Classic Metrics for How Good You Are

One of the ‘best metrics ever’ is the classic “bus number”.  This measures how many people in an organization can be hit by a bus before that organization’s operations or progress is severely hindered due to that person’s absence.  This was a slightly funny way of measuring resilience of an organization versus the anti-pattern of knowledge hoarding in an individual’s brain.  The idea is that a resilient organization should have a very high bus number and not be vulnerable to ‘critical staff’.

Think about it next time you are looking at any part of your system.  Ask yourself who you would ask about that particular module, image, or whatever.  Then ask yourself who you would go to if the first person was unavailable.  How confident are you that you would quickly / expediently get your answer?  How confident are you that you could just look the information up in a Wiki or other documentation?

If you look at the questions above and start thinking that ‘we would figure it out after a while’ or making other excuses, you minimally have a problem with communications and collaboration.  You almost certainly have a process problem.  And you may well have a cultural problem.  Make no mistake, what it means is that your team/organization/project are playing in traffic and simply waiting for the inevitable to happen.

And when something does happen, say, for example, one of the project’s “hero coders” takes a new job, it will be miserable for all who remain as they try to figure out what the hero was doing.  Meanwhile the project’s progress languishes and the deadline becomes unachievable.  Morale goes down as frustration goes up.  Maybe someone else decides to leave out of a sense of futility; making the problem worse.  And it will have been completely avoidable.  It will be completely the fault of the leadership that was either not assertive enough to make the hero share their knowledge or undisciplined enough to not include sustainability in their coaching, plans, and day-to-day execution priorities.

This is serious stuff and is worth the investment of time to solve.  The habit of focusing on the overall sustainability of the organization is well documented as something that successful, resilient, and sustainable organizations emphasize.  This is well documented in the classic book “Good to Great” by Jim Colins, where the book describes the organizations being built as sophisticated machines using the analogy of clock building.  The notion is simple, really.  That the goal is to build a lasting thing that continues on as people come and go.  The project / organization must be bigger than any individual, the individuals involved must understand that, and management must encourage or enforce that mindset.  In the book, the organizations that did this radically outperformed their peers in the same markets in the same timeframe.

The reality is that you will probably always have some stuff (ideally only non-critical or very new stuff) that is not well disseminated, but take those in the lens of what they are and triage / prioritize them so that you do not accumulate the knowledge gap as technical debt.  Or, if you do, you should do so consciously, visibly, and at a level at which you know you can tolerate the risk.

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Managing To Get To Agile is Harder

There are a variety of jokes or snarky comments made about management.  A lot of them are modern echoes of Industrial era factory practices.  And that is the hard thing – most large corporate management doctrines are merely evolutions of principles established in the industrial era.  That era was characterized by hyper-specialization of jobs so that the companies could achieve economies of scale, from which competitive advantage could be derived.  That, of course, led to a whole system of policies, rules, and even laws that reflected that era.

Of course, competitive advantage from economies of scale is not a focus today.  Business moves too fast.  They key advantages are responsiveness to the changing market and the ability to exploit shorter-lived opportunities.  Even manufacturing processes have evolved to enable faster retooling to serve different markets with the same facility and equipment.  Agile development and DevOps are how the need for business agility gets reflected in IT.

Despite these market dynamics, the people management doctrine for most businesses still looks like an old-school industrial approach.  There is still a push to specialized roles and to do appraisals within a narrow set of rules for that specialty.  The generalization that is intrinsic to agile execution is not valued and corporate structures often limit what lower and middle level managers can do in terms of incenting the behaviors of folks on their teams.  A lot of that is based on the fact that the HR structures are designed to stay within a narrow band of safe and easily defended legal structures so that a pissed-off employee can’t really sue if there is a problem with perceived fairness.

These things are easier to achieve in smaller companies where there is not the same legacy and, frankly, there just isn’t as much sue-able money.  It is naive to not think about these aspects and would be patently unfair to simply slam things for being the way they are.  Things are the way they are for a lot of very good and very complex reasons; some of which are beyond the direct control of the business.

It is solvable, of course.  You can use creative organizational structures that put nominal specialists ‘on assignment’ in other specialty teams.  A popular extension of this is full-on matrix management.  A variation on the matrix is to have people farmed out to project teams in a similar manner to how consulting companies do things.

The common point of these solutions is that they require managers to work together in new ways.  They require managers of managers to encourage good team dynamics for their teams of managers.  They require a lot of communication and interaction among managers and to scattered teams.  Lower-level managers will have to be empowered to invest in and coach their teams into adaptable groups with good team dynamics.  It means the managers will have to be a lot more “hands-on” and leader-like rather than manager-like than they might be used to.

That is a lot harder for all levels of management than scientifically managing a group of theoretically interchangeable specialists.  The odds are that the managers are not trained for leadership skills relative to management skills.  So, as the organization goes Agile, make sure that the investment includes an investment in how to actually manage in an Agile environment.  It really is different.  It really takes an investment.  And it really will eventually take structural change.

