The “You build it, you run it” approach has changed the mindset of modern organizations that are increasingly adopting DevOps practices. No longer completely beholden to the requirements of operations, engineering teams are continually acquiring more autonomy to deliver rapid innovation. At the same time, more organizations are adopting platform teams to accelerate development, empowering teams with easier access to services without requiring them to understand the underlying complexity. While this approach is helping teams build, scale and ship software faster, it’s also resurfacing previous areas of tension around operational governance.
Organizations are generally choosing between two governance approaches: Mandated or paved path. Each has a different perspective on the appropriate level of autonomy to grant development teams and where governance should sit within the development life cycle. But there’s a third approach—the “trust and verify” approach—that can provide both high levels of autonomy for development teams and the sophisticated governance that operations teams need to ensure compliance and security.
What is a Platform Team and Why are Organizations Adopting the Model?
A platform team provides a foundation of self-service APIs, tools, services, workflows and support that accelerates the delivery of digital services and products. Platform teams operate similarly to any R&D team; employing customer support, operations, development, SRE, product managers and other personnel. They use research, customer feedback and usage data to iteratively improve their services.
Rather than each development team reinventing the wheel, the platform team builds shared services that shield developers from the underlying complexity of infrastructure and enable self-serve access to services. As engineering resources become even more in-demand and scarce, organizations are using platform teams to optimize resources and share outputs.
Two Platform Governance Approaches: Mandated Vs. Paved Path
Organizations today typically are using one of two approaches to platform governance: Mandated or paved path.
A mandated approach solves the governance problem by mandating that all engineering teams use the platform. However, this approach puts the onus on the platform team to keep up with the changing demands of engineering. Organizations must invest in a platform team that can keep up with engineering requirements so they still feel like they can innovate and use the best tools.
The second approach is a paved path, popularized by Jeff Lawson of Twilio. This allows for engineers to go outside the platform if they are willing to take on the SLAs the platform provides and are responsible for all the costs of maintaining their own alternatives. Lawson said in this McKinsey interview, “What you do is you create the incentive structure for teams to take the paved path. But if they really have to go a different route, you make it possible for them to do that.”
While the paved path approach offers more autonomy for engineering teams, it requires teams that veer off the path to maintain the integrity of their software. Without guardrails, operations must put full trust in teams to keep their services secure and compliant. It can often be difficult for operations teams to maintain visibility into the services and infrastructure that fall outside the core platform.
So, given that a mandated approach restricts autonomy and a paved path can make compliance more difficult, what is the middle ground?
Bridging the Gap Between Mandated and Paved Path
First, it’s important to understand that governance is not synonymous with command and control. Instead, operations teams should think of governance as the practice of maintaining visibility and providing best practices. Rather than a mandated platform approach, organizations can choose an approach that offers more autonomy to engineering teams (similar to paved path) while also maintaining operational governance. This is a trust and verify approach.
Using the trust and verify approach, organizations should focus their efforts on technology, not people, to maintain compliance. The goal would be to have a platform that could easily connect to the entire toolchain any product team uses for complete visibility and context. In this way, operations can gain governance without adding friction for product teams. This requires a top-down approach within organizations: I&O leaders investing in engineering resources or an off-the-shelf platform that can enable this technology. Both engineering and operations can flourish in this modern environment. Approaching governance from a trust and verify perspective will expand access to innovation while ensuring compliance and security standards.
Governance Should be Over Technology, not People
Creating a bridge to a trust and verify approach means placing the responsibility for governance on technology rather than people to maintain detailed audit trails of human and machine actions tied to identity and reduce the potential for human error through automation. This approach provides autonomy for engineering teams while also ensuring governance through visibility and process controls embedded into workflows and tooling.
Shellie Miller, senior manager, technology governance and compliance at Hulu, believes technology can support DevOps practices. “To have a successful DevOps organization, we don’t need to have command and control or have this clear line of separation between dev and operations. It’s putting the responsibility on the infrastructure, the platform and the tooling and the policies and the processes that you have to enable those self-serve capabilities,” Miller said.
Mitigating Human Error Through Automation
This investment in technology should focus on automation and process controls that fit within teams’ current processes. “What auditors are really trying to do is mitigate human error,” said Miller. “Teams should really focus on automating controls, building those security practices and those best practices into the platform. That way, dev teams are just subscribing to that offering.”
Changes to applications, systems, data and code—one of the biggest culprits with regard to risk—is where automation and process controls embedded into platform offerings can make a huge impact. “From an engineering perspective, constant change is needed to support rapidly changing consumer demands,” Miller added. “However, from an audit perspective, these activities increase risk of material impact to viewer experience, revenue and/or financial reporting.”
Investment in Governance Comes From the Top
While technology holds the key to better governance and compliance standards, there’s an investment that must be made, whether that’s investing engineering resources in building automation or investing in an off-the-shelf platform that can enable automation.
“Leadership and organizational backing is absolutely key,” said Miller. “You can’t get to compliance or governance or any kind of operational maturity, for that matter, when you’re doing a bottom-up approach.”
Building a compliance and security program around technology and not people means having the proper skills and mindsets. A bottom-up approach could create friction, especially due to a lack of education and understanding of the why and how. A top-down approach ensures there are resources to both implement the technology and to foster a culture of understanding and education.
The most common question I get asked is, ‘Why can’t we trust our people?’” Miller said. “Compliance requirements don’t generally start with the thought that our people are being malicious. We should run an organization of trust, and through automated monitoring and governance, we can verify and govern without being intrusive and disruptive. Lack of training and the demand on teams is what drives the perception that there’s no trust. Security and compliance is intended to mitigate risk and prevent threats to the systems that enable the business.”
Building on a “Trust and Verify” Platform Approach
When it comes to governance, technology is our greatest asset. Of course, this investment can be substantial for many organizations that don’t have the engineering resources to build in-house. Today, new open source or off-the-shelf platforms enable operations teams to build self-service capabilities that provide guardrails against human error, an audit trail of human and machine actions and visibility across disparate tools and services.
No-code solutions that also provide a developer platform for deeper customization enable teams to build out these core requirements of governance without consuming considerable engineering resources. The door to a future where operations teams can provide more autonomy to development teams while maintaining governance is now open. Every organization has the ability to attain a “trust and verify” approach and meet the needs of both dev and ops.
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