Itzy Sabo

July 4, 2023

Are you trapped in a Feature Factory?


🚩 Red-flag brag by a successful software engineering director*:

"My software developers and product managers are clever, capable and diligent. 

They are sweating away with picks and shovels, steadily chipping away at our mountainous product backlog. 

My department is a well-oiled machine, processing tickets and delivering new features by the dozen, on time and to specification, consistently."

* of a feature factory.

This is, of course, is fiction. A good manager would never do something so futile.

OK, I admit it. That was me, years ago. I was excellent at running with my department in our collective hamster wheel, at a constant and efficient speed. I got a lot of useful experience while digging the company out of this  common trap.

Why is it a trap?

Factory assembly lines crank out identical units, each of which has a defined and identical business value. Their job is to turn input into output, as cheaply and quickly as possible.

It's a mistake to think of your software development operation in the same way, because:

  • Assembly lines optimise for process efficiency, not product effectiveness.
  • Features are not identical, so you invent arbitrary prioritisation criteria.
  • Features differ wildly in the business value that they contribute.
  • Most of your features will not improve any business metric.
  • Your profit is not proportional to development costs.
  • Assembly lines focus on output, not outcomes.

Indicators that you're likely running a feature factory:

  • You don't have time to experiment.
  • Engineering is viewed as a cost centre.
  • Your roadmap is a detailed list of features.
  • Your productivity formula reduces to Work/Time.
  • Your technical debt is so high it's affecting morale.
  • You must ensure that everyone is "busy" at all times.
  • Features that provide no business value are not removed.
  • Hand-offs are not collaborative; things are just thrown over the wall.
  • Prioritisation is by who shouts loudest or has more organisational clout.
  • Engineers implement specifications without awareness of business value.
  • You don't retrospectively analyse the business value each feature provided in practice.

Feature factories' efficiency can be leveraged to transform them into business value goldmines. It requires organisational finesse, patience and perseverance, but it pays off.

These are some perspectives and practices I advise you to adopt:

  • Core metrics — Tie as much work as possible to the company's core metrics. If you are not aware of them, find out what they are. Something with business value is something that contributes to these metrics.

  • Roadmaps — Instead of a detailed list of features, express business outcomes that will be achieved and/or initiatives that the company will focus on.

  • Prioritise work based on expected business value, using the roadmap or core metrics.

  • Productivity — base your productivity metrics on business value

"Can you help me?"

🤙 Yes, I help clients solve problems such is this. Contact me via my bio below.

Thank you for reading this far!

Comment, ask, suggest, clarify and especially correct me via this LinkedIn post.


Photo by Mabel Amber

About Itzy Sabo

👋 I'm Itzy Sabo, an Engineering Management Expert & Fractional CTO.

What if your engineers could deliver more business value, faster?