Date Archives

July 2017

Learning to Speak DevOps With Stakeholders

When I left my position at Thomson Reuters in late 2012, a colleague gave me a gift.  It was a page cut from a Robert Frost book of works with a raven drawn over it.  Frost is one of my favorite American writers/poets and I have a strong tie to the raven (I even have a sick raven tattooed on myself).  This colleague was clearly a deep listener and really took the time to learn things beyond the superficial about me and made me feel special.  I learned that the art came from a merchant on the Etsy marketplace, which was only 7 years old at that time.

Ironically, the move from Thomson Reuters to Elsevier that the gift celebrated, was one I made to deepen my love for lean and agile.

At the time, I knew nothing about Etsy other than they made available some amazing art.  Since digging into my career more, I have learned about the amazing inter-workings and deployment pipelines that Etsy have curated over the years.  Leveraging private cloud and sound DevOps practices, they have created deployment streams that make most enterprise level shops weep with envy.  In 2014 it was reported Etsy deployed to production as many as 50 times a day.

But it wasn’t always that way.  You don’t always build a deployment chain like that from day one, and they too felt the pains of manual releases, and the associated integration/regression issues with other tightly coupled systems.

“Deploys were often very painful. We had a traditional mindset of, developers write the code and ops deploys it. And that doesn’t really scale.”

The beauty of Etsy was the intentional step to assess the operational culture, process and tooling that enabled poor deployment practices.  Etsy realized that they were only winning some of the business they targeted, and the technology that enabled the business was also the major system constraint and risk to scaling.

To win in business, you require the ability to sense market problems and respond with valuable technical solutions.  Both disruptive innovation and sustainable growth are underpinned with the ability to deploy software nimbly, and with high confidence.  It is important for the business team to understand the critical importance of DevOps, the mindset and to prepare for the speed that is acquired when teams adopt this culture.  Assertive organizations like Etsy realized this and have capitalized on it to continue to grow.

As technologists humans, we are almost hard-wired to talk about solutions.  I can share the publicly known details of the Etsy leveraged tools, but that only feeds the solution-based thinking.  What companies like Etsy do prior to retooling the deployment pipeline is the leading indicator of transformational success and sustainable flow.

All technological change starts with people.

Getting people to understand what better outcomes exist and how these outcomes benefit them, the organization, and the user base is a critical first step in meaningful transformation.  But is typically overlooked by most organizations. Whiskey tango foxtrot.

DevOps is not a set of tools.  It is the intersection of people, process and tools that align with leadership, culture and strategy (LCS).  People need to have the purpose in their environment to align with the LCS from which process and tooling should emerge.  The only way to ensure this alignment is to speak to people in a shared language; said differently, we do lead discussions with our business partners and stakeholders centered on tooling.

It is lazy.  It is short sighted.  It is a shell game.

Learn the intrinsic motivators of the stakeholders, the fears, and the real root problems they face.  Align these items with the strategy (wait, you do have a strategy, right?) to mitigate concerns.  Then cast the message of how DevOps is an enabler of “better” and partner with them on this journey.

DevOps extends well beyond the traditional IT/Engineering silos.  A simple example of this point is the speed of data driven feedback we acquire when we implement analytics, instrumented code, A/B testing harnesses, etc.  To assume our partners in product and marketing are equipped to handle all this new input and respond with better prioritization and strategy is foolish.  This extends to product operations if we increase user registration/billing, sales as we experiment with new features, procurement as we adopt infrastructure as code, and HR as we shift the core values of our product delivery staff.  And these are just top of mind examples.

The days of locally optimizing software practices are either nearly or totally over.  Transparent and honest organizations are emerging as the ones enabling faster growth in market.  This is only achieved with a first mover to shepherd the conversation, and I call on all my change agent friends to be the beacon of delivery calibration.

I recently sketched this model as a tool for myself when speaking to the business about DevOps, perhaps it is useful for others:

R – Research the business to understand the problems they have with current models
E – Empathize with the constraints and lack of technical insights they may have
A – Ask them to partner with you on charting better outcomes
C – Calibrate goals and achievements (leverage OKRs)
H – Harmonize practices and tooling to enable the goals and achievements

Thanks to Hibri Marzook for pointing out the intended loop of the model

As I left my time with Thomson Reuters, I kept that art with me in my various offices and work stations till it got lost in a move.  I loved it as a sign of appreciation from a coworker, but also as a symbol of the shared respect I formed with a Product Manager while working in a technical role.  I find the serendipitous humor in that it lead to this post asking for better efforts from my technical peers to continue with that same torch.

