Organizing a Digital Technology Department in a Media Company By Functional Areas

This article presents a system to organize your digital technology department in a media company. It is written for a CTO, CIO or EVP Technology looking for suggestions on organizing or reorganizing your Digital (Web, Mobile) technology department. It is best suited for you if your organization has the following characteristics:

  • You manage all aspects of technology for a major digital brand or for a large company with 3 or more Web sites.
  • You lead a technology department of between 50 to 250 staff.
  • Internal corporate IT functions such as desktop support, telecommunications services and internal business systems are beyond the scope of this article.
Click on the diagram above to view it as a zooming presentation

The following are seven areas that the CTO heading up such a technology department in a media company is typically responsible for.

Digital Technology Department in a Media Company – By Functional Areas

Each of the seven areas contains the following functions.

In a company, the above may map to the following organizational structure.

CTO / EVP Technology’s Organization

  • Director of Technology Administration & Management (Chief of Staff to CTO)
    • Administrative Staff
  • VP of PMO
    • Director of Program & Project Management
      • Project Managers
    • Director of Technology Budgets (has dotted line of reporting into Finance department)
  • VP of Technology, Client Satisfaction & Advocacy
    • 24×7 Support Staff
    • Technology/Developer Advocate(s)
  • Director of Technology & Business Analysis
    • Technology Analysts team
    • Business Intelligence, Research & Analysis Team
  • VP of Quality
    • Teams of Testers
    • Team of Test Automation Engineers
    • Software Release & Shipping Team
  • VP of Product Engineering
    • Teams for each technology product
  • VP of Software Engineering
    • Director of DevOps (has dotted line of reporting into VP of Systems & Infrastructure)
    • R&D Team
    • SEO Team
    • Web Client Technologies Team
    • Mobile Technologies Team
    • Builds & Configuration Management Team
  • VP of Systems & Infrastructure
    • Security & Privacy Protection Team
    • Systems & Applications Administration Teams
    • DBA Team
    • Infrastructure Management Team

In the above organization, each person directly reports into their functional area. In a smaller organization, the VP roles above may be director roles.

Program/Project Teams: Dotted-Line Reporting By Programs & Projects

At any given time, a company has a number of programs and projects in progress that are best suited by a dedicated team. In this system, staff is assigned to the program or project. The assignment of a person to a project  is a dotted line valid for the duration of the project, not a direct line of reporting to the head of the project.

An example of this is a Scrum team.1

The benefits of this approach include: By directly reporting to a manager, director or VP in their discipline, the employee benefits from the learning, coaching and exchange of knowledge with others in the same discipline. That gives the employee a good feeling of belonging with others that share a passion for that area of work.  By being part of a program or project team, the employee enjoys the sense of co-ownership of a project or product.

During and on completion of the project, the project head gives feedback to the direct supervisor of the employee, which the supervisor uses to coach, help and provide support to the employee both in the current project and for future projects.

Below is an alternate illustration showing teams as “vertical” and “horizontal”.

vertical-and-horizontal-teams

  1.  More articles related to Scrum teams. []

Benefits of Using IRC or Group Chat & Video Conference During Incident Management

When a team of engineers is dealing with a real-time incident, such as a system outage, troubleshooting a problem or dealing with a malicious hacking attack, having excellent communications is critically important. The appropriate communications tool can make a world of difference in dealing with the issue and learning from it afterwards. As important as the engineering work itself is, lack of good communications is what often gets tech teams in trouble.

You should enable real-time communication in certain collaborative tasks. This will reduce unnecessary email traffic and clutter, enable people to to focus better on their tasks,and minimize time wasted in bringing each other up to speed When multiple people are working together in real-time on a near term collaborative task, such as:

  • Crisis Management
  • Troubleshooting
  • Dealing with hacking attacks
  • Build and deployment
  • Web application migration
  • Upgrade or maintenance
  • QA testing

Many companies use a phone conference and/or email to assist in real-time while the collaborative activity above is ongoing. Since Email is not instantaneous and real-time the way a group chat application is, and since email is not a suitable medium for quick questions, and quick one-line responses, smart teams use a real-time group chat tool like IRC (Internet Relay Chat) to enable and facilitate real-time conversation. Benefits of using IRC or a real-time textual group chat tool instead of email are:

