Platform as a Product: Does it Actually Hold Any Merit?
April 23, 2024

Kenn Hussey
Ambassador Labs

I often find myself contemplating the practical usefulness of some of these "buzzier" trending terms in our industry, as I'm sure the rest of you are as well. Particularly, my recent focus has been on the actual utilization and usefulness of the "Platform as a Product" (PaaP) strategy.

While the concept of building a digital platform to foster collaboration and innovation sounds enticing, it's essential to delve deeper into its technical aspects and evaluate its real-world benefits and applicable techniques. Let's face it: while it might be great for the business-oriented folks, it may not live up to the hype when we view it through the lens of a developer.

Devs Need Platforms that Allow Collaboration to Flourish

At its core, the Platform as a Product strategy promises to create an ecosystem that encourages collaboration and innovation. This holds up when looking at it through the lens of what a developer would care about, as it opens up opportunities to leverage the collective intelligence of a diverse community.

By providing APIs, SDKs, and other integrative developer tools, platforms enable us to build upon existing foundations, accelerating development and fostering innovation. Or, in simpler terms, they help keep us focused on the creative challenge of developing great products with other intelligent people, which is why many of us get into this line of work in the first place.

If you're actually utilizing the best practices of "Platform as a Product," then you can't ignore the advanced developer communities that facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing as a part of the strategy. Remember, your platform is only as good as the number of developers who use it with ease and enjoyment. A flourishing developer community and multiple integration opportunities that can expand outward from the original platform will keep developers happy and continuously coming back.

The Technical Considerations Behind the Curtain

Now, when looking at technical considerations such as scalability, security, and flexibility, the PaaP strategy ensures that our platforms must be designed with these capabilities front of mind. These are just a few of the technical considerations that need to be a main factor when determining whether the strategy will work for your development team:

Robust Infrastructure and Flexibility: Developers appreciate platforms that offer robust infrastructure and support horizontal scaling, allowing applications to handle increasing loads seamlessly. Additionally, platforms that come with flexible APIs and modular architectures enable them to adapt and integrate our services more efficiently. When applying product thinking to the platform, ensure your developers are constantly thinking about how the platform can scale and support growing demand while remaining adaptable in an ever-changing tech ecosystem. Build platforms for composability, but also build for a strong foundation.

Prioritizing Security: Your product strategy must prioritize security and privacy to gain developers' trust in the platform. I value platforms that offer robust security measures, such as authentication, encryption, and access controls. Additionally, ensuring your platform complies with data protection regulations ensures users' and data privacy.

An example of these considerations being applied correctly can be seen when looking at Kubernetes technology. K8s exemplifies the practical usefulness of a platform, providing a scalable, flexible infrastructure for securely deploying, managing, and scaling containerized applications. I also appreciate Kubernetes' extensive ecosystem, which offers a wide range of tools, libraries, and integrations, enabling my development team to build and deploy applications efficiently. Now, that's PaaP done right!

Bonus: Your Platform as a Product Strategy is Nothing without Docs

In addition to carefully considering the technical capabilities of a platform, we also need to talk about the documentation situation. At the end of the day, I don't particularly care what the latest and greatest approach you are using is as long as there is clear and comprehensive documentation of your platform throughout the entire process. Developers need to be able to understand the platform's capabilities and effectively utilize its features, and a well-designed and documented platform should deliver that. Good platforms prioritize developer experience, and keeping the docs clean and regularly updated will keep the devs coming back. Remember, if we're treating our platform as we would any other product, then it needs the same level of care, attention to detail, and process that we'd give to any other product.

Challenges with the Platform as a Product Approach

With any new approach, there is always an organizational cultural barrier and learning curve that comes with it. Adopting a PaaP strategy often requires developers to learn new technologies, APIs, and frameworks. This learning curve can be challenging, especially when working with complex platforms. However, if you have the time and the resources, the long-term benefits of increased productivity and access to a broader ecosystem often outweigh the initial investment in learning.

The PaaP strategy requires that you frequently provide continuous maintenance and updates to address security vulnerabilities, introduce new features, and improve performance. This is a necessary but often tedious cycle to keep the product strong. Whatever we can do as technology leaders to ensure our platforms provide seamless upgrade paths, clear release notes, and backward compatibility to minimize disruptions and ensure a smooth development experience is paramount.

Also, if you're just slapping a band-aid on top of an already shaky development process, any new approach is only going to cause greater developer toil and lags in productivity. Applying any new and trending approach to the way your development team operates isn't like waving a magic wand that will solve all problems. These types of approaches should be applied as an additive, not as a holistic solution.

So, Is It All Hype?

From a developer's perspective, the PaaP strategy holds immense potential for collaboration, innovation, and efficiency. There are great examples of this approach creating success stories, and the benefits are evident when done correctly.

However, it's important to break through the hype surrounding these terms and truly understand the underlying principles of what makes these approaches holistically successful. Many of these concepts have been around in the DevOps and engineering world for ages — PaaP just ties them together in a nice little bow. If you have problems with your development team, start by identifying and addressing the underlying problems rather than simply throwing a "new" approach at them.

The most important thing is to embrace platforms thoughtfully so that their power can be leveraged to accelerate development, foster collaboration, and drive innovation in the ever-evolving landscape of technology. I'm a believer in the PaaP strategy at the end of the day, but I'm skeptical enough to know that it only works if done in conjunction with good foundational practices for running a development team.

Kenn Hussey is VP of Engineering at Ambassador Labs
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