A Tale of DevOps and Daring Do

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I recently read Phil Thompson’s great post around the value of story telling ‘Story telling in a business context’.  Reading it called to mind my favorite DevOps leadership story, but in a cautionary note Phil also talks about the dilemma of creating a tale to suit one’s own point.  He recommends a subtle caveat such as “It’s like that story where….”.  As it is so hard to authenticate tales from the past I’ll take that recommendation:  It’s like a story of daring do in the hay day of the industrial revolution…

The Avon Gorge in Bristol is a wide one and half-mile long valley cutting through craggy limestone on the edge of the city, in places it is almost a hundred metres deep. In the 1800’s engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was commissioned to build a suspension bridge across it, the chosen location was no less than seventy five metres high. Already the commission doubted Brunel’s calculations, forcing him to build two massive piers to narrow the span to two hundred and fourteen metres. Huge towers where constructed on either side of the river then ropes were strung across the gorge, followed by cables. After building sufficient strength, the plan was simple; a basket could be hung from an iron bar, allowing workers to cross with more cables and equipment. This approach would save long, expensive boat and land trips from side to side.

Everything went to plan until someone was needed to pilot the basket across the windy gorge. This was a time when trades had little protection, there were high injury rates, and workers were almost considered expendable. So when the work force were concerned about the safety of the basket, who took the job? It was Brunel himself. He made the first crossing, showing utmost faith in the design and trades that built it. In so doing Brunel set an example, demonstrated commitment, and earned the trust of the people he worked with.

I like this story, because it demonstrates the bold steps leaders (by which I mean anyone wishing to inspire or encourage, regardless of role or title) may take to gain support for new ideas and ways of working. This is particularly true of DevOps, Agile, Lean and similar learning methods – at first they might look different, maybe even as precarious as Brunel’s basket, but there are significant benefits to be found. Teams united by a purpose, and principles, are likely to discover those benefits, and learn, quicker than teams that are divided or fearful of change. Visible acts of leadership, and the stories that follow them, are as powerful now as they were hundreds of years ago.

This post was first published on the Kainos blog.

Anti Pigeon Holing or Why Leaders Should Consider Capabilities, Not Job Titles

Often during a DevOps or agile transformation, we demonstrate the potential of fresh ways of working with a single, pioneering team. Generally these teams produce solid results and there is a strong desire to scale the approach to more teams. This moment is something of a tipping point for the department, successful scaling leads to successful teams, leading to successful projects. How people are picked for those teams is crucial. A team’s make up is just as important as the practices it adopts; personalities, skills, experience and enthusiasm will all determine the drive, output and diligence of the team.

So how are teams created in your organisation? The easy way is to ‘do what we always do’: gather people finishing a project, or copy the template from the last team created, or maybe teams don’t change at all! Slightly more adventurous is to replicate the list of job titles in the pioneering team. These cookie cutter approaches may be successful, but only if the department is already populated by talented flexible individuals. However a little consideration will often yield better results, not just for the business but for the individuals in the team.

…for the rest of  post see the Skelton Thatcher Blog

The Things I Learnt about DevOps When My Car Was Engulfed by Flames

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This is a true story, based on a talk from DevOps Days London 2016:

It was a gorgeous sunny spring day, my family and I were driving through my home town of Bristol, ready for another weekend adventure. We were cruising along when my wife said quietly: “I can smell smoke”. Now, I’m a good mechanic, I used to restore classic cars. The car we were driving was modern and recently serviced. I checked the instruments, everything normal. “It must be outside”, I declared confidently. Two minutes later tentacles of smoke were curling around my ankles and my shins were getting remarkably warm.

We can learn something relevant to DevOps, and many other disciplines, from this experience… read the rest on InfoQ

 

What do points mean?

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www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/14669824798/

I’d like to think that my previous posts have provided an informative and well balanced, ego free commentary on pertinent topics such as learning, change and even improv in agile.  Well, this one is different; it’s good old fashioned, vitriolic rant.  It’s about velocity, or at least what people do to velocity, a well meaning, innocent and largely defenseless concept.  The other thing this post isn’t is a comparison or comment on the value of velocity or estimating in general.  You’ll find plenty of good #NoEstimates conversation elsewhere.

