“The time is always right to do what is right.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Over the past few months, we have been on lock-down. The product of a devastating and deadly disease that has well and truly stamped it’s legacy on human history forever. But it is out of these times that we receive a glimpse, a look into what is possible, and what humanity can do. It is out of this fight, out of these ever decreasing odds that we finally see what a combined effort can do, and what a focus on our fellow people can bring about. Don’t know what I mean, take a look at the Good News Network and subscribe (just like me) to see the best of us.
But it only works, we only triumph, when we work together.
Recent Example: Scientists at Oxford University have seen a tremendous breakthrough with their virus efforts and are making unprecedented strides towards a viable vaccine – but it involves an incredibly strong partnership with pharmaceutical companies and governments worldwide for staged testing, large scale results gathering and continuous improvement.
So. Why then in the last few months have I been speaking to people who say things like:
- “We have delayed our non-BAU process implementation, because we have seen a spike in usage, and we need all hands on deck.“
- “We have been investigating tooling and processes to help our development teams, but this is on hold as we come to terms with this newer way of working.“
- “Our teams are keen to adopt more agile ways of working, but they are overburdened at the moment, so we have decided to postpone any research into this for the next few months.“
It is feasible, amid a global panic, that people and companies will do (and definitely have done) what comes naturally to us; that is to “bunker down“. We believe that if we shift all efforts from projects and ongoing testing / new processes, we can have all hands available to deal with anything that comes our way. Processes are established for a reason, right? Legacy methods of dealing with ad-hoc changes and semi-frequent deployments, waterfall-esk development cycles and decade(s) old systems represent the familiar, the safe… Supposedly.
Now so, more than ever, it is time to actually change direction and to put more effort into some of the key principles and processes that will lead us to DevOps nirvana; it is this trinity of people, processes and tooling that can ultimately be the salvation for many global companies as they try to maintain their agility and competitiveness within an uncertain, shifting post-pandemic international market. There are many reasons why I, and many others, believe this but I have detailed 3 key reasons below:
1 – Delaying DevOps creates waste and costs businesses money
DevOps is a culmination of learning, experience and effort and it cannot be classified as one single thing, however it is possible to define a number of things that DevOps is and what it most certainly is not. One of the things that DevOps is, is “the constant delivery of value to end users“; the idea that by adopting certain technical measures and working practices we can minimize the time to delivery of new features and functions, which equates to greater value for us, our end users and significantly more agility to shift in different directions as required.
These ideas of flow and value streams are covered quite nicely by Lean IT, which extended from Lean Manufacturing principles and it is nicely explained here (and I would highly recommend you read The Phoenix Project if you haven’t already) – but the purpose of it (in a similar vein to agile principles) in this sense, is that it defines a number of things that don’t add value to the resulting product or service. These ‘things’ are referred to as waste and this is precisely what we should be looking to remove from our existing, legacy processes because why would we work on anything that doesn’t deliver any value?
There are a few different types of waste but I want to highlight three important ones that often exist as a result of legacy processes still being in place:
- Defects – Includes lack of testing (poor execution) and hot fixing environments (unauthorized changes)
- Waiting – Including everything from waiting for refreshed environments to waiting for feedback/results and even manual processes like deployment approvals
- Motion (excess) – Effectively doing the same thing over and over again, fire-fighting problems that arise on a near daily basis, engaging and monopolizing resources constantly who could otherwise be working on other, more important or value-add tickets (for those of you who HAVE read the Phoenix Project, see Brent as an example!)
The product of this waste is very simple and it fits into 3 main buckets: poor customer experience, increased costs and lost productivity. All of these things boil down to one fundamental truth – bad practices cost us money and reputation, transformation now could help us prevent this, and people will remember us for stepping up when we needed to.
2 – The workforce is increasingly distributed/remote and needs to collaborate better
At the beginning of 2020, one of the biggest questions faced by companies all around the globe was “how do I find and retain talent?”; this is not a new question and had already been around for years. Companies restricted to their offices (base OR satellite) realized they were increasingly fighting for candidates in one of the most competitive markets served by an ever dwindling local pool of options.
This was a situation which necessitated companies to stretch beyond their existing capabilities to enable a better quality experience for remote and distance workers and/or teams – a situation which would later be exacerbated 100x-fold by the global pandemic crisis. Not only has this crisis confirmed that most companies, certainly those feeding software markets, can work remotely, it has also posed the question of if we should work remotely more often, and has fundamentally changed the way we as a workforce will continue to work in the future.
One thing is for sure, whilst we will try to “return to normal” as much as possible, normal has been forever changed and remote working and collaboration is here to stay. That’s the important word in play here, collaboration.
