Does Devops have a Culture Problem?

At the Devopsdays conference in Mountain View, Spike Morelli led an Open Space discussion on the importance of culture. He was concerned that when people think and talk about devops they think and talk too much about tools and practices, and not enough about culture and collaboration and communication, not enough about getting people to work closely together and caring about working closely together – and that this is getting worse as more vendors tie themselves to devops.
At the Open Space we talked about the problem of defining culture and communicating it and other “soft and squishy” things. What was important and why. What got people excited about devops and how to communicate this and get it out to more people, and how to try to hold onto this in companies that aren’t agile and transparent. 
Culture isn’t something that you build by talking about it
Culture is like quality. You don’t build culture, or quality, by talking about it. You build it by doing things, by acting, by making things happen and making things change, and reinforcing these actions patiently and continually over time.
It’s important to talk – but to talk about the right things. To tell good stories, stories about people and organizations making things better and how they did it. What they did that worked, and what they did that didn’t work – how they failed, and what they learned by failing and how they got through it, so that others can learn from them. This transparency and honesty is one of the things that makes the devops community so compelling and so convincing – organizations that compete against each other for customers and talent and funding openly share their operational failures and lessons learned, as well as sharing some of the technology that they used to build their success. 
You need tools to make Devops work
Devops needs good tools to succeed. So does anything that involves working with software. Take Agile development. Agile is about “people over process and tools”. You can’t get agile by putting in an Agile tool of some kind. Developers can, and often prefer to, use informal and low-tech methods, organize their work on a card wall for example. But I don’t know any successful agile development teams that don’t rely on a good continuous integration platform and automated testing tools at least. Without these tools, Agile development wouldn’t scale and Agile teams couldn’t deliver software successfully.
The same is even more true for devops. Tools like Puppet and Chef and cfengine, and statsd and Graphite and the different log management toolsets are all a necessary part of devops. Without tools like these devops can’t work. Tools can’t make change, but people can’t change the way that they work without the right tools.  
Devops doesn’t have a culture problem – not yet
From what I can see, devops doesn’t have a culture problem – at least not yet. Everyone who has talked to me about devops (except for maybe a handful of vendors who are just looking for an angle), at this conference or at Velocity or at other conferences or meetups or in forums, all seem to share the same commitment to making operations better, and are all working earnestly and honestly with other people to make this happen.
I hear people talking about deployment and configuration and monitoring and metrics and self-service APIs and about automated operations testing frameworks, and about creating catalogs of operations architecture patterns. About tools and practices. But everyone is doing this in a serious and open and transparent and collaborative way. They are living the culture.
As Devops ideas catch on and eventually go mainstream – and I think it will happen – devops will change, just like Agile development has changed as it has gone mainstream. Agile in a big, bureaucratic enterprise with thousands of developers is heavier and more formal and not as much fun. But it is still agile. Developers are still able to deliver working software faster. They talk more with each other and with the customer to understand what they are working on and to solve problems and to find new ways to work better and faster. They focus more on getting things done, and less on paper pushing and process. This is a good thing.
As bigger companies learn more about devops and adopt it and adapt, it will become something different. As devops is taken up in different industries outside of online web services, with different tolerances for risk different constraints, it will change. And as time goes on and the devops community gets bigger and the people who are involved change and more people find more ways to make more money from devops, devops will become more about training and certification and coaching and consulting and more about commercial tools or about making money from open source tools.
Devops will change – not always for the better. That will suck. But at its core I think devops will still be about getting dev and ops together to solve operational problems, about getting feedback and responding to change, about making operations simpler and more transparent. And that’s going to be a good thing.

Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.
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