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How to Get Platform Engineering Team Structure and Skills Right

Platform engineering paves the way for successfully building and scaling DevOps initiatives. When set up correctly, a platform team can make every engineer across your entire organization more effective in designing and deploying applications. That’s because platform engineers are devoted to building and managing the underlying infrastructure that supports your organization’s work while abstracting engineers away from unnecessary code tasks and cognitive load with tools designed to create consistency and efficiency at scale.

Structurally, platform engineers support every other aspect of your enterprise’s software development. All your product engineering teams and even your organization’s IT department will likely sit on top of your platform engineering team in a hierarchical sense. To build your platform engineering team structure correctly, consider these five key steps:

  1. Have a mission: Define your platform engineering team’s purpose and create a clearly stated goal that can guide all your future projects and help earn company-wide buy-in.
  2. Balance standards & autonomy: Standardization is one of the platform team’s primary goals, but it can’t come at the expense of autonomy. Find the right balance for your organization between necessary guardrails and the freedom to execute independently.
  3. Adopt a product mindset: Although it may never see the light of day outside your company, your Internal Developer Platform (IDP) is still a product in and of itself. Focus on the features that provide value, incorporate feedback from your engineers, and constantly iterate and evolve.
  4. Increase iteration speed: Speaking of iterating, make sure you’re optimizing testing, iteration, and deployment, so they happen as quickly as possible. Engineers can get stuck waiting for platform teams to solve problems, so efficiency is absolutely critical.
  5. Identify shared issues: Understanding the issues plaguing engineers across your organization will make for better platform engineering solutions. Platform teams aim to reduce friction company-wide, which likely means killing multiple birds with one stone.

Identifying the Necessary Skills for Platform Engineering

In order to embrace platform engineering, you’ll need to hire professionals with the right technical skills. The hard skills required will continue to change as the DevOps landscape shifts and evolves, but having an interest in and experience with software infrastructure will always remain. Disciplines pertaining to the underlying systems that allow software engineers to do their jobs will also be crucial; today, those priority fields might include experience with Kubernetes, SQL systems, data storage, etc.

In many ways, it’s the soft skills that make for good platform engineers that are likely to remain more consistent as time passes. These have more to do with the mindset of effective platform teams; no matter how technology grows and what new tools arise, that mindset will continue to be a necessary component in the development of internal software infrastructure. Here are some of the most important soft skills necessary for platform engineers:

  • Empathy: Even though platform engineers aren’t serving external customers, they still need to be able to empathize with the colleagues that will be using what they build. Product engineers come to platform teams with problems, and the platform teams need to be able to grasp their situation in order to design and build a solution.
  • Partnership: Platform engineers need to be able to anticipate how their code will be interpreted by others. In the spirit of partnership, they should be designing code that other engineers can easily read, understand, and employ for their specific use case. Code that’s only accessible to an individual engineer is virtually impossible to scale, share, and repurpose, making it a poor platform engineering tool.
  • Patience: Support is also an important part of the platform engineering team’s job; even the most senior engineers might not have deep training and expertise in infrastructure topics like distributed databases, for example. A patient approach to educating engineering teams to use internal platform tools will propel everyone involved forward.
  • Perspective: Platform engineers need to be able to zoom out far enough from the tool they’re building to be able to understand what works about it and what doesn’t and identify what’s missing and what can be improved. Taking a long-term view of how the internal platform is going to be used over time will make it easier to build tools that are extendable and scalable.
  • Operational focus: Compared to product teams, platform engineers tackle longer-term projects with greater import in many ways; their work enables entire departments to do their jobs more effectively. That means platform teams need to be more dedicated than other engineers to measurable issues like performance, efficiency, reliability, and operability.

One of the most important benefits of platform engineering is that it addresses the skill-demand gap; skilled cloud computing engineers are hard to come by and expensive to employ. With a powerful platform engineering team in place, your organization won’t need to staff a massive brain trust of cloud engineers to more easily achieve key technical outcomes in 2023.

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