Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How can the Engineering function positively support the growth of Product portfolio?

To find the context of this blog, please do read this one I published recently. To summarize, this is a part of knowledge sharing of my panel talk at GHCI. Just as a note of caution, please do not expect the below answers to be elaborate as these were conveyed in a time limit of 3-4 minutes. I have tried to recollect these to the best of my knowledge. The below question was more meant for designer in the panel and I had follow-up comments covering the Engineering aspect-

Indra Nooyi is one of my role models and she appointed a chief design officer a couple of years ago who has a seat at the table for current and future portfolio decisions.
As a chief designer for SAP, what problem are you trying to solve when you look at the portfolio of technology products?

As I have observed, Design is a much younger profession if we compare it with Engineering. One may argue that design may have existed long back but its importance in the Information Technology profession was brought in arguably by Steve Jobs and his maniacal focus on design.

From an Engineering perspective, when I started my career one of the first applications that I worked on was built on- then modern and now obsolete- Three tier architecture. Three tier architecture was an improvement over the earlier architecture but it was still very locked and un-scalable. The key characteristics of the modern engineering architectures are that they are not monolithic (like their predecessors), they can be morphed, they embrace extendibility, they are modular. In today’s world, the architectures are usually referred to as “Platform-style architectures”. What is a Platform? Let me explain with an example-

iPhone is a fabulous, high quality, supremely designed product. For a moment, can you imagine the utility of an iPhone without App-store? It will still be a fabulous, high quality, supremely designed product but with a severely limited utility. The presence of app-store and its compatibility with iPhone enables Apple to “extend” the functionality of an iPhone. iPhone with app-store is really “iPhone with billions of features” considering each app as a feature. Could Apple have built all billion apps by itself ? Possibly not in one life time even with thousands of developers. So what’s happening here ? Apple has actually have been able to build an ecosystem of developers and consumers and been able to build a win-win scenario for all. Apple provides a “platform” for developers to build apps. Consumers who buy iPhones need apps that solve their problems and needs. Developers earn a good portion of what they gain from each app usage. Apple earns its chunk. And Consumers get an answer to their needs by apps.

This is all being made possible by embracing Platform style architectures. If, for a moment, we assume that iPhone was built on a three-tier architecture, could it have achieved extendibility? No, there was no way it would have allowed external developers to add features. Platform style architectures achieve that by exposing the APIs with the right amount of data. External developers can use these APIs and integrate their offerings. We live in a API economy, and this trend is going to stay for some time to come.

When we thinking of building something these days, we don’t say “Lets build products”. We say- “Lets build Platforms”. To conclude I would state the below quotes that was doing rounds, which reflect the power of platforms-

"Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening."

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