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Unblocking Change: Continuous Learning in the DevOps Era

I recently attended DevOpsDays Seattle. I was struck by (and reminded of) the emphasis placed on the importance of business process and cultural change. I’ve been hearing variations on these themes for years: “Technology is the easy part. Culture is hard.” I spoke with attendees who detailed their struggles against “the frozen middle” or IT managers who, failing to find their place in their company’s transformation, end up becoming a barrier to change.

One person I spoke with talked about building a 9-week training course for her IT managers around the book Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow, by Dominica Degrandis. She described the results as transformational. That makes sense. By training IT leaders in the fundamentals of business process improvement, she unblocked two common barriers to successful DevOps process adoption: the frozen middle and Kanban-in-name-only. (E.g. adding sticky notes to status meetings and calling the result, Kanban.)

After her enthusiastic endorsement, I decided to read Dominica’s book – and had my own personal epiphany around the perils of excessive WIP or “work in progress.” I was familiar with the concept: Research demonstrates that limiting the work in progress for teams using agile sprints, results in higher quality and greater overall productivity. However, I found that I could apply the principles in new ways to my own work. My team is also rethinking our use of Kanban in the name of continuous improvement of our own processes. It reinforced to me that it’s helpful to remain open to gaining new insights from familiar concepts.

I also listened to a talk from Tiffany Longworth, a Site Reliability Engineer at Puppet on Change Management for Humans. Tiffany took on the human factors that can make or break new initiatives. In the course of her talk, she mentioned a book called Radical Candor, Be a Kickass Boss, Without Losing your Humanity by Kim Scott. I’m halfway through my second reading. What I found powerful about the book was the emphasis on effective leadership as a series of partnerships with direct reports, with upper management and with peer groups. While the disruption is real, one of many benefits of the rapid changes that are shaking up the business landscape, is that the cost of bad management is much higher today than in the past. That means businesses have a financial incentive to root out what Scott calls “a common source of human misery,” the bad boss.

Puppet’s annual research report: The State of DevOps, has found a strong correlation between successful adoption of DevOps practices and the happiness and productivity of their employees. I believe that fundamentally, that is because DevOps practices are about making work more humane. When you improve communications between teams, empower individuals to contribute, recast failure as learning that will ultimately lead towards a better outcome, and measure success in terms of business outcomes rather than the number of tickets worked, you create a work environment that inspires both loyalty and performance.

For network operations teams, industry shifts can be particularly disruptive as application teams find ways to bypass controls and systems that made perfect sense at a time when acquiring and provisioning compute services took weeks or months. That often leads to tension between teams because applications still need the services the operations team provides. However, the speed at which those policies and services need to be delivered has accelerated dramatically.

F5 developed the Super-NetOps program as a free on-demand training tool to help network and security operations teams understand the changing environment and learn to become service providers to their organizations in response.

Change is never easy. but for those who embrace the principles of continuous learning and continuous improvement in both their own lives and in their work the benefits are real. The benefits may start small, but they tend to compound over time until, suddenly, dramatic improvements begin to emerge from the aggregate of small changes.