What Makes a Successful Delivery Lead on a Software Project Team?

At Atomic Object, we have three core maker disciplines: software design, software development, and software delivery. In this article, I’d like to share more about the delivery discipline and the makers responsible for it: our Delivery Leads.

Delivery Leads are responsible for collaborating on and co-creating products with our designers, developers, and clients on communication, project and product management, and high-level product architecture. It’s the Delivery Lead’s job to be the client’s proxy for the team when the client isn’t available. Their highest priority is to make sure the team is unblocked and keep everybody in sync, marching towards the product goal.

Evolution of Software Product Delivery at Atomic

Over our history, we’ve gone through a couple of phases and evolutions in our quest to make great software.

Atomic Object came onto the scene in 2001 during a very different era in the software world. Most consumer software was delivered on CD-ROM. Releases were very expensive, and bugs were rampant. Code quality was poor.

Extreme Programming (XP or agile) was born in reaction to these circumstances. Our company utilized XP practices and focused on building high-quality, bug-free software. And we were very good at it.

Soon, Atomic realized that high-quality software was useless if it wasn’t also useful and usable. We began engaging more with our clients at the product level, and we added designers to our teams. We were one of the first companies in the agile movement — or any software environment — to embed designers in development teams, rather than creating a separate design department. Our core belief was that without walls (either physical or conceptual) between the members of a product team, we could create better software.

Atomic Object is a very flat organization. That means a big value we provide our customers is a highly-skilled, autonomous, empowered product team. Our designers and developers interact directly with our clients, truly becoming “their team.” One key criterion in our hiring process is that our makers must be willing and able to be true consultants. They’re not only doing the work of design or code, but also working directly with stakeholders to solve problems, create innovative solutions, and generate buy-in.

Managing a software project under those circumstances can be close to a full-time job, and our clients are often very busy people who allocate their time to other efforts in their organization. They don’t always have the bandwidth to stay deeply engaged with their Atomic team daily and be highly responsive to communication.

That’s where the Delivery Lead comes in. We added Delivery Leads to our product teams in 2016. This was after spending more than a year prototyping the role and exploring what it could look like and what type of person would be the ideal Delivery Lead. Now, after several years of staffing Delivery Leads on our project teams, we’ve found that successful Delivery Leads come from a variety of backgrounds. However, they all bring a few key and very diverse competencies.

Defining a Successful Delivery Lead

A successful Delivery Lead understands product management.

In software, a great product manager is a subject matter expert who deeply understands his or her industry and target demographic. The product manager is also a visionary who can pinpoint not only where the industry is right now, but also where to innovate and take it to the next level. Product Managers gain this understanding through experiential knowledge (i.e., they did the job once) as well as deep, ongoing research into the field and target users.

Atomic client Jim is a great example of a product manager. He’s a veteran educator with more than 40 years of experience in the classroom and teacher professional development. Jim leads a team of specialists at an education research institute, where they develop innovative frameworks for science and engineering education.

In software projects, the role of the Product Manager is one you simply can’t outsource. Our clients are the ones spending the money and taking the risk. To be successful, they will always need to own the perspective on what will make a great product and all of the decisions and tradeoffs that go along with that.

It is entirely possible, though, to shift a subset of the less-important product management responsibilities from people like Jim to our Delivery Leads. Delivery Leads work closely with our clients to outline the basic vision, goals, and requirements for each feature. Then they work with the team to meet those goals, checking in with the clients as necessary. Delivery Leads work to understand clients’ high-order priorities and then refine the development backlog and juggle the team’s day-to-day operations to meet those priorities. This frees up busy product owners to focus on high-value areas that need their deep subject matter expertise while allowing our teams to act quickly and optimize for maximum throughput.

On a day-to-day level, Delivery Leads can act on the client’s behalf to make “micro-decisions” about the product. Should we add a little more polish to this feature? Or, should we call it done and move on because we need to meet our deadline? Should we invest lots of time pursuing an edge case that happens in very few situations? Or, should we save that for later, because it would be a costly, low-return effort, and we have a more important feature to work on right now?

In situations involving competing goals or difficult tradeoffs, the Delivery Lead will create a set of possible solutions and present the pros and cons of each for our clients, taking some of the legwork out of the process. When Delivery Leads work with the team to make these judgments and escalate the issues to our clients when necessary, our clients’ inboxes are less chaotic, and our teams run more efficiently.

Atomic makers are smart, curious people who are great at quickly getting up-to-speed and developing a working knowledge of our clients’ domains. Learning about so many industries and finding the connections between them has always been my favorite part of being a software consultant. Moving from project to project and working across different industries allows Atomic Delivery Leads to bring best practices and creative solutions from one industry vertical to another, applying cross-discipline insights in new and exciting ways. At Atomic Object, we make it our mission to understand the habits, motivations, and goals of our client’s target users. We do that by employing human-centered design tools like personas, journey maps, and contextual research along the way.

A successful Delivery Lead deeply understands software design and development.

Many delivery leads, but not all of them, have several years’ experience as UX designers or developers. Having deep maker expertise can be a big asset for understanding the tradeoffs between different approaches to building a product. That experience can also help clients understand those tradeoffs and pick the right strategy. Delivery leads with other professional backgrounds are absolutely able to be effective as well. However, they’ll probably work extra hard, especially at first, to develop a working understanding of different technical aspects of the projects they are leading.

Delivery Leads don’t do detailed interaction design, like choosing colors and creating icons. However, they do need the awareness to engage with the team’s designer and the client to outline and document the workflows and architecture of the application. They also need fluency in the human-centered design process so that, as the team designs and builds the product, they’ll know what product validation activities to bring in at each stage.

Similarly, Delivery Leads don’t write code. But, they will work with the developers on their team to make sound technical choices about tools, architecture, and implementation strategies. Those all set the product up for success down the line. At least in high-level terms, they should know the different tools and services that make up their project and the costs and leverage represented by each of those tools and services.

A successful Delivery Lead is a rigorous project manager (but so much more).

Delivery Leads engage in typical project management activities and practices. They track and report progress and spending and act as the point person for all communications and logistics related to the project team, especially where the client experience is at stake. It’s their job to create and manage the development backlog and the individual user stories, tasks, and bugs in it. Like any good project manager, they know which communications to prioritize, jump on messages as soon as they come in, and keep the team running smoothly. But, as we’ve seen above, the responsibilities and participation go beyond managing communication channels and tracking and reporting on project progress.

A successful Delivery Lead is a creative, engaged maker on the team.

Delivery Leads contribute to the productivity of our teams and have a huge role in defining and shaping products, in collaboration with our clients and our designers and developers.

A photo of a delivery lead addressing an Atomic Object developer

Sometimes, the artifacts that delivery leads create are tangible, such as architecture diagrams, workflows, spreadsheets, plans, prioritized development backlog, annotated user stories, and documentation of decisions. Just as often, their work will be intangible: conversations carefully crafted, meetings well-facilitated, logistics conquered, consensuses reached, difficult decisions worked out. The result is happy project teams, software delivered on time and budget, with no surprises, and achieving the greatest possible value for the resources spent.