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InfoQ Homepage Articles Why DevOps Culture Matters: Leaders Talk About the Keys to Making Change Successful and Sustainable

Why DevOps Culture Matters: Leaders Talk About the Keys to Making Change Successful and Sustainable

Key Takeaways

  • If we don’t have a DevOps culture, a culture to support the DevOps adoption, all automation efforts will be fruitless.
  • A DevOps culture is one where stakeholders in the software development and delivery process, including the business, are aligned around shared objectives.
  • Psychological safety is about getting comfortable with failing ... and being in an environment where it’s safe to iterate, fail and continuously improve. But building trust can be challenging in diverse DevOps teams.
  • In order to develop a sustainable DevOps culture, treat your “Culture as a Product”.
  • Strategies for accelerating and sustaining a DevOps culture are to prioritize this initiative as a strategic organizational goal; develop a roadmap, and identify objectives and key results.


In our recent Software Delivery Leadership Forum (SDLF), I had the opportunity to chat with several industry experts about creating a successful DevOps culture. It was a really engaging, insightful discussion because, as we all know, cultivating a supportive DevOps culture or mindset is critical to the success of any continuous delivery initiative. 

The Importance of Culture in any DevOps Transformation

As I was preparing for the SDLF webinar, I found some really interesting insights into just how important culture is to DevOps. According to John Willis, a pioneer of the DevOps movement, “If you do not have a DevOps culture, a culture to support your DevOps adoption, all automation efforts will be fruitless.” What’s really interesting is that he made this statement back in 2010, and now a full decade later, his opinion still rings true. 

A 2019 study where Gartner predicted that through 2022, 75 percent of DevOps initiatives will fail to meet expectations due to issues around organizational learning and change. “People-related factors tend to be the greatest challenges—not technology,” the study’s author said.

With this backdrop, our panelists shared opinions and experiences about how to foster a collaborative culture where it’s okay to iterate, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. 

Jacqueline Salinas, director of ecosystem and community development for the Continuous Delivery Foundation, said “DevOps is an environment that has psychological safety … and being able to collaborate openly, to communicate and share, is really important. There has to be a level of transparency with your community so you are able to engage with each other in a collaborative and effective way.”

According to Brian Dawson, who oversees Solutions Marketing at CloudBees, “DevOps culture is one where stakeholders in the software development and delivery process, including the business, are aligned around the shared objectives of delivering quality software rapidly, reliably, and repeatedly. You need supporting elements in your culture such as psychological safety, open collaboration across functional teams, and a blameless culture.”

Amin Qazi, who leads the CI/CD effort at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, shared his perspective from inside this sprawling federal government agency. “We need to know that we’re all in this together. The development team can’t go off and do the work first and then throw it over the wall to the Ops team. DevOps is about getting rid of those silos.”

As we dug deeper into the efforts required to create a successful DevOps culture, our panelists shared a few key concepts and why they’re important.

Psychological Safety: It’s Okay to Fail

The term psychological safety has become a bit more common and we heard it quite a bit during the SDLF webinar. I thought Jacqueline made a really powerful point about why psychological safety is so important. “It’s about getting comfortable with failing ... and being in an environment where it’s safe to fail and iterate and have continuous improvement.” However, she also brought up another point that I found to be so insightful from a woman’s perspective, about how trust can be challenging for underrepresented minorities. “As a person of color and as a woman, it can be really hard to admit that a) you don’t know something or b) that you’re failing. So, it’s really important to enable trust because it’s something you earn. Trust isn’t inherently given to somebody.”

Conversations Build Trust and Empathy

Brian brought up a great point when he said, “In a functionally siloed organization, people view the world from their perspective of pain, and they default to ‘Somebody dumped a release on me that wasn’t ready. Darn those developers.’ But, when you bring people together to have conversations about individual pains and you identify common root causes, you automatically build a culture of empathy and understanding. When people hear ‘Your voice and your pain are important, and before we move forward, we want to hear your concerns,’ that’s how you can get people aligned around a shared objective and a purpose.” 

I couldn’t agree more with Brian. We’ve all been in toxic work environments with complainers and an “us versus them” mentality. A successful DevOps culture means breaking down those silos, making sure people are heard, and getting everyone on the same page.

Resetting an Entrenched Culture

Many organizations that have been around for a while have established processes that are hard to change. Mitch Ashley, CEO and managing analyst at Accelerated Strategies Group, who’s helped create several DevOps organizations, shared his perspective about why changing a culture can be so difficult. “Culture is a set of behaviors and norms, and also what’s rewarded in an organization. It’s both spoken and unspoken. When you’re in an organization for a period of time, you get the vibe pretty quickly. It’s a measurement culture, or a blame culture, or a performance culture, or whatever it is. Culture has mass and momentum, and it can be very hard to move. But, you can make cultural changes with work and effort.” 

