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Q&A with Aurynn Shaw on Sharing Her Personal DevOps Journey at DevOpsDays NZ

| by Rafiq Gemmail Follow 6 Followers on Sep 30, 2017. Estimated reading time: 7 minutes |

Aurynn Shaw will be a featured local speaker at DevOpsDays NZ on October 3, delivering a talk titled do-release-upgrade, depicting her personal journey into DevOps and critically examining its impact on the software industry and the future we are creating.

Shaw is the founder of Eiara, a technical and cultural DevOps consultancy, and a dedicated champion for the humanist side of software development. Shaw sparked debate in 2015 when she authored 'Contempt Culture', a viral essay featured on Hacker News, highlighting the mob-like derision of specific technologies, which ostracizes their practitioners.

InfoQ caught up with Shaw to explore the themes of her talk and the humanist side of DevOps.

InfoQ: How were you drawn to the collaborative model of DevOps and what has kept you invested?

Aurynn Shaw: Ironically, given how often I talk about how DevOps is about culture and not tools, it was the tools that initially caught my attention. I was asked to use Puppet to configure the environment for software I was writing, and it was deeply satisfying to use. Since Puppet focuses on breaking down team silos, the natural progression from there was to explore the cultural aspects of collaboration both within and across the teams. What’s kept me invested has been learning all the new ways that teams can and do react to the introduction of DevOps practices and tools. Seeing people's eyes light up that first time when they get it is a wonderful feeling, and I know that I’ve improved the world in a tiny but significant way.

InfoQ: What does DevOps mean to you?

Shaw: To me, DevOps is all about the cultural and organisational changes. Without the culture and the understanding of why an organisation acts the way it does, the tools are worse than useless! They just amplify problems with existing processes.

The tools are a good head fake, though. They got me started on the journey by dangling something shiny in front of me, but it’s not really the reason why we should use the tools that is the core driver. More than that, DevOps brings the idea of user experience to communities that have for a long time resisted the idea that it is worthy of their consideration.

By reframing software development as a broad spectrum of skills and domains and not just writing code, suddenly the experiences of everyone involved begin to matter.

InfoQ: During your own journey, what profound shifts have you seen brought to product development through the adoption of a DevOps culture?

Shaw: In a lot of ways, DevOps is an extension of existing Agile processes, and the changes I’ve seen in product development reflect the benefits that Agile brings as well. It enables rapid releases, getting new products in front of users quickly by supporting an iterative approach to identifying, zeroing in on and actually solving problems.

It also supports better customer outcomes, because DevOps practices reduce the pain of failure by making recovery cheaper and faster. This directly translates into services that are less prone to, for instance, the Twitter fail whale.

 

InfoQ: Continuing along this path, how will today's DevOps practices shape the future of the way we build products?

Shaw: As time goes on, I think we’re going to see products that more closely align with user needs. As I mentioned, DevOps is a user experience movement, and as such requires developers to focus on the users of their software. This will shift us away from the ideas of developer interfaces and computer programs that are, at best, cryptic and difficult to use, and towards software and apps built for everyone.

 

InfoQ: What have you found to be the biggest hurdles to the cultural and organisational adoption of DevOps practices?

Shaw: A lot of the time the resistance and difficulty in adopting DevOps practices come from a lack of understanding of the organisational dynamics in play. As someone with a technical background, our culture taught me that ‘the best technical decision should win’, but this doesn’t take into account the needs of other people in the organisation. The fact that other people even have needs isn’t part of that background culture. Lacking that awareness, it becomes hard to see that the culture of an organisation needs to change, or even can change.

We treat culture as something that happens, instead of something that we can actively choose to influence or direct. I also keep seeing management directives to shift to DevOps without providing time or space to do so. These are very different practices with a very different process, and organisational requirements, and people caught in constant firefighting or held to project planning that doesn’t account for discovery, exploration and rethinking can’t make these changes.

InfoQ: How do you recommend DevOps adopters avoid the anti-pattern of falling back into technically-biased silos?

Shaw: This is where the radical cultural shifts need to happen. A lot of these silos are only partially because the organisation is the way it is, but also include over 50 years of the culture in IT.

The first step to avoiding these pitfalls is teaching developers and operations people, and technical people who’ve been taught their whole careers that they are better than other people, that they aren’t. That other skills have value too.

This is hard because it runs counter to deeply-held beliefs like meritocracy, but also because, 'hey, I’m telling you, you shouldn’t feel as powerful as you do'. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s the biggest blocker to being able to prevent the silos from reforming.

Additionally, quite a few companies seem to have misunderstood DevOps and are treating it as a specific role as opposed to a set of interpersonal and architectural skills around how we should be thinking about our systems. DevOps often gets hung off of existing operational teams, which reinforces the technical biases between the various divisions and prevents the culture of openness and communication from forming.

InfoQ: Does the technical contempt culture, which you called out, remain a problem today?

Shaw: Oh, very much so. This has been a problem since the mid-1970s, probably even earlier, and it’s not something that will change overnight. It remains a problem because of how we form groups, and we use exclusion as the basic means of establishing and reinforcing who belongs in the group, and asking us to change this, means asking us to reform an entire group identity, which has significant pitfalls around power and belief in superiority.

That said, I have seen some really positive movements come out of my essay. Lately, the Codes of Conduct for conferences I’ve been attending have included a specific prohibition on negative comments on technology choice. It’s been wonderful to see that happen.

InfoQ: Have you seen the DevOps focus on cross-functionality and a culture of shared ownership impact such prejudices?

Shaw: It’s starting to. DevOps was fundamental to how I began to see the toxic outcomes of our behaviour. The way DevOps requires us to treat other skills as meaningful and important means we break down the old prejudices.

InfoQ: You were part of a very emotive panel discussion at JSConf NZ 2017 on mental fatigue and burnout in the software industry. Do DevOps environments address these kinds of issues?


Shaw: On the one hand, it does make things better. There’s a direct and powerful cultural pressure in DevOps to be more communicative and engaging and participatory. The old model of an anti-social developer sitting in the dark is extremely out of date and incorrect, and the greater social responsibility that comes from DevOps means we have better support networks to help us with identifying and recovering from burnout. On the other hand, DevOps is part of the tech industry, and we have extremely toxic cultural pressures, such as passion and the ongoing requirement to push constantly in our personal time to prove that we’re competent and belong. Passion-driven out-of-hours work can also become the only way that teams can re-evaluate their process or tools at all, which is deeply disheartening if you’re trying to deliver a better product.

InfoQ: Is there a Kiwi twist to DevOps?

Shaw: As far as a Kiwi twist to DevOps, I think that New Zealanders have a much greater social consciousness and drive for equality, epitomised with the idea of a fair go. This makes it easier to talk about DevOps and the cultural shifts organisations need to make because the contempt culture isn’t quite as strong in New Zealand.

DevOpsDayz NZ will be running in Auckland, October 3-4, where Shaw and a number of international and local speakers will discuss a range of cultural and technical topics.

UPDATE: We have been advised that Shaw has had to withdraw from the conference.

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