Some thoughts on running platform teams

I recently put together some notes on my experience running several different platform teams over the years at HubSpot. They were well-received on the wiki there so I thought I’d update and repost them for external consumption. The experiences come in the context of ten years of work at a rapidly scaling company, so your mileage may vary.

TL;DR I tend to prefer velocity over predictability for at least some of the team’s capacity

First a quick definition to get out of the way – what is a platform team? I think of a platform team as a team managing backend APIs and systems that build upon base infrastructure (databases etc) to provide the core of a product. Many teams rely on that core system to allow them to build out additional facets of the product experience. 


I try to have my teams operate as a leverage-seeking missile – do the next best item based on value per unit time and up to date knowledge about what all our client teams need. I’ll happily upend the best laid plans given a rich opportunity to make an immediate impact somewhere.

Deliver value early and often

I think of value over time in an area under the curve fashion – i.e. the sooner we can get work shipped to our internal customers and then through them to our external customers the more time that work has to garner that value. Delivering “1” value today and “1” next week is better than nothing now and “2” next week.

I like to have our team outputs ready just in time for client team to use; if our outputs are sitting on a shelf somewhere awaiting adoption that’s a missed opportunity to have done something else that would be accruing value.

Never leave a client team blocked

I like to aim for low latency for small requests. If a team discovers they need something they didn’t anticipate and it’s top of mind for them, I don’t mind shifting gears to have our team solve that today. They’re likely to be ready to use the change quickly and we can get swift feedback.

Doing this does require enough slack in the schedule so that we’re not jeopardizing any major deliveries – slack is a valuable asset all teams should get more of. We all encounter the unexpected and teams project managed to the minute are more likely to let those issues fester.

I believe responsiveness is particularly important for a platform team; teams that get a reputation for saying “later” become obstacles and will find their client teams independently implementing features in their own code bases that should be shared in the platform.


An important factor is deeply understanding incoming requests. Don’t just be a request taker. Instead, work with the other team to understand the why and what behind the request and the order in which they plan to roll out functionality. Then we look for the following:

  • What do they really need? Looking through their requirements with closer knowledge of what your platform can do may be an opportunity to present alternative approaches using existing functionality or more incremental improvements.
  • Do they need everything right away? What’s the smallest unit of work we can deliver now to get them moving on development work, perhaps even delivery of some features?
  • When will they need the balance of the work?

Running through this process usually allows us to determine the true underlying need and design a series of changes we’ll make to satisfy those requirements. We can get these documented as issues and get to work!

CTA for teams requesting features: Please spend more time documenting the project requirements and the gap between what the platform provides and less on designing your preferred solution from the platform. We’ll work together on that to incrementally deliver something great.

We the savers

ING Direct put up a short manifesto titled ”
The Savers”. Its a good read,
and we could all do better by it.

Number 3 struck me especially:

We will take care of our money. It’s not enough to have money in a bank. We will put it where it will grow. We’ll keep track of it. And we’ll check every account we have every year to protect ourselves against fraud or escheatment.

“We will put it where it will grow” – well where will it grow. It seems the first tool brought to bear on any stock market bump is to lower interest rates, which in effect punishes those of us who do actually have money in a savings account. We lament the low savings rate in America, but then we go make it more appealing to borrow and less appealing to save by dropping rates again and again.

Another item is this – not everyone has the internet access or savvy to move their money to a place like ING Direct. Those people have their money stuck in a savings account that probably pays well under one-percent interest. I think its high time this country had a better program to get more people online so people can get away from their no-interest paying banks.

RCN “Analog Crush” slow in coming to Somerville

Just called RCN to ask when their vaunted “analog crush” all-digital upgrade is going to arrive (so we get more HD channels). Turns out Somerville is last on the list in Massachusetts, with an ETA of Jan 2009.

The backstory is that Somerville is apparently a really antiquated system so we already get less HD channels than RCN subscribers in Boston, who pay the same amount as we do across the river.

And we’re not getting the special NBC Olympics Basketball and Soccer channels.

Consumer product review sites

All of a sudden, the Boston area is lousy with teams creating web-based applications to allow people to review all kinds of products based on not only the quality of the product itself, but various facets of the corporate social responsibility shown by the manufacturers of the product as well.

