Empathy: The Essence of DevOps

Jeff Sussna
May 26, 2017 · 3 min read

(originally published 1/11/2014)

I first encountered empathy as an explicit design principle in the context of design thinking. You can’t design anything truly useful unless you understand the people for whom you’re designing. Customer satisfaction is more than just an intellectual evaluation. Understanding users requires understanding not just their thoughts, but also their emotional and physical needs.

I was surprised to encounter empathy again in the context of cybernetics. This rediscovery happened thanks to a Twitter exchange with @seungchan​. Cybernetics tells us that, in order for any one or any thing to function, it must have a relationship with other people and/or things. That relationship takes place through the exchange of information, in the form of a conversation. The thermostat converses with the air in the room. The brand converses with the customer. The designer converses with the developer. The developer converses with the operations engineer. Information exchange requires (and can contribute to) mutual understanding; e.g., empathy.

I had another Twitter exchange, this one with @krishnan, on the question of whether Platform-as-a-Service needs DevOps. I think the question actually misses the point. Software-as-service offers customers inseparable functionality and operability. Development delivers functionality and experience; operations ensures the operational integrity of that experience. At some point, the service will inevitably break. Uncertainty and failure are part of the nature of software-as-service. They are, to use @seungchan’s term, part of its “materiality”, just as flexibility or brittleness are part of the materiality of the wood or metal or plexiglass used to make a piece of furniture.

When a service does break, someone has to figure out where and why it broke, and how to fix it. Did the application code cause the failure? The PaaS? An interaction between them? Or something at a layer below them both? Regardless of how many abstraction layers exist, it’s still necessary both to make things and to run them. It doesn’t matter whether or not different people, or teams, or even companies take responsibility for the quality of the making and the operating. In order for a software service to succeed, both have to happen, in a unified and coherent way.

The confluence of these two Twitter exchanges led me to reflect on the true essence of DevOps. It occurred to me that it’s not about making developers and sysadmins report to the same VP. It’s not about automating all your configuration procedures. It’s not about tipping up a Jenkins server, or running your applications in the cloud, or releasing your code on Github. It’s not even about letting your developers deploy their code to a PaaS. The true essence of DevOps is empathy.

We say that, at its core, DevOps is about culture. We advise IT organizations to colocate Dev and Ops teams, to have them participate in the same standups, go out to lunch together, and work cheek by jowl. Why? Because it creates an environment that encourages empathy. Empathy allows ops engineers to appreciate the importance of being able push code quickly and frequently, without a fuss. It allows developers to appreciate the problems caused by writing code that’s fat, or slow, or insecure. Empathy allows software makers and operators to help each other deliver the best possible functionality+operability on behalf of their customers.

Dev and Ops need to empathize with each other (and with Design and Marketing) because they’re cooperating agents within a larger software-as-service system. More importantly, they all need to empathize, not just with each other, but also with users. Service is defined by co-creation of value. Only when a customer successfully uses a service to satisfy their own goals does its value become fully manifest. Service therefore requires an ongoing conversation between customer and provider. To succeed, that conversation requires empathy.

Jeff Sussna

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Agile + DevOps + Design Thinking. Coaching, Speaking, Workshops. Author of 'Designing Delivery' www.sussna-associates.com