Building the apps factory: The CIO’s guide to DevOps
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Building the apps factory: The CIO’s guide to DevOps

Jessica Twentyman — March 2015
The pressure on organizations to deliver a flow of robust, customer-facing applications means the worlds of development and operations have had to become one.

Fin Goulding, head of IT at Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, is a self-styled ‘DevOps fanboy.’ Indeed, other than CIO, that’s the only label he applies to himself on his Twitter bio.

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Fin Goulding
Like a growing number of IT leaders, Goulding has become convinced that the DevOps approach that has emerged in recent years — with its focus on the rapid development and deployment of a continuous stream of customer-facing applications — is the only way that his company can beat competitors in the race to deliver new online and mobile betting services and games.

Getting his technology teams to share his enthusiasm (and blend the two historically distinct disciplines of software development and the IT operations that power them), however, was a challenge. “Believe me, it wasn’t easy, it was a real leadership test,” says Goulding. “For the first three or four months that I was talking about DevOps, people just stared at me as if I was crazy.”

Frustrated by the intransigence he encountered, Goulding decided to confront the issue head-on by calling an all-hands IT department meeting and delivering an unambiguous message: “Willingly or not, you are going on a journey.”

His outburst did the trick. “That was the point at which things started to change. People finally realized that this was an idea the guy at the top really believed in and wasn’t going to give up on.”

Progressively, he has seen new behaviors gaining momentum, as business benefits have been realized. Many now see DevOps as a more satisfying — and indeed exciting — way of working when compared to the previous method of sticking rigidly to the traditional IT department groups.

“That’s the thing about DevOps; it’s a great way to get stuff done, but if the CIO doesn’t lead it, believe in it and inspire their team, then it’s not going to happen,” says Goulding. “If you’re a very technical CIO — which I guess I am — you’re going to find it really hard if you don’t have some of the softer skills required to inspire your people to move in this direction.”

“DevOps is empowering our engineers to accelerate development and get software out the door as quickly as our consumers expect it.”

It’s no secret why CIOs and other technology leaders are keen to put DevOps at the heart of their working practices: today’s digital business initiatives require them to roll out quality-assured applications and services at a phenomenal pace.

As a philosophy, DevOps supports that by encouraging developers and operations staff to work together closely, often in small groups or ‘pods’ that focus on specific, goal-oriented projects. Together, team members share their skills and experiences to overcome the bottlenecks that frequently delay software releases. And, if the approach works well, they get to share the satisfaction of seeing code put into production much, much faster than before, without the need for elaborate hand-offs of new software between the two camps.

That’s certainly the case at sportswear company Nike, where the consumer digital technology (CDT) group is tasked with the development of around 275 software ‘experiences’ around the world, according to its senior director of quality engineering, Dave Kohel.

“These are consumer-facing experiences, hundreds of software products, thousands of services and integrations,” Kohel explains, adding: “DevOps is really empowering [our] engineers to accelerate development and have the tools that they need in order to get their software experiences out the door as quickly as our consumers expect it.”

The resulting code should be more stable and resilient, too, because with DevOps, by the time a new app or service goes live, the specifications for the app itself and its target production environment have been considered, side-by-side, many times.

At the same time, DevOps can spark a real culture clash because it forces IT teams to fundamentally change how they work, to abandon tried-and-tested practices and to relinquish deeply entrenched roles and responsibilities.
Making adjustments

The challenge of adjusting is, arguably, harder for staff on the operations side. Development, after all, is already associated with agility and speed. The focus is on delivering a steady stream of code, often through agile development, scrum methods and automated testing. Developers also want to be able to refine their applications as new capabilities and business requirements emerge.

IT operations staff, by contrast, value stability and control above all else and tend to resist any disruption that threatens the performance and security of critical systems — and DevOps is nothing if not disruptive. It uses automation to replace many tasks that previously would have been performed manually, from provisioning virtual machines to software release and deployment. It values generalists, preferably those with advanced scripting skills, rather than vendor-certified domain experts in servers, storage or networking. Above all, it depends on IT operations staff being able to configure, monitor and manage IT infrastructure as a service to the business.

That’s the goal for Marivi Stuchinsky, vice president of enterprise infrastructure services at Molina Healthcare in Long Beach, California. She’s spent the past couple of years restructuring the IT operations team she oversees with a view to creating a service-based organization. In the process, she’s disbanded separate storage, server and networking teams, adopted a one-pane-of-glass approach to IT services management and automated a wide range of tasks.

“In DevOps discussions, the concentration tends to be on development. Infrastructure is often pushed to the background,” she says. “But I’ve been led by the belief that operations is the real enabler for DevOps because no code is getting into production faster until you’ve got a high-performance operations team in place. DevOps isn’t just about deploying game-changing apps, faster and at lower cost; it’s also about making sure they run well, that they’re responsive and that they meet customer expectations.”

It’s still early days for DevOps at Molina Healthcare, says Stuchinsky, but the changes she’s made to the IT operations team should smooth the path forward: “Application development has always been our biggest customer [for IT resources] but now we’re recognizing that we need to partner more closely with the business, too. And what that’s really about, for the whole organization, is serving patients better.”
Business conversations, business outcomes

That’s a big shift for IT operations teams to make — but it’s a vital one, according to Forrester analysts Amy DeMartine and Kurt Bittner. “Dev is more directly connected to business processes and business customers,” they outlined in a recent report. “This reinforces the introspection among Ops teams that they are the 'blue-collar laborers’ who do the real work.”

That’s dangerous, they continue, because that self-perception among IT operations staff means they will become get less involved in business conversations, thus perpetuating the stereotype and relegating them even more to that back-office function.

For DevOps to work, both camps must be prepared to have those conversations. They must be encouraged by the CIO to think in terms of business issues and how these might be addressed, says Isaac Sacolick, global CIO at research and consultancy firm Greenwich Associates in Stamford, Connecticut.

“The CIO has to identify the real business issues and explain how and which DevOps practices are required to improve delivery,” he says. “Maybe it takes too long to push changes into production? Maybe there are systemic quality issues when upgrades are released? Maybe the team has to prepare for volatile usage patterns, but must still maintain service levels?”

“DevOps is a kind of fitness program that can help you transform your business into a world-class competitor.”

All these IT issues, he points out, have very real business impacts. These need to be explained — and the very best person to explain them is the CIO, as Sacolick explains in a recent blog posting:

“The CIO needs to step in and redefine objectives, roles and responsibilities. In what areas does Dev need to be more stable? To what business benefit and to what extent does Ops need to become more Agile? When instituting a configuration management tool, what is Ops’ primary objective and where must Dev contribute? The CIO needs to lead these discussions, set priorities and secure the collaboration required to make this transformation successful.”

But any CIO that hopes to become a successful DevOps coach to their team would probably be wise to keep in mind the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra, say DeMartine and Bittner of Forrester.

“DevOps is a kind of fitness program that can help you transform your business into a world-class competitor. Like any fitness program, it will be difficult and, at times, painful. The end result, however, is a lean, nimble and muscular technology management organization that will allow your business to vanquish its foes.”
First published March 2015
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