Here’s how we can help push DevOps into the mainstream

Can DevOps declare victory yet? Not quite, but soon.

Figuring out when a technology inflection point happens is always hard, if not impossible, in real-time. It’s easy to point backwards and say when ERP, agile software development, the Web, business intelligence, mobile or cloud suddenly became “normal.” I think DevOps is right at the door of that point, and as some recent Gartner predictions have proffered, we could see something like a quarter of all large enterprises using DevOps next year.

But it won’t be easy. The same house of industry sages also threw some cold water on that exuberance by predicting a 90% failure among organizations attempting to do DevOps if they fail to properly address process and culture.

As DevOps spreads to more and more IT shops, what can we in the DevOps community do to help? Clearly, we need to keep up the overall conversation about what DevOps is and the process/cultural changes needed to be successful. Another critical element is to start telling more and more stories of how non-technology companies are succeeding with cloud and DevOps. I think the recent Humana profile provides an interesting template here, as does Standard Bank’s forays into DevOps.

In addition to keeping up the good work, there are four key areas that will be helpful.

1. Define the goal properly

In one of my favorite straw-polls, groups who focus on the wrong outcomes and goals with private cloud have similar failure rates as those Gartner describes for organizations attempting to do DevOps.

What exactly those right goals are, for both DevOps and cloud adoption, is a new theory of mine I wanted to road-test with the DevOpsDays Austin crowd. As far as I can tell, the best goal of both a “cloud project” and “doing DevOps” is to do continuous delivery. So, cloud and DevOps let businesses set up the process and technologies needed to deliver custom written software on weekly, if not shorter turns, and actively study, learn and adapt software from the feedback of actual people using their software. This is the path of becoming a software defined business and DevOps is the definitive “how” of how that’s done.

Making DevOps and continuous delivery synonymous

To that end, I suggested to the audience in Austin that we should start, more or less, thinking of continuous delivery and DevOps as synonymous. Once you frame what DevOps is — what DevOps enables — as that, the conversation becomes crisper and, I believe, easier for everyone to understand and do something about. As I discussed last time, becoming a software defined business entails (a.) starting to think in a product-oriented manner (greatly facilitated by continuous delivery), and, (b.) ensuring that you have the overall cloud platform in place that provides the feathered, infrastructure bed for everything.

And, to add to the tracking of DevOps’ ascension to the mainstream, if you think of it as continuous delivery, some recent studies have shown that while overall CD use is low, growth has been ramping up year over year, just like DevOps.

2. Clearly explain the DevOps stack(s)

While even the best tools without the proper process (or “culture”) are ineffective, most people think in terms of stacks and tool-chains. So many of the DevOps conversations I’ve been involved in over recent years start by talking about tools and technologies. We’re in IT: it’s what we know.

I’d really like to see us start discussing common tool-chains and patterns of use (“cookbooks” to use an older, common programming documentation metaphor) for doing DevOps. Reference implementations even! Vendors do well telling you what they think the toolchain should be — please, oh please, feel free to ask me! ;). In fact, I’d say there’s almost an unhelpful amount of fragmentation in the infrastructure management layer at the moment: there are so many options that one can be left confused and overwhelmed.

Instead of letting us vendors define those stacks, I’d like to see the overall community get even more involved. Don’t be afraid to talk about tools in the face of all this culture talk! And don’t let us vendors steal the show.

3. Work with legacy code

Almost by definition, the IT shop at a non-technology company will be chock full of existing IT and “legacy code.” That’s the very IT that was once the growth-engine darling of the company and laid the foundation for where they are now.

As we all know but try to shy away from admitting too loudly, the new cycle of code and tech rarely works with the previous cycle’s code. I talk with companies almost weekly that are very interested in the question of how to integrate new cloud-native and mobile applications with five, 10, even 15+ year old centralized IT services. They want all the power of cloud and continuous delivery, but need help rationalizing and working with what they already have.

In my view, this is a conversation that doesn’t happen often enough in the DevOps community. It first starts with a — wait for it! — seemingly dottering old term: “IT portfolio management.” That is, taking the time to assess what IT you have and understand the business priorities around it. Without that kind of big picture, systems-based understanding of what you have, any whiz-bang awesomeness you get with DevOps will pale in comparison to the rumbling rebar-festooned concrete ball of legacy IT you have to deal with. (Damon Edwards gave a great talk right before mine introducing one method of getting down and dirty with portfolio management.)

There are many thought-technologies of how to approach this, from Gartner’s bi-modal IT approach, to some interesting work going on over at the Cutter Consortium. The point is to have the discipline and maturity to actually do portfolio management so you can start to improve everything and better prioritize your time and projects.

And, to point out the obvious: we need to start documenting how the application being written and supported by DevOps teams is integrating and co-existing with non-DevOps (or “legacy”) applications and services.

4. Keep up the Land-grab

As its name implies, DevOps has been on a land-grab mission that started back in the Agile days. If agile had gone the portmanteau route in naming itself, we might have seen DevQA, or even ProductDevQA. Agile development very consciously crossed silos and unified product management and QA with development, so much so that by the time we came up with DevOps, “Dev” represented all of those traditional roles.

Now, as companies are looking to IT and custom written software to help them become software defined businesses, DevOps-minded folks need to start thinking about how they can get more involved with “the business.” Do you know who these mythical business people are, what they’re worried about, how they think? Can you speak their language and help them learn yours?

To pick one very specific item that’s always a punji pit of IT despair: what KPIs and metrics should you use to communicate “up the chain”? (Ernest Mueller and Karthik Gaekwad have a great presentation on just this topic from last year.)

Think of it this way: what is the “API” for your business, and how can you start programming it…if not designing the API? Once DevOps is tightly integrated with the business side, and most companies are activity thinking about how custom written software can help run, grow, and innovate their business…then we’ll be able to declare DevOps success in the mainstream.

(I originally wrote this May 2015 for FierceDevOps, a site which has made it either impossible or impossibly tedious to find these articles. Hence, it’s now here.)