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Leading a DevOps Transformation - a Collaborative Engineering Approach

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When leading a DevOps transformation, transparency and visibility can help to get teams engaged in chance. Once involved, developers can act as knowledge multipliers and contribute to change initiatives. A mixture of solving frequently-occurring problems, addressing complex problems, and showing progress of the transformation can help to keep stakeholders involved.

Prasath Kumar Ramachandran shared his experience from leading the DevOps transformation at SAP labs India at DevOps Summit, Canada 2021.

Ramachandran mentioned that they faced multiple challenges and resistance to change during the initial phase of transformation:

We had problem blindness at the core and were unaware of the hidden issues, and unintended consequences as the systems were complex with deep connections.

At times, they paused the change initiative and reverted it to ensure business continuity. They identified the patterns, clusters, and root causes and re-started the change initiative with focused groups to keep the disruption minimum. Ramachandran gave an example:

We were unaware of the compatibility of an existing library that works with old model hand-held printers still used only in a few parts of the world. The printing capability started breaking. We paused the initiative and switched to a gradual regional roll-out, and minimized the impact.

The progress of the different change initiatives was transparent and visible to gain the teams’ collective enthusiasm for change, as Ramachandran explained:

We created the dashboards capturing different metrics, such as MTTR, code coverage and customized the automatic alerts for the teams based on their responsibility when degradation or failure happens. We created tools to auto-detect the degradation and take corrective actions.

We practiced blameless retrospectives as culture, which helped our teams to come forward and resolve issues with constructive feedback. They all supported our teams to reflect on their progress and march towards the collective transformation.

Post initial phase, they identified developers passionate about cloud engineering, DevOps, and encouraged them to contribute to change initiatives. These developers acted as knowledge multipliers across the organization, as Ramachandran explained:

Developers accelerated the journey, created a collaborative environment to get the right signals about different clusters, and kept most change initiatives on track.

We created how-to guides and a DevOps FAQ bot to answer questions based on internal knowledge to bridge the knowledge gap and rolled out multiple sessions to build confidence.

InfoQ interviewed Prasath Kumar Ramachandran about leading the DevOps transformation.

InfoQ: How did you start with DevOps Transformation at SAP labs India?

Prasath Kumar Ramachandran: My journey started with brownfield transformation initiatives. A typical day started with me listening to "The problem of the day" and working with the team to resolve it.

I wished that I knew the next problem and the time we had left to solve them, and started collating the issues from Gemba and management stakeholders, and organizing them into categories, priorities, and probability occurrences. I assessed the problems and solutions with a lens of ambiguity to clarity. We identified the low-hanging fruits and kept the momentum by showcasing the progress.

In parallel, we focused on solving complex ones, for example, "Finding the unique issues across all the failing jobs across multiple CI/CD servers when working for large dev teams." We knew this would help us save hours of manual efforts and increase teams’ productivity by x% percent daily. We evolved the solution iteratively by creating a simple excel output to the self-service dashboard. This gave the teams and management visibility about the common issues and solutions across the CI/CD stages. We involved the right experts from our teams to identify the solution approach and share it, which significantly increased the teams’ productivity and MTTR.

Once we had gained clarity about the path ahead of us, I communicated the cloud engineering and DevOps practice initiatives to stakeholders. We solicited feedback from architects and product owners regarding their willingness to support, suggestions to improve and its benefits to the organization. Taking an engineering mindset approach to problem-solving helped to pave the path of the journey.

InfoQ: How do you keep team members aligned with your goals & strategic decisions?

Ramachandran: I regularly aligned with the management stakeholders, development teams, and end-users about shared goals and vision. We understood the perspectives and reasons for resistance to change and addressed it. For example, we addressed the competency gap by enabling the hands-on team sessions and timing the change initiative.

We created a culture that constitutes multiple attributes: continuous learning, improvement, willingness to take ownership, helping other teams and transparency.The sense of belonging and togetherness with trust at the core cultivated the groups’ ownership mindset.

InfoQ: What have you learned as a leader?

Ramachandran: Every organization, product, and team we work with has its unique elements and responds to changes differently. I learned that the adaptability quotient (AQ) is critical. AQ is defined as the ability to read and act on the signals and change course in real-time due to external influences. Creating a professional plan to improve AQ was essential. The reality is "what got you here won’t get you there." Getting into a practitioner’s mindset helps to lead the team progressively.

The solution needs to take the evolutionary architecture principles, Conway’s law, and Murphy’s law in mind at strategy execution. To achieve it, I acted as a sounding board to the team on decision-making activities on architecture, design, speed, skills and cost analysis.

InfoQ: In terms of skill set, how do you think the leaders for tomorrow should be prepared?

Ramachandran: As a leader, our ability to connect ideas across fields, demonstrate progress, and bring success to the opportunity is valuable and time-critical. The following suggestions would help us to become prepared.

"Invest in yourself" - Rapid learning and translating the knowledge into action is a competitive advantage. Prepare your learning plan with a focus on managing yourself, an experimental approach to innovation, and technology skills.

"Work on the strengths" - Improve your ability to identify the strengths of others and focus your energy on the topics that bring a better outcome for them and the organization.

"Find your mentoring team" - Identify your sounding board for your ideas. Identify mentors who can guide you in your leadership journey, and follow leaders across different domains.

"Improve curiosity quotient" - Increase your ability and openness to learning new things outside of your comfort zone. This would allow you to understand and handle the transformation journey from ambiguity to clarity as a practice.

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