Tag: startup

Business Value delivery by Engineering Teams in StartUps – Part 1

Business Value delivery by Engineering Teams in StartUps – Part 1

In this multi-part post, I will try to articulate my view on the importance of business value and its delivery by engineering teams. While most of this is written from the view of a StartUp, some elements of an established organisation are also used.

Part 1: Defining Business Value & Role of Leadership in it.

Business value is a concept that can mean multiple things to multiple people and the tricky part is all of them could potentially be valid. A product manager may value a long list of features that his/her customers have demanded for months. Another Product Manager working with internal teams to improve efficiency (revenue) will value the enhancements the accounting or support team was after. While the support manager may value a more stable product to keep the customers, s/he deals with happy. 

Business value & impacts are a difficult thing to define and deliver, while it is even more difficult to measure.A collaborative effort is required to define and deliver business value, with consideration needed to ensure all voices are heard.

While most of what I will be covering in this article is typically the purview of product management, I have learned that engineering leaders have a critical role to play in this space. (Will write more on that in the next part.)

Engineering leaders bring product development experience and technical expertise to the table to provide a crucial element to the delivery of business value which I will try and explain in this article.

What is Business Value?

I would define “Business value” as any improvements to systems, processes or people that augment the products or the ability to deliver products or services to the customers, thereby increasing the revenue or experience or both. No two companies will have the same definition of business value. Forget two different companies, a company in its 5th year will have a very different perception of value to its first year. This is due to their products and customers being different and requiring different elements to add value. One company may find value in the ability to build out its new product offering quickly. While another may find value in responding to customer support requests in a timely manner. 

Due to the rapid changes around us, the things that businesses value changes often. Companies often face new challenges that require a quick response.

Be agile, be nimble” is the key phrase.

These challenges can come in the form of new product features released by competitors, or a specific feature request by a key customer, or changes in the market that render the current product/feature obsolete. Business needs or desires, therefore change just as quickly as any of these external changes.

You have probably worked for a company that comes to the engineering team with new requirements, seemingly daily?

It is not because they cannot make up their mind; It is in response to the changing business needs. This changing goalpost is one of the main reasons that Agile development practices have taken precedence from more traditional waterfall methodologies for software development. 

Velocity is everything, a report by McKinsey on how Developer Velocity fuels Business Performance will give more insights on this. A snapshot from the report is below.

Why is business value important? 

Reacting to change and delivering business value with haste is a crucial area of importance for modern businesses. All companies exist for a purpose. The majority of companies exist to return a profit for their owners (individuals or shareholders), while some companies exist to provide a social service. The critical thing to note is that they all exist to fulfil a specific purpose which guides their definition of business value. 

No matter the company large or small, if they stop innovating, and their products or services stop being relevant to society at large and market in particular, that company will whiter and eventually die.

Kodak is a prime example of this occurring in recent history. In today’s world, IT, whether it be hardware or software, is the largest driver of business value. It is therefore critical that the software engineering teams keep delivering the things that the business need to fuel their innovation.

We, as engineers, are not employed to just build that shiney app in the latest technologies, but to deliver our contribution in support of the business purpose (If not drive it!)

The importance of Engineering Leadership in Delivering Business Value

An engineering leader is, of course, a People Leader, and s/he is also responsible for the Execution, both technology and delivery of the engineering team. However there is a third dimension which often goes unrecognised, is that great engineering executives must also be great Business Leaders; they help drive alignment with other leadership/executives and shape the strategy and direction of the business itself.

It is this underutilised/forgotten element which I will try to detail here.

A People Leader & an Execution Champion:

Engineering leadership is often naively thought of as being simply a great Architect or Engineer or a Manager. But most of you already know it’s more than that. Team leadership will involve some combination of team building, culture, leadership development, and performance management.

For detailed coverage on Engineering Leadership – Please checkout my Previous Post

Most of this responsibilities will be bang in the middle of the comfort-zone of a rising Engineering Leader.  But one of the hardest things for most engineering leaders as we scale is, to continue having an accurate forecast of when products and features will be delivered – what the business always asks for.

That is partially because this bleeds into the third, and the least recognised dimension of engineering leadership.

The Missing Sauce: A Business Strategist

Engineering leadership isn’t just about delivering products faster, or making engineers more productive. It’s about guiding the team in the same direction as the business, about continuously improving, and it’s about being the voice of engineering as a part of the decision-making process of the executive team. Of course, these are all dependent on our ability to understand the work our engineering teams are doing and how it aligns to business goals.

