(Read the full version on the Klotho Blog)

As engineering leaders contemplate internal developer platforms (IDPs), many are unaware of the organizational and cultural “fine print” that comes with them.

After 15 years building platform and development teams, and interviewing countless peers about developer platforms, I decided to share a few of the stories on patterns and themes related to the unforeseen costs of IDPs. Centralizing platform functions brings about a new level of organizational dynamics that most orgs aren’t equipped to tackle from the get go. The stories I’ll share are based on interviews with leaders that faced those challenges in real time and were willing to share them with the broader community.

Few industry leaders seem to talk about these realities. The IDP hype suggests it’s a silver bullet – an inevitable evolution for infrastructure  engineering organizations. But in my experience, the transition is far more complex.

My hope is that sharing these stories will help you prepare tech orgs for the cultural and organizational costs so you can pave a smoother path to internal platform success.

“I was hired to lead”

In one of the interviews with a CTO from a leading mid-sized tech company with over 500 engineers, they shared the story that colored their platform engineering journey the most. In preparation for scale, they prioritized recruiting technical visionaries, with proven track records from past companies. However, in their eagerness to scale, they overlooked a critical factor: the need for empathy in technical design. Failing to account for and accepting the constraints and realities of the application developers proved pivotal to the platform’s success and failure.

In one interview with Alex, an engineering manager in the infrastructure-platform group at the time, he described the buzz in the platform team after they hired a visionary tech lead who had come from a hot container startup. The new lead’s big ideas and confidence about the future of cloud computing got the platform engineering team excited, and Alex admitted sharing in their enthusiasm at first.

Over the next several weeks, Alex had multiple conversations with the new tech lead, especially around the tech lead’s thoughts that the product teams should fully commit to adopting the platform team’s tools and approaches. ‘It’d be better if they fully committed to using them,’ he would focus a lot on the politics and how the product teams were stuck in the old ways of doing things and unwilling to adopt a true DevOps mentality.

Over months, tensions built up between the tech lead’s stance and product teams pushing back. The product teams highlighted both technical and cultural constraints that didn’t align well with the tech lead’s vision. The developers just didn’t work that way, and expressed that they didn’t have the mental capacity to both build their product quickly, and also re-shape how they did development.  But the tech lead insisted, convinced that their resistance was merely an unwillingness to do the work and learn something new. Eventually the CTO caved and mandated adoption, forcing the product engineering groups to use the new platform for all new services.

After one too many fiery meetings, the product org leadership got involved and made their stance clear: If the tech lead were not to budge, the product groups will not adopt the platform and will start looking at self-funding their own platform efforts. At this stage the platform tech lead was let go, and his refusal to adjust his worldview and listen to the product teams was the final straw. At that point, Alex wasn’t sure if the platform org would survive.

In a last-ditch effort, Alex and the platform team formed a 20 person software engineering strike team that embedded directly with one of the product groups. The product groups’ condition was that the platform team would join their daily rituals, co-design tools fitting their workflows, and align as mutually invested partners. But the decision came with a price. 

The platform team’s morale suffered, as those working on the existing platform felt left out from new design decisions. And those focusing on the new platform felt the rest of their teammates were not aware of or embracing the future needs of the company.

As Alex reflects now, bridging disparate worlds is messy and difficult, but the hard-won empathy and insight gained made all the difference. Trust was reestablished between the teams, setting an example within the company of how the platform team cares and empathizes with its users, going the extra mile. However, it also set a dangerous precedent. Leadership had to manage expectations and make clear to all teams that a similar embed would not be possible at that scale again.

It’s easy for platform teams to lose sight of the problems app developers face day-to-day. By immersing in the product team’s reality, Alex believes they not only built tools that empowered but learned to lead with compassion. The lessons were painful but clear – vision must align with reality, and empathy must guide innovation.

vision must align with reality, and empathy must guide innovation

Read the rest

Read the rest of the stories on the official Klotho blog and stay tuned for part 2 of this series! If you’d like to chat about platform engineering you can reach out to me on linkedin (just mention this blog post), or checkout what I work on.