Kill The DevOps Team

Jan 6, 2020| Daniel Jones

The DevOps Team must die.

The continued existence of The DevOps Team allows the misguided, the lazy and the dishonest to feign positive change under the covers of IT-meme buzzword compliance.

Inside a buzzword-compliant enterprise…

  • Are we agile? Check! We have sprints planned for the next three months!
  • Do we have a Kubernetes strategy? Check! Apparently we need just one more month and then it’ll be in production.
  • Are we DevOps? Check! We’ve hired a bunch of DevOps Engineers to work in a siloed team to write YAML and run Ansible playbooks.

The DevOps Team is an all-too-common anti-pattern, co-opting a virtuous term of good practice in order to convince the C-suite that they’re at the cutting edge of buzzword bingo, when in reality responsibilities and culture linger on from previous decades.

If you have a team called “The DevOps Team”, then we can be sure as damnit that you’re not actually practising DevOps, and the chances are that you’re doing the exact opposite.

Actual DevOps

Phew - we’ve got the provocative click-bait opening out of the way. I can now let slip that some of my best friends are DevOps Engineers. Honest!

Let’s define what DevOps actually is:

You write it, you run it, you get woken up at 4am by it.

This is why it’s nonsensical when recruiters send me profiles of “DevOps Engineers” who haven’t ever written an application. Folks, please stop doing that.

A more precise definition of DevOps might be:

DevOps is a practice wherein a single cross-functional team is responsible for the entire lifecycle of an application or service, taking it from creation to operation and support.

So, before we get into defining what DevOps is not, let’s briefly summarise its benefits.

What DevOps Makes Better

Actual DevOps leads to increased flow efficiency, reduced time-to-market and higher quality for a number of reasons.

The interests of those writing the software and running it are aligned, because they are the same people. Developers are much more diligent about quality and operability when they are the people that get woken up at 4am in the event of an outage.

As well as aligned interests, this single team that both writes and runs the software has a shared identity, meaning they care more about each others’ problems.

There are no communications boundaries, reducing the transaction cost of change. Instead of communication hops introducing latency into the value stream (think about raising a service ticket and waiting for another team to do a thing), communications are likely synchronous if they’re needed at all.

Case in hand - as I write this, one of our engineers lamented to me that a customer RESTlike application needs to be provided some encrypted data before it will do anything other than return error responses. In order to generate this encrypted data, you need to run the app that needs it in the first place, and hit a special endpoint. So one has to deploy the app, watch it be marked unhealthy, trigger the endpoint, reconfigure the app with the encrypted value, and then restart it. I don’t think the 12 Factors specifically called out this use case, but I’m pretty sure that if the app developers were the people deploying it then they might have figured out a less manual solution.

NotDevOps

How many of the following signs of NotDevOps can you spot at your organisation?

If you counted one or more of the above, then commiserations: you’re doing NotDevOps! On the up side you’re not alone, given the thousands of job adverts for “DevOps Engineers”.

Back in ye olden days, we used to call these people Systems Administrators, or perhaps Config Management. They were the folks who knew stuff about Linux and who got your code into an environment. These days, if you’re a SysAd who knows Puppet/Chef/Salt/Ansible/kubectl, then congratulations are in order - you’re now a DevOps and as a result you get a 50% pay rise!

As alluded to earlier, folks that are actually developing the applications shouldn’t have to ask someone else to:

If they do have to ask for these things, then guess what? NotDevOps!

If you’re practising NotDevOps, your employer doesn’t get the benefits that they think they are. You’re lying to the C-suite who think you’re doing this cool thing they’ve heard about, when actually it’s the same playbook with differently-named teams.

This is worse than just not doing DevOps - you’re creating a blind spot for the people that pay for your expertise, and ruining the reputation of those who are doing the right thing by abusing the terminology.

The superbly intelligent and thoughtful Matthew Skelton of Conflux Digital has gone into a lot more detail in defining the various ways of doing NotDevOps, handily summarised in a list of DevOps Anti-Types. Matthew more importantly co-authored Team Topologies which will tell you how to structure teams to achieve great flow efficiency.

EngineerBetter are often asked to help organisations figure out how to deliver value faster. One of the most frequent inhibitors of value delivery is poor flow efficiency - more time is spent waiting rather than working. Separating the development and operations activities into different silos is a common cause of these waits. To then name this team by abusing the very term that should fix the issue is to add salt into the wound!

So, should we actually kill them?

No. (Unless they’re time-travelling robots sent from the future to slow human productivity whilst artificial intelligence beavers away on becoming sentient and enslaving the human race, in which case I’d argue that more assertive action may be justified.)

Let’s kill the notion of The DevOps Team.

Let’s stop calling them The DevOps Team.

Let’s stop pretending we’re doing a thing, and instead enable people to actually do the thing.

And if you can’t do that, then stop lying to yourselves and to the people that pay your wages.

I’ve already got a DevOps Team - what do I do now?

Let’s ensure that those people are enabling self-service of developers by building reusable automation.

The Team Formerly Known As The DevOps Team (TTFKATDT - catchy huh?) should not be doing transactional, one-off, ‘business as usual’ work.

They should be building an internal product that gives developers self-service. In this model TTFKATDT are enabling true DevOps to be performed by the app developers, giving them the tools they need to operate their applications in production: logging, metrics, lifecycle controls, the works. We’ve written about this ‘Post-DevOps’ model in greater detail in the past.

TTFKATDT don’t do fire-and-forget tasks for app developers. They solicit requirements from app developers, and form them into a product backlog. They play stories from this backlog, building automated and reusable solutions that allow developers to perform operations tasks. They are making a permanent product, not satisfying ephemeral service tickets.

At EngineerBetter we would choose to call TTFKATDT a platform team - although I think the industry is approaching the point at which terms like “platform” along with “service” are being diluted beyond all meaning.

To pre-empt responses to this article - if you do have a ‘DevOps Team’ that is doing the good things outlined above, then why are you calling them a ‘DevOps Team’? Surely they should be named after the product they deliver?

Doing The Right Thing

Look beyond the buzzwords and the trends, and take the time to understand the terms being used. No amount of expensive DevOps Engineer contractors will improve your value delivery if the organisation isn’t focusing on removing wait times and reducing lead-time-to-production.

If you need help delivering value faster, then get in touch with us at EngineerBetter. We use systems thinking techniques to understand your development practice, ascertain the current reality of the organisation and expose that for discussion. From there we make recommendations and suggestions of how to fix your specific issues, which we find yields much better results than cargo-culting the latest development trend.

In the meantime, can we all stop using terms incorrectly, and stop suggesting that we’re doing virtuous things when we are not?

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