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Q&A with Gene Kim on DevOps Enterprise

InfoQ talked with Gene Kim, co-author of “The Phoenix Project” and a DevOps community leader, about the upcoming DevOps Enterprise conference. What’s different about DevOps adoption in enterprises? Why should enterprises care? Gene explains that “unicorns” were once “horses” too.

InfoQ: Why did you feel the need to organize a DevOps conference dedicated to the enterprise?

Gene: I had the pleasure of interviewing Damon Edwards and John Willis on a recent DevOps Cafe podcast on this exact topic. One of the things they articulated so well was the desire to broaden the DevOps narrative to include all enterprise IT practitioners--that DevOps isn’t just for the “unicorns” (e.g., Google, Amazon, Etsy, Netflix, etc.), but for the “horses,” as well.

One of the common objections that so many of us hear among enterprise IT practitioners is that “DevOps is only for the unicorns, and isn’t for us.” Partly, this is because most of the early success stories were pioneered by the Internet unicorn companies, and it's easy to conclude that DevOps isn’t applicable to financial services, retailers, telcos, etc.

And even when people recognize the business imperative that Dev and Ops work together, regardless of what type of business they’re operating in, the next objection we hear is, “DevOps only works when you get to build a new organization, like Google did during the late 1990s.”  

Let's face it. Every unicorn was once a horse, often at the risk of existential failure, having to derive DevOps work patterns, or risk going out of business (e.g., Amazon 2001, Twitter 2008, Etsy 2009, LinkedIn 2011, etc.)

To negate these objections, we wanted to assemble at DevOps Enterprise a conference where leaders share their DevOps transformation stories, at all stages of the journey. What’s been astonishing to me is the seniority of the people speaking and attending the conference, most often having “director,” “chief architect” or “VP” somewhere in their title.

Which confirms what Damon Edwards has said about DevOps Enterprise -- that it’s really a conference covering topics relevant for leaders of any technology organization.

InfoQ: What kind of lessons do you think attendees can expect from the talks?

Gene: What makes me so excited about the fifty DevOps Enterprise speaker presentations, is the demonstration that DevOps principles are being applied in large, complex organizations, often with decades of legacy applications and infrastructure. They’re showing that DevOps principles transcend technology, and apply to almost all types of organizations reliant on technology to help the organization win.

I’ve now had a chance to review most of the plenary speaker presentations, from organizations such as Disney, Nordstrom, CSG, Target, Blackboard, Raytheon, and US Citizen and Immigration Services. In my opinion, the stories being told are as heroic and awe-inspiring as any presentation you’d hear from Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Etsy.

Of particular interest to me: one of the common denominators among the stories being told at DevOps Enterprise is that the person leading the DevOps transformation is having to overcome deeply entrenched command-and-control bureaucracies and low-trust cultures.  This often put the person leading these initiatives in a position of personal jeopardy.

Why would they do this, often putting their career in the organization at risk? The common answer: "It's what the organization needs to survive. What's the worst that could happen? Get fired? I can always find another job."

That’s why I use words like “bravery” and “courage” to describe many of these talks.

InfoQ: During that DevOps cafe episode there was some debate on the importance of “hero-driven DevOps initiatives” in large enterprises, i.e. the need for grassroots movements within the company to enact change. What’s your take? Is a bottom-up (typically led by technical people) approach more important than a top-down (typically led by management) approach?

Gene: My personal belief is that DevOps, despite being traditionally a grassroots movement, will require upper-management support to reach its full potential. In the Geoffrey Moore adoption curve, DevOps has already been embraced by the “innovators” and “early adopters.” To tackle the much more conservative “early majority” requires overcoming a more deeply entrenched and conservative mindset in the organization.

(In many circles, this resistance to change is called "THWADI," an acronym for "That's How We've Always Done It.")

For decades in the organizational change management circles, executive sponsorship has been considered one of the most important success factors for adopting new modes of doing work. This is because, without constantly communicating why a change is needed and what the proposed change is, the “organizational immune system” will often sabotage the project.

Ronald Kirk Kandt, legendary in the software quality circles, wrote a paper while at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory describing how Frank Cary, CEO of IBM from 1973 to 1981, spent six months personally selling the need to enter the personal computing market, to a very skeptical organization that had been so successful creating and selling mainframes.

As Kandt writes, “only when management shows this kind of commitment will employees know that [management] is serious about the change. [Otherwise, the proposed change] is perceived as ‘only worth fifteen minutes of my time and no more.’”

In the “early majority,” if zealotry and technical acumen were all that were required, they would have already adopted DevOps.

