Ecosystem Engineering

“An ecosystem engineer is any organism that creates, significantly modifies, maintains or destroys a habitat”

— Wikipedia

When you are working on platforms, you have the needs of the producers, consumers, and the market itself. As the market, or platform owner, your job is to make sure that the ecosystem as a whole is healthy.

One key is to not get too greedy at the platform layer, as Bill Gates put it:

“A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it. Then it’s a platform.”

This is somewhat common sense, but why do we often do such a poor job of taking care of our ecosystems?

One reason is that it is a hard, complex slog. When you are building something new you have a lovely green field and pivoting doesn’t have the number of side effects. You don’t have as many dependencies to manage, so you can run fast and break things. You have built a lean product team with top notch engineers who are cranking through their sprints like Usain Bolt.

Then something happens. The success of the work slowly changes the game, and before you know it you may be in a situation where the team members don’t really know it has changed! The incentive structures in the company may have been setup to reward the wrong things.

For example, as an engineer, the way to get promoted is to tackle harder and more complex problems, delivering fantastic solutions, in record and reliable time. You level up by showing how your craft has improved. This may be utterly at odds with the needs of the day.

Let’s look at a real world example. The Web is too slow and this causes a major drag to the ecosystem health, resulting in the current epidemic. If you are an engineer on a browser team, you will be working on more and more complex technical solutions to either:

  • Taking the existing content, speed it up in the browser. Incredible work has been done here, and it gets harder and harder (and more complex). Compare older browsers and how they blitted pixels to the screen vs. the complex GPU architecture that is in there now.
  • Build new standards and implementations that have faster paths. This is geological time, and a ton of work too…… and the solution isn’t enough, you need adoption.

If your core metrics are based on browser metrics, these are the paths you will take. However, if your core metrics are around the speed of the Web at large, which includes other browsers, then your point of view may change. Your investigation occurs at another layer and you may end up with totally different conclusions.

For example, WordPress is a huge percentage of the Web, including new content. This may have you conclude that helping make WordPress faster (better AMP support, service workers, etc etc) will actually generate a truly massive impact on the perceived performance of the Web at large, and it may also cause a competitive push with other CMSes. We see this happen again and again. For example, Flipkart being the “Google Maps of PWA” drove a lot of mindshare in India on investing in performance, especially from the eCommerce vertical. But this work is far from sexy. Many engineers would rather NIH yet another amazing CMS versus go in and make WordPress better.

Engineering teams are naturally working on the next feature / version of the platform. Take something like iOS or Android. Their yearly drumbeat is intense. I get to see this first hand by witnessing the mammoth effort that the Android team takes on. As we tick to the N+1 version, it is natural to focus on solutions there, but the ecosystem lags behind.

This is why work such as the Android Support Library came from Chris Banes, an engineer in Android DevRel. If you are talking to developers everyday, you are living in the real world constraints of today.

It is critical that we line up the outcomes at the ecosystem level, allowing you to really wrestle with the problems that you face at scale. It is important to look at all the tools at your disposal to enact the painful, necessary change. You need to think through all of the carrots and sticks. This kind of engineering effort deals with much outside of the scope of code. Psychology, and economics, can be front and center.

This is when other functions come in. Is the full go to market team in line with the same metrics? E.g. BD, Marketing, Sales? When everything is aligned magic happens, however often I see this break down due to us wanting to break down the problem into small chunks. If we aren’t tying everything together we end up with small product teams that are focused on their product, versus the ecosystem. The goals revolve around adoption. Everyone is pushing their shiny thing.

As I continue to see this pattern, I keep realizing that we need more ecosystem engineering, and we need to change the incentives to truly allow “Product Excellence”.

NOTE: There are some teams that I have seen that go above and beyond here. One great example here is Rick Byers and his team, and their maniacal dedication to bring predictability to the platform.

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