Agility Comes from Knowledge

One of the members at Agile Austin is fond of saying that ‘the only true source of Agility is knowledge’.  I think that is very true in a lot of situations.  The more you know and understand, the more adaptable you can be.  It might be  a geek-spun buzzword version of the old aphorism that “knowledge is power”, but that doesn’t mean that it is in any way bad.  Indeed, old aphorisms, rephrased or not, stand the test of time because they speak to human nature.  For all of our technology, we’re still pretty much the same.

So, where does this cultural comment hit DevOps?  Many places, really, but today I am going to pick on the fact that Agile and DevOps require participants to know and understand more than what would have been present in their traditional job role.  It is no longer OK to just be the best coder or sysadmin or architect.  You have to maintain a much higher level of generalization to be effective in your specialized job role.

This can hurt people’s heads a bit.  Particularly in larger organizations where the message has been to specialize and be the best [technical role] that you can be.  The irony is that larger organizations tend to have large and complex application systems.  So, they have traditionally compensated by having teams of people who specialize in fitting things together across the specialties.  While this certainly works, there is often a lot of time spent on rework and polish to get the pieces to all fit together.  That also implies time, which directly impacts the responsiveness (agility) of the development organization to the business.

Now those organizations are faced with needing to retool their very culture (and the management structures entwined within it) to place some amount of value on generalization for their people.  That means deliberately encouraging staff to learn more and more about the “big picture” from all aspects – not just technical.  That means deliberately DIS-couraging isolationism in specific disciplines.  It also means deliberately blowing up organizational fiefdoms before they take hold.  And it means rewarding behaviors that focus on achieving the larger goals of the organization while rooting out incentives on very parochial behaviors

The funny thing is that this is not new.  When I was first a manager, I worked for a company obsessed with this sort of thing.  We were very high on the notion of ‘lifetime learning’ and organizational development in general.  It was a way that the company encouraged/taught/focused people to aggressively adapt to the changes that came with fast growth.  That company returned more to its investors than any other tech startup I have seen in a long time.  We never worried about solving problems -we all understood a lot about the business and had a common understanding of how it worked.  It was easy and fast to get people working on a problem because we did not have to waste time bringing people ‘up to speed’.  We knew how it fit together and understood the value of proactively pushing it into newbies’ heads.  They wouldn’t be newbies for long, after all.

This month’s book club selection  at Agile Austin is focusing on Peter Senge’s keystone work in this area – “The Fifth Discipline”.  I have not read it in a while, but it is damn good to hear people focusing on this stuff again.  I really liked a lot of the concepts in that book; probably because they are relatively timeless as it relates to human nature / behavior.

Change Mis-management (Part 3)

For part three of the Change Mis-management series, I want to pick on the tradition of NOT keeping system management scripts in version control.  This is a fascinating illustration of the cultural difference between Development and Operations.  Operations is obsessed with ensuring stability and yet tolerates fairly loose control over things that can decimate the environment at the full speed of whatever machine happens to be running the script.  Development is obsessed with making incremental changes to deliver value and would never tolerate such loose control over their code.  I have long speculated that this level of discipline for Development is in fact a product of the fact that they have to deal with and track a LOT of change.

Whatever the cause and whether or not you believe in Agile and/or the DevOps movement, this is really a fundamental misbehavior and we all know it.  There really is no excuse for not doing it.  Most shops have scripts that control substantial swaths of the infrastructure.  There are various application systems that depend on the scripts to ensure that they can run in a predictable way.  For all intents and purposes these scripts represent production-grade code.

This is hopefully not a complex problem to explain or solve.  The really sad part is that every software delivery shop of any size already has every tool needed to version manage all of their operations scripts.  There is no reason that there can’t be an Ops Scripts tree in your source control system.  Further, those repositories are often set up with rules that force some sort of notation for the changes that are being put into those scripts and will track who checked it in, so you have better auditing right out of the gate.

Further, you now have a way to, if not know, then at least have a good idea, what has been run on the systems.  That is particularly important if the person who ran the script is not available for some reason.  If your operations team can agree on the doctrine always running the ‘blessed’ version and never hack it on the filesystem, then life will get substantially better for everyone.  Of course, the script could be changed after checkout and the changes not logged.  Any process can be circumvented – most rather easily when you have root.  The point is to make such an event more of an anomaly.  Maybe even something noticeable – though I will talk about that in the next part of this series.

This is really just a common-sense thing that improves your overall organizational resilience.  Repeat after me:

  • I resolve to always check in my script changes.
  • I resolve to never run a script unless I have first checked it out from source to make sure I have the current version.
  • I resolve to never hack a script on the filesystem before I run it against a system someone other than me depends on.  (Testing is allowed before check-in; just like for developers)
  • I resolve to only run scripts of approved versions that I have pulled out of source control and left unmodified.

It is good, it is easy, it does not take significant time to do and saves countless time-consuming screw-ups.  Just do it.