DevOps de los Muertos

Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the UnDead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Undead become themselves Undead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water… -Bram Stoker

On this Halloween, let’s make the most of our traditional yearly death of DevOps and focus on the issues that continue to haunt many organizations. Much of the confusion comes from the two hard computer science problems, naming things, and invalidating what others have named things.

Prior to examining some common undead DevOps monstrosities, recognize that all encounters with the undead are interactions between the human and inhuman. For example, Frankenstein provides an explicit metaphor for technology run amok, while Dracula represents a Victorian fear of progress, anxieties which to an extent remain unresolved in our time. Organizations manifest undead DevOps issues as a result of systemic imbalance between the human and inhuman. On this night as various traditions creatively celebrate the cyclical relationship of life and death, we explore the relationship between the Social and Technical in our systems.

We are often confronted with Inhuman (inhumane?) DevOps in organizations, the most extreme examples being misconceptions of NoOps. Here we find organizations that believe the way out of their difficulties is to replace fallible humans, who are slow and make mistakes, with fast and efficient automation. The naive implementation can result in lower developer productivity, operational efficiency and morale with attendant organizational deskilling. Seeing through this illusion, that automation can simply replace humans, requires understanding that automation reproduces outcomes that were desirable at a point fixed in time. When contexts change, which happens with external customers and markets, or internally with architectures and org charts, the outcomes appropriate in the past may no longer be appropriate in the present. Inhuman devops can trap organizations by removing the means to develop the very skills that will be needed to make sense of and adapt to new opportunities. While automation may be a critical aspect of enabling technical excellence, what and how automation applies needs to be critically and regularly revisited. Beware those who would try to quietly erase the value of operational excellence, for those who do not heed these warnings find themselves adrift, unable to make sense of emergent problems.

Contributing to the pantheon of monstrosities, this year we specifically categorize Zombies, Vampires, and Specters.

Zombies roam the server farms, meeting rooms and even hallways of many organizations, processes and policies that will not die, no longer knowing their own purpose but eager to eat as many brains as possible . We see this in many organizations, large amounts of effort, and disproportionate consumption of cycle time, attending to these roaming mindless activities. Worse, often when organizations move their workloads and applications to the cloud, process and policy transplants the zombies. Do the policies and processes your organization developed and implemented to control the deployment of physical servers, serve you well in managing ephemeral utilities? Did your organization used to have to calculate consumption of CPU, network, and storage? Were you surprised to find out how expensive your cloud deployment is? You may want to go on a Zombie hunt, remember to aim for the head. Those zombies are the predictable result of dehumanizing the management of your systems.

Vampires, often invited into the house by well meaning developers, feed upon operators in many organizations. These vampires suck the vitality out of operators, sapping their creative abilities to engage with novel and emergent issues, leading to brittle systems that fail to respond to change. These vampires don’t take the form of bats, but are often considered “Toil”. Toil, the unsurprising, repetitive, essential blood sucking nonvalue added activities that permeate organizations are doubly pernicious as they not only impact specific work themselves, but they also create the conditions for Learned Helplessness, which turns the victims into hosts for even more toil. Occasionally, toil will need a steak in the heart, in the form of leadership support however, like vampires, throwing sunlight on these problems, in the form of Observability, Balanced Metrics and Information Radiators, is an excellent way to remove many of them from your system.

Lastly, many organizations are haunted by specters and ghosts. Decisions made long ago about the future of system architecture continue to haunt the organization. Old ideas and commitments, while incorporeal themselves, live on in the technical and organizational structures they long ago breathed life into. Often these specters can be sensed only when we attempt to change the system, at which time they push back resisting our efforts. This resistance is inhuman, not the normal “moving my cheese” resistance we see from individual humans, which makes it even more insidious. Organizations often blame individuals for not changing, when the system itself almost has a life force that resists change. Organizational and Architectural design both enable and curtail responsiveness. When these systems are fit for purpose, individuals are enabled to execute high value strategies and tactics within a bounded context. Too often these structures ossify to the point the organization becomes less responsive and individuals become frustrated by not being able to do what they know is the right thing for the organization and its customers. To exorcize these ghosts, listen to their stories, understand and acknowledge the purposes they once served, and then enable the organization to put them to rest. Freed from the past, the organization can become more responsive and resilient.

Too many organizations who have wrestled with DevOps adoption are still haunted by the undead.

The way forward has less to do with arguing about the words and more about grappling with the difficult and emergent relationship between the human and the technical (the SocioTechnical). What monsters can you find in your organization?

Good hunting… don’t forget your garlic and wooden stakes. If you’d like some seasoned dispatchers of the undead by your side, let us know, we love a good hunt.

Happy Halloween to those who celebrate! Looking forward to DevOps dying again and again. Feliz DevOps de los Muertos!

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