WTF is operations?
Issue 104: A primer on overall operations in software and design ops
If you haven’t worked with operations (ops) teams before, it might feel nebulous what they do. Like many roles in tech, the origins go way back beyond the existence of startups and software development. Operations focus on the inner workings of your business to ensure it runs as effectively as possible. Whether it’s physical or digital products, there is an operational aspect that allows value delivered to the end customers. Before Tim Cook became CEO at Apple, he was responsible for operations at Apple and at HP before that. His operational excellence was one of the reasons he was chosen to succeed Steve Jobs.
My time at One Medical taught me about the inner workings of different types of ops teams: strategic, clinical, product, and administrative ops. Whether you’re a neophyte to ops and need a refresher, let’s cover the role of ops within product development and go deeper into Design Ops.
Operations roles in the product development
There are numerous ops roles within product development teams to ensure not only the functions are successful, but that the cross-functional group is effective. DevOps is the most mature practice and spawned from the Agile methodology. The motivations for what has become modern DevOps and several standard DevOps practices such as automated build and test, continuous integration, and continuous delivery originated in the Agile world. As product and software development continues evolving, we've seen similar functions emerge such as Product Ops, Research Ops, Talent Ops, and Design Ops. The primary reason for this is not all teams are run identical to the software development process and have different needs! I've worked with Product Ops is so valuable in ensuring product development teams are running efficiently, monitoring analytics, and being our greatest advocates in feature rollouts.
Design Ops is a role as the aforementioned ones dedicated and specialized for design teams. If you don't have a person running Design Ops, you are doing it—which is typical and expected to start. There is such a thing as investing too early and unnecessarily. There is no magic number, but start thinking about it as you embark beyond 15 designers. It’s important to remember that Design Ops is not a silver bullet that will solve all your problems and a capability you nurture and grow. If the Design Lead is Phil Jackson (coach the team), Design Ops is Tex Winter implementing the Triangle Offense (coaching how things run).
There are a lot of myths about Design Ops and how they might run at companies. Let's debunk a few:
Design Ops is not adding unnecessary processes and standards, it's making your existing processes more effective
Design Ops does not stunt innovation, it's the structural floor that allows you to innovate
Design Ops is not only project management, it's enablement in asking "how can we help you do your best work?"
What I'm sharing with you is my definition of it and there are likely different opinions and expertise that I'll share below. I have not experienced Design Ops at a large scale at FAANG-y companies. My experience is in high growth startups. The core purpose of Design Ops is to provide the infrastructure that allows the design team to deliver the highest quality value to end customers. This is done through the key areas:
Creating and maintaining efficient workflows to deliver product value
Maximizing the quality and impact of design outcomes
Maintaining an operational cadence that ensures balance in team allocation
The Kaizen method has been ingrained in me at One Medical and the best results are through daily active management and continuous improvement instead of letting processes and procedures rot over time. In scaling companies, operations are the first thing that breaks because of new requirements and needs for the business. Take time to iterate on it and get it right.
Learn about operations
Many people on our Product Design team at Webflow would definitely agree that our Design Ops Lead is the MVP hire of the year because of the infrastructure he's put together that's resulted in clarity and efficiency. I highly recommend Accelerate as a reading. Though this is specifically a DevOps book, the learnings apply globally.
A few other resources:
If you were to ask each person on our Product Design team at Webflow, I would bet most of them would say the MVP hire we made this year was our Design Ops Lead. I’m to work at a place where we have an awesome and growing Product Ops, Design Ops, Design Systems, and Research Ops team.
Links discovered and articles read
Stop Undervaluing Exceptional Women by Elizabeth L. Campbell and Oliver Hahl
Congrats Adrian on launching your beautiful wallpaper art!
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