The third dimension – Business Alignment – is often overlooked or made difficult by other executives, but is absolutely necessary for the management of a successful engineering org. This is the strategic practice of engineering management, and all operational decisions depend on it. Business alignment means ensuring your organization is focused on the right projects that align with the business’s goals. 

The Product org can detail/design and Engineering org can build as many features as they can agree on, but what/how does it matter, if they do not align with the business objectives or goals? Business alignment involves the right allocation of resources that supports business objectives, and helping to drive those business decisions of which projects are strategically important. (at itilite, this is always the First Principle)

How do we deliver business value?

So how do we actually deliver business value? Business value isn’t created by a soloist delivering a virtuoso performance, but a collaboration of the business, product, engineering and customer success teams working together to realise a shared vision. 

Below are the five ways this can take place; together, these provide a roadmap for delivering business value;

  • Define systems development strategy
  • Help business define requirements 
  • Visualise the work and prioritise
  • Schedule and communicate delivery
  • Deliver value often and get feedback

I will try to articulate through each of these one at a time and dig into a little more detail in Part 2 of this article.

Engineering Leadership in Start-Ups: Engineering Manager, Director, VP of Engineering.

Engineering Leadership in Start-Ups: Engineering Manager, Director, VP of Engineering.

This post is partly the result of my discussions with our People practice leader and talent acquisition executive. ITILITE is at a phase of growth, where are looking for more engineering & product management bandwidth. And I had to think hard to write the various Job-Descriptions. So, I have tried to generalise it using my experiences from the last 2-3 stints. In case you’re interested to explore an Engineering Management role with ITILITE, please get in touch with me or write to careers{at}itilite.com

Engineering Leadership

As apps are becoming increasingly omnipresent and in most cases, there is a startup behind them. Engineers make up to 70% of a tech startup’s workforce, there is an increasing need for managers who look after those developers. As a result, there is a rise in the number of engineering managers in recent years. Engineering managers are responsible for delivery teams that develop these “Apps”. The following is a very generalised version of what you could do in these roles and a possible career progression.

Engineer to Tech Lead/Lead Developer

The first step in your journey from an Individual Contributor(IC) to a management role. This could be a mix of people management, delivery management, process management etc, depending on the context of your organisation. In most organisations, it is a “technical mentorship” role with some aspects of people management, quality and delivery ownership.

Most Tech Leads are natural technical leaders. They are great engineers on their own, they were well respected by the engineers around them, they worked reasonably well with the team, they understood how the product/module was designed, built and shipped, they had a decent sense for making the right kinds of product tradeoffs and they were willing to do just enough project management and people development to keep the team/project humming along. 

In this role,

  • Most TLs would retain some independent deliverables in addition to anchoring and owning the deliveries of their team.
  • Most of the team still works on the same module/feature or sub-system
  • They do code & design reviews, suggest changes and have the final say for their modules.
  • Together with the Product Managers, they “own” the feature/module.

We at itilite, call them Engineering Owners, much like Product Owners

Tech Lead to Engineering Managers

The next step in the Engineering Manager. In this role, you will be “Managing” a collection of inter-related modules/projects. In this role, the focus on timely delivery, people management and quality are higher than technical design & architecture. But, you are very much an Engineer and may be required to occasionally write quick hacks, frameworks for your developers to build atop.

The main difference is you will be responsible for the delivery of multiple projects in a related area. You will be expected to optimise the resources (Devs, Testers, etc.) available with you to maximise the outputs of your group, across multiple projects/modules

In this role, you’d be

  • Expected to actively engage with the Product Management teams to define what needs to be built
  • Defining how you will measure the outcomes of what your team is building and quantify the outcomes with metrics
  • Ensuring quality, getting stakeholder alignment and signoffs
  • Macromanage the overall deliverables of your group

The Pivot – Tech, Product, Solution Architect

The next step in your career gives you two options. One with people management, P&L accountability and other a purely technical role. If you’re planning for a pureplay technical role, some organisations have Staff Engineer, Principal Engineer etc. In essence, they are mostly a combination of Tech Lead+Architect type roles. Depending on your seniority/tenure and organisational context, you may be reporting to an Engineering/Delivery Manager, Director/VP or the CTO. In this rolw,

