How to explain devops jargon to business executives

Establishing a common understanding of IT technical terms helps manage executives’ expectations and gain their support.

How to explain devops jargon to business executives
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Every discipline has its jargon that’s hard to explain to those who aren’t “in the know” about tools, how work gets done, and common problems. As engineers, we do ourselves a favor by using names that are easy to explain and have reasonable agreement on the definition. For example, I don’t think it’s hard to explain the very basics of agile methodologies, data warehouses, or firewalls because their names convey some meaning, even though engineers debate the technical definitions.

At some point, you’ll face a situation where a business leader asks you to explain some technical jargon. Maybe they heard it from a technology vendor, saw it on an invoice, or heard about it at a conference. You have one shot at explaining it in simple terms, avoiding overly technical details, and steering clear of introducing even more jargon that requires further defining.

I share a story in my book, Digital Trailblazer, when a board member back in the early days of the internet asked me, “What’s a cookie?” Answering it was a challenge because back then, business execs knew little about how web browsers worked, what servers did and didn’t do, and the intricacies of internet protocols.

If you are a devops engineer, unraveling technical jargon without dragging a business executive into the weeds isn’t easy. In writing this article, I asked several experts how they would define devops terms in simple speech. Here are some of the better responses.

What is CI/CD?

Acronyms are a tricky starting point because sometimes it’s best to spell them out, but as you can see below, sometimes it’s better to leave out the specifics.

Dan Knox, vice president of engineering at G2, says, “CI/CD is a tactic to continually test and deploy your code in order to lower the risk of creating issues when delivering functional software. It is very handy for teams that want to move fast and launch into the market before their competitors.”

Points for answering the question directly and sharing business benefits without getting too technical!

Suppose you are asked to provide more specifics. In that case, Sashank Purighalla, CEO at BOS Frameworks, suggests this response, “CI/CD helps create an automation pipeline by employing niche tools across various stages of the software life cycle to reduce human labor and remove roadblocks.”

I like this answer, though you might want to leave out words like “pipeline” and replace “life cycle” with “development” if your exec knows nothing about software development. Nowadays, with technology so important to businesses, leaders really should know about the development process, and by simplifying the language, you’re inviting them to learn more without feeling intimidated.

Andrew Davis, senior director of research and innovation for Copado, gave me a good response. “CI/CD is short for continuous integration and continuous delivery, two closely related practices that are the gold standard for how software development teams work together,” he says. “By closing the gap between software developers and end users, continuous delivery allows for rapid and safe learning and feedback.”

If asked for more details, he suggests adding, “Continuous integration is the practice of merging the work of all developers at least daily, using automated tests to identify failures quickly. Continuous delivery is delivering those changes to end users as soon as they are ready, so developers can quickly get feedback on those changes from real users.”

I like the top-down definition that lets you decide how much detail to share.

What are canary releases and deployments?

The idea of canary releases comes from the “canary in the coal mine,” where live canaries were used as early warning alerts that dangerous gases were escaping into the mine shaft. Now, it might take some explaining to help a business leader make a connection to a canary release.

Marko Anastasov, cofounder of Semaphore CI/CD, recommends taking a risk-based approach in defining a canary release. “Testing is not enough to reveal every problem,” he says. “Some issues only appear when they hit production, and the damage is already done by that time. Canary deployments allow us to test the waters before jumping in.”

Purighalla shares more on how canary releases work: “A canary release is used to introduce new features and functionality to a subset of users in a controlled manner before rolling it out to the entire production infrastructure and user base.”

If that explanation doesn’t do the trick, Michael Erpenbeck, director of devops at G2, adds, “The canary release is a powerful way to expose new code to increasingly larger populations without the risks associated with the big bang deployment pattern.”

It’s fair to say that many business leaders have experienced outages, performance issues, or defects from “big bang deployments,” so it’s an excellent term to contrast canary releases and other devops practices that improve deployment reliability.

What are Docker and Kubernetes?

Trying to explain Docker and Kubernetes without some basic understanding of containers, microservices architectures, and cloud-native infrastructure patterns is challenging.

Sometimes, it’s better just to share a simple analogy, and Blake Davis, a founder, shared this answer with me on Twitter. “Kubernetes is like traffic control for autonomous vehicles. It helps lighten the workload by helping the overall system run more efficiently and effectively.” Kendall Miller, tech evangelist at Fairwinds, went with a different metaphor: “Modern web applications require fleets of computers. Kubernetes is the conductor of the fleet, making sure they play on time, stop playing when they should, and crescendo appropriately.”

If your audience has some technical knowledge, Anastasov suggests this response. “This new generation of tools has democratized the way of building cloud-native software. Docker container is now the standard way of packaging software in a way that can be deployed, scaled, and dynamically distributed on any cloud. And Kubernetes is the leading platform to run containers in production.”

What are error budgets?

If your CFO or anyone working in finance asks about error budgets, you might have to pull them out of the financial weeds to help them understand error budgets in the context of defining service-level objectives and running reliable, higher-performing systems.

Alex Naudau shares this definition in a blog post on error budgets. “Error budgets can be thought of as a conceptual model for understanding acceptable risk in your services,” he writes. “If you blew your error budget, go focus on improving reliability.”

If you are a site reliability engineer, it’s critically important to explain service-level objectives and error budgets, especially to demanding executives who push too hard for more features without considering technical debt or operational needs.

What is AIops?

All the Xops out there, including devops, devsecops, dataops, MLops, modelops, bizops, cloudops, gitops, and possibly other ops-related jargon can create confusion, or worse, frustration if business leaders are trying to understand all of it.

I’m calling out AIops because it’s a good example of where a disconnect in how different people define the term can lead to disastrously high expectations. AIops doesn’t mean artificial intelligence is taking over IT operations or that organizations can have dramatically improved performance on a poorly implemented application. There is enough hype around artificial intelligence that it’s best to get in front of people’s imaginations and set reasonable expectations.

AIops can simplify multicloud operations, improve the mean time to resolve major incidents, and enhance application monitoring. Those are some of the technical benefits, so how would you explain AIops to the CEO or CFO?

“As enterprises were moving to the cloud, it introduced several orders of magnitude more scale, data, and velocity, which meant that IT operations teams were really struggling to keep up,” says Assaf Resnick, CEO of BigPanda. “AIops automates and enables IT operations to do their job and keep their businesses and digital services running in the modern cloud era.”

The definition makes it clear that AIops helps businesses reduce the impact of operational incidents, improve reliability, and support growth.

CI/CD, canary releases, Docker, Kubernetes, and AIops are just the tip of the iceberg of devops jargon, but they are good starting points for demystifying devops best practices to business leaders.

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