InfoQ: Some people criticise even the idea of such a thing as “DevOps for the enterprise” while others like Damon Edwards claim “DevOps is an enterprise concern”. How do you position yourself? Are there such big differences between startups, mid-sized companies and large enterprises? Shouldn’t they all be adopting the same good DevOps practices that lead to high IT and business performance?

Gene: Sometimes I feel that in the DevOps community, we categorize “enterprise IT” practitioners as some sort of technology underclass, implying that someone who works in Dev or Ops inside a more traditional “horse” organization somehow doesn’t deserve to adopt DevOps (or is merely incapable of doing so).

Of course, given that one of the strongest values in the DevOps community is inclusiveness, that’s obviously not what is intended. When it comes down to it, whether we’re in Dev, Test, Infosec, or Ops, we’re all engineers, regardless of what organization we work for.  We share common backgrounds, values, aspirations and goals.

My personal motivation behind DevOps Enterprise is to further elevate the state of IT practice inside of the horses, where 99% of the IT work is happening, and where I believe 99% of the value of DevOps will be created. In order to get there, we need to show that DevOps is for everyone, not just for the unicorns.

To mobilize the horses, we need horse success stories -- stories that will show the early majority that organizations that look like them are succeeding, to show that it can be done.

I had the pleasure of talking with Nathan Shimek at Flowcon a couple of weeks ago. He’s an engineering manager at New Context, who told me a story that brought tears to my eyes. He said, “As a lifelong Ops practitioner, I know we need DevOps to make our work humane. In the past, I’ve worked every holiday, on my birthday, my spouse’s birthday, and even on the day my son was born.”

That describes the working conditions at all too many enterprises -- I think most people would agree that not only is there a better way, but we all have an obligation to put those better ways into practice.

InfoQ: So is it fair to say it’s mostly about differences in organizational culture rather than organization size?

Gene: Wow, that’s a great way to describe the transformation stories that are being presented at DevOps Enterprise. After all, Google has 53K employees, is publicly traded, must comply with complex, regulatory and contractual requirements -- it would be foolish not to call Google a legitimately large and complex organization.

But like so many other large and successful unicorns, they have a culture that makes adopting DevOps practices easier: they encourage high-trust, values innovation and autonomy, and so forth.

On the other hand, most organizations (the horses) have decades (or even centuries) of low-trust, bureaucratic traditions, which make DevOps adoption much more difficult.  

DevOps requires culture change. So what do you do when the culture being proposed is completely out-of-step with the cultural and social norms already established? And that’s why I’m so excited to hear about all the transformation success stories at DevOps Enterprise.

InfoQ: As you mentioned, the list of speakers includes several directors and C-level presenters from several industry “giants.” Why aren’t they showing up at the ever expanding list of DevOps Days conferences?

Gene: That’s a great question! But many of these stories are being told at the amazing communities around DevOpsDays and O’Reilly Velocity. For example, Heather Mickman and Ross Clanton from Target presented at the Minneapolis DevOpsDays earlier this year. O’Reilly Radar recently wrote about Courtney Kissler and team’s DevOps journey at Nordstrom.

In my opinion, these horse transformation stories will increasingly find their way there. I believe one of the reasons may be that DevOpsDays is perceived as “too technical” for senior managers. However, anyone who goes to a DevOpsDays knows that this is where so many new and novel technical and cultural practices are being discussed and catalyzed.

My advice? If you don’t attend them, you risk peril!

InfoQ: Do you expect the talks to reveal that DevOps is finally bringing together IT and business departments/silos as idealized in your book? Or is that a long term expectation?

Gene: Holy cow, I absolutely believe that the stories being told at DevOps Enterprise are realizing the promise of business and technology acting together to help their organizations win in the marketplace.  

When I listen to these speakers talk about their journey, there's no doubt in my mind that they understand what their organization is trying to achieve, and probably understand better than anyone what needs to change inside the technology organization to get there.

For the next decade, these leaders will do so at great personal risk, putting themselves way out there, when business leadership may not understand what they're doing or why.

However, in ten years, this will be the expected norm of technology leaders -- and may even be the person leading the organization, as well.

These days, CEOs are often described as coming from sales, marketing or engineering, often meaning electrical or mechanical engineer or so forth. In the future, I am certain we will see a generation of CEOs proudly say that they came from IT.

About the Interviewee

Gene Kim is a multiple award-winning entrepreneur, the founder and former CTO of Tripwire and a researcher. He is passionate about IT operations, security and compliance, and how IT organizations successfully transform from “good to great”.

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