Rise of the DOMO

A lot of the DevOps conversations I have had lately have been around organization issues and what to do about the artificial barriers and silos that exist in most shops.  Interestingly there is a pattern emerging among those discussing or even implementing changes to deal with this discussion.  The pattern involves matrix organizations and the rise of what I call a “DevOps Management Organization” (DOMO).  The actual names vary, but the role of the organization is consistent.

Most software delivery organizations end up with some kind of matrix where product managers, project managers, engineers, architects, QA are all tied to the success of a given project / product while maintaining a discipline-specific tie.   In the case of an ISV, you can add some other disciplines around fulfillment, support, etc.  The variable is whether the project/ product is their direct reporting organization or they report to a discipline.  And the answer can depend on the role.  For example, a Project Manager might be part of the engineering organisation and be a participant in the company’s PMO.  Or they might be part of the PMO and simply assigned to (and funded by) the project / product they are working on.

When you add Agile to the mix, the project dimension tends to take on a much higher level of primacy over the disciplines since the focus becomes much tighter on getting working software produced on a much tighter iteration timeline.  This behavior leads to the DevOps discussion as the project/product team discovers that there is no direct alignment of Operations to the project efforts.  Additionally, Operations is a varied / multi-disciplinary space in and of itself.  Thus it becomes extremely difficult for the project/product team to drive focused activity through Operations to deliver a particular iteration/release.  The classic DevOps problem.

The recent solution trend to this problem has been the creation of what I call “Ops Sherpa” roles in the project/product teams.  This role is a cross-disciplinary Ops generalist who is charged with understanding the state of the organization’s operations environment and making sure that the development effort is aligned with operational realities.  That includes full lifecycle responsibility – from ensuring that Dev and QA environments are relevant equivalent configurations to production in order make sure deliverables are properly qualified to making sure that various Operations disciplines are aware of (and understand) any changes that will be required to support a particular release deliverable.  In more mature shops, this may grow out of an existing Release Management role or, if a particularly large

Critically, though, this role gets matrixed back into the Operations organization at a high enough level to sponsor cross-operational silo action.  This point is the head of what I call the Head of the DOMO and provides the point of leverage to deal with tactical problem as well as the strategic guidance role to drive cross-project continuous improvement into the operations platform space in support of faster execution (aka DevOps speed releases).

Whatever the name,  the fact that large scale companies are recognizing the value of deliberately investing in this space is a validation that being good at release execution is strategic to cost-effectively shortening release cycles.


Leaders Should Make Their Teams Teach

Teaching something will make you a better practitioner of that thing.  It is an adjunct to the old adage that true mastery of a subject is the ability to teach it to someone else.  The act of educating someone on something forces you to organize your thoughts on that subject.  This, in turn, gives you new insights on the subject and/or makes you more efficient at processing the subject.  Therefore, there is a lot of value to the teacher in the act of educating.

There is a business value as well.   But a lot of managers, however are not comfortable pushing their team members to do so – particularly if they have team members who resist doing it.  I have spoken to a number of managers who really have no idea how to break down that resistance.  There is obviously the ‘stick’ side of it where it should be a part of a senior person’s job description and if  they don’t do it, their review will not be as good as it could be.  But the stick side is a pretty weak instrument and it just breeds problems over the long haul.  The more important aspect is the carrot side of the discussion.

Look at it this way:   no matter how good a coder someone is, their value is intrinsically limited by the amount of code they can physically produce in a certain amount of time.  That means that once they reach their personal peak productivity, they are basically plateaued in terms of their career opportunity due to laws of physics and biology (i.e. only so many hours in a day and humans need to sleep).  Contrast that with someone who has reached their productivity peak and uses their skills to help make others better.  That person is now leveraging their skills through a larger group and enhancing the produtivity of that overall group by passing on lessons and learnings.  They are multiplying themselves through that group.  That person’s value has not plateaued.  This does not mean they are on a ‘management’ track, either – though it can lead there.  I have found that engineering organizations that have been successful over time all have a non-management ‘technical leader’ career path for folks who are both strong technically and effective leader/teacher/mentors.  Does your organization think like that?  It should.

Even if it doesn’t, it is irresponsible of the manager to not at least have a frank conversation about this to their team members.  That a team lead does a massive disservice to a team member’s career if they just encourage them to be ‘super techie’.  It will fundamentally limit their team members’ value and the value of the team in general.

Start Collaboration with Teaching

Every technology organization should force everyone in the group to regularly educate the group on what they are doing.  This should be a cross-discipline activity – not a departmental activity.  There are three reasons to do this.  The first is obvious – there is an intrinsic value in sharing the knowledge.  The second is that the teachers themselves get better at what they are teaching about for the reasons described above.  The third is that it serves to create relationships among the groups that will open channels of collaboration as the organization grows.

This will create more opportunities for someone to have a critical insight on a situation and invent something valuable as a result.  It may be as basic as the fact that the team is faster at solving problems because they know who to call and have a relationship with that person.  It also means that you have a better chance of keeping your ‘bus number at healthier levels thereby making your organization more resilient overall.  Of course, it will also make your overall organization more cohesive meaning people will be somewhat more likely to stay and ensuring that you have fewer ‘bus number’ situations in the first place – or at least fewer that were not caused by a bus

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.

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.