The spirit of DevOps as I’ve mentioned before is good quality communication, collaboration and accountability. But at the heart of those three ideas is visibility. In an office we can over-hear, we can drop-in or bring things up “over the water cooler”/”at the coffee machine”. In a remote working context, that isn’t possible. So we have to adhere to 2 of the most important practices in modern day software development: transfer knowledge and record decisions.
When we work and communicate better in a remote/distributed workforce, and use tools and processes available to us, people don’t make unauthorized changes, or make decisions that affect you that you weren’t aware of until 3 weeks after they were made. It becomes easier to make decisions and generate better work faster, rather than being paralyzed by indecision and uncertainty as to whether you hold the latest version of the truth or if it is outdated. When we adopt the right processes and tools into our DevOps methodology, we know for certain what we should be doing, and why we should be doing it.
Process-wise this can easily take the form of common functions, many already at the disposal of teams when remote; stand-ups, retrospectives, mob- and pair- programming, OKR and sprint planning, there are lots of different ways for us to work well and know what we’re supposed to be working on at all times (and why). Tooling-wise we can then match these how we will be doing something with the respective record of what is being done, what decisions have been made and crucially, why. Using work management software like Trello, bug/feature tracking software like JIRA or Azure DevOps work items, source controlling everything (even having a strong branching and merging strategy to control workflow) with rigorous testing routines, policies and pull requests and automation all lead to better informed, happier*, well-performing developers with a crucial sense of purpose.
*Important side note: It is also crucial that we don’t simply lose ourselves in the business benefits completely – developers, testers etc. are all human and we all crave job satisfaction and happiness in our roles. Yes you might be able to increase your deployment frequency, minimize costs or complaints, but nothing compares to a satisfied, motivated team, which DevOps can help breed and inspire.
3 – DevOps breeds innovation and improves company performance, with a tangible return on investment (and not just financial!)
Automation is one of the single greatest ways we can modernize our processes, and is often the first principle we think of when adopting DevOps practices; taking something that is manual or held together by legacy scripts that forever fail and cause outages, and instead continuously integrating, continuously testing and continuously improving using the latest processes and tooling available to us. Automation allows us to create high cycle rates, enhance and multiply the feedback options we have within our pipeline(s) and allows us to reduce manual concerns and issues, to dedicate teams to the very thing they were employed to do: innovate. We only need watch how Netflix does DevOps to realize what we can unlock.
On a weekly basis I discuss existing processes with developers all over the world and one key trend always emerges that we need to focus on: they have a process that is currently manual, and it needs improving. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve been told about a process where developers generate scripts, manually test themselves and then “do x” with it, whether that be just deploying to Production themselves (without review), or putting it in an ever mounting pile of scripts in a folder on a file share for someone to sift through periodically.
Across every single one of the conversations mentioned above that I have, there is not a single discussion that doesn’t include some kind of quantifiable cost to the business, whether that be downtime, customer refunds, regulatory penalties and even in extreme cases, high developer churn. All can still be expressed in terms of 2 things: Time and Money.
If we remove those roadblocks for our developers, if we give them tools to enable them to more easily do their jobs, we put in place processes that allow them to more easily deliver that innovation, and tight automated controls to remove error-prone, manual jobs – we end up with something more akin to harmony. By this of course I mean the “constant delivery of value to end users“. This creates a more positive user experience, allows us to respond more quickly in an uncertain market and make decisions on what we should or, just as importantly, shouldn’t do, faster.
The world at the moment is a very uncertain place and has destroyed jobs, companies and whole industries. We should expect that consumer confidence is at an all time low and as we all come out of lock-down across the globe, we should be prepared to metaphorically “put our best foot forward” to help our developers believe in what we’re doing, stimulate faith in our industries and ultimately deliver more value bidirectionally.
But this idea only works if we do this now.
DevOps is more than just “picking up some new tools” or “rolling out agile” to development teams. It is fundamentally a mindset change that can drastically and fundamentally alter the underlying motivations and thinking within an organisation, allowing you to focus on the most important thing – delivering value, faster.
There are always times where delaying large scale roll-outs is a pertinent decision to make, and a hard one at that! But DevOps seeks to unify every part of of the development cycle; giving you greater visibility, communication, accountability and control, with maximum flexibility to test, validate and even pivot where needed.
But the time to do DevOps is not “once everything improves“, “once we get back to normal” or “when we have more time“… it is now. Now is the opportunity we all have to capitalize on the wave of change we have been consistently waiting to implement, to strengthen our position and future growth in our markets. DevOps is how we can come out on the other side of this disaster ready to embrace new technologies and ways of thinking, to respond to our customers needs, and deliver value and speed at scale.