Ops Heroes are NOT Qualified to do Anything with Nothing

There is a certain “long-suffering and misunderstood” attitude that shows up a lot in Operations. I have seen this quote on a number of cube walls:

We the willing, 
led by the unknowing, 
are doing the impossible 
for the ungrateful. 

We have done so much, 
with so little, 
for so long, 
we are now qualified to do anything, 
with nothing. 

Note: This quote is often mistakenly attributed to Mother Teresa. It was actually from this other guy called Konstantin Josef Jireček that no one has heard of recently.

The problem, of course, is that this attitude is counter-productive in a DevOps world. It promotes the culture that operations will ‘get it done’ no matter what how much is thrown their way in terms of budget cuts, shortened timeframes, uptime expectations, etc. It is a great and validating thing in some ways – you pulled off the impossible and get praise heaped on you. It is really the root of defective ‘hero culture’ behaviors that show up in tech companies or tech departments. And no matter how many times we write about the defectiveness of hero culture in a sustained enterprise, the behavior persists due to a variety of larger societal attitudes.

If you have seen (or perpetuated) such a culture, do not feel too bad – aspects of it show up in other disciplines including medicine. There is a fascinating discussion of this – and the cultural resistance to changing the behaviors – in Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto. The book is one of my favorites of the last couple of years. It discusses the research Dr (yes – he is a surgeon himself) Gawande did on why the instance of complications after surgery was so high relative to other high-criticality activities. He chose aviation – which is a massively complex and yet very precise, life-critical industry. It also has a far better record of incident free activity relative to the more intimate and expertise-driven discipline of medicine. The book proceeds to look at the evolution of the cultures of both industries and how one developed a culture focused on the surgeon being omniscient and expert in all situations while the other created an institutional discipline that seeks to minimize human fallibility in tense situations.

He further looks into the incentives surgeons have – because they have a finite number of hours in the day – to crank through procedures as quickly as possible. That way they generate revenue and do not tie up scarce and expensive operating rooms. But surgeons really can only work so fast and procedures tend to take as long as they do for a given patient’s situation. Their profession is manual and primarily scales based on more people doing more work. Aviation exploits the fact that it deals with machines and has more potential for instrumentation and automation.

The analogy is not hard to make to IT Operations people having more and more things to administer in shorter downtime windows. IT Operations culture, unfortunately, has much more in common with medicine than it does with aviation. There are countless points in the book that you should think about the next time you are logged in with root or equivalent access and about to manually make a surgical change… What are you doing to avoid multitasking? What happens if you get distracted? What are you doing to leverage/create instrumentation – even something manual like a checklist – to ensure your success rate is better each time? What are you doing to ensure that what you are doing can be reproduced by the next person? It resonates…

The good news is that IT Operations as a discipline (despite its culture) deals with machines. That means it is MUCH easier to create tools and instrumentation that leverage expertise widely while at the same time improving the consistency with which tasks are performed. Even so, I have heard only a few folks mention it at DevOps events and that is unfortunate, because the basic discipline of just creating good checklists – and the book discusses how – is a powerful and immediately adoptable thing that any shop, regardless of platform, toolchain, or history can adopt and readily benefit from. It is less inspirational and visionary than The Phoenix Project,  but it is one of the most practical approaches of working toward that vision that exists.

The book is worth a read – no matter how DevOps-y your environment is or wants to be. I routinely recommend it to our junior team members as a way to help them learn to develop sustainable disciplines and habits. I have found this to be a powerful tool for managing overseas teams, too.

I would be interested in anyone’s feedback who is using checklist techniques – particularly as an enhancement / discipline roadmap in a DevOps shop. I have had some success wrapping automation and instrumentation (as well as figuring out how to prioritize where to add automation and instrumentation) by building checklists for things and would love to talk about it with others who are experimenting with it.

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