps professionals set up an environment for greater and better user research by:
- Planning and facilitating research sessions, including finding and onboarding research participants
- Making it easy to access user research insights, including making gathered data available to the team and org
- Developing, documenting, and optimizing processes and research methods in UX research while creating quality standards for these methods
- Enabling and educating the broader team on the value and best practices for user research
Lastly, the DataOps team is responsible for creating scalable data workflows so data is more accessible and usable, thus enabling better, data-informed decision-making throughout the org. The DataOps team originated from agile project management, and similar to DevOps, relies on automation to eliminate manual tasks and IT processes.
Alexandre Lenoir, former Head of Data at Spendesk said, “Having a DataOps mentality means providing a simpler way for end users to access the data they need while making the data pipelines easier to manage.” Also similar to DevOps, the DataOps team is less centralized in one specific Ops manager but shared across a group of data professionals including Data Engineers, Data Scientists, BI Analysts, Data Quality Analysts, and a Data Steward.
Here are the the main responsibilities of the DataOps team:
- Improving data quality across the org
- Democratizing data so that it’s accessible to everyone across the org
- Equipping leadership with important data insights fast so that they can quickly make data-informed decisions
- Automating and optimizing data production based on feedback from data consumers to improve process efficiency
The true value and impact of Ops
Now that you know the different types of Ops teams and potential structures, let’s take a look at the ways this role can help tech teams reach their full potential.
1. Ops optimize your tooling strategy
Growing organizations typically incorporate more tools, and the trend seems to be accelerating quickly, with the average number of SaaS applications used by organizations increasing by 37.5% in just the last year.
Tools can be powerful - but they also can be an expensive and underutilized investment when teams don’t optimize their usage and/or unknowingly have duplicate services due to a lack of communication. From evaluation to setup to training to integrations, there’s a lot of connected decisions that are optimal to centralize in one team of which Ops is uniquely positioned to be most effective. With the fast pace of new tools, it’s also advantageous to have the Ops team staying ahead of the curve by researching and recommending the latest technologies.
2. Ops improve documentation
With the rise of remote work and favorability of asynchronous meetings, strong internal documentation has been shown to be a propeller of growth, collaboration, and efficiency. From onboarding to product training to customer research, it’s essential that learnings are well documented and accessible to keep your growing team on the same page.
Ops professionals spike in organizational skills and are uniquely positioned to be able to capture a transversal view of what’s happening in the team and thus are excellent gatekeepers and orchestrators for creating strong foundations of knowledge-transfer.
Without it, duplicate work can surface, insights can get lost, and in the worst of scenarios - a startup can fail, as Professor Ranjay Gulati at Harvard Business School contributes a lack of structure and oranization to be one the biggest causes of startup fails; even with a good product and solid market fit.
3. Ops boost employee engagement
By focusing on improving how work is done, Ops professionals ultimately facilitate employees to produce their best work at scale. Adrienne Allnutt who heads Design Operations at ServiceNow refers to the Ops role as “Happiness Ops” for this very reason.
Allnutt shares, “We promise to enable teams to be more effective and happy at work. If people are happy, they will stay longer, produce better work, attract other great talent, and ultimately create better products and better business.”
With global engagement and employee stress at an all-time high, the investment in Ops teams is not just a luxury but a necessity to reduce employee burnout and turnover by providing stability and structure in the dynamic nature of tech teams.
4. Ops better team cohesion and communication
The number of moving parts, people to know, and tools to be trained only multiplies as a company grows. In the early days of a startup, it’s likely that everyone can easily name who owns the Google Analytics login. However, cross-team communication quickly becomes more difficult and even a manager of a scaling team loses touch with who-owns-what on their team. Typically a company will adopt a team design platform such as Ourspace to visualize who is accountable for what across the org.
Here, the Ops team is typically the key stakeholder in maintaining the rituals, tools and team updates that keep cross-functional teams in sync.
5. Ops can maximize customer and data insights
Tools and people are not the only thing that increase as a company grows. So does data. Insights and information that were once easy to collect and analyze can quickly become ponderous to maintain and action. Without an expert in pulling reports and data tools, product managers, growth marketers, engineers and designers can get bogged down in how to string together the data across multiple systems, whereas Ops professionals who are native in the tools could easily streamline that data for them.
Even with all the automation available today, 43% of captured data in organizations goes unused. This is quite the shame when we take into consideration the cost and time investments spent to set up the systems that track this data.
Ops professionals help ensure data is actually used by creating smooth processes that facilitate a flow of insights to decision makers in both passive and active formats.
In conclusion, adopting an Ops mindset is critical to scale. No matter the size of your company, whether you have a dedicated Ops team, or merely are starting to implement Ops teams’ best practices, I hope you’ve walked away with a better understanding of the value of investing not only in what you build, but how you build.
As we wrap this, we’ll leave you with some of the resources we used to up-level ourselves on Ops teams:
- DevOps: GitLab and DevOps.com
- On DesignOps: DesignOps Assembly
- On ProductOps: Product-Led Alliance and Pendo
- On DataOps: Humans of Data by Atlan
- On ResearchOps: Nielsen Norman Group and ResearchOps Community