Want to harness DevOps? Look beyond the technology conversation

Johannesburg, 07 May 2020
Karl Fischer, Team Lead, Obsidian
Karl Fischer, Team Lead, Obsidian

DevOps, the combination of development and operations, is causing a lot of head-scratching. This may be because we’re too eager to look at it as a specific solution or a position you hire. But DevOps isn’t something you just inject into an organisation, explained Obsidian’s team lead, Karl Fischer: “DevOps is not a product, and it’s not a skillset. There are many different products and skills that operate within a DevOps space, but they don’t magically make something follow a DevOps culture. It’s definitely not something you can implement overnight.”

Fischer even feels the word ‘DevOps’ is not appropriate, making it too convenient to pigeonhole the concept into a simple narrative. Forget arguments that you can’t buy DevOps off a shelf. Even DevOps as a department misses the point. What’s going on here is much bigger – and it’s not a conversation limited to technology.

Can the real DevOps please stand up?

A frequent contention DevOps supporters have is that the name itself is deceptive. DevOps is not merely about combining development and operations. There have been attempts at addressing this as DevOps’ complexity expanded. Today there are terms such as DevSecOps (development + security + operations) that try to include some of the various elements that could or should be in a DevOps world.

But instead of getting tied up with semantics, it’s much more informative to consider the culture of DevOps. Once viewed through that prism, DevOps is obviously not just a technology movement, but also a paradigm shift for organisational culture. In this light, DevOps is a regrettable name because it seems limited to only technology and engineering.

“I used to have ‘DevOps’ in my title, but I changed that because it causes confusion,” said Fischer. “People miss out on the bigger picture, where you talk about incremental change, continuous improvement, reducing the chance of failure and cross-functional teams.”

The basic concepts of DevOps are just good common sense, he added. These include involving stakeholders, thinking out of the box and chasing value. It’s about learning to trust people and giving them the means to prove their trustworthiness. In a DevOps culture, micro-management is replaced by a trust in the team’s capabilities and focusing on the processes that support them.

This stems from analytical practices: DevOps is rooted in repeatable and measurable actions and justifying decisions through their footprint. Visible communication is another hallmark of a DevOps culture.

A culture informed by DevOps principles also helps create agility and scale. Big bang approaches are replaced by incremental actions such as experimentation. ‘Fail fast’ starts making sense because it’s not about overcoming failure, but using controlled failure to inform future success.

DevOps: development vs culture

Of course, DevOps also has a distinct meaning, namely that of making changes to the systems of a production environment with the least amount of disruption. An organisation that relies heavily on its software can’t afford to ignore DevOps, especially if its systems use the cloud, micro-services and other modern innovations.

But treating DevOps as exclusively a development category misses the point. It also sabotages the DevOps department. If it operates in one fashion, but the rest of the organisation follows less-effective cultures, that is trouble brewing. They are incompatible and the tension between them will only grow.

The reluctance of incumbent cultures to change is most often at the root of failed modernisation projects. It doesn’t matter if the target is a technology project or a better way to run internal teams. These new ideas are attached to the same values as DevOps: incremental movement, continuous improvement, transparency, trust, measurability and inclusion. Relegating DevOps to a quick solution or a few hires misses the point entirely.

This spirit of DevOps has been around for millennia. Wherever there is a culture of innovation, you’ll eventually find the above principles at work.

“You can take the values of DevOps into the rest of the business,” Fischer concluded. “Measure your work and make work streams visible for all stakeholders. Create good communications between teams and team members so that there is less duplication of effort. Don’t let ego get in the way of excellence and don’t think a lack of change means stability. If you look closer at DevOps principles, you’ll see they resonate with everything that makes a modern enterprise perform at its best.”