What Mitch is referring to, this entrenched culture that can be hard to change, is sometimes called legacy cultural debt. I loved Mitch’s story about his first foray into DevOps because it’s a great place to start if you’re dealing with a really entrenched legacy culture. He and his team started a book club, and they read The Phoenix Project. He said, “The book sparked great conversations and helped us create a shared vision and understanding about our path to DevOps. We realized we all had questions, but we were all going to learn together. It was a really positive experience that created safety and trust along the way.”

Amin, who’s been at the IRS for five years, made a great point about how he helped make a cultural change within a really entrenched organization. “When I told management that we could release 20 deliveries in a month, I heard ‘Why would we do that? We only have one release a year.’ I had to remind myself that moving to DevOps is a big cultural shift.” He repeatedly explained to IRS management that the organization needed to shift away from one big delivery a year to multiple microservices rolled out throughout the year. “Another way I helped get people to buy-in was to share some good examples,” Amin said. “I started with some small success stories, and slowly people started to understand the new DevOps processes and how they could benefit. People started to realize that having lots of people spending their nights and weekends working on roll-outs wasn’t the best way to do things.”

Brian also suggested a great idea to kick off a DevOps transformational effort: Host an agile “inception workshop.” It’s a two or three-day event where you bring together all of the functional stakeholders to align around goals, roles, responsibilities, and rules of engagement—to help build that culture of trust, understanding, and transparency.

Culture as a Product

I loved hearing all of these insightful opinions and experiences from our panelists. Along with them, I shared my approach to accelerating a DevOps culture in your organization: Treat your culture like a product. The first important aspect in this approach is to prioritize the DevOps culture we want to exhibit and to add this initiative in the transformational backlog. A common saying at the organizations where I've worked, including Microsoft, is “what’s not in your product backlog, does not exist.” If an initiative is strategic and critical for the success of a transformation, we need to prioritize it and ensure that it is worked on by adding it to the backlog. 

That thought – of prioritizing – leads me right into my strategies for accelerating and sustaining a DevOps culture:

  1. Prioritize your DevOps culture among other business strategy goals.
  2. Collaboratively, identify the traits, capabilities, and features you want to see enabled in your DevOps culture.
  3. Develop a cultural transformation roadmap.
  4. Identify the cross-functional Objectives and Key Results (OKR) to foster DevOps adoption and collaboration across different functional groups in your organization.
  5. Measure your progress.

Tactical Steps to Transformation

If those broad-brush strategies seem daunting, here are several specific steps to put these strategies into practice in your organization. And just like Brian talked about the importance of conversations, conversations are at the top of my list of tactics. I encourage you to have discussions with your PMO, developers, organizational leaders, and executives to ensure the culture is aligned and understood across all of the functional areas so that everyone is an active participant in the transformation.

I also suggest hosting a series of leadership labs or training sessions, designed just for executives and timed to fit their schedules, so they understand and buy-into key topics like DevOps, agile development and psychological safety. Another tactic that I’ve seen work really well is to create a network of culture advocates and change agents. They can be developers, architects or technical project managers. Conversations and leadership labs to gain buy-in, as well as evangelist change champions, are all critical to pave the way to a successful DevOps transformation.

Another really important item is to implement continuous feedback mechanisms. Give people an opportunity to share what’s working for them and where they may be struggling. It’s also really important to pay attention to the signals and what you’re hearing in the organization. By capturing feedback, listening, and addressing issues in a timely manner with what I call “relentless communication” about the need for change, you can facilitate the transition and create a successful DevOps culture.

As an example of Westrum Generative Leadership practices that enable a collaborative and safe DevOps culture, I shared an email that Jason Cox, director Platform & Systems Reliability Engineering at The Walt Disney Company, sent to his team on a Monday morning reminding them about the importance of leadership support, collaboration between leaders and teams, psychological safety, and continuous improvements. Jason communicated: 

Leaders must take on the challenge of empowering people and removing blockers.  Our job is to unleash potential, give opportunity with responsibility, not control people. 

About the Author

Shaaron A Alvares is a News Reporter and Editor for DevOps, Culture and Methods at InfoQ and works as a Manager, Agile transformation coach and trainer at F500 corporations in Seattle, Washington. She has a global work experience in technology and organizational transformation and she introduced lean agile product and software development practices within various global Fortune 500 companies in Europe, such as BNP-Paribas, NYSE-Euronext, ALCOA Inc. and has led significant lean agile and DevOps practice adoptions and transformations at, Expedia, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Disney. She focuses on introducing the Agile mindset and customized value-driven practices aligned with organizational performance goals. Board member, blogger, writer and keynote speaker, she is an Ambassador at the DevOps Institute and at the Continuous Delivery Foundation. Shaaron published her MPhil and PhD theses with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

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