Change Leadership

There was a recent post on the Agile Uprising Coalition by @bradstokes about a scenario where a team had lost all sense of safety.  They were motioning through the daily tasks, but innovation, autonomy and excellence appear to be missing.  When I crafted my reply to Brad, I was thinking from an outside perspective on how an influencer may help to correct the patterns of instability.  My reply was a bit artificial, since I am not sure there is an acknowledgement that the leadership tier see this culture as an issue, that there is someone interested in taking this large responsibility head on and that the team itself is willing to believe in an improvement initiative.

Speaking Typing to Brad, I started to reflect on my prior team.  We were in a tragically similar space about 3 years ago.  The team was working and engaged to each other, but faced external pressures that created a sense of distance from the corporate values and strategy.  They were chronically late on commitments, delivering less functionality than was expected (which was often discovered very late in the process) and did not deliver the quality of software they were capable.  The team was good, they had just learned a battery of bad behaviors and lost the fire that drives your larger group towards excellence.

I was asked to come onto this team and guide them through a transformation journey and learn that it was ok to be awesome.. You may think there was a large amount of effort on coaching the team, which there was, but there was also an equal amount of effort coaching those that influenced the team.  Some leadership, stakeholders, technology peers, the governance teams, the list goes on.  Optimizing silos is an anti-pattern taught in lean theory, we should focus on the entire system.

In a blame-centric culture, teams are targeted as the root of under-performance. Teams are asked to “shape up, or ship out” with a dictatorial tone. As if digital products were akin to assembly line manufacturing. Often, the blame placed on teams is inverted, and the leadership team needs to improve the EQ to first ask “what have I done to enable this?”. In a modern organization, where excellence is built-in, delivery is a shared outcome. A cross-section of all parts of the value stream collectively win or lose based on delivery.

Some basic tactics to enable positive outcomes tend to be:

  • Define value in your organization. Is it revenue? Is it an attrition metric? Is it something else?. What is your primary source of value? This sounds simple, but if you have never had the discussion with various people in the organization, I imagine you will learn a bit.
  • What is your value stream? Map it.  Does your value stream change?  Map that to.  Focus on which value stream you want to start improving.  Set metrics, assumptions and hypotheses prior to improving.
  • Establish working agreements. I like to have no more than five agreements per team so that there is an expressed focus on living up to the agreements.  Too many will muddy the water.  The agreements should be defined by the team, stretch goals but achievable, and regularly reviewed.  When one agreement is regularly achieved the team should remove it and select a new aspiration to take on.
  • Reflect regularly. Waste is the antithesis of value.  Look at yourself and your team, ask “What waste can we impact positively?  What waste have we created?”.  Micro-reflections happen many times a day, but more ceremonial reflections are important too.  A time for the collective team to share reflection on how to improve, and taking on new experiments to iterate on for waste reduction.
  • Visualize and vocalize learning. Learning is not just positive outcomes.  Celebrate the negative outcomes to embrace the idea of foregone waste.  IF that bad code went into production, we would have waste in the form of tech debt, failing tests, displeased customers, etc.  Learn to love the failures from this stance.
  • Make safety a prerequisite. Taken from Modern Agile, this is the pillar of high performing teams.  Early in an improvement change, this is harder to do when there are months or years of learned behavior to impact.  Leadership setting the safety example early is crucial.  When something does not go to plan, blame the plan – not the team.  If a failure occurs, celebrate it as a learning from on top.  Exhibit the empathy and culture we want to see within our teams.  Hearing that story of an employee that was unable to define what their role was to Steve Jobs resulting in him being fired is a reminder that the tail should not wag the dog.
  • Go to the gemba. If there are delivery issues, sit with the delivery team. If there are market issues, engage your market.  And if there are process issues, look to your value stream.  I have been in some beautiful offices in my life.  One CXO from a previous life had a balcony that attached to his office and he would regularly be seen smoking a cigar from that balcony.  It was glorious.  But nothing good happens in four closed in walls.  You spent your entire career getting into that office, now spend the rest of your career rarely in there to learn how the work is really happening.

Change is not easy. Nor is leadership. Being a shepherd of change leadership is both difficult and rewarding.  In spite of the bullets above, there is no formula to successfully bring about a culture turnaround. There is only observation, measurement, and response.

