Some software design and development firms may not be comfortable telling a client they’re wrong.
At Devbridge Group, though, product managers aren’t afraid to have frank conversations.
“It's part of our job as good product managers and good partners to say to clients, ‘That's not the best way we can serve you. That's not the best thing you can do for you,’ ” said product manager Renata Lowe.
And so far this strategy is working. In just nine years, Devbridge has grown from a single office in the Chicago suburbs to more than 300 employees spread throughout four offices in three countries. The firm has taken on increasingly larger and more complex projects, such as working with Gamut to build its e-commerce platform and helping the Art Institute of Chicago launch a new membership portal and ticketing system.
We recently visited with four members of the Devbridge Group product management team to learn more about both their approach to client communication and product development.
DEVBRIDGE GROUP AT A GLANCE
FOUNDED IN: 2008
EMPLOYEES: 304 globally, 44 in Chicago
WHAT THEY DO: Devbridge Group designs and builds software for companies in the financial services, manufacturing and tech industries.
HUMBLE ORIGINS: Devbridge once employed three people working out of a small suburban office. Today, hundreds of Devbridge employees work across four offices in Chicago, Toronto and the Lithuanian cities of Kaunas and Vilnius.
SUMMER CAMP: The company’s North American team spends a week working in Lithuania annually, followed by a weekend of adult summer camp.
ALPACATRON AND 10K TACOS: When teams form at Devbridge Group, each picks its own name. The wackier the better.
ARE THOSE LEGOS IN YOUR BRIEFCASE?: Devbridge product managers occasionally use LEGOs to explain the agile development process, using small LEGO creations to show clients and prospective PMs how products are built incrementally.
What does Devbridge Group do?
Laura Albun, managing director: Devbridge Group is a software development and design delivery partner. Our team consists of product managers, test engineers, developers and designers. We spend most of our time in B2B applications and in fairly complex spaces. Typically it's financial services, manufacturing and applied technology, which is kind of a catchall for everything else.
How is the Devbridge approach to product building different from other firms?
Sriram Ramanujam, senior product manager: One thing that differentiates Devbridge from other companies is our focus on user experience and user design. We have as many product designers as product managers, and you can't really find that at other companies. When building products, we think about problems from the user’s perspective and try to immerse ourselves in the solutions.
Renata Lowe, product manager: We tend not to take an existing system and put a different face on it. It has to work better. It has to meet business needs better. It's part of our job as good product managers and good partners to say to clients, “That's not the best way we can serve you. That's not the best thing for you. Let's talk about what your options are.”
Does this ever create friction with clients?
Ray King, managing director: In the past year, we’ve had to tell several existing clients who came to us with new work that the path they wanted to go down wasn’t the right one. There was no friction whatsoever. They actually appreciated the honesty. This is just one of the ways we build trust with our clients.
In product management, striking a balance between go-to-market speed and quality is crucial. How does Devbridge accomplish this?
Ramanujam: We try to make the decision cycle shorter. One way we do this is through a lean requirements workshop, which gathers key project stakeholders together — including both potential users and decision makers on the client side. This workshop typically lasts a few hours. Our end goal is to have a shared understanding of what the problem is, what defines success and what a solution should look like.
Lowe: We’re also big fans of something called dual-track scrum. With dual-track scrum, design isn’t fixed after the first line of code is written. It’s constantly evolving and feeding into the software as it’s being developed. The design evolves slightly slower than the software is developed, say about two weeks apart.
This isn’t something a lot of other consultancies do, but I love it because it fosters increased collaboration with the design team and makes for better products.
What are some of the coolest projects you’re working on right now?
Ramanujam: I’m working on a new version of our mobile app, which allows clients to monitor the progress of a project. I’m also working with a global manufacturing company on a major strategic initiative. They want to compare the use of parts in their design centers around the world.
It’s not like this company doesn’t have the manpower to do this project internally. They’re bringing us in because they value our expertise as product builders and want to increase their go-to-market speed.
Are Devbridge PMs typically more business or technology focused?
King: If you were to do a check around our department, you would see a blend. You would see some people that are not technical in a traditional sense. A lot of our PMs are very, very technical in that they understand how technical products work. They understand how algorithms work. Yes, they may not have been developers, but they understand how to solve technical problems.
What’s the difference in responsibilities for product managers and senior product managers?
Ramanujam: The roles and responsibilities are pretty much the same, except senior PMs also focus on mentoring and coaching other product managers. There’s also an increased focus on business development. It’s not like you’re selling, though. It’s more of a secondary focus.
You’re checking in with clients to see how you can help them become more successful. You’re also identifying opportunities in the industry to see how Devbridge can grow and become more successful.
Speaking of growth, Devbridge Group has scaled considerably since its 2008 origins. How has that impacted your culture?
Lowe: In a lot of cases, when an organization hits the 150 mark, or the 300 mark, you see drastic changes in the culture and the values. I haven’t seen that happen here.
Albun: We’ve maintained the scrappiness we had when we were just a handful of people in a small office. One thing we’ve continued to do as we’ve grown is what we call “conversations.” Once a year, everybody meets with someone on the executive or management team who isn’t their direct manager. The idea is to share your thoughts about how things are going and get feedback.
Senior leadership is willing to set time aside to meet personally with people. That's super unique, especially at a company this size.
What do you look for in potential product managers?
Lowe: You need to be confident enough to lead and blaze ahead, but you’ve also got to have the humility to realize when something isn’t working and be able to fix it. You own whatever needs to happen. You own the relationship with the client, and you own adjusting things so that everyone gets what they need.
King: Collaboration is key, and you have to love building stuff. You have to be a product person and you have to be excited about building stuff. You won’t go far here if you just want to come in, follow agile principles and deliver code. The yearning to want to build and do different things is something that will make you very successful here.
Also, working here is just fun. If you're not really looking to have fun I don't think you'll go far here.