  • You will work closely with Engineering Managers, Quality Assurance leads/managers and Product Owners to design the system architecture, define the performance baselines
  • You will work with Tech Leads and Sr.Devs to drive the performance, redundancy, scalability among other stuff.
  • You will be called into discussions/decide when the team can’t reach consensus on engineering choices

Engineering Manager to Director of Engineering

A Director of Engineering role is completely different. You now have multiple leads+managers, likely multiple projects within a general focus area of the organisation. This will mean there will be way more individual deliverables and project milestones than you can track in detail on a regular basis. Now you have to manage both people and projects “from the outside” rather than “from the inside”. You’ll likely start appreciating the metrics and dashboards, as they will help you in tracking those multiple projects and deadlines, schedules, overruns etc.

You have to make sure that your managers and leads are managing their resources appropriately and support them in their effort rather than managing individual contributors and projects directly.

Lots of great technical leaders have difficulty making this transition.

While being an engineering lead/manager is certainly managing, it’s type of managing from “within the project” is much easier than “managing from outside the project” and as a director, you almost always have to manage multiple people and projects “from the outside”.

Also, as a director, you will be responsible for a number of aspects of the culture, such us

  • What kind of people are you hiring, setting responsibilities and workload expectations,
  • What is the team(s) doing for fun, how do they interact with other functions
  • What kinds of performance is rewarded/encouraged vs punished/discouraged.

Now, moving to some serious responsibilities, you may be the first major line of responsibility for what to do when things does not work,

  • an employee not working out,
  • a project falling behind,
  • a project not meeting it’s objectives,
  • hiring not happening in time, etc…

While most of these things are the direct responsibility of the engineering manager, the engineering manager is usually not left to face these issues alone, they work on it with the director and the director is expected to guide the process to the right decision/outcome.

I’ve seen people who were great technical leaders and good engineering managers who did not enjoy being a director at all (or weren’t as good at it) because it was a whole different type of managing bordering the administration.

Director to Vice-President

The VP of Engineering is the executive responsible for all of engineering. Development, Quality, DevOps and partly to Security and Product Management as well. While both the engineering manager and director of engineering have managers who themselves have likely been engineering managers and directors before, the VP may work for the CEO (in an early stage Startup or a smaller company) who has never been a VP of Engineering before.

A large company may have multiple levels of VPs, but in most cases, you work for someone who hasn’t been a VP of Engineering or doesn’t actually know how to do your job. This means, there simply is no first-hand experience from your Manager, that you can rely on to solve your problem. The first time you step into that role and realize that, it’s a sobering thought. You’re a pretty much on your own to figure things out. Not only are you completely responsible for everything that happens in the engineering organization, but when things aren’t going right, there’s pretty much no help from anywhere else. You and your team have to figure it out by yourselves. Many successful VPs eventually come to like this autonomy, but it can be a big adjustment when moving from director to VP.

At the director level, you can always go to your VP for help and consulting on difficult issues and they can and should help you a lot. At the VP level, you may consult with the executive team or the CEO on some big decisions, but you’re more likely talking to them about larger tradeoffs that affect other parts of the company, not how you solve issues within your team.

As a VP, you are primarily responsible for setting up processes and procedures for your organization to make it productive:

  • Team/Project tools such as bug system, project tracking, source code management, versioning, build system, etc.
  • Defining/improving processes to track, monitor and report on projects.
  • Defining processes to deal with projects that run into trouble.
  • Hiring: How you hire? What kind of people do you hire? how do you maintain the quality of new hire?
  • Firing: When someone isn’t working out, how do you fix it: reassignment, training, performance plan, transfer, firing?
  • Training: How does your team get the training they might need, it could be hard-skills, soft-skills or managerial
  • Rewards: How do you reward your top individual contributors and for your top managers?

You may be part of the Leadership “Council” or participate regularly in business discussions that may or may not concern your department directly. In a startup, you are often “the” technical representative on exec staff. You help craft the strategy of the business. You are relied upon for technical direction of the company (sometimes with the help of a CTO).

As a VP, you are expected to understand many important aspects of other departments, what is important to other departments and how your department serves or interacts with or depends upon other departments. Two classic example might be,

  • Sales depending upon certain product features/capabilities being delivered in a given timeframe to be able to convert a prospect.
  • Customer success depending upon certain product fixes being delivered in a given timeframe.

