6 ways to secure buy-in for your devops journey

Devops leaders share their lessons learned from the front lines on how to get devops buy-in at large, legacy organisations

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The pairing of developers and operations staff into coherent teams to deliver software at higher velocity – devops, in a nutshell – has come a long way in the past decade, from an emerging mode of working pushed by startups and consultants, to a movement that has swept through some of the biggest enterprises in the world.

That doesn't mean everyone is convinced, however, and laggard organisations may still have stubborn leadership that do not see the value of ripping up and replacing their existing processes.

Last week, as part of the London edition of the Enterprise Devops Summit, devops leaders from a range of organisations shared their tips on how to get organisational buy-in for agile transformation.

As devops advocate Gene Kim told InfoWorld in the lead up to the event: "I think devops is inexorable, inevitable. I would say the biggest impediment is leadership and business buy-in. When I look at the last seven years of the conference, one of the things that really stands out is the people giving the presentations are more senior every year."

Here are some of the key takeaways from those senior people, and how you can secure broad support for introducing devops practices into your organisation.

Start with people, not technology

There are lots of resources for help getting started with Devops, including Kim's own Devops Handbook, or you can enlist the help of external consultants, but you have to be methodical and focus on your people more than the tools and technology you will eventually use if you want to ensure lasting buy-in across the business.

This was the problem faced by Credit Suisse in the early days of its devops journey. The investment bank took a formal approach, setting up an enterprise-wide Devops Working Group, which soon became bogged down in discussions over tooling instead of culture.

"The easiest conversation was about tech," Duncan Lawie, director of devops and development practices at Credit Suisse admits. "It gave us the feeling we were talking about important things, but it wasn't solving our problems, we had to speak about processes."

That working group started an outreach effort by conducting value stream mapping exercises with each division, with the aim of identifying key business outcomes and processes, as well as to design more efficient routes for delivering products and services.

Lawie and his team also leant on the expertise of its APAC office, which was further along in its devops journey and had already formed some devops groups. Lawie explains that the office adjusted its views on "how people should be rewarded in the technology function" and changed its hiring process to focus on people with devops experience and skills.

Subsequent progress was slow with little low-hanging fruit, but over time the value became apparent to senior management. Lawie drew attention to a quote from group CIO Laura Barrowman, who said: "The devops program has served to ingrain a common set of goals across Credit Suisse IT, while igniting a transformational shift in organisational culture and mindset."

Lawie admits he was initially sceptical of devops but came to realise there would be not only opportunities for his career, but for "better success" in the teams he worked with an "possibly even a bit more happiness" for the organisation at large.

Land and expand

It’s important to remember that there is no perfect devops rollout. It will depend on the makeup of your organisation and the ability of leaders to make that change, but a 'land and expand' strategy is likely your best approach.

This starts by mapping out your key value streams and finding the ideal first product team or workload to attack, one which is ideally owned in-house, has little technical debt, and has the management support to change. Once that approach has been proven with faster and safer deployments, you will soon have other teams knocking on your door.

British airline Virgin Atlantic took this approach, starting with one of the few systems the central IT team truly owned end-to-end – the crew tablet applications – in 2017 and scaling up its devops practices from there.

The IT team at Virgin Atlantic understands it's unlikely to ever be 100 percent devops, as it relies on a number of proprietary third-party systems – including passenger service system (PSS), which is owned by partner airline Delta and is not conducive to a devops model.

That being said, by identifying product teams that were willing to engage with devops, the airline was able to “reach a point in the last year where 20 percent of our delivery portfolio is being delivered in a mature, repeatable and agile method,” Nic Whittaker, head of platform engineering and devops at Virgin Atlantic, told InfoWorld during the summit.

Now, even the legacy waterfall teams are learning some best practice from their colleagues, such as test automation and a higher reliance on key metrics to improve on delivery.

