DevOps: What comes first the culture or the collaboration?

Much has been written on the subject of corporate culture, more has been added since the advent of DevOps. Luminaries such as Patrick Debois, Gene Kim and Jez Humble all talk about DevOps and Culture on a regular basis. Every organisation I’ve worked in has been obsessed by it’s culture. After 20 years in small startups and global enterprises I’ve come to the conclusion that culture isn’t something that can be controlled, measured or managed directly.  This gives me a great excuse to paraphrase one of my heroes the late great Sir Terry Pratchett: “THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF CULTURE…”

Culture is created as a by-product when we work and play together, the nature of our culture is determined by our purpose and habits. A group that is encouraged to learn from failure and improve as a result will be curious and innovative. A group that only looks inwards for help and is discouraged from interacting with other groups will become defensive and narrow-minded. Groups have a tendency to reach out to other groups when they can speak the same language and have the same goals. Groups tend to become defensive when they perceive they have different or opposing goals to the groups around them, they take on a besieged mentality when they don’t even share terms of reference with the groups around them.

If you want to change a group’s culture you need to change how they work together, how they work with others and the habits they share. If you want a culture of innovation you should expose people to foreign ideas and concepts by creating the opportunity for groups with different skills and perspectives to work together on proposals that will become new projects. If you want a collaborative culture you should create the projects that require people with different skills and perspectives to collaborate.

As far as I can tell, there are currently two successful DevOps models. The directly collaborative cross-functional team model that encourages groups to work together to deliver services and the Service/API model that encourages groups to have rapid, predictable interactions by presenting APIs to each other. If we want collaboration we must break down the silos and allow engineers with different expertise and perspectives to work together. Consider a monitoring/feedback project where software, operations and test engineers work together to delivery better quality tests and monitoring. If we want groups to communicate with each other’s services via API calls we need to ensure all groups have the resources necessary to create good quality API’s. That includes Network, Operations and Test functions as well as focusing on the APIs between services and between clients and services.

The choices we make about how our teams work each day, the things we encourage them to do in the morning (whether we encourage them to check out the quality of the service or just look at their teams project progress) how we encourage them to behave when they make a mistake all contribute to the culture we create. We choose our culture when we decide how our teams work together and what we ask them to focus on and the opportunities we present them to learn, grow and receive recognition. In my experience DevOps happens when the opportunity exists to collaborate.

DevOps accelerates the rate at which the opportunities to collaborate present themselves. When I joined Playfish the Operations team existed as a service provider to the game and platform teams. Operations then built a few tools and shared the code with the games and platform teams and that created a few opportunities for operations and software engineers to work together. As those collaborations yielded more and more interesting and valuable results the level of collaboration increased as did the quality of the service that was provided. This then made more software engineers curious about operations and that yielded more opportunities for collaboration and learning until we had some teams that were almost entirely self-reliant for their regular day-to-day activities that made more space for greater levels of collaboration and so on and so on…

I write a lot more about how to build and foster collaboration in IT organisations in my book Next Gen DevOps: Creating The DevOps Organisation. Available on Amazon now.

*Image credit: Yoel on Morguefile

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