Past postings have talked about what the CEO and CFO should know about their service delivery. The CTO of a SaaS business has a somewhat different focus and again does not need to know everything about how the service is delivered, however there are some things that they should know on the topic both from a technical and strategic perspective. These items are important whether they are directly responsible for product development or not.
First, the CTO should have a good understanding of how feedback from customers, support staff, operations, and professional services all get into the development process and is prioritized. If a Platform as a Service (PaaS) or Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is used they should have an understanding of any service delivery tools and how they are or could be used in the service. This information positions them to use their influence to balance features with service improvements and help be an advocate of excellent customer experience.
Second, they should have a good understanding of service performance from an architectural prospective including the infrastructure, the database, the application, and APIs. As part of the architecture, APIs are becoming an increasingly important part of the solution and the performance of the APIs used need to be taken into account. For example, if an API is used more by all users will the performance degrade? Is there an API availability SLA? The Twitter API is a good example of a major API and many applications rely on the performance of that API for their solution to work at all including login and providing data.
The other API issue is making sure that any APIs that are available as part of the company’s solution are designed to specific availability characteristics and they should have some idea of overall and per customer usage of the APIs. How much of that information is made available to customers is a judgement call, but as an example major providers typically provide the rate and speed of transferring data.
Third, the CTO needs to have a good understanding of the value of R&D investments and the impact on customer retention and service gross margin. This is really the only way that they can objectively influence decisions about features versus service delivery. They also need to know how new customers are onboarded. Keeping onboarding time and effort to a minimum and providing value very quickly are important and again R&D investments can have a significant effect on that time.
The CTO needs to understand the strategy of the interface between the billing systems and the SaaS application and between the subscription management system and the SaaS application. Often the temptation is to either ignore this issue or include one or both of these in the application code. There are many solutions for both billing and subscription management which can be connected to the application usually via an API and understanding what data is needed now and is likely to be needed in the future is important. Designing billing or subscription management functionality as part of the application is tempting since it may be simple and easy at the beginning but the inevitable changes to both will tend to increase costs and time to market for future changes.
Finally the CTO should know how information about new releases gets to customers. Although generally this is entirely a marketing or customer support function, since the CTO has put a lot of thought and often sweat into new features it behooves them to understand how a customer learns about them. A customer can’t use a new feature if they don’t know about it.
If you are responsible for SaaS service delivery in your business then it makes sense for you to help the CTO understand these issues. A good mutual understanding of these issues can provide the groundwork for the inevitable hard conversations about performance, new features, and R&D investments.