Digital publishers champion the 'new' IT department

As the publishing sector brings product management to the core of its business, Jenny Williams talks to organisations championing the reskilling and new software development methods to move with the times.

Media companies are among the businesses facing the greatest amount of change as a result of customers moving to the web. As such, the IT lessons that the publishing industry is learning are relevant for any organisation looking to exploit the web and connect to people over the internet.

As consumer patterns of content consumption change, a focus on product management is becoming crucial to the improvement of user experience for publishers and also to bring new digital products to market and mitigate the effect of falling print advertising revenue.

IT skills can make the difference between being a victim of change or its architect, according to David Evans, head of communications and public affairs for BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT.

"Change on the internet happens faster than anywhere, so what's needed is not just the latest web development technique, but the ability to assimilate and systematically exploit whatever the 'next big thing' technology is," he says.

Organisations such as the Guardian News & Media, Spotify and IPC Media have ditched the traditional, waterfall method of software development and restructured their technology workforce around product development to better adapt to market changes.

Agile environment

Music publisher Spotify's 60-strong IT department works in an "agile" fashion rather via a waterfall method. The company, which was founded five years after the agile manifesto was established in 2001, has a large team of engineers who work closely with the operation team and production environment, as well as a small management group, product owners and a quality assurance (QA) test team doing automated testing.

Par von Zweigbergk, people operations manager for technology at Spotify, says the company is "heavy on the technology side" due to the massive amount of data it handles as part of its music service.

"The technology has to handle a user base of over 10 million, over 10 million music files and 10,000 songs added every day," he says.

IPC Media, which publishes NME, Marie Claire and Nuts, also uses an agile environment. Kelly Waters, web technology director for IPC media, says agile methods of development and testing improve association between business and IT departments.

"There's a lot of talk about CIOs aligning IT with business. And for product teams to be aligned to the business unit, you need a method that supports that.

"Most digital media companies are implementing agile methods," he says.

IPC Media has also adopted a new IT role within its workforce. "Users expect defined content on different devices and platforms. There's a difficulty bringing together aspects of editorial, marketing, social media, technology, performance and optimisation for Google, for example. The answer is product management; a new role that's emerged in media over the past three of four years," says Waters.

The rise of the product manager

IPC Media organises its IT team around products rather than separating staff by skills. "Product managers are hard to find and recruiting is difficult. They often come from technology backgrounds and have good communication skills. While they will develop products for the website, they might manage back office applications or the content management system [CMS]," adds Waters.

Tom Turcan, analyst and founder at Runcat consulting - and ex-Guardian head of digital media development - says there has been a change in IT departments in digital publishing. "There's greater use of external suppliers as partners, developing product development and management capabilities rather than data processing infrastructures. Most publishers are moving from a single channel single product world to a multi-channel multi-product one," he adds.

Guardian News & Media (GNM) has also adopted an agile environment for developing web applications and has scrapped project management and business analyst roles to replace them with "product managers or people doing product management", says Stephen Dunn, head of technology strategy at The Guardian

While it has outsourced some IT roles, Dunn says it has brought in information architects, analytics and product development managers as a discipline.

The Guardian divides its technology workforce between enterprise technology for workflow and business operations and its other user-centred services - all organised around products. But employing the right skills for product development is a challenge - even for one of the most successful news websites.

"It's a different type of skillset required to create a good user experience in the digital space. It's always a challenge finding really good people. It's hard to find good product managers," he says.

Restructured IT

Agile evangelist Simon Baker says the organisation of IT departments by product and agile "go hand-in-hand" and reduce wasted time compared to technology teams organised by skill.

"Instead of people separated by skill, if people are co-located and aligned for product then inherent organisational waste disappears," says Baker.

But few organisations are adopting the structure. "The concept of re-organising around product is not happening much. The concept isn't new but it's new behaviour. Not many large IT organisations are doing this because they like convention where IT is a separate entity to business," he adds.

Change happens fastest on the internet. As online publishers use agile methodologies and a new IT department structure based around products, digital publishers are ahead of large IT organisations in aligning IT with business and positioning its workforce accordingly.

Read more on IT strategy