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Preparing for Your Organization’s DevOps Journey

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Introduction

Recently, I was asked two questions regarding DevOps. The first, ‘How do you get started implementing DevOps in an organization?’ A question I get asked, and answer, fairly frequently. The second was a bit more challenging to answer, ‘How do you prepare your organization to implement DevOps?

Getting Started

The first question, ‘How do you get started implementing DevOps in an organization?’, is a popular question many companies ask. The answer varies depending on who you ask, but the process is fairly well practiced and documented by a number of well-known and respected industry pundits. A successful DevOps implementation is a combination of strategic planning and effective execution.

A successful DevOps implementation is a combination of strategic planning and effective execution.

Most commonly, an organization starts with some form of a DevOps maturity assessment. The concept of a DevOps maturity model was introduced by Jez Humble and David Farley, in their ground-breaking book, Continuous Delivery: Reliable Software Releases through Build, Test, and Deployment Automation (Addison-Wesley Signature Series), circa 2011.

Humble and Farley presented their ‘Maturity Model for Configuration and Release Management’ (page 419). This model, which encompassed much more than just CM and RM, was created as a means of evaluating and improving an organization’s DevOps practices.

Although there are several variations, maturity models ordinarily all provide some means of ranking the relative maturity of an organization’s DevOps practices. Less sophisticated models focus primarily on tooling and processes. More holistic models, such as Accenture’s DevOps Maturity Assessment, focus on tooling, processes, people and culture.

Following the analysis, most industry experts recommend a strategic plan, followed an implementation plan. The plans set milestones for reaching higher levels of maturity, according to the model. Experts will identify key performance indicators, such as release frequency, defect rates, production downtime, and mean time to recovery from failures, which are often used to measure DevOps success.

Preparing for the Journey

As I said, the second question, ‘How do you prepare your organization to implement DevOps?’, is a bit more challenging to answer. And, as any good consultant would respond, it depends.

The exact answer depends on many factors. How engaged is management in wanting to transform their organization? How mature is the organization’s current IT practices? Are the other parts of the organization, such as sales, marketing, training, product documentation, and customer support, aligned with IT? Is IT aligned with them?

Even the basics matter, such as the organization’s size, both physical and financial, as well as the age of the organization? The industry? Are they in a highly regulated industry? Are they a global organization with distributed IT resources? Have they tried DevOps before and failed? Why did they fail?

As overwhelming as those questions might seem, I managed to break down my answer to the question, “How do you prepare your organization to implement DevOps?”, into five key areas. In my experience, each of these is critical for any DevOps transformation to succeed. Before the journey starts, these are five areas an organization needs to consider:

  1. Have an Agile Mindset
  2. Breakdown Silos
  3. Know Your Business
  4. Take the Long View
  5. Be Introspective

Have an Agile Mindset

It is commonly accepted that DevOps was born from the need of Agile software development to increase the frequency of releases. More releases required faster feedback loops, better quality control methods, and the increased use of automation, amongst other necessities. DevOps practices evolved to meet those challenges.

If an organization is considering DevOps, it should have already successfully embraced Agile, or be well along in their Agile transformation. An outgrowth of Agile software development, DevOps follow many Agile practices. Such Agile practices as cross-team collaboration, continuous and rapid feedback loops, continuous improvement, test-driven development, continuous integration, scheduling work in sprints, and breaking down business requirements into epics, stories, and tasks, are usually all part of a successful DevOps implementation.

If your organization cannot adopt Agile, it will likely fail to successfully embrace DevOps. Imagine a typical scenario in which DevOps enables an organization to release more frequently — monthly instead of quarterly, weekly instead of monthly. However, if the rest of the organization — sales, marketing, training, product documentation, and customer support, is still working in a non-Agile manner, they will not be able to match the improved cycle time DevOps would provide.

Breakdown Silos

Closely associated with an Agile mindset, is breaking down departmental silos. If your organization has already made an Agile transformation, then one should assume those ‘silos’, the physical or more often process-induced ‘walls’ between departments, have been torn down. Having embraced Agile, we assume that Development and Testing are working side-by-side as part of an Agile software development team.

Implementing DevOps requires closing the often wide gap between Development and Operations. If your organization cannot tear down the typically shorter wall between Development and Testing, then tearing down the larger walls between Development and Operations will be impossible.

Know Your Business

Before starting your DevOps journey, an organization needs to know thyself. Most organizations establish business metrics, such as sales quotas, profit targets, employee retention objectives, and client acquisition goals. However, many organizations have not formalized their IT-related Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or Service Level Agreements (SLAs).

DevOps is all about measurements — application response time, incident volume, severity, and impact, defect density, Mean Time To Recovery (MTTR), downtime, uptime, and so forth. Established meaningful and measurable metrics is one of the best ways to evaluate the continuous improvements achieved by a maturing DevOps practice.

To successfully implement DevOps, an organization should first identify its business critical performance metrics and service level expectations. Additionally, an organization must accurately and honestly measure itself against those metrics, before beginning the DevOps journey.

Take the Long View

Rome was not built in a day, organizations don’t transform overnight, and DevOps is a journey, not a time-boxed task in a team’s backlog. Before an organization sets out on their journey, they must be willing to take the long view on DevOps. There is a reason DevOps maturity models exist. Like most engineering practices, cultural and organizational transformation, and skill-building exercise, DevOps takes the time to become successfully entrenched in a company.

Rome was not built in a day, organizations don’t transform overnight, and DevOps is a journey, not a time-boxed task in a team’s backlog.

Organizations need to value quick, small wins, followed by more small wins. They should not expect a big bang with DevOps. Achieving high levels DevOps performance is similar to the Agile practice of delivering small pieces of valuable functionality, in an incremental fashion.

Getting the ‘Hello World’ application successfully through a simple continuous integration pipeline might seem small, but think of all the barriers that were overcome to achieve that task — source control, continuous integration server, unit testing, artifact repository, and so on. Your next win, deploy that ‘Hello World’ application to your Test environment, automatically, through a continuous deployment pipeline…

This practice reminds me of an adage. Would you prefer a dollar, every day for the next week, or seven dollars at the end of the week? Most people prefer the immediacy of a dollar each day (small wins), as well as the satisfaction of seeing the value build consistently, day after day. Exercise the same philosophy with DevOps.

Be Introspective

As stated earlier, generally, the first step in creating a strategic plan for implementing DevOps is analyzing your organization’s current level of IT maturity. Individual departments must be willing to be open, honest, and objective when assessing their current state.

The inability of organizations to be transparent about their practices, challenges, and performance, is a sign of an unhealthy corporate culture. Not only is an accurate perspective critical for a maturity analysis and strategic planning, but the existence of an unhealthy culture can also be fatal to most DevOps transformation. DevOps only thrives in an open, collaborative, and supportive culture.

Conclusion

As Alexander Graham Bell once famously said, ‘before anything else, preparation is the key to success.’ Although not a guarantee, properly preparing for a DevOps transformation by addressing these five key areas, should greatly improve an organization’s chances of success.

All opinions in this post are my own and not necessarily the views of my current employer or their clients.

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