Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Central Role of Operations

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." (Pablo Picasso)

The Operations group is an odd duck for the traditional, on-premise, enterprise ISV. Those ISVs that are transitioning to the SaaS model are typically not familiar with this group, its role and perhaps its reason for being, and in some cases you might find Operations reporting to the CFO as a ‘cost center’.

But in a SaaS shop, the Ops group is the hub of all activity. Its crucial and main job, of course, is to ‘keep the lights on’ and do that in a highly available, quality performance fashion. Maintaining a scalable, fail proof service is a task that the Ops group should, in time, perfect to the notion of ‘auto-pilot’, implementing the Automate and Delegate principles (see Reducing SaaS Operational Costs).
But that is not where the job ends; indeed it is only the beginning.

In some early stage SaaS operations (either a pure SaaS player or an ISV in transition), R&D and IT provide that function. IT is usually incapable of running, scaling and maintaining the application; its tool set, capacity and pace are so removed from an application level, 24X7 operation. R&D is in shock and awe: “you mean we have to use the damn product!!??” – they are usually the least capable of understanding how the application should work or the value to their customers.
Whereas R&D used to have dozens, hundreds or thousands of customers, Operations is now the only customer (or in a hybrid solution, the largest). All and every feedback to product marketing would come from the Ops group. It must develop a keen understanding of the application, not just the infrastructure supporting it, and it has to be in constant contact with its customers – the SaaS consumers – to gather feedback, compile it in an orderly and prioritized manner and be able to communicate it to R&D.
Since an Operations Support System (OSS) will be lacking in most early SaaS implementations, the Ops group will be the one presenting the technical solutions either through building its own tools, buying those apps or though cooperation with Engineering to provide the solutions. In any case, Operations will be the authority on the architectural needs, security, storage, the OSS, service-ready features and the application in general. Therefore Operations should be highly involved in the product roadmap.

In some organizations, ownership of the customer success may be in a separate silo that does not include Operations. But one must keep in mind that the Ops group works on a daily basis with the Network Operations Center (NOC) which doubles as the customer support center. Even if Ops and Customer support are not part of the same organization (which I believe they should be) the daily interaction between the groups means that Ops owns the customer success in many ways and deals with the customer directly as a Tier 2 support.

Operations needs an in-depth understanding of its infra and application performance issues and of principles of performance testing/monitoring. They need to work closely with the QA group to test and resolve load issues. In each rollout of a new version, Ops has the ownership of the project, the dates, process definition and should work in conjunction with R&D, QA, Marketing and customer support.

If the Service offered through this model allows for project based business, Operations will tend to be involved in defining offerings, help with the pricing and participate in scoping projects.
And based on my own experience, the Ops team, as the owner of the application and service, worked closely with a team of Expert Service engineers who provided the end consumers with domain-level expertise to drive more value from the application. (See IPaaS) Ops engineers also participated in user forums with the customers to provide best practices and tips n' tricks.

"OK! Fine!" I hear you shouting from the back rows "We are convinced of the central role of Operations. So what?"
So just keep in mind when you are about to launch this endeavor that you will need to assemble a good team of professionals to play in this game. Not just seasoned systems engineers, a network manager and a good DBA, but operations engineers that ideally have an engineering background, that are innovative, customer oriented and business savvy. Nothing short of the Fantastic Four