“DevOps is 100 years old, and probably invented by a British engineer in the 1920s,” according to Nigel Dalton, CIO at REA Group, the company behind realestate.com.au and other leading real estate sites in Australia, Hong Kong and Europe.
He was referring to the work of Frank Woollard at Morris Motors in the UK. In 1925, Woollard produced a paper titled Some Notes on British Methods of Continuous Production in which he wrote “The ideal of continuous flow must be present from the design and raw material stages up to and even beyond the sales stage.” (This paper can be found in Bob Emiliani’s annotated reprint of Woollard’s Principles of Mass and Flow Production.)
“There’s nothing new under the sun with DevOps — we’re doing the same thing [as Woollard],” said Dalton. “We’re reproducing practices that are 100 years old.”
They might be even older, he said, pointing to research suggesting China’s Terracotta Warriors were made using flow manufacturing around 200BC.
While the principles are old, “the cutting edge today is DevOps.”
REA’s DevOps journey began around three years ago when the company’s applications and website covering commercial and residential sales, rentals and shared accommodation were being moved to a new Java-based platform. It was “an epic migration” involving a large team from REA and consultancy ThoughtWorks, and one that triggered consideration of how to do things even better.
People like REA’s Trent Hornibrook (then infrastructure lead, but now delivery lead) realised greater changes were needed, Dalton said. “I doubt that bosses could tell people to do DevOps — they’d find a million reasons to avoid it. It’s a practitioner, grass-roots thing.”
Hornibrook likened the situation that results from separate development and operations groups to working on a car production line and finding that a door doesn’t fit the body. Production grinds to a halt, but that could have been avoided with better collaboration further back in the process, so it’s largely about making the feedback cycle quicker.
The idea of a monthly development cycle where operations signs off at the end of the month “couldn’t go on in a world where things were moving faster,” said Dalton.
The company was still organised in functional groups: IT development, IT operations, marketing, sales, and so on. But as it moved to customer-segmented operations, these divisions were no longer appropriate.
So REA reorganised into business units covering its commercial, residential and property developer customers. “We got rid of IT operations, and put operations people into the teams,” he said.
The only centralised IT development workers are the global infrastructure and architecture team of around 12 people who build tools and measurement technology, manage the company’s use of Amazon Web Services, and provide consulting services. “They’re not high and mighty enterprise architects, they’re hands-on.”
The approximately 180 developers are part of the delivery teams that focus on the entire lifecycle of their applications, Hornibrook explained. “We’ve driven the autonomy and accountability down to individual teams,” and this has resulted in high levels of staff engagement.
Scaling IT is difficult, he observed, so it is necessary to provide that autonomy. While it does mean some work is duplicated, that’s a worthwhile trade-off for the increased throughput.
Dalton agreed, pointing out that the real estate business is changing rapidly, and REA’s ability to match that speed makes the organisation more resilient.
“The business benefits of adopting DevOps are significant,” said Dalton. The lean approach focuses on value, flow and waste, and DevOps improves flow and reduces waste. It is not logical to block flow by addressing operational issues at the end of a cycle — it’s much better to embed that function along the development process.
Another factor that allows IT at REA to keep pace with the business is that “we don’t have vendor dependency.” Rather than being locked in to the development cycles, the company uses a lot of open source software. “The tooling around DevOps is incredible… I reckon we use 50 tools that I know about across the teams,” Dalton said.
Similarly, REA employees are actively involved in Meetups, DevOps Days and other community events. In addition to gaining and sharing knowledge, this helps make REA an employer of choice, said Hornibrook.
The introduction of DevOps does require attention to various organisational issues, including governance. For example, the idea of separation of duties as a defence against certain kinds of malpractice goes out the window. “It’s a good concept, but an old concept,” Dalton said, and one that can be largely replaced by peer checking. He suggested it was much easier to make ‘unauthorised’ changes to code 20 years ago when it was commonplace for developers to work independently on a routine or module, but greater peer involvement and teamwork has made a big difference
“It’s all about outcomes,” he said. “We have controls.”
The adoption of DevOps does mean “the guardians of compliance have to learn more skills,” Dalton said. Tools such as GitHub record the changes that are made, but auditors need to learn how to use them. “All the evidence is there, they just have to find it.”
“Think about security at the beginning of the process and it’ll probably be better,” he added.
And when it comes to the functionality and quality of the software developed, accountability is an important motivator: if a particular component breaks, then the people who caused the problem will be the ones that have to fix it.
“DevOps is human behaviour and collaboration, yet it’s deeply technical,” said Dalton. REA’s biggest problem is finding people who will work collaboratively and take responsibility. Also — and how many times have we heard this about IT staff? — “Communication skills are really vital.”
Another important attribute that Hornibrook looks for is malleability, because “change is so confronting.”
“A focus on individuals within a work culture and mindset is a key element that prevents the adoption of DevOps,” he said. An important first step for someone in a role like his is to shepherd employees into a shared vision and purpose.
That, suggested Dalton, is helped by the way REA does not have a highfalutin mission statement, just a simple raison d’être: ‘Our purpose is to empower people by making property simple, efficient and stress-free.’
There’s also a benefit from one of the most basic Agile tools — cards on walls. This turns a binary ‘you versus me’ situation such as one person asking another whether a certain change has been made correctly into a ‘you and me versus the cards’ situation, and that’s a very different dynamic, according to Dalton.
The deeper collaboration is spreading from within IT into other functions such as marketing and sales. Dalton calls this ‘product DevOps,’ and added “we can lead that if we get our own house in order.” It helps that REA has already adopted Agile principles across several functional areas, including the call centre and the legal team.
“That’s how this organisation succeeds at pace and with flow,” he said. “Learn, learn, learn, with a relentless focus on the customer.”
That customer focus addresses the question of whether REA is building the right products, Hornibrook pointed out. Dalton agreed, observing “with DevOps and Agile, we can make the wrong thing really fast, but that’s not helpful.”