Bryson Koehler believes the most important enabling factor for DevOps success is culture.
Koehler is CTO of IBM’s newly formed Watson and Cloud Platform group. Prior to this role, he served as executive vice president, distinguished engineer and CIO/CTO of The Weather Company (TWC), an IBM business since 2016. He has a record of successfully leading significant business transformations and underlying cultural transformations, which he maintains in tech companies must be incited first at the developer level. As such, while at TWC Koehler built a DevOps culture and practice that encourages transparency, accountability and collaboration, and it is his mission to replicate the successful model in the transformation of IBM’s culture.
Since I experienced some of the TWC culture firsthand, I asked if he would be willing to share his thoughts on enabling a high-performing culture as well as maintaining that culture during periods of rapid growth or change.
He started the interview with a theme clearly central to his core ideology as a transformational leader, and one of TWC’s key factors for success:
Culturally, the goal is to find people who really love what they do. I want people to wake up in the morning and love what they do—not tolerate it, not like it, but love it. We work very hard to find people who love what we do and love the mission we are on. If you work very hard to assemble a team that loves what they do, the culture will take care of itself as long as you enable it … it’s about enabling them, with as much freedom and flexibility as possible, while still maintaining some level of consistency and control. It’s a balancing act and at TWC we worked very hard to give the right tools that enable people to work on any device, anywhere, at any time. The tools were an enabler; it was the culture that really invented itself based on the fact that we hired people who love what they do.
Koehler’s commitment to finding the right people with the skills and passion consistent with his company’s mission put the base focus of enabling DevOps practices where it needs to be—with the people.
For those that have read some of my other blogs, one of the things I’ve written about before is the mistake of choosing tools without first addressing the critical underlying aspects of DevOps including, a solid agile foundation and the cultural changes required to facilitate DevOps practices. Needless to say, Koehler’s comments about tools being an enabler really resonated with me because it was clear he still views the tooling as very important but puts the real emphasis on having the right people. The other key message that really resonated with me during the interview was his commitment to accountability and transparency:
… from a leadership perspective, it’s around making sure there is clear accountability. There is single-person accountability for work. If you walk into a meeting and you don’t know who the single decision maker is in the meeting, my recommendation to the team is to leave. Don’t have the meeting, because it’s a waste of time. There should be one person that everyone knows is the decision maker, whatever the topic. If we don’t know that, then it’s my job to make sure I make that crystal clear. You can’t walk into a meeting with five people all thinking they own the decision when also working to create a culture with high velocity, high throughput and high passion towards meeting objectives and getting stuff done. You hire people who love what they do, you enable them with great tools, you have crystal-clear accountability and decision-making so that things can get decided quickly and that we know who is accountable for making sure that decision was successful, and then constantly work against the goals of the business. You also have to be very willing to adjust your tools, very willing to adjust your people, and very willing to adjust your decision-making. We must be constantly willing to look at ourselves and figure out how we improve.
Koehler’s willingness to continuously look inward and adjust what is not working demonstrates another key success factor for high-performing DevOps teams. Having an executive driving that culture of continuous improvement is critical for DevOps success.
He also is dedicated to core agile principles that allow for flexibility and responsiveness while maintaining some degree of focus and clear prioritization. With the rapid TWC growth, we also discussed how he maintained and adapted the existing culture in response to that growth:
It’s really critical for me as a leader to stay very in tune with how these teams work and function, calling out any bad behavior and correcting it quickly. I’m just as willing to roll up my sleeves and get dirty as the next guy, and I expect everyone else to do the same. Kingdom building is not something that will get you very far in how we work. If you do that [roll up your sleeves], then as part of your culture, everyone puts down their guard and realizes that nobody is any more or less important than anyone else. We are all here to accomplish the same thing.
Common goals and people that love what they do! It’s a great mix and Koehler has some fascinating perspectives on driving cultural transformation in support of DevOps practices, not only for the efforts he successfully led at TWC but for the efforts he will continue to lead within IBM. His commitment to culture can best be wrapped up by one of his final comments:
None of our great technical ideas has any chance of seeing the light of day if we don’t get the culture right.
Thank you again to @brysonkoehler for the interview and insight into TWC’s amazing culture and your vision for IBM!
About the Author / Bryson Koehler and Shelbee Smith-Eigenbrode