As a VP, you will participate in the setting of these timeframes and balancing these against all the other things your department is being tasked to do.

As you can see, Engineering Management/Leadership is a very interesting career option. We have multiple opening across Product and Engineering functions at ITILITE. Please see if any of these roles interest you.

Building a Log-Management & Analytics Solution for Your StartUp

Building a Log-Management & Analytics Solution for Your StartUp

Building a Log-Management & Analytics Solution for Your StartUp

Background:

As described in an earlier post, I run the Engineering at an early stage #traveltech #startup called Itilite. So, one of my responsibility is to architect, build and manage the cloud infrastructure for the company. Even though I have had designed/built and maintained the cloud infrastructure in my previous roles, this one was really challenging and interesting. Due in part to the fact, that the organisation is a high growth #traveltech startup and hence,

  1. The architecture landscape is still evolving,
  2. Performance criteria for the previous month look like the minimum acceptable criteria the next
  3. The sheer volume of user-growth, growth of traffic-per-user
  4. Addition of partner inventories which increases the capacity by an order of magnitude

And several others. Somewhere down the lane, after the infrastructure, code-pipeline and CI is set-up, you reach a point where managing (read: trigger intervention, analysis, storage, archival, retention) logs across several set of infrastructure clusters like development/testing, staging and production becomes a bit of an overkill.

Enter Log Management & Analytics

Having worked up from a simple tail/multitail to Graylog-aggregation of 18 server logs, including App-servers, Database servers, API-endpoints and everything in between. But, as my honoured colleague (former) Mr.Naveen Venkat (CPO of Zarget) used to mention in my days with Zarget, There are no “Go-To” persons in a start-up. You “Go-Figure” yourself!

There is definitely no “One size fits all” solution and especially, in a Start-up environment, you are always running behind Features, Timelines or Customers (scope, timeline, or cost in conventional PMI model).

So, After some due research to account for the recent advances in Logstash and Beats. I narrowed down on the possible contenders that can power our little log management system. They are,

  1. ELK Stack  — Build it from scratch, but have flexibility.
  2. Graylog  — Out of the box functionality, but you may have to tune up individual components to suit your needs.
  3. Fluentd — Entirely new log-management paradigm, interesting and we explored it a bit.

(I did not consider anything exotic or involves us paying (in future) anything more than what we pay for it in first year. So, some great tools like splunk, nagios, logpacker, logrythm were not considered)

Evaluation Process:

I wrote an Ansible script to create a replica environment and pull in the necessary configurations. And used previously written load-test job to simulate a typical work hour. This configuration was used for each of the frameworks/tools considered.

I started experimenting with Graylog, due to familiarity with the tool. Configured it the best way, I felt appropriate at that point in time.

Slight setback:

However, the collector I had used (Sidecar with Filebeat) had a major problem in sending files over 255KB and the interval was less than 5 secs. And the packets that are to be sent to the Elasticsearch never made it. And the pile-up caused a major issue for application stability.

One of the main use-case for us is to ingest XML/JSON data from multiple sources. (We run a polynomial regression across multiple sources, and use the nth derivatives to do further business operations). Our architecture had accounted for several things, but by design, we used to hit momentary peaks in CPU utilisation for the “Merges”. And all of these were “NICE” loads.

When the daily logs you need to export is in upwards of 5GB for an app (JSON logs), add multiple APIs and some micro-services application logs, web-server, load-balancers, CI (Jenkins), database-query-log, bin-log, redis and … yes, you get the point?

(())Upon further investigation, The sidecar collector was actually not the culprit. Our architecture had accounted for several things, but by design, we used to hit momentary peaks in CPU utilisation for the “Merges”. And all of these were “NICE” loads! (in our defence) 

So, once the CPU hit 100% mark, sidecar started behaving very differently. But, ultimately fixed it with a patched version of sidecar and actually shifting to NXLog.

Experiment with the ELK is a different beast in itself, as provisioning and configuring took a lot more time than I was comfortable with. So, switched to AWS “Packaged Service” . We deployed the ES domain in AWS, fired up a couple of Kibana and Logstash instances and connected them (after what appeard to be forever), it was a charm. Was able to get all information required in Kibana. One down-side is that you need to plan the Elastic Search indices according to how your log sources will grow. For us, it was impractical.

