Mental Health in SRE, DevOps and Operations

The biggest problem facing the DevOps, Operations and SRE professions are also the root causes of the biggest mental health issues in the profession. I touch on this subject in the book but I wanted to write something a little more personal here.

Most DevOps, Operations and SRE teams work on their own in their technology departments. Increasingly developers, testers, business analysts, scrum masters and product managers are aligned inside product teams. If they aren’t actually in a team together they are tightly bound by shared goals and success criteria. This has not been without trauma all of these groups have struggled with their identities and their relationships with each other but have generally had well aligned goals. It’s becoming more common for all these groups to report to a single Chief Product and Technology Officer.

DevOps, Operations and SRE teams might also report into this person or they might report into a separate CIO but regardless of that they are almost never given any attention as long as the core platform is working. When those systems aren’t working they are placed under tremendous pressure, as the whole business stops and all focus is on them.

If people are treated this way they inevitably become defensive. If this treatment continues defensive will become belligerence in some people.

I was at AOL in the early part of my career. Our Director of Technology clearly wanted nothing to do with operations. His entire focus was on the development teams. On my better days I told myself that it was because we were capable and functional in operations and they needed more help than us. On my worst days I’d tell myself that he didn’t understand operations and didn’t want anything to do with us.

I had a great boss (Dave Williams, now CIO of Just Eat, because he complained that I didn’t namecheck him in the book :P), and he always kept me focused on our capabilities and our achievements and stopped me getting too wrapped up in departmental politics. This strategy worked well. Operations grew in capability and size but every interaction I had with the director of the department went wrong. During crises I didn’t look like I cared enough. My people were belligerent and I was inexperienced. I didn’t know it at the time but we were pushing the envelope of technology and it was never commented on. Had it not been for Dave giving me air-cover and support I would probably have performed some career-limiting- manoeuvre. I certainly came close a couple of times.

It was Dave’s support that gave me the freedom to think about my profession and how things should work that eventually led to my realisation about product-focused DevOps or SRE as it’s more commonly known. Focusing on the needs of the developers gives clear success criteria when they don’t come from the leadership. Skip forward a decade-and-a-bit and I put all these things into practice at Just Eat. This created an environment for the people in SRE where they knew exactly how to be successful. Further it encouraged the people who developed software for the customers to discuss what shared success looks like with us. Some of the best work we did at Just Eat arose from having conversations with developers about what they were struggling with and designing and building solutions to help them out. Few things are more fun that making your friends lives better.

If you are unloved in your technology department and you aren’t getting the support you need from your boss then seek it from your peer group. Meet with your colleagues in development, testing, business analysis and product management work with them to make their lives better, build friendships with them and get your support from shared success.

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