Coach, don't dictate

Empathy is an important factor when it comes to rolling out devops for the first time, as teams may become spooked by the language being used, especially the central focus on automation techniques.

"It's important for us to remember where we have come from as senior leaders and to have empathy for those that have not yet made all of that journey," Lawie at Credit Suisse says.

"It's most important for people to go on this journey of learning and unlearning, but to be coached and not to be dictated from centrally," Patrick Eltridge, COO at Nationwide building society said during the summit.

Eltridge has plenty of previous experience, having helped introduce devops practices to another financial services organisation while he was CIO at Royal Bank of Scotland group.

"In all of my experiences bringing [devops] into pre-existing teams, the existing teams always surprise you on the upside with their ability to adapt," he said.

For example, Eltridge saw sceptical mainframe COBOL teams take up test automation and halve their release cadence and reduce bugs after adopting devops practices – "exhilarating," in his words.

This hinges on sound leadership, so it is vital to identify people who can "describe the call to action, attract the right people into the teams and paint the picture of the journey ahead," he said.

Making it safe to try

That leadership team must also “make it safe to try” and fail fast, as Julia Harrison, head of product at the Government Digital Service (GDS) said during her presentation.

"We had good engagement and support from our chief internal auditor, who was visibly and vocally supportive of what we were doing and sharing success stories in and outside of the function," she said. This helped grow "psychological safety to try new stuff," across the government agency.

As the latest State of Devops survey found: "To support productivity, organisations can foster a culture of psychological safety and make smart investments in tooling, information search, and reducing technical debt through flexible, extensible, and viewable systems."

Michelle Moss, manager for technical release and delivery at Virgin Atlantic also noted the importance of engaging with naysayers first, as they may become your strongest internal advocates – as happened with the security team at Virgin Atlantic.

"It is about people first, tools second and a high-trust, low-blame culture," she said.

Measure, measure, measure

Management loves metrics, and when it comes to something as sweeping as devops, you need to be able to prove out the value to secure buy-in, especially when their patience with the pace of change is inevitably tested.

"It's critical to move away from the HIPPO – the 'highest-paid person's opinion' – to being a more data-driven organisation," Lawie at Credit Suisse said.

The first step for Lawie was getting as many people to read Accelerate, by Dr. Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim, so that everyone could "start talking about outcome measures and have a common understanding of what we were talking about."

However, it is important to remember that not all metrics are born equal. Take change-related failure as an example. "Some divisions are latency sensitive, compare that with others focused on long-term measures and they may appear to have a much smaller failure rate," said Lawie. "Organisation can be afraid of comparison between divisions, so we need to ensure both are on the trajectory of improvement, rather than making unfair comparisons."

It's also important to remember the people aspect here, by regularly engaging with groups and taking a pulse of their satisfaction levels through regular surveys and dialogue to help them feel involved in the process, rather than being dictated to from upon high.

Leveraging a change in management

With all of that being said, sometimes the change can land in your lap, but you will still need to turn that top-down support into actual results.

British airline Virgin Atlantic has gone through several reorganisations in the past seven years, but when the latest CEO Shai Weiss brought in Ash Jokhoo – the former British Gas CIO with a background in agile practices – devops quickly became a key pillar in his strategy.

Before that, Virgin Atlantic had tentatively started its agile journey with "no money, a sketchy mandate and no top-down buy-in," as Whittaker said during his presentation.

"The new CEO put in place a clear vision across the organisation," he added. "That allowed us at the grassroots to understand what devops and agility are trying to do and how we can start to connect those lines of sight."

Similarly, at Nationwide, agile and devops practices have long had "sponsorship at high levels".

"Now our CEO has recognised the opportunity to align the organisation into these value streams," COO Patrick Eltridge said.

Devops is a significant change to undertake, and it is important not to underestimate the size or the task, or to try to do too much too soon – even when the C-suite is leading the charge. But with commitment up and down the organization, devops can take root with surprising speed, resulting in substantial benefits sooner than you think.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.