Influencers, Outfluencers and the Apathetic Middle

This is being written during the Fourth of July weekend – a nice four-day escape from work and the perils of bureaucracy. Living within 100 miles of a coast, I am used to most from my area flocking to the beach towns of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland to relax, soak up the sun and enjoy time with friends and family.  This year, however, there was a major wrench tossed into the plans for a good number of people.  The state of New Jersey has been facing a failure to agree on a state budget, resulting in Governor Chris Christie implementing a state shutdown as of the start of the weekend, impacting non-essential services.  Included in the impacted services were state parks (including beaches).  This sounds bad, but it gets worse.  While travelers, bikers, runners, people with relaxation in mind were all turned away by state police at park entrances, word broke that the Governor himself, and his family, were enjoying their weekend on one of these closed beaches.  When asked about the hypocrisy, the Governor responded:

“The governor has a residence at Island Beach. Others don’t. Run for governor and you can have the residence.”

A crass response typical for the man (allegedly) responsible for the shutdown of a bridge to apply a heavy hand to a political non-conformist foe.  But hidden in the sensationalized headlines, is the message this sends about the culture allowed in the New Jersey state government.  Christie ran for Governor under the “Strong Leadership Now” slogan:

I do not intend to make this a political blog, it is just this story calcified the topic of culture for me.  I have recently been reflecting on culture since switching jobs to join the great folks at Contino.  Contino has an amazing culture, one I have not ever experienced before.  Intellect and technical agnosticism are pillars, respect and pragmatism are explicit, and the sense of team is highly apparent.  The culture of the company allows and enables these qualities.  While I spoke to one of the leads at Contino over a beer last week, I asked “How do these qualities remain as the company grows?”.  The answer was “It is our culture – we focus on hiring the right types of people.” – a good answer.  I then pointed out the definition of culture I have aligned with since first reading it: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” — Gruenter and Whitaker.

If you work for a place where “the brilliant jerk” is permitted, your culture is that of a jerk.

If you work for a place where “managing up” is understood to be the norm, you manage out the bottom.

And, if you are a governor and you close beaches to the public while you and your family take time to enjoy them, your culture is that of hypocrisy.

The flaw with the definition I attach to, is that it hinges on the “leader” to own culture, and I believe that is only a small part of the answer.  We all have a stake in the operating behavior of ourselves and our organizations.  Clearly there is reduced impact at the lower levels, but there is some weight to any position.  Those in areas of influence, either by title or sheer organizational respect, can impart cultural change by squashing cultural anti-patterns.  They have a responsibility as an influencer to take all reasonable steps to identify, make explicit, experiment, measure and improve culture issues within their domain.  These are the shepherds of improvement by working within the context of the organization and should be supported by the organization itself.

The apathetic middle is actually a meta-group for the potential influencers and potential detractors.  This makes up the majority of most traditional enterprise from my experience.  Members of this group are transient and flow between the two subgroups, especially when the influencers are not explicit enough or focused on the right areas of change.  This group requires respect and nurturing from the influencers and the organization leadership tier to constantly work on improving the cultural outlook and emotional health of the individuals.  Looking back to what Daniel Pink prescribed in Drive, these are the folks yearning for Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery in their work – and may need a little support to realize these things.  Maintaining a healthy middle is crucial for employee morale and attrition, but it is also critical to keep an open engagement line to the influencers to see positive growth in the area of positive culture.

Outfluencers are those that either do not agree with or do not see a clear culture within an organization.  Sometimes these are just frustrated folks that want out, no matter what.  The “rest-and-vest”s, or the “waiting for my severance” group.  It is also comprised of others that have shifted from the other groups.  In modern change management works, you are meant to ignore the change suppressors, and this group may appear to be suppressors – but they are not completely.  In this group are the former influencers that have hit the outer boundaries of culture change and are not seeing improvements, or are exposed to the corporate culture hypocrisy.  Understanding the “why” for the Outfluencer group is crucial for the leadership and the organization to realize continuous improvement.  It is less an exercise in converting an outfluencer, and more an attempt to gather data from which to learn and experiment on culture improvement.

When your leadership is comprised of folks like Chris Christie, where they tout “Strong Leadership Now”, but in practice exhibit the opposite, it is obvious to the company and the stakeholders.  Saying one thing and doing the other does not create healthy cultures and has negative impacts on engines of growth.  As the Fourth continues this weekend, raise a beer to all the change influencers and those in the middle trying to improve the status quo within organizations!