DevOps is Reshaping IT and Fueling Dynamic Learning Organizations

Best-selling author and technology workplace researcher Gene Kim talks about his new book, The Unicorn Project, and how the DevOps movement is revolutionizing how IT organizations bring business value.

By Ken Kaplan

By Ken Kaplan October 01 2019

DevOps has been described as the realignment of IT around business value. Gene Kim sees it as a management approach that’s more agile and boundary-crossing than traditional command-and-control methods built around siloes. He said this new DevOps approach helps developers and operations professionals work faster while maintaining secure and reliable IT systems. But it’s also much more than that.

Kim is an author, researcher, former CTO and founder of security company Tripwire, and a devoted advocate for IT best practices. He thinks the world is still a long way from exploiting the true promise of technology, and this drives him to find answers everywhere he goes.

He co-authored the bestseller, The Phoenix Project, a fiction book that describes the challenges of dealing with legacy IT and rebellious human nature that sparked the rise of DevOps. His non-fiction The DevOps Handbook is a go-to guide on the subject. His 2019 release, The Unicorn Project, is a fictional tale about developers and business leaders who join forces in a race against time during a period of unprecedented uncertainty and opportunity.

Decades of research show high-performing technology organizations collaborating across teams with different specialties. This is at the core of DevOps, and he said it’s playing a bigger role as companies deal with digital transformation.

“DevOps is a set of cultural and technical practices and cultural norms that allow us to deliver application services quickly to customers while preserving world-class reliability and security stability,” said Kim, at the Nutanix .NEXT 2019 DevOps event in Anaheim.

Ten years ago, most people believed that was impossible.

“These days, it’s increasingly commonplace in not just the tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, but in every large, complex organization out there.”

The Phoenix Project outlined what the world was like before DevOps. Kim said new software and hardware releases are scary now, but were much worse a few decades ago. IT teams would take months to prepare and often weeks to execute properly.

“It was a risky activity that would cause fear and tsunamis of unplanned work, if not a catastrophe,” he said. “Often, it came at a huge cost and took a toll on everyone involved.”

That meant the people inside technology organizations and their company’s customers.

He said whenever updates don’t take or digital releases go wrong, they inflict bad experiences on customers, and this must be avoided.

Always in a Deployable State

Things have improved even as new technologies and updates occur more frequently than ever before. Software and hardware companies are better at preparing and delivering new updates. And IT implementers now make new releases part of their daily work, said Kim.

“The notion is that we can deploy when we want to, multiple times a day, without drama, chaos, confusion and disruption,” he said. “It might not be something that the customer sees all the time, but it means that we're always in a deployable state.”

Kim said every day, DevOps teams are deploying or staging new applications and services. Maybe it’s a test environment, where customers or users can try things out before they’re generally available.

“It becomes really a business decision whether to release or not,” Kim said, “as opposed to a technology decision where the question was always, ‘Can we?’ or ‘When are we able to?’”

Kim sees enterprise software evolving to become more like Gmail, where things are changing behind the scenes all the time with little or no downtime for users.

“No more big patch updates. We're living in a world of more real-time updating.”

He said consumers are already used to this. Whenever a mobile device manufacturer or wireless services provider pushes an update, they just accept with a click of a button.

“Sometimes it might baffle us and it's like, ‘Where did my button go?’ But I think we now have accepted it as a part of daily life: software updates. In general, that’s a good thing.”

The Unicorn Project

In The Unicorn Project, Kim describes the feelings and motivations that drive DevOps today. The book outlines five ideals: locality, outcomes, culture of innovation, psychological safety and focus on customers.

A sense of locality, that everything is at our fingertips, is critical.

“Everything that we want to work on is at hand within our team, within the small area of code, as opposed to scattered everywhere,” said Kim.

He said shifting to DevOps puts the focus on outcomes, workflows and joy for the work, as opposed to boardroom drudgery, fear and panic that comes from having to recover from failure.

The third ideal is creating a culture of innovation.

“That means prioritizing the improvement of daily work over daily work itself,” he said. “The opposite of that is accumulating technical debt for decades and then we go slower and slower.”

The fourth ideal is ensuring a culture of psychological safety.

“Just as psychological safety is important to the knowledge worker, physical safety is important to the manufacturing worker. You can't do great things if you have a culture of fear.”

The fifth one is a ruthless and relentless focus on the customer.

“This is in contrast to focusing on our silo,” he said. “In that mode, we think and act more like union leaders than we do business leaders. Greatness comes from really focusing on those customer needs.”

Future Shaped by DevOps

When he watches his kids learn to code and build webpages in a matter of minutes, he sees them adept at handling very fast feedback. They're used to a kind of freedom and joy that comes from using new, responsive technologies. He said this is increasing expectations for systems and work environments that make almost anything possible.

“That's great for productivity,” he said. “It's great for employee engagement. It's better for the customers we serve. This is a good thing.”

In a decade from now, Kim believes academics will say DevOps was something genuinely transformative beyond technology itself. He sees DevOps as the next mode of management, beyond command and control approaches that have dominated management for the last hundred years.

“I think they'll say it was a subset of dynamic learning organizations, of which the most famous is Toyota,” he said. “The Toyota production system is the most famous example of a dynamic learning organization, where learning is part of everyone's job and the job of the leadership is to make sure that they create a workforce that can out-learn the competition. I think that's magnificent and really sets our sights on how great this will be.”

He said it’s no secret that everyone wants less hierarchy and fewer rules, yet most organizations still cling to old ways.

“A whole bunch of schools of thought say that this (DevOps approach) is the way we're going to create genuine organizational learning.”

Ken Kaplan is Editor in Chief for The Forecast by Nutanix. Find him on Twitter @kenekaplan.

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