Implementing Agile Development and Adopting the PM Ladder: A Look at the Role of Program Management at Mercari

What’s a program manager, you ask? Well, they are the people whose role it is to provide support that spans across organizations at companies where multiple development projects are simultaneously underway. The support they provide can include such things as helping to adjust resources and costs for projects or ensuring that the work environment is conducive to meeting the needs of a given project.

At Mercari, we officially established a team dedicated to program management in the summer of 2019. Since then, what started as a single two-person team at its onset has multiplied into a 17-person endeavor, split across two teams whose job it is to support project development at Mercari: the Program Management Team and the Product Management Excellence Team.

Our interest piqued, for this installment of Mercan we decided to speak with Masateru Miyasaka, Director of the Product Management Office; Abhijeet Pawar (@Abhi), a member of the Program Management Team; and Kanako Shinohara, who works on the Product Management Excellence Team. We asked these three about the background that gave rise to their teams and the expectations that currently govern their organizations.

*Face masks were temporarily removed for photos

Featured in this article

  • Masateru Miyasaka

    Along with his work for Microsoft, Rakuten, and Fast Retailing on project management for various products for Japanese and global markets, Masateru has also implemented agile development to strengthen development organizations, started offshore development offices, and more. He joined Mercari, Inc. in September 2018. He currently works as the Director of Products, Foundation.

  • Kanako Shinohara

    As a new graduate, Kanako started her career as an engineer after joining SRA. The time following the Great East Japan Disaster of March 11 marked a turning point for her that led to a career as a PM in talent recruitment. In 2015, she joined BizReach where she was in charge of a service for strategic talent hiring. She then joined Mercari in August 2018 and has since worked on CS tools and Merpay Deferred Payments. She now works on the Product Management Excellence Team.

  • Abhijeet Pawar

    Abhi came to Japan for the first time in January 2010 to work as Rakuten’s first non-Japanese new graduate. During his time at Rakuten he worked as a Global Salesforce manager and BI manager, where he managed a team of around 130 members globally. About six years after joining, he left Rakuten and returned to India to pursue his start-up ambitions. Over the course of four years, Abhijeet faced a good measure of failure and success. He eventually scaled up a blockchain start-up company worth USD 25 million. He joined Mercari as the company’s first Program Manager and is now the head of the Program Management Team where he manages key programs.

Program Management Team: created to bring non-collaborative efforts into the fold

— I’ve heard that Mercari established a team dedicated to program management in the summer of 2019. Had there been no need for such a team up until that point?

Miyasaka: No, not necessarily. Actually, the Program Management Team, where Abhi is now the manager, had a predecessor of sorts as early as 2018. Originally, Mercari brought together a lot of people who were talented in their own right, and some of them worked on product development. But as our organization and business grew, we had to find a way to bring the non-collaborative efforts of individual PMs into the fold. I joined the company in 2018, but even then it was easy for conflicts to crop up, and because people were working individually, we had to deal with things like costly onboarding of new members even as our knowledge pool remained shallow.

Masateru Miyasaka

Miyasaka: Now obviously, I don’t mean to negate the development style we used to use. No offense to what we used to do; the non-standardized approach to development was necessary at the time precisely because we were still a startup. However, by around 2018, Mercari’s organizations were growing at an incredibly fast speed. All of a sudden you’d be at the office and the members on the team sitting next to you were people you’d never seen before. On the other hand, increased hiring of members from overseas presented us with a language barrier.

So in order to create a workplace where anyone could work easily and handle product development smoothly, we established a common framework for development and a format for writing specs. This was our starting line.

Shinohara: Generally speaking, the tools that engineers and designers use to communicate are different. Even if they do use the same tools, how people use them will differ depending on the team. So we sort of unified elements that had previously lacked consistency.

Kanako Shinohara

— So then, that was the point when the company had gotten to a size where people could no longer work solely at their own discretion.

Miyasaka: That’s right. Program management has two roles: drive initiatives for product development, and maintain a robust system that is able to drive initiatives even if a large project comes up. This is why, in addition to implementing agile development, we are now creating a PM Ladder, focus list, and mechanisms by which PMs can review each initiative.

The reasons for incorporating agile development at Mercari

— So, I understand that the driving force behind implementing agile development at Mercari is the Program Management Team, for which the manager is Abhi.

Abhi: That’s right. Agile is a style of development that allows us to repeat the planning, designing, developing, and testing phases with a short development cycle. It also reflects a style of decision-making where we ask our members for their opinions and then decide on the best approach to take from among the options presented. To make it even easier for our members to voice their opinions, six months ago we also created the Agile CoE (Center of Excellence) community. We make it so that if anyone wants to discuss something or runs into any problems, the community can support them as well.

Abhijeet Pawar

— Why did you choose agile development?

