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Why your next business process leader should be a software engineer

Pressures around digital transformation have made the need for business process leaders greater than ever. Here's why software engineers are uniquely suited for the job.

As an Agile software manager or DevOps director, you no doubt already understand the many challenges that digital technology companies face as they grow from scrappy startups into global enterprises.

Envisioning competitive products and hiring great people are some of the most difficult hurdles companies face. But perhaps even more challenging is the execution of a company's business process. By business process, I am referring to everything a company does to execute its strategic plan: to develop products, sell services, ship to customers, collect payments and pay for costs.

We know that executing such a business plan is much easier said than done. As an organization grows, communication complexity across teams increases, additional layers of product management create confusion, team silos become more isolated and engineering overhead (i.e., technical debt) drags the process of operating a business to a snail's pace.

Engineering approaches to improving processes

In response to such disarray, many engineering teams have implemented some form of Agile development in order to eliminate burdensome processes and to maximize the delivery speed and product quality of customer-facing features. Specific Agile approaches, such as Scrum and Kanban, focus development teams on rapid feature iteration by simplifying the processes of developing, testing and launching new products within a complex system.

In recent years, teams may have also adopted a more holistic DevOps approach. While expanding Agile's attention to feature delivery, DevOps also considers the requirements for the entire system. The team prioritizes everything they need to handle new features in production at a level at which the features will be successful in front of customers.

Not quite enough

While Agile and DevOps both address critical facets of the engineering process, neither approach traditionally addresses the chief concerns of the executive team. These concerns include streamlining the entire company process in order to increase product quality, delivering continuous customer value, growing revenue, increasing profits and reducing operating costs. Achieving executive-level objectives goes far beyond the coordination of development and operations teams. Such digital transformation must include the entire company, including marketing, sales, product management, operations, customer service and HR. As corporate leaders have striven to unify their processes, the demand for a formalized role known as the business process leader has intensified.

In order to truly participate in the digital transformation of your company, it is essential for engineering managers and directors to understand and take on some of the responsibilities of a business process leader.

The role of business process leader

No one becomes a business process leader overnight. But while a certain level of business acumen is critical for this role, I have found that engineers are some of the most skilled business process leaders. Because technical challenges are often at the heart of process innovations in tech companies, those with engineering backgrounds tend to have an advantage.

If you are an engineer who would like to move beyond Agile and DevOps and begin acting as a business process leader within your organization, here are a few skills you should learn:

  • Tenacity and creative process innovation: The business process leader's primary role is to innovate throughout the entire business process, from start to finish. Think of the business process leader as a Scrum leader whose focus is company-wide. The business process leader ensures that what a company does (execution) tracks to what it wants to achieve (strategy). This can include short- and long-term targets for profits, market penetration and delivery of its product roadmap.

    In a formalized role, the business process leader may own the process across all teams and departments. By simply choosing to break down silos in order to tackle a specific process improvement across multiple teams or even company-wide, anyone can begin taking on the responsibilities of a business process leader.

  • Vision and leadership: Business process leaders must also be able to see the long view and engender a culture of process innovation. Leading a digital transformation requires more than just a strategy; it requires thought leaders who can drive positive change by transforming the way employees think and act. Business process leaders are mentors to team managers, and they often work with executive stakeholders to ensure that process innovations are successfully integrated.

    A true business process leader must be able to build consensus around the value of any process improvement. They must also inspire teams to think more critically, to develop holistic mindsets and to be innovators.

  • Natural relationship builders: The best business process leaders have natural leadership skills and the ability to thrive in potentially agonistic work environments. Anyone championing new processes will face resistance as they attempt to unearth an embedded corporate culture and establish a new ways of doing things. Change leaders must be able to convince teams that meaningful improvements will take time, grit and patience.
  • Measurement and communication: The business process leader is typically the chief liaison to executive leadership and is held accountable for the success or failure of process improvements. Success metrics typically include reductions in errors, such as crashes, bugs released and launch issues. They also include metrics related to delivery, such as speed, iteration, engagement and customer value. If a process for tracking these metrics doesn't already exist, consider proactively benchmarking and communicating some of these metrics to leadership teams. This information will provide essential business process transparency.

Short term vs. long term

Technology companies will always feel the natural tension between the competitive short-term pressure to launch products quickly and iteratively and the desire to unify around strategic long-term goals. As digital technology companies grow more competitive, there will be an ever-increasing need for someone to take on the role of a business process leader. Agile and DevOps engineers possess strong technical backgrounds and an understanding of current development challenges, and are some of best-suited individuals to take on the business process leader role in the coming years.

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