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Improving Developer Experience in Non-Technical Organisations with BMK

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BMK Lakshminarayanan, a transformation architect at SECTION6 and New Zealand’s ambassador for the Cloud Native Computing Foundation and DevOps Institute, recently wrote an article titled The Brutal Truth: Developer Experience Challenges in Non-Tech Enterprises. Lakshminarayanan, better known as BMK, examined "developer experience challenges in non-tech enterprises," discussing the practice and cultural challenges faced by engineers in non-technical enterprises.

Challenging the notion that it is possible to be a non-technical enterprise, McKinsey Digital have also recently published a report titled Every Company is a Software Company, authored by McKinsey partners Jeremy Schneider, Chandra Gnanasambandam and Janaki Palaniappan. The report shared findings from a recent survey revealing that most non-technology companies see software as a "bolt-on" without acknowledging the need for cultural change. Both BMK and McKinsey’s report point to the business benefits of investing in engineering leadership, DevOps culture and better integration of technology into product strategy.

Writing of the barriers to alignment within non-technical organisations, BMK wrote that engineers "may find it challenging to communicate with business stakeholders who lack technical knowledge." He wrote the consequence of this is a negative impact on productivity, including ‘"misunderstandings" and "missed deadlines." BMK recommended regularly bringing developers and their "dependent teams" together to "encourage openness" and "improve the quality of products."

McKinsey’s report also discussed the need for non-technical organisations to ensure that they have technically versed leadership, stating that "one-third to one-half of a leadership team should be deep software experts" They also wrote of the importance of empowering "software product managers" and acknowledged their impact on a company’s bottom line, stating:

You can’t build world-class software capabilities without world-class software product managers. They turn the creative force of engineers and designers into winning software products and services. They have end-to-end accountability and, in some cases, even full profit-and-loss responsibility for a specific product. In the tech world, the ascendancy and importance of product managers are well established. But few nontech companies give them commensurate responsibilities or influence. That’s a big mistake.

BMK discussed how a negative developer experience within such firms can arise from under-investments in tooling, security, training and upgrades of "outdated technology." He wrote that by "investing in developer experience, enterprises can create a work environment that fosters innovation, collaboration, and growth." McKinsey wrote about poor DevEx causing a risk of engineer retention. Their report stated that "developer experience is so important" that a particular CEO has a dashboard to "track developer satisfaction scores."

Discussing the challenges of lasting cultural change, BMK wrote that although some non-technical organisations may have "DevOps, SRE, and Cloud-Native" titles in their leadership and orgnisational structures, there is "often a lack of DevOps culture." He wrote that it is often the case in non-technical organisations, that "developers have limited access to the resources and tools required for successful software development." BMK provided the example of organisations with a "strong divide between build and run teams." Writing of the benefit when non-technical organisations "foster psychological safety", he wrote:

Non-tech enterprises should encourage collaboration between development and operations teams and provide developers with the tools and resources to work effectively. Help engineers to experiment, fail and acquire new knowledge from their experience.

McKinsey also highlighted that while organisational leadership are often aware of the need to build "software culture," this requires a deeper shift which "values the artisanship of great engineering." The report says:

Every leader we spoke with underlined the fact that building a software-centric business means building a software culture. This goes way beyond adding a few software veterans and implementing DevOps (software development and IT operations). It requires building a culture that deeply values the creativity and artisanship of great engineering, elevates product leadership and a customer-first focus, and empowers a leadership team with a strong understanding of software business models and tech.

McKinsey's report states that "good software development can’t thrive in a hierarchical organization." The report discusses balancing autonomous and fast-paced delivery with "guardrails to limit risk." McKinsey's team wrote of the surveyed CEOs, that they were aware it was critical to provide "product teams with the autonomy to experiment, try new tech, and develop their own solutions." The report proposed providing empowered product managers with OKRs and "freedom and accountability" to lead goal-driven "cross-functional teams." BMK described how developers in such hierarchical organisations were often disempowered from contributing to organisational success:

Non-tech enterprises may have rigid hierarchies and decision-making processes, which can limit the autonomy of developers. This can lead to developers feeling frustrated and disengaged, resulting in a poor experience. Additionally, the lack of autonomy can make it difficult for developers to take ownership of their work and contribute to the organization’s success.

McKinsey's team wrote that successful product managers "obsess over usage data" to continuously improve their products, engaging "designers, engineers and data scientists" early in the ideation phase of product development. Similarly, BMK recommended that non-technical enterprises enable engineers by providing the resources for teams to effectively collaborate across the "Ideate, Create, Release and Operate" life cycle of a product. McKinsey's report states that this early collaboration enables product managers to "tap a wide range of unconventional thinking."

BMK wrote that while it can be "daunting" for non-technical organisations to address all of these factors, it is ultimately in the organisation's interest to improve its developer experience. He wrote:

By recognizing developers’ challenges and proactively addressing them, non-tech enterprises can attract and retain top talent and improve flow, effectiveness, and efficiency, resulting in higher-quality products and a more successful business overall.

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