Abhi: There are a lot of development frameworks. Out of all the choices we had, agile development was the one model that would allow our team and members to think independently and grow. We also thought that a model that would allow us to do development work under a shorter development cycle that would fit the pace of work demanded at a workplace like Mercari. In addition, approximately 70% of overseas IT companies use agile development to drive their development projects. Almost half of the members of Mercari’s development organizations are from overseas, so some of us were also of the mind that agile development simply fit Mercari better than any of the other models.

However, even though we talk about agile development, how the members incorporate it has varied depending on the team. This is why, more so than the implementation process, what really matters the most about agile development is the mindset that it fosters. They say it takes about three years for agile development to take root in an organization.

— What? You mean it takes three years for the agile development mindset to spread through an organization?

Abhi: Yes, exactly (laughs). As I was saying earlier, one of the reasons why we incorporated agile development at Mercari was because it was a process that allowed teams and members to think independently and grow. Agile development fits well with the notion of allowing our members to steer development themselves. If I had to describe where we are now in this process, I would say that we’re building the foundation elements while simultaneously teaching our members how to use agile development.

At Mercari we’re now in the process of adopting a product development style called the “Camp” system. The way it works is, the product under development is divided into a number of areas, with each area called a camp. There are also multiple scrum teams that support development. Eventually, I think it would be great if we could establish a system where the agile coaches are the program managers, and product managers are involved in agile development from the planning phase right up to the product release.

Steering product development and establishing a career as a PM

—So Kanako, tell me about your time on the Product Management Excellence Team.

Shinohara: Well, when I first joined Mercari, one of the things I noticed was that, depending on who the PM was, their mindset and expectations differed. And, just as Masateru said earlier, at that time there were a lot of instances where people worked independently. This situation made it hard to foster ongoing initiatives or knowledge management. This led us to begin creating mechanisms for changing how members viewed the role of the PM. One such mechanism was the PM Ladder.

To be blunt, we saw that multiple teams in charge of adjacent domains were planning similar initiatives. This drove us to create a focus list that could serve as the basis for deciding the priority of different initiatives. The list of course included things like development hours and business impact, but also the review process for these things.

— That tends to happen when people working together aren’t communicating effectively.

Shinohara: Yes, exactly. There are advantages to each member being able to independently drive their work forward. However, depending on the size of the organization, there can be drawbacks. In order for the Product Management Excellence Team to mitigate those drawbacks, we created all of the specs for the Mercari marketplace app in English. Other than this, we worked together with the QA and engineering teams to systemize the release process and schedule management—both of which had been done on a volunteer basis up until that point. We updated our development workflow by aligning it with agile development.

— Both of these are important as foundational elements of product development.

Shinohara: But unlike growth hacks, there aren’t as many moments to spotlight people’s individual results, so I’m sad to say that we’ve lost some of the bravado and other colorful traits that we used to see. (laughs)

Actually, up until now, I’ve worked as a PM in recruitment and have constantly had strategic HR on my mind. Even at my previous job, I started a PM organization because I saw that there was no specific role defined for PMs. This is exactly why I feel that we are now in a period of transition that will shape our idea of what a PM should be. I’m excited that, by working on program management, I’m responsible for helping steer the organization, looking at organizations cross-functionally and deciding which domains should step on the gas. At the same time, this kind of work might just convince me to embark on a full career in project management. This kind of multifaceted work has been a really interesting experience.

Both agile development and scrums are just a means to an end.

— Now that Mercari has started agile development in earnest, program management has become even more team-oriented. So what’s next?

Miyasaka: I’ve stuck with this job because I’ve always wanted to help build a Japanese company that would rival the giant overseas tech companies. I intend to do everything I can to get us there. To be completely honest, I am not married to agile development or scrums. They are just the means to an end, and if they are not the right fit for us, we’ll immediately look for a different way to get the job done. It’s a matter of finding a style that fits Mercari and building a framework with people who will improve how we work. And by doing this, it makes it easier for PMs and engineers to do their jobs and creates an environment that facilitates development. Along the way, I want to create an environment that strengthens all those who work at Mercari and that even other companies use.

Shinohara: Oh, you mean like the “Mercari Mafia.” (laughs)

(all laugh together)

Abhi: And also for that to happen, I want to push program management to be even more established at Mercari. Because although people talk about the importance of program management, it hasn’t taken root across the entire company. My goal is to give it everything I’ve got for another year or two. Then, I’d like to focus on three things: initiatives, product-related programs, and platform programs.

Shinohara: I would like to play a significant part in creating a product development system while partnering with the Strategy and Management Team, who are in charge of things like development strategy. I want to visualize development productivity and make known any in-progress activities in order to establish a mechanism that allows the CPO, CTO, Product Head, and Engineering Head to make decisions quickly.

Miyasaka: That’s excellent! Let’s keep working to promote an even stronger mindset for program management among both engineers and PMs.

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