Management’s role in DevOps: orchestrating the why

Donkey teamwork

What’s the point of it all? Why are we doing this? These questions pop up frequently in IT teams where the reason for doing your daily activities — like churning through tickets, whizzing up builds, or “doing the DevOps” — seems only that someone, somewhere told you to do it.

If you’re in this situation — you have no idea how your activities are helping your organization make money — you should stop and find out quickly what your company’s goals and strategies are to make sure you’re not wasting time. The good news is the confusion is probably not your fault; the bad news is that you’ll have to convince management that the fault is theirs.

Gratuitous optimization by technology

The adoption of things like DevOps or the cloud sometimes happens for wrong or unknown reasons — gratuitous plans without a tight connection to business goals. We used to call this “management by magazine,” and it happens now more than ever. A process — even “cultural” — change like DevOps is not like the easy improvement fodder of virtualization. But you can’t blame IT management for trying gratuitous optimization by technology. The magic of VMware was that you just installed it, and things got better because it improved resource utilization. You didn’t need to figure out why or match it to goals. If you inject DevOps into an organization expecting it to just improve things without tightly coupling to strategy, you’ll get weird results. You’ll probably just create more work!

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there

Agile, DevOps, and now “cloud native” (I hope you’re updating your buzzword lexicons!) need strong connections to the business goals — some would say “strategy” — to be successful. In order to operate in a lean fashion, you want to only do things that are valuable and useful to the customer (or obligatory to stay in business, like compliance and auditability). Indeed, being able to sort out what’s valuable and useful to the business is a key tool for doing DevOps successfully. You want to cut out all the stuff that doesn’t matter, or at least minimize it. Otherwise, you just sort of do everything and anything because there’s no way to determine if any given activity is helpful.

So how do you align your work with the overall business strategy?

There are tried and true (though seemingly new to the IT department) techniques like value-stream mapping: take any given business process and map out all the activities that happen from end-to-end, questioning if each is needed. Most people are shocked at how much “stupid” is going on in such maps and it’s a great technique for finding and removing bottlenecks.

If you’re in the consumer business — like so many “unicorns” are — it’s easy to understand the mission and the goals: get more people buying books, downloading your app, streaming more videos, and so forth. But in other, more traditional settings, it’s common to find a willful disentanglement between how IT is used and how it contributes to customer value. More than not, the stasis-inducing ludlum of time and success just numbs people’s collective minds and sets them into auto-pilot here.

You see this happen most often around decision making processes in business: things that need approval, planning processes and market assessments. People in large companies love cogitating and wrapping process around activities that cause change in the company; it feels like they almost like to slow down change and activity. You might even codify in a whole process with change review board meetings and careful inspection of all the changed components by a panel of architectural and security audit wizards.

Cultivating complainers

You can also identify where your processes aren’t matching with business goals and strategies by cultivating squeaky wheels.

When change happens, individuals often pipe up asking, “Why are we doing this? Why is this valuable to the customer?” More than likely, they’re seen as troublemakers or sand in the gears, and are shut down by the group, Five Monkeys style. At best, these individuals cope with learned helplessness; at worst, they leave, kicking off a sort of Idiocracy effect in the remaining organization.

These “complainers” are actually a valuable source of data for testing out how well understood a company’s goals and strategies are. You want to court these types of people to continually test out how effective the organization is at setting goals and strategy. One fun practice, as mentioned by Ticketmaster’s Jody Mulkey, is to interview new employees a month after starting to ask them what seems “screwy around here” before they get used to it.

Blame management

So what do you do when they or any other process you’ve tried identify real disconnects between what you’re doing and why? The fun begins — because it’s management’s job to fix this bug. The role of mid- and upper-level management in the cloud native era is poorly understood and documented (its always been so, of course, in creative-driven endeavors like software). To be successful at these types of initiatives, management has a lot of work to do and the managers who are overseeing DevOps teams can’t assume things will just proceed as normal. This is why, as with software, you need to continually test the assumption that people know the business goals and strategy.

This point has been stuck in my brain after reading Leading the Transformation (an excellent book for managers figuring out how to apply DevOps “in the large”), which states the point more plainly than I can:

Management needs to establish strategic objectives that make sense and that can be used to drive plans and track progress at the enterprise level. These should include key deliverables for the business and process changes for improving the effectiveness of the organization.

What I like about this advice (and the rest in the book) is that it’s geared to defining management’s job in all this DevOps hoopla. In said hoopla, we spend a lot of time on what the team does, but we don’t spend too much time on what management should do. It’s lovely thinking about flattening the organization and having everyone act as responsible peers, but in large organizations, this isn’t done easily or quickly. Just as with all those zippy containers, you need an orchestration layer to make sense of all the DevOps teams working together. That’s the job of management in the cloud native era: setting goals and orchestrating all the teams to make sure they’re all pulling in the right direction.

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