This is part 1 of a 2 part article
DevOps is somewhat unique in that it has applications to both large enterprises and to startups. The way DevOps is adopted in startups is incredibly different than how it happens in large organizations. The profile of how DevOps is adopted in each of these cases is the focus for this two part article series.
In this first installment, we will study how DevOps is adopted within startups and in the second, how enterprises adopt DevOps. There are lessons for each in the way that DevOps is adopted. Organizations can leverage this information to enable better, faster, and easier adoption of DevOps.
Much of the DevOps way is rooted in startup culture. From methodologies such as Agile, lean principles, and just in time manufacturing, startups adopted DevOps as a means to compete, innovate, and move faster. DevOps is inherently a quicker, better way to get product to market – a perfect fit for startups. They could adjust quickly, iterate again and again to get to the point where customers en masse were interested in their technology.
In order to understand how DevOps is adopted in startups, we need to look at how startups evolve. In the high-tech world, a startup gets going when a founder or group of founders has an epiphany for a new product or service. Generally one of the founders will start to develop the solution by writing some code. The startup may add a couple of developers but it is usually just a few folks cranking out the first version of the product. There is often a business or product focused function where requirements and feedback are gathered from potential users or customers.
In this first phase, the development team often adopts Agile as a way to quickly iterate on the development process. These short-term sprints build the initial functionality of the product. While initially, there isn’t really much to release to potential customers, the core developers are starting to build their development and release cadence. The short sprint help to keep the functionality requirements small and the team on-track to deliver a small piece of functionality in a short amount of time. This foundation also ends up being an important part of the future development process. And, just as importantly becomes the kernel of DevOps.
As a small team building the initial releases of the product, the culture and environment of the startup is generally fast, highly communicative with little to no process. Often the development team is sitting side-by-side cranking out code quickly. No specs, just a list of what needs to be done often stored in Pivotal Tracker or some similar tool. Sometimes mockups and screens designed to describe the functionality. There isn’t a rigorous process in the choice of technology platforms – language, database, etc. are chosen often based on what the core team knows or thinks is the right solution rather than on research. This small, agile environment is critical to understand when thinking about how DevOps is adopted.
There is little formal process at most startups. Things are evolving and moving so quickly that there just isn’t time. The goal, after all, is to get a product into market and start selling. While startups are high adopters of Agile as a development methodology, there is generally little rigor in its implementation. There doesn’t need to be because the team is so small and trying to move quickly. Adding in product management, sales, and marketing functions are often ad hoc. There isn’t a well-developed end-to-end product release process. The movement from development to operations is also less than well defined. Often, the developers building the product are the operations people deploying and managing the product or service. Process gives way to the practicality of just getting things done.
The first phases of DevOps adoption start to occur at this early stage in a company’s life. Developers as they are building their product often encounter some basic challenges and begin to solve these issues. How they solve them often dictates whether they take a DevOps path or not. One of the first things that developers do is build an environment to test their software. Often, they will find a cloud provider and start spinning up a few instances to host their application. They also may need a database server to round out their testing. They might manually do this a few times, but as they test more and potentially on different platforms they will start to look for some tools to automate this process. Of course, at this stage, there are likely zero operations people, so the tasks fall on the developers. And, developers wanting to spend more time coding pick-up some tools to do this work.
The tools might include infrastructure providers like AWS, Rackspace, or SoftLayer to configuration automation tools such as Chef or Puppet. There may be a variety of other toolsets chosen as well including project management tracking, libraries, language frameworks, and others. The goal with this first wave of tools is just to save time. That could be by not having to code basic functions, the setup of test environments, or manually tracking tasks. As the organization launches and brings their product or service to market, they may adopt some management and monitoring tools to help them gain visibility into their product or service. Generally at this early stage the decisions are focused on driving short-term problem solving. A developer needs a test environment quickly and repeatedly. A solution to that need is quickly found and implemented. The underlying paradigm is to move fast, solve problems, and get to market.
While tools are hardly a complete DevOps methodology, they are the catalyst for the next step in a startup’s journey to adopt DevOps. Many of the tools chosen in this first period have APIs, can create automation, and are highly configurable. As a startup keeps moving forward and increasing their users, the flexibility of these tools and the various ways that the developers utilize them starts to drive some conversation around process. A few hiccups in the production environment with some bugs, outages, or failures, and the technical leaders begin to start to say the ‘p’ word. Process. While there may be some Agile components already embedded, the growth of the startup starts to create a desire to add in some control, accountability, and guard rails around the product development process. Many organizations will also start to loop in the business side so that there is a more comprehensive process around releasing a product to market. Agile now starts to extend up and down the organization in a more rigorous way. DevOps is starting to take hold and become more fully formed.
The early stage DevOps lifecycle wraps up with it becoming a part of the culture. The organization now shifts into a mode where this methodology becomes a fundamental underpinning of the business. Values such as agility, intense customer focus, rapid iteration and others are a part of the fabric of the company and encompass the entire organization. Hiring decisions are made based on whether the candidates match the philosophy and culture of the company. DevOps is viewed as more than just a process that the company follows, but a competitive advantage in fulfilling its mission to its stakeholders. At this point, DevOps is firmly embedded into the organization and becomes its way of life.
Startups are unique in their approach to adoption of technology and methodologies because of their size, focus, and evolution. DevOps adoption, as we have seen out in the wild, seems to go through some natural stages. While the stages may overlap, it generally follows a tools, process, and then culture sequence. It could be said that some startups just start with the culture of DevOps, and that can be true for some, but many that we see are often so small at that stage that the culture is largely undefined. IT leaders who understand this sequence can become more intentional about the way that DevOps is adopted, perhaps accelerating it or even shaping it earlier in the company’s lifecycle. A little bit from now, our hypothesis is that startups won’t even start without DevOps embedded into their plan.
In part 2 of this series, we will examine the adoption of DevOps at larger companies.