An Introduction to the Producer Role at Zalando

by Sascha Wittig - 8 Dec 2016

The Producer role at Zalando shares it’s birthday with Radical Agility and has a big share in team autonomy. Let’s dive into how we live the Producer role and what benefits it gives our tech organization.

If you are unfamiliar with the term Producer, you’re not the only one. While you may have heard of Producers in the movie or gaming industry, all share the same responsibility: To get sh*t done.

Given the different businesses, a Producer in tech has specific skills and uses different tools compared to music or movie Producers. Imagine a Producer to be a mix of Scrum Master, Project Manager, and Agile Coach – here at Zalando they’re an important part of the team. They have the same voting power as everyone else when it comes to team decisions and stay with a team longer than just one project. This description also sums up the role description we came up with one and a half years ago – our Producers iterated on the role definition right after it was introduced to make sure there was a precise understanding of what a team actually needs. We’ve identified nine core responsibilities that our Producers possess.

The organizational engines of a team

Our Producers have expertise of the organizational flow of their teams. They evaluate processes and modify them together with the team to ensure efficient and effective work. They find the perfect release cycle between two-week-sprints or true continuous delivery. They check which regular meetings are really necessary and which can be dropped, and not only are they aware of the team’s KPIs, but they also make them visible to the rest of the organization.

To evaluate said workflows and improve on them, Producers have a deep knowledge of agile and project management methods. They’re updating their skills regularly and are responsible for moderating team meetings.

While we know that evolving an organizational workflow is one very specific field of improvement that Producers take care of, they also establish and maintain a general culture of improvement. Here they engage team members not to merely be satisfied with the status quo and challenge them in a positive way to become self-organized. The long term goal of a Producer is to lift the team to a level where they do not need this specific Producer anymore. That way, Producers can move on to other teams and help them on their way to autonomy. Rotating new Producers can give a fresh view on what was a previously defined organizational workflow.

Communication is key

Communication is another aspect of a Producer’s responsibilities. They manage the communication and information culture of the team. They ensure a communication plan and that communication channels are established. They know what medium serves best in certain situations and enable transparency. For example, they’ll curate newsletters or updates via the corporate social network and suggest topics the team can present at internal talks or demo sessions.

These efforts help to establish the team and their product as a brand, but also enables Producers to work closely with stakeholders. They not only know who their partners, customers, and product team are, they also speak to them on a regular basis. This allows them to deliver requirements and feedback back to the team and share progress or plans transparently. Taking these responsibilities on gives engineers more time to code and leads to less interruption by status requests.

Additionally, Producers keep an eye on what's going on within the company to inform their team about relevant changes, or just about the fact that there will be free ice cream in the afternoon!

To fulfill the above tasks, Producers maintain a big network within the company. Thus, it makes sense that they drive the OKR setup and alignment with other teams. Their expertise in the OKR process allows them to supervise the OKR lifecycle and helps them guarantee regular status checks.

Keeping focus

While a strong network is the key to setup and align OKRs in the beginning, keeping the team focused is what Producers do in the execution phase to ensure the team’s success. If there are any impediments, Producers identify them and support the team to eliminate them. They continuously check how weekly goals align with objectives and key results, and request priority from the product side if needed. Using tools such as Radical Focus do a lot here to help.

One additional facet of getting things done is also driving regular knowledge transfer and maintaining good documentation. Producers facilitate this by identifying topics and skills relevant for the whole team and suggesting formats where knowledge transfer can take place. Regular demo sessions or micro-workshops are just some suggested ways to go about this.

Last but not least, Producers assure a healthy team spirit. If you feel that your voice counts and you are perceived as a valuable member of the team, then you’ll feel motivated enough to do more than what’s absolutely necessary. By moderating meetings, organizing team events, or prepping kudo boxes as part of a healthy feedback culture, Producers work to cultivate and contribute to the upkeep of team spirit.

Conclusion

What we’ve outlined above might be a lot of stuff. However, this is what we call the baseline of the Producer role. This is what all Producers at Zalando are capable of doing. But there’s also more to it: To really get things through the door, some Producers participate in code reviews, host workshops outside their team to foster knowledge sharing, use their graphic and video editing skills to create top notch presentations, carry dozens of monitors around, bring in homemade cookies just because their team deserves them, and so much more.

We envision and live a non-hierarchical organizational structure in the self-organized Producer Guild, where we support one another to deliver results in a timely manner, or perhaps serve as a personal translation service for our international team mates and even offer our homes as the cozy location for team bonding sessions. What we do is more than just the minimum requirement.

I am incredibly proud to be a Producer and am personally intrigued by the motivation and level of ownership every Producer has. If you’re interested in more about what we do and how we live the Producer life, get in touch with me via Twitter at @WittigSascha. It would be great to share the knowledge.

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