  • Tech managers, project managers, crisis managers and new tech people joining the effort can quickly catch up with what has been going on (in any level of detail they want) by reading the IRC history transcript so far. This is a much faster and efficient way than using email or pulling someone away to talk in person asking what has been going on. (If email were to be used instead of IRC, a new person joining in would have missed the previous emails on the topic.)
  • When an engineer working on such a collaborative task steps away for a while and comes back, they can quickly catch up on what transpired while they were away by reading the IRC history transcript.
  • Email is not cluttered by short back and forth messages with lots of text to read and filter
  • The IRC transcript can be used for the post incident retrospective and report (“post-mortem”).
  • Unlike a phone-only conference, the IRC transcript can be read and analyzed to learn lessons from this incident. For example:
    • Analyze what problems the team ran into
    • Analyze what worked and what didn’t
    • Analyze how well people collaborated and communicated
    • Timelines of events

I can personally attest to the above benefits. Over the past 15+ years, my development and operations teams in different companies have regularly used IRC to great advantage. Tools like Wikis and blogs are great for collaboration, documentation and sharing information on projects. An group chat like IRC is an indispensable tool for real-time collaboration.

2013 August Update:

With multi-participant video conferencing becoming commonplace thanks to Google Hangouts, I have updated this post to include video conferencing combined with group text chat.

The rest of this update has moved to its own blog entry titled ‘What I Learned During the Hacking Attacks of August 28, 2013.’

2014 July Update:

I now recommend organizations to consider using Slack. See my 2014 July comment below.

Organizing a Digital Technology Department of Medium Size in a Media Company

There are many good ways to organize your technology department. This article presents some of them. It is written for a CTO or VP Technology leading a medium size department looking for suggestions on organizing or reorganizing your Digital (Web, Mobile) technology department. It is best suited for you if your organization has the following characteristics:

  • You manage software engineering, implementation and technology operations for 3 or more digital brands.
  • Yours is a medium size technology department with somewhere between 20 to 100 technology staff.
  • Internal corporate IT functions such as desktop support, telecommunications services and internal business systems are beyond the scope of this article.

The Venn diagram below presents one model of organizing your department into 3 sub-departments.

Web Technology Department Organization
Web Technology Department Organization Venn Diagram Illustrating Purposeful Overlap Among Sub-Departments

Some CTOs in smaller companies organize their technology departments as 2 sub-departments: Software Engineering and Technology Operations. Software engineering is the function that is responsible for developing and implementing Web & Mobile application software. Technology Operations is responsible for running, maintaining and supporting the Web applications.

If you operate 1 or 2 digital brands (Web sites), having these 2 sub-departments is a good approach. For 3 or more Web sites, organizing Software Engineering into Site Engineering and Platform Engineering has some benefits.

Site Engineering is focused on working on the Web sites’ direct projects. Its work includes

  • Small and large projects for adding or changing functionality on the Web sites
  • Bug fixes on the Web site applications

Platform Engineering is typically smaller than the other two organizations and typically includes functions like:

  • Architecture across sites
  • Shared applications across sites
  • Common libraries across sites
  • Research & Development (R&D)

Technology Operations includes functions such as:

  • Systems & Applications Administration
  • Infrastructure Management
  • 24×7 Tech Support
  • Builds & Configuration
  • Release Management
  • Testing & Quality Assurance (QA)1
  • Technical Analysis
  • Technical Project Management
  • Budget Management

These three departments have purposeful overlap of responsibilities as illustrated in the Venn diagram above. That helps minimize the chances of the departments becoming silos with walls between them. For success, it is important that your entire department functions as one integrated unit. Some shared goals & responsibilities are required for mutual success.

DevOps2 is a set of processes, methods and systems for communication, collaboration and integration between departments for Development (Applications/Software Engineering) and Technology Operations. Its purpose is to facilitate meeting business goals by producing good quality software products and services in a timely fashion. It is where development methodologies (such as agile software development) occur in an organization with separate departments for Development, Technology Operations and Quality Assurance. Development and deployment activities that need deep cross-departmental integration with Technology Support or QA require intimate multi-departmental collaboration.3

DevOps
llustration showing DevOps as the intersection of Development (Software Engineering), Technology Operations and Quality Assurance (QA)

To make this work, you need 3 directors who head up these departments who work well together, collaborate often and are not sensitive about their turf. They should know that a successful technology manager is not an individual-only contributor, but a great team player with peers. They should have strong goodwill among each other and welcome each other to work directly with their teams. Such a collaborative team is essential.

Article Updated: September 25, 2010

  1. QA can also be set up as an independent department. []
  2. WikiPedia entry on DevOps []
  3. Article: What is DevOps? []