What’s Wrong in Software Product Line Engineering? The Separation of the Platform as a Cost Center from the Product Units as Profit Centers

In three previous posts I had reported about our research into problems with product line engineering. Three important specific problems (of several more) were:

  1. Lack of resources in the platform organizational unit
  2. Insufficient collaboration between product and platform unit
  3. Political power play between product units

In all three cases (and then some), the underlying problem was the separation of the platform organizational unit as a cost center from the product organizational units as profit centers. Product units as profit centers found it easier to acquire resources, leading to imbalanced staffing (reason 1), felt they could delegate more rather then engage, leading to poorly specified requirements (reason 2), and fought over priorities for requirements, leading to poor prioritization (reason 3). Our case study participants believed that the root cause leading to these problems was the aforementioned cost center / profit centers separation.

A possible answer now would be turn the platform into its own profit center, positioning the platform as a product for a market. This could possibly remove the staffing imbalance and improve the domain engineering process to do away with the above problems. However, markets for this highly specialized type of platform as a product are rather unclear and potentially not very broad. Also, the product units might object to get more competition, if so.

As a consequence, our case study partners had turned towards inner source as a better way of addressing the problems. With inner source, product units invest in the platform by sending people rather than money. With people, important knowledge walks into the door, making sure that requirements are understood right and implememted properly. Also, prioritization works much better, because people will naturally focus on what they need most and they’ll get as much work done as they are willing to invest (called “scratching your own itch” in open source). Inner source is an important research topic of my research group and I will address it in future blog posts. Stay tuned!

Start over by reading about the lack of resources at the platform organizational unit and its effects.

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