Fluentd was an excellent platform for normalising your logs, but then it also depended on Kibana/ES for the ultimate analysis frontend.

So, finally we settled down to good old Graylog.

Advantages of Graylog

 The tool perfectly fit into our workflow and evolving environment:

  1. Graylog is a free & open-source software. — So we wont have pay now or in future.
  2. Its trigger actions and notifications are a good compliment to Graylog monitoring, just a bit deeper!
  3. With error stack traces received from Graylog, engineers understand the context of any issue in the source code. This saves time and efforts for debugging/troubleshooting and bug fixing.
  4. The tool has a powerful search syntax, so it is easy to find exactly what you are looking for, even if you have terabytes of log data. The search queries could be saved. For really complex scenarios, you could write an ElasticSearch query and save it in the dashboard as a function.
  5. Graylog offers an archiving functionality, so everything older than 30 days could be stored on slow storage and re-imported into Graylog when such a need appears (for example, when the dev team need to investigate a certain event from the past).
  6. Java, Python & Ruby applications could be easily connected with Graylog as there is an out-of-box library for this.

#logmanagement #analytics #startup #hustle #opensource #graylog #elk

DevOps Post Series : 1, How to install and configure LAMP on AWS EC2

DevOps Post Series : 1, How to install and configure LAMP on AWS EC2

In this #DevOps centric series of blog posts, I will write about some of the interesting yet common problems and their solutions or quick guides and how-tos. This is the result of setting up a new #Datacenter setup for the #Startup I am working.
 
In this post, I will assume that you have already launched an EC2 instance type with the operating system of your choice. Generally, Amazon Linux (based on RedHat/CentOS) or Ubuntu is the preferred OS of choice. In case you prefer an exotic flavour of Linux, which does not support either the rpm/yum(RHEL/CentOS/Fedora/AMI) or apt (Debian/Ubuntu and derivatives)  this article may not be of much use to you.

  1. Connect to your instance – Use the private key you downloaded during the ec2 launch.
    1. If you’re in Linux or Mac – use the following by replacing it with your private key name and instance’s public dns –  ssh -i "loginserver."root@ec2-xx-xx-xx-xx.compute-1.amazonaws.com
    2. If you’ve launched an Amazon Linux, use “ec2-user” instead of “root”
    3. If you’ve launched an Ubuntu Linux, use “ubuntu” instead of “root”
    4. another important thing is to ensure that the private key has 0400 privilege and it is “owned” by the “User” as who you’ll execute the ssh connection.
  2. Update your package manager
    1. Amazon Linux : sudo yum update
    2. Ubuntu Linux: sudo apt-get update
  3. Tools & Utils (Optional/Personal Preference) I normally prefer to have a couple of tools installed in the server for quick-hacks/edits, monitoring etc.
    1. Amazon Linux : sudo yum install -y mc nano tree multitail git lynx
    2. Ubuntu Linux: sudo apt-get -y mc nano tree multitail git  lynx
      1. For details on the above-mentioned tools, refer the bottom of the article.
  4. LAMP Server
    1. Amazon Linux :sudo yum install -y httpd24 php70 mysql56-server php70-mysqlnd mysql56-client
    2. Ubuntu Linux: sudo apt-get install mysql-client-core-5.6 mysql-server-core-5.6 apache2 php libapache2-mod-php php-mcrypt php-mysql
      1. Your operating system will start to download and install the specified software, as for MySQL, you will be prompted for a root password. After installation, I strongly recommend you to run mysql_secure_installation and proceed with the onscreen instructions.
      2. Some of the critical things to do are remove the “test” db, remove access to "root"@"%", others are optional.
      3. The optional steps are,
        1. remove the anonymous user accounts.
        2. disable the remote root login.
        3. reload the privilege tables and save your changes.
  5. Configuration and other dependencies
    1. Amazon Linux :
      sudo yum install php70-mbstring.x86_64 php70-zip.x86_64 composer node -y
    2. Ubuntu replace yum install with apt0get install

Finally, restart the services and off you go. You have successfully installed LAMP server in EC2. Now, go to your browser and enter the publicDNS of the ec2 instance and you should be able to see the default apache page.  If you get either a timeout or not found error, it may mean you have to configure the security group accordingly. You should “ALLOW” port 80/443 (http/Https) in the security group.


 
 
 
 
 
 

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