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Q&A with Mayank Prakash: DevOps in UK's Largest Government Department

| by João Miranda Follow 2 Followers on Jul 30, 2017. Estimated reading time: 7 minutes |

Mayank Prakash, Director General, Chief Digital and Information Officer of UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told the DevOps Enterprise Summit London audience how the largest UK’s government department is moving away "from an organisation based on traditional vendor outsourcing, traditional structures and service delivery models to one with digital in its DNA" and how DevOps is a key part of the transformation. InfoQ recently had the opportunity to explore this journey a bit further by doing a Q&A with Mr. Prakash.

InfoQ: Can you tell us a bit more about your current role?

Mayank Prakash: As Chief Digital and Information Officer at the Department for Work and Pensions, I’m responsible for the digital transformation of the UK’s largest government department. We support 22 million citizens at critical points in their lives, for example when looking for work, transitioning to retirement, or when families are separating. 

It’s this social purpose that drives my vision to re-imagine customer experiences, through a blend of user-centred design-thinking and structured systems-thinking.

InfoQ: How and when did you first hear about DevOps?

Prakash: I didn’t start my career in DevOps, so it’s also been a personal journey for me. It was in fact Gene Kim’s book ‘The Phoenix Project’ that got me curious and started me on this journey.

However I’ve always been passionate about breaking down the barriers of silo mentality – one of the key components of DevOps – and implementing a culture of continuous integration, continuous delivery and continuous deployment.

InfoQ: How did DevOps get started at DWP? What were the first steps taken and why?

Prakash: Like other government departments, DWP is transforming public services –our goal is to improve outcomes for society, reimagine user experiences, and deliver greater efficiency for taxpayers.

We need to unlock the potential of technology and data to pursue these three business outcomes, which is something DevOps will help us to do.

In DWP we’re at the start of our DevOps journey. Traditionally our organisational structure was one typical of a large government department based on hierarchies, service delivery models and relationships with third party suppliers.

By adopting a DevOps approach we’ve moved away from building to specification, to focusing on business outcomes. Digital is at the core of how we solve challenges for users of our services at a higher cadence.

There are various takes on what DevOps is, and it typically depends on whether your background is from operations or engineering. In private cloud environments operations would typically automate the provision of an environment for an engineering team to work in. Engineering teams would then build and configure their own build tool and look to automate the build, test and deploy process.

We are also now working in public cloud and have richer APIs available where an engineering team have an account in which they can build their own virtual environment.

InfoQ: Was it mostly a grassroots movement? Or was there a top-down understanding that DevOps was needed?

Prakash: It was mainly a top-down movement, but due to the size of our organisation we have a number of ‘start up’ smaller teams who were just getting on and doing good things in this space.

My team is currently building a foundational capability to deliver common services that lets other teams get a quick start when adopting DevOps.

InfoQ: Which DevOps initiatives are currently going on at DWP? Did they involve organizational changes?

Prakash: I was keen to move away from the hierarchical structure traditional in government, so we’ve redesigned DWP Digital in favour of multi-disciplinary teams, where ideas and ability are more important than grade or hierarchy.

We realise for an organisation of our scale a level of governance, monitoring and control is required to ensure our operations estate is well managed. So we’re forming centralised DevOps teams to provide common services for consumption by engineering teams, as well as smaller DevOps teams in our different business units.

We’ve introduced common ways of working across teams to enable skills transfer across projects and a common landscape. There are lots of ways to implement the technical aspects of DevOps, so we’re striving to find repeatable models and implementations.

We’re also providing services to the software engineering community to allow them to scan their repositories for Static Application Security Testing and Open Source Security vulnerabilities.

InfoQ: What are the main challenges public departments such as DWP faces when adopting new ways of working such as DevOps?

Prakash: DevOps isn’t easy initially - especially in an organisation of this size. For us, the scale of our organisation is the major challenge; we transact over £170 billion every year and have one of Europe’s largest IT estates, operating across 850 buildings and 90,000 desktops.

But then again, DWP is an exciting place to be a DevOps engineer because it gives you the opportunity to work on a larger scale of critical data infrastructure than you would find elsewhere; we’re writing and publishing millions of lines of code every fortnight.

And we’re learning by doing, trying not to get stuck in the theory and various approaches.

InfoQ: Have you witnessed any culture shocks, for example from risk management and/or security/compliance teams?

Prakash: Changing the way you work means a significant change in mind-set; cultural change is at the heart of DevOps.

Security is taken very seriously at DWP, and there’s often mistrust of cloud technologies. We’re working closely with security colleagues to ensure we maintain the appropriate risk, security and compliance profile, to get the most out of the flexibility and new approaches to service delivery that cloud offers.

InfoQ: Do you believe there’s a more global change in government towards DevOps culture and practices or do you see yourselves as early adopters?

Prakash: We’re not necessarily early adopters of DevOps. The Government Transformation Strategy sets out how the government will use digital to transform the relationship between the citizen and stage; so we are definitely not alone. All government department and agencies are moving with the digital age and are turning their attention to what a DevOps culture has to offer.

InfoQ: What have been the greatest achievements and failures in your DevOps journey so far?

Prakash: For me personally I see each small delivery or improvement as a great achievement. Change doesn’t happen overnight; it is only when you look back at what you have achieved on your journey that it all comes together. In terms of failures it tends to be a question of "if I knew then what I know now…"

InfoQ: In both cases, which were the most important factors from your point of view?

Prakash: I’m a strong believer in a build fast/fail approach, having regular reviews, staying positive and keeping on going. Our multi-disciplinary teams are a critical factor in us solving problems; the best developer is never as good as the best team.

Something that sets DWP Digital apart in the DevOps world is our sense of community. Ensuring the DevOps community shares knowledge and common ways of working is really important, so we’re forming a DevOps practice to help empower this knowledge sharing. It also helps colleagues feel part of a group, build a more cohesive team and boosts engagement.

InfoQ: The "2017 State of DevOps Report" suggests that investing in DevOps and Continuous Delivery practices leads to faster, more reliable delivery of business value. Do you agree? And if so have you come across concrete examples at DWP backing up that claim?

Prakash: Yes, this is absolutely the case. Although we’re very early on in our DevOps journey, we’re seeing evidence that continuous Delivery and test automation increases the rate at which we can deliver for the business.

Our DevOps strategy is enabling us to develop and test software against systems that behave like a platform so we can see how the application behaves and performs before deployment.

InfoQ: What kind of metrics or feedback are you collecting in order to validate the value (or reduced waste) accrued through your DevOps transformation?

Prakash: There is a great deal of things that we measure. A couple of key ones would be the velocity at which we can deliver and also how application information captured can be analysed to reduce fraud.

InfoQ: The final question is about the challenges and road blocks that lie ahead in your DevOps journey?

Prakash: As with everything digital, the landscape is constantly changing and disrupting. Who can predict what technologies we’ll be using five years from now? Whether it’s hybrid cloud, containerisation, security or something else, there is always a new challenge to consider and overcome – but it’s exciting that we can use these new and emerging technologies to change people’s lives.

So it’s important that we do all we can to stay ahead of what’s happening out in the sector; and a DevOps approach gives us the flexibility to do that.

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