The Tipping Point of Culture and People in DevOps

Global spending on digital transformation technologies is expected to reach $1.3 trillion this year and double by 2021. Good news, right? Well, sort of.

Industry analyst Michael Gale, known for his extensive research into key transformation drivers, told Forbes in a recent interview that only one in eight organizations have gotten digital transformation right, with more than 50% failing. “Their expectations were neither met nor exceeded and the gap between expectation and meeting [was] so enormous it was considered a failure,” he stated.

In today’s “evolve or die” era, companies must focus on system adaptation and integration. Yet over half are failing at digital transformation, meaning something is missing. Technology alone isn’t enough. That’s because technology doesn’t create a culture of trust, accountability and integrity—people do. Real transformation—going from initiation to sustainable, long-term change—depends on the right culture and the right people.

In fact, research has found that less digitally mature organizations tend to focus on individual technologies, whereas companies that are maturing—seeing measurable improvements from their efforts—focus more on strategy, including the culture of digital business transformation. These organizations embrace the opportunity to innovate, take risks, and develop collaborative work environments.

Avaya President and CEO Jim Chirico touched on this recently at our Avaya ENGAGE event in Mexico City: “No longer do we have ‘veto votes’ within the company. The answer is not ‘no.’ The answer is not ‘There’s going to be a lot of risk associated with it.’ The answer is, ‘What do you need? When do you need it? Let’s go get it done,’” he stated in his keynote presentation.

“It’s important to understand what motivates and drives a company. Our key five cultural principles are teaming, accountability, simplification, trust and empowerment. We live those five principles each and every day. If we didn’t have those principles, if we didn’t have shared values and a shared sense of purpose, we wouldn’t be making the progress we are today.

This mindset is critically important in DevOps for balancing system reliability against rapid digital growth.

Culture and People in DevOps

Many companies can make things work on a small scale, but moving digital to scale at a consistent, let alone rapid, pace is a different story. This is where the symbiotic relationship between technology, culture and people comes into play. If people are afraid of change or lack the skills needed to incite change, change will not happen. Similarly, change will not happen if the culture isn’t right. This means a lot for DevOps, a practice where human/organizational scaling issues is all too common.

There are several culture- and people-related issues considering the current state of DevOps, many which Matt Klein, senior software engineer at Lyft, excellently covers in this article for Medium. Let’s break some of them down:

Shift to software automation: Automation is an efficient way to scale, but what happens when you’ve eradicated most traditional and/or specialist operations and engineering roles? You’re left with generalists who are expected to handle everything from development to QA to operations, including more complex applications and architecture that require specialist skills to succeed. Only 17% of companies believe they have sufficient employees with the right skills to see them through a smooth digital transformation. As an organization scales, it will require different types of engineers.

Lack of unification: This is a tricky one. As Klein writes, “…state of the art cloud native technology is still too hard to use if every product engineering team must individually solve common problems around networking, observability, deployment, provisioning, caching, data storage, etc.” This is a big reason why central infrastructure teams are introduced early on, yet (as discussed below) this causes scalability problems of its own. 

Central infrastructure team: Created to manage the underlying people and technology changes of hyper-growth, these teams eventually reach the edge of a precipice at which point there is nowhere to go but down. As Klein writes, at some point the team can no longer both continue to build and operate the infrastructure critical to business success while maintaining the support burden of helping product teams with operational tasks. Burnout ensues, and transformation slows. 

The principles of teamwork, accountability, trust and empowerment are key in DevOps for moving swiftly to deliver game-changing innovation. In 2015, Gartner estimated that by 2018 90% of organizations attempting to use DevOps without specifically addressing culture would fail. I don’t think this is too far off.

Culture and people are great powers behind digital transformation that cannot be lost on DevOps.

  • Push cultural change from the top down, knowing that big things often have small beginnings.
  • Establish trust beyond audit-based control frameworks—have confidence that teams will responsibly meet organizational requirements.
  • Empower employees to take risks, knowing mistakes are necessary for getting it right.
  • Leverage skillsets between development and operations, knowing that each employee brings something valuable to the table.

Above all, have each other’s backs and work together as one unified, disruptive force.