I’ve been a member of the DevOps community a long time (literally since before it was ever even called “DevOps”). I was a pre-publication reviewer for both “The Phoenix Project” and the recently published “The DevOps Handbook,” and I’m always interested in seeing the outcomes successes software teams have and the failures they overcome, including trust.
While DevOps has proven to be effective in organizations of all sizes—startups and enterprises alike—there are still many who have not yet begun their DevOps journey, so I thought I might share some of my own experiences while introducing DevOps into an enterprise IT group.
When I was the VP of Operations at Big Fish Games, I had the responsibility for production operations at Big Fish’s three production data centers in Seattle, Virginia and Luxembourg. I also had responsibility for internal corporate IT and information security. Our production operations supported around a million game downloads per day. Games were localized into 11 different languages. We processed essentially every major currency, and right before I left Big Fish, we started taking Bitcoin as well. From an IT perspective, Big Fish Games was a global eCommerce company selling digital widgets on the internet. We had around 800 employees in our five offices in Seattle, Ireland, Oakland, Luxembourg and Vancouver, BC.
My first attempt to introduce DevOps at Big Fish failed miserably due to cultural misunderstandings and a fundamental lack of trust between the development and operations teams.
You absolutely need some minimum baseline level of trust in your organization if you are to have any chance at implementing DevOps. Trust is important because you are blurring traditional boundaries between development and operations responsibilities. Including development in production operations can be scary for operations teams. It just feels wrong from a historical ITIL-type perspective, and operations teams may know development as “the people who always break things.” At the same time, it can be scary for development to involve operations in the development process because they may know operations as “the team that always says ‘No.’”
Successfully merging the priorities and goals of development and operations teams to create one cohesive DevOps effort can fail due to cultural misunderstandings and, oftentimes, a fundamental lack of trust. I used three specific strategies to overcome these challenges.
Lose the Term ‘DevOps’
At Big Fish Games, application development teams equated DevOps with developers carrying pagers: an idea that they really did not like. They were highly resistant to this. Every time I brought up DevOps, they thought I was engaged in a secret plot to make the developers carry pagers. What I found interesting about this was that I had no intention of asking developers to carry pagers.
The term “DevOps” covers a large range of continuous improvement techniques. Some organizations have developers carry pagers, and it works for them, but this is certainly not a prerequisite for DevOps. What was worse, I had no idea they were thinking this because they were afraid to bring it up for discussion. We failed in our first attempts to implement DevOps because the trust level between development and operations teams was so low that we couldn’t even tell each other what we were thinking.
I realized two things from this experience:
- Getting rid of a term that scared both development and operations teams would eliminate an unnecessary distraction preventing these teams from coming together to focus on common goals.
- We needed to do something about the trust issues between development and operations before we could succeed with DevOps.
Once I realized this, I immediately stopped using the word “DevOps.” Instead, I talked about continuous improvement and specific continuous improvement methodologies that we wanted to implement, and how these new adoptions would result in shared, organizational-wide growth.
Focus on Methods That Benefit Other Teams
When deciding which of these DevOps, a.k.a. “continuous improvement,” techniques we wanted to implement, I specifically chose ones that would benefit development teams as opposed to ones benefiting operations or other teams. The development teams noticed this over time. They could see I was doing this and that I (the person who ran operations) was going out of my way to help them. This helped build trust. This wasn’t a one-time thing. We did this consistently.
Here’s another simple failure example: I noticed while managing release efforts that release schedules for the various development teams ranged from a couple weeks to a couple months—too long for a hyper-competitive industry like gaming. I asked the development teams if they would like our release engineering team to support daily code releases or even multiple code releases per day. I thought this was an innocuous question. In fact, I thought I was being a little clever by playing dumb here. I assumed I would get an enthusiastic high-five along with a, “Yes, we’d love that! How soon can you make that happen?!”
I was surprised when I received a violent “No! We don’t want that!” This confused me for a while until I realized that the development team thought I was in cahoots with the product management team to put the squeeze on them. In my mind, I was offering to make their release process more lightweight so they could break up their work into smaller, more frequent releases with less stress for everyone, but I didn’t understand their fears and problems. I wasn’t looking at it from their perspective and here was the trust issue rearing up again. They misinterpreted my intentions as nefarious.
I pictured them being able to release code whenever they want, which seemed like something they would like. In their minds, they pictured a product manager constantly randomizing them with demands for new features to be released right there while the product manager was leaning over their shoulder. This was not the kind of problem you could resolve with logic. The solutions and working procedures I was proposing were so far outside the development team’s experience that they couldn’t extrapolate through simple logic from their current state to the world I was describing.
Maximize Daily Interactions Between Development and Operations Teams
It’s easy to distrust someone you don’t know personally or you don’t have to see every day. It’s a lot more difficult to hate on someone you know and work with on a daily basis.
One of the DevOps techniques that I implemented early on was embedding a dedicated operations liaison into each development team. This liaison acted as an advocate for that development team back into operations and they helped smaller development teams navigate their work through a large, complex, centralized operations organization. The operations liaison attended daily development team standups, group meetings and project meetings. This program was a huge success. Development teams saw how their operations liaison helped expedite their work through the operations organization and advocated for their development team’s interests inside operations.
After the development teams got used to working with their operations liaison on a daily basis, we pushed a bit farther and got the development teams to agree to include operations in architectural discussions at the beginning of application design. At first, our development teams were skeptical that operations could provide useful input here, but the important thing is we had developed enough mutual trust that they were not fearful of including operations in the discussions. They were skeptical that we would add any value, but they weren’t afraid that we would cause them problems. This was a big win.
Although it felt a little weird to our development teams to include operations in design discussions, they quickly saw how obtaining input from operations early on, before a product was built, resulted in better quality and fewer headaches for everyone when we launched into production. I also made sure that we put our most senior and diplomatic operations team members into this role.
In conclusion, it is worth repeating that trust is a prerequisite for any organization to succeed with DevOps. This is due not only to problems arising from fuzzy definitions of what DevOps is and is not, but also the seemingly dangerous idea of blurring the boundaries between development and operations organizations. Whatever your definition of DevOps is, fostering an increased level of trust between development and operations teams as a prerequisite for your DevOps journey will ensure that even greater trust—and the positive business impact that comes with it—are your outcomes as well.
About the Author / Paul Farrall
Paul Farrall is the VP of Operations for Skytap. He was most recently vice president of Operations at Big Fish Games where he led the rollout of global infrastructure for the Big Fish cloud gaming platform and implementation of the Big Fish DevOps program. Prior to Big Fish, Paul was the Director of Operations and Chief Information Security Officer at Intelius, a Bellevue e-commerce company. Previous companies also include AT&T Wireless in Bothell, Washington, and GetThere.com in Palo Alto, California (now Sabre). Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.