Listed by order in which I heard about them

  1. Buy it like you mean it (non-profit) covers the full spectrum of corporate responsibility from the environment to labor relations. The content is generated by the community, and they allow consumers to weight the different areas so the site can offer tailored scores based on ones interests. Looks like their current plan is depth-first, so the community’s focus is specifically on the chocolate industry.
  2. IzzitGreen (for-profit) Consumer-created reviews on products and services specifically focused on (as you might expect from the name) environmentally friendly products.
  3. Zeer (for-profit) More consumer related content. This one seems focused more on does it taste good/work well/good for me type reviews than the others. Impressive population of product images and names, they stated this was a “core competency” of theirs in their presentation at the last webinno conference.
  4. Citizen’s Market (non-profit). Seems very similar to buy it like you mean it, but with a broader focus. Looks to be the newest of the group (heard about them on the Boston ruby group list where they’re looking for volunteer programmers) Strangely enough, the founder of buy it like you mean it is an adviser of Citizens Market

I think these are all great ideas, especially the ones focused on the global impacts of the products. I just wonder how much room there is in the market for all of these operations to succeed.

But for the tax code, lonely

I got a kick out of a quote from the NYT magazine article on up and coming F1 race driver Lewis Hamilton. He moved to Geneva for “tax reasons” and so the author mentions that Geneva seems like a tough place to live for a single young man.

“I wouldn’t say I have much of a life here, ” he said. “You can’t have millions of people come over. Who do you invite?” He went on: “I can’t just wake up on Sunday morning and go golfing with my dad and my uncle. I have to get up really early here and fly over to England for the day, and then come back. So that’s more traveling.”

I guess that’s tough, moving to evade taxes and then having to fly your private jet over to play golf with your family. boo hoo.

Kettle meet pot…

Just saw on the Times web site that Defense Secretary Gates accuses Myanmar of “Criminal Neglect” because they won’t allow the four ships dispatched by the Navy to participate in the relief efforts, which would include helicoptering supplies to survivors in the transportation-challenged delta.

Hop in the not-so wayback machine to Hurricane Katrina. The US refused all sorts of aid offers from foreign governments in the aftermath.  According to this article in the Washington Post, 54 of 77 offers from Canada, Israel and Britain were refused, including offers for much needed search and rescue teams.

Put in that light, one might even describe our response to Katrina as criminal neglect. On the other hand, if the US was hesitant to accept so many offers of aid, perhaps we can understand why the rulers of a closed society might do the same.

New Job

Now that I’m just about done with my master’s degree, the time has come to return to the working world.  I read this great article in the NY Times magazine about Patients Like Me which is an online social community for people with chronic diseases and was really interested by their model. After seeing a post in the Boston Ruby group mailing list, I got in touch and now am pleased to announce I’ll be joining their team in a few weeks.

Now that school is done, I’m excited to be able to focus on one thing again after all the time I spent working with part time school (and then school with part time work), and reclaim some long lost leisure time activities too.

Flickering LED Christmas lights

Beware LED christmas lights by Phillips – they have an annoying 60Hz flicker!
I decided to do the power saving or environmentally conscious thing and buy LED christmas lights to decorate the apartment this year. We picked up a 60 “bulb” set by Phillips for $12 and once they were up it was immediately noticeable that they flicker at a rate just low enough to be perceptible. It should be obvious to anyone that has taken the most basic of electrical engineering courses that AC current flows in two directions, and diodes only let current flow one way, so the LEDs will be dark half the time. Any useable LED set needs to have a rectifier to power the LEDs with DC current instead so they light up steadily.

I saw a review of them here (after the fact of course) and it indicates the flicker might have been fixed in this year’s model, but I can confirm its not.

So if you’re in the market for LED lights, look for some higher quality lights that give off steady light – the things last practically forever so it’s probably worth the investment.

Bodies the Expedition

Monday I went to the South Street Seaport in NYC with my old roommate Neil to see BODIES the EXHIBITION. It was fascinating. They took a bunch of bodies and used a ploymer resin technique to preserve them in a state that was as close to real as I can imagine. They also had a room full of circulatory exhibits where they used a technique to colorize and polymerize all of the blood vessels and them float them in some kind of liquid.

There’s a cool sounding Pixar exhibition at Moma too, unfortunately I only read about that today. Knowing is half the battle, as they say.

Wasted days – ugh!

I’d rather be programming than trying to make an application work – I hate losing days to trying to figure out why some fairly opaque application (or worse a group of them trying to interact) is not working – shutdown the server, change a config file, start up again and see if that mattered. Repeat until my brain feels squishy and I want to just curl up and take a nap. I’d feel better after programming for 20 hours than i do after having issues making something work that i need to test.