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'Lights-on' TechOps team at TaskRabbit a partner in innovation

At online and mobile platform startup TaskRabbit, the TechOps team is as jazzed about the next new thing as the product engineers and data scientists.

TaskRabbit assembled a small team to build a tiny house in one of the biggest cities in the world.

The marketing team figured the project, pulled off by 10 "Taskers" over 72 hours in mid-May in New York, would garner plenty of attention for the eight-year-old San Francisco-based startup.

TaskRabbit is an online and mobile platform company that matches freelance labor --Taskers -- with customers looking for local workers to handle a range of everyday tasks, such as cleaning, shopping and household work.

But the PR team and Taskers weren't the only ones who geared up for the Big Apple event; the three technologists who run IT at TaskRabbit did, too.

"We let the TechOps team know we were going to get a heavy load and our game plan was to do due diligence, to make sure we were ready to handle it," said John Vars, the company's chief product officer.

John VarsJohn Vars

On the to-do list: first, double-checking that caching was working right on all servers for web, mobile and API traffic; then ensuring that if traffic exceeded server capacity, the systems would "degrade gracefully."

"With so many new features and services added recently, this was a key step," Vars said. The TechOps team also checked that quick system audits were happening.

Strategic TechOps includes plenty of cloud

Vars oversees about 30 technologists. Most of them are engineers creating products for the TaskRabbit platform. Like every other platform company in the marketplace today, TaskRabbit doesn't exist without technology; technology isn't just a competitive advantage, it's the company's very foundation. So it's imperative for engineers to deliver innovations and improvements to the technology platform.

There's a ton of innovation that happens on the TechOps side. There's always a way to make performance better, better deployment, better security. Those people get jazzed about those things just as an engineer on the product side gets jazzed about rolling out new code that a client might see.
John Varschief product officer, TaskRabbit

On the other hand, someone -- in TaskRabbit's case, its TechOps team -- still has to ensure that the computers turn on, the network runs smoothly and the servers can handle spikes in load.

Vars said he sees examples on a daily basis of how IT operations matter as much as IT innovation.

R "Ray" Wang, principal analyst, founder and chairman of Constellation Research Inc. said IT operational excellence certainly matters, especially so for technology-based companies, but he adds that all companies must be strategic in managing the contributions from the IT operations side.

"Operations matter but the idea is to scale out operations -- and get the best return," Wang said. In areas around regulatory compliance, security, and efficiency, for example, companies want to have massive scale.

"If you think you can do it better than everyone else, take it. Otherwise, outsource, automate, put it in software and get some scale. This way your team can focus on your mission, your business model, and new revenue and growth," Wang said.

Vars said he indeed takes a strategic approach to managing all his technologists, the product team that includes DevOps engineers, data scientists, UX folks, and the three-person TechOps team, which has a full-time person working with two part-timers handling vendor management, provisioning and other routine IT jobs.

Vars noted that he doesn't need a large operations team because he relies heavily on vendor-provided cloud-based solutions.

"So if there's a problem with cloud software, it's going to be the vendor solving it and not us," he said. "So in terms of IT, it's really, 'Is the network connection working? Do you have enough RAM? Is your hard drive getting too full?'"

TechOp innovators

Yet, Vars said, he doesn't want or expect his IT operations people to coast.

"There's a ton of innovation that happens on the TechOps side. There's always a way to make performance better, better deployment, better security. Those people get jazzed about those things just as an engineer on the product side gets jazzed about rolling out new code that a client might see," Vars said.

Getting that from his operations people requires good management and developing the right corporate mindset, he said.

"Despite all the changes in cloud and open source, there's no substitute for good engineering management. You still need [managers] who can help and support those [TechOps] people who are doing really good work," he added.

Bimodal (not!)

He also credits his vice president of engineering as an IT leader who "can get them fired up and let people know the good work they're doing." It doesn't hurt that his VP has both the visionary qualities required for product development and a deep interest in the nuts-and-bolts of how technology runs.

"He can talk the talk with them and geek out on some of the problems they're working on in a way that provides good rapport," he said. But Vars does not consider his setup a small version of the bimodal IT model (with segregated innovation and operations teams) being implemented and touted in many larger companies today.

Wang doesn't put much stock in the bimodal IT model, either.

"Bimodal IT is really a bad approach," he said. "What we need is multi-modal models that represent portfolio management. Why? There will always be a team of individuals wired for innovation. They break rules, they create new models, they are unafraid. There is a team that keeps the lights on. They do that really well. They can operationalize organizations and optimize."

The optimization and innovation modes have long been part of the fabric of IT, Wang said. A group of people who can take innovation all the way to commercialization is essential and often missing from the bi-modal approach. (See side bar on Wang's multi-modal approach.)

Multi-modal IT: Optimization, innovation, commercialization

R "Ray" Wang, principal analyst, founder and chairman of Constellation Research Inc., is not a fan of bimodal IT, an approach that aims to answers an enterprise's need for both stable and agile IT systems. In addition to a group that can innovate and a group that can optimize IT operations, companies need a group "that can take innovation to commercialization," Wang said.

"These folks have a different mission." They have to create a culture of transformation, and must have the incentives to drive change, he said, emphasizing that the hard part of taking innovation to commercialization is the change management part.

"For cautious companies that mix may be 25% to innovation, 25% to commercialization, and 50% to optimization. For aggressive startups it may be 50% innovation, 25% commercialization, and 25% optimization. It really depends how you want to compete in your industry," he said.

Vars said he has found that at TaskRabbit "people self-select into those [IT] buckets very cleanly" in terms of picking which tech career tracks they want to pursue, but they all work together. They sit together in a single open space and they may also work together on some tasks.

Moreover, he said he stresses to his 30 technologists that they're all working on the same goal: which is to make the company successful. He says he hires technologists -- whether for operations or for product engineering -- who want to pull for the whole team and know how to prioritize work based on that idea.

"I don't think it matters if you're in TechOps or marketing or customer support, if you can connect an individual's role to the greater goal, they'll do great work," he says. "We make sure that people know what our mission is and make sure they understand how their particular job connects to that mission."

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