An Introduction To DevOps From One Of Its Godfathers

Gene Kim was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug early. In 1992, while still a student at Purdue, Kim co-authored an open source tool called Tripwire, which would become a free software security and data integrity tool useful for monitoring and alerting on specific file changes on a range of systems. Kim would become the Chief Technology Officer of Tripwire, a role he would have until mid-2010.

In 1999, while still at Tripwire, Kim began to formally study IT organizations, noting the methods used by high performing organizations.  One observation was that these organizations often had IT operations, security, audit, management, and governance working together to solve common business objectives. This research would eventually lead to a number of books that Kim would co-author.  Visible Ops Security was released in 2004, and The Visible Ops Handbook was released in 2009.  When Kim left Tripwire, it was to dedicate himself to this research, to speaking, and to consulting with companies around the world.  

In 2013, Kim (together with  Kevin Behr and George Spafford) authored The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win. As the title suggests, the book is told as a novel.  The hero of the story is Bill, the IT manager of a company called Parts Unlimited. The company is pursuing a critical IT initiative that is over budget and late. The CEO tells Bill that he has 90 days to fix the mess, or IT will be outsourced.  The notion of DevOps is born, referring to a development method that pushes communication, collaboration, integration, automation and measurement of cooperation between software developers and other IT team members. DevOps also highlights the interdependence of software development and IT operations. It aims to help an organization rapidly produce software products and services and to improve operations performance.

Though Kim and his co-authors did not create the idea of DevOps, their novel has helped to popularize it.

As Kim notes from his study of over 14,000 IT professionals worldwide, high-performing organizations are two and a half times more likely than their peers to exceed profitability, market share, and productivity goals.

(To listen to an unabridged podcast version of this interview, please visit this link. This is the ninth interview in the IT Influencers series. To read the past eight interviews with leaders such as President Vicente Fox of Mexico, Walt Mossberg, Salman Khan, Jim Goodnight, and Yves Behar, please visit this link. To read future interviews in the series, please click the “Follow” link above.)

Peter High: Gene, what is driving demand for DevOps?

Gene Kim: I have been studying high performing technology organizations since 1999. I think the reason everybody is so interested in DevOps is that it solves a problem that we have all experienced in our careers, which is how do we simultaneously enable the fast flow of features from delivery through test and operations while preserving world class reliability, stability, and security. I think most of us felt these were mutually opposed; you could either get fast flow or great reliability. What DevOps really represents to me are the cultural norms and the technical practices that enable us to finally get both. We know that organizations can do this because companies like Amazon, Google, Etsy, and Netflix have been able to replicate this. We can get incredibly high rates of flow from Dev to Ops, as measured by high frequencies of deployments and short lead times, while also preserving great reliability. We phrase it like this because it is part cultural and part technical. My area of passion is really codifying what are those necessary steps to get from here to there.

High: How does one get “from here to there?” What are some of the people and process changes that an organization has to think about in order to explore DevOps more fully?

Kim: Part of it is cultural, part of it is incentive structures between Dev, Test, and Operations, and part of it are the technical practices like continuous testing and delivery. These are all the preconditions that get one to compress dev-test cycle from months to, ideally, minutes, as the high performers do.

High: From a staffing perspective, do you find that there is a certain type of person or set of skills that organizations should recruit in order to achieve this?

Kim: There are certain characters that we see in every one of these high performers. In the Phoenix Project we framed it in three ways, which tended to be a set of principles from which one can derive all of the observed DevOps patterns. The first is all about accelerating flow as you go from left to right, Dev to Ops, in the value stream. The second is the flow of feedback, how do you create effective feedback from Ops back to Dev so that when something goes wrong you can either prevent it or detect it more quickly. The third is about creating a culture of continual learning and experimentation using the notions of high trust culture. The most competitive organizations are ones that can learn, those who can turn local improvement into global solutions.

Broadly speaking, that means we need managers and practitioners who can work not only in their Dev, Testing, or Ops siloes, but can optimize outcomes for the entire value stream. The goal is the fast flow of idea to production, as well as fast feedback when something goes wrong. That sets the stage for doing things like AB testing and creating organizational learning not just through dev, test, and operations but through the entire business value stream. Ultimately, I think that is how we win in the marketplace. Create a learning environment. That has been in the literature for decades but has never been more relevant than in IT, specifically DevOps.

High: Is there a common denominator—size, scale, or speed—in organizations that you have found have been able to leverage DevOps? It goes across industries, but are there certain kinds of companies that are best suited for this?

Kim: That question is what set us out to run the DevOps Enterprise Summit back in October. The goal was to not have the “unicorn” companies (Amazon, Netflix) present, but the horses. What we were interested in was how large, complex organizations that have been around for decades—maybe even centuries—are adopting DevOps practices and replicating outcomes that we have seen with the unicorns.

The stories that were told were, in my mind, breathtaking. It was organizations like Disney, GE Capital, Nationwide Insurance, the Department of Homeland Security. All of these organizations that have the legacy of success, yet they are all realizing that winning in the marketplace will require them to focus not on control costs but optimize for speed.

There were three takeaways for me. The principles are very much the same, but level of savviness and sophistication required to actually mobilize the subversive and innovative effort like DevOps is breathtaking. Essentially, it takes a courageous leader to mobilize an organization. Often they have to take on the naysayers; it takes a very special person to be able to drive a transformation like that.

Written by Peter High. To read the full article, click here. For more information on operations and information technology management, please visit us at www.Roxas Consulting.com and follow us everywhere @Roxas Consulting.

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