Time and time again I see velocity abuse:
– Equating velocity to volume of output (more points equates to more productivity)
– Using velocity as a target, linked to incentives (The Scrum master shouts: “what do points mean? – prizes” )
– Assuming that velocity is a real number, double the engineers, double the velocity, right?

There are plenty of good velocity explanations around, the way I see it velocity is part of a system for:
a) Improving group estimation ability (mostly by encouraging exploration of work, and an appreciated of other’s roles)
b) Forecasting the rate work will be carried out by the team.

 As such, velocity needs to be honest and without interference, otherwise the outputs of neither estimation or forecasting activity can be trusted.  

Increase your velocity; Go big or go home!
It seems there is an obsession with velocity in volume, if a team knocks over 20 points one iteration, it should better itself in the next, 25 points next time anyone?

Consider however, a situation where a team doubles its velocity compared to the previous two iterations, does that really indicate double productivity?  There are numerous factors which could contribute, perhaps they are not working in a sustainable fashion, or corners are being cut.  Was a large amount of unfinished work rolled over from the previous iteration?  In these circumstances we often have what looks like high volume output, but is it to the detriment of other (typically operational) concerns?  What if a team halved its velocity in the last iteration?  Is the team failing, or is the organization not providing what they need to succeed?  Did they change the value of points to align with demand?  Is the team hitting its predicted point every single sprint? Suspicious to say the least.

The key point is that a team’s velocity fluctuates over time, and there is often considerable variation as a team forms, and starts to understand it’s work, constraints and processes.

Velocity with benefits
To some extent velocity is a target for the team, but one that is most effective when set and owned by the group, rather than linked to incentives.  Pushing velocity onto a team, demanding or targeting an increase is a dangerous, counterproductive practice. Strongly linking velocity to incentives compromises its primary value as an estimation tool. Organisations generally hire the smartest people available, do they somehow think those people won’t be smart enough to game velocity given even the smallest incentive?

“The moment a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a measure” – Goodheart’s Law

A further reason not to link velocity to incentives is the frame of mind it encourages during an iteration. It seems preferable to focus on an iteration goal as opposed to churning point earning stories.  Strong focus on an iteration goal invites creative thinking and awareness of user goals – if we find a new way to achieve an iteration goal with the side effect of throwing away the remaining stories, we should get on with it, and not mourn lost points and old stories.

Once the rough quantity of ‘stuff’ to be delivered is agreed, it is all about execution, as such focus should shift away from what was estimated and towards what should be achieved.  Velocity is like your last order for team pizza, use it to inform quantity, once the mountain of pizza arrives you and your colleagues just have to deal it, constant reference to the original estimate serves little value.

Comparing Velocity
I’ve observed something of an obsession with velocity as a quantity, the cause of much sniggering and derision during Scrum of Scrums meetings.  A team with a velocity of 100 must be better than a team with a velocity of 20, right?  This reminds me of futile attempts to compare different people’s number of steps walked in all but the most sophisticated fitness apps. My Fitbit tells me I average 10,000 steps each day.  I happen to know that some of those ‘steps’ are activities like chopping firewood, lifting heavy coffee cups, and gesturing wildly at whiteboards. I can use this figure to compare how active I’ve been across different days, but to compare my number of ‘steps’ to another person’s would be fruitless. Just like an agile team sizing and executing its own stories, my context is unique.

I also see many attempts to compare, or harmonise different team’s velocities.  We can certainly compare estimating ability with some confidence.  Standard deviation of predicted velocity against actual velocity can be useful for both forecasting, and prompting improvement conversations.  For instance, a team with a standard deviation of +/-5% on estimates is more predictable than one with a deviation of +/- 20%.  This of course says nothing about the team’s actual achievements against their potential, but this predictability is a solid foundation for improvement. 

Often though the conversation is about stack ranking teams, and proving who does most.  A flaw in only considering velocity is that it is solely and indicator of a team’s output of stories, stories are by no means the only kind of value that teams add to organisation.  A ‘slow’ team might be the one which fixes more defects, handles more support calls, is more active in recruitment or assisting other teams.  Velocity gives no guarantee of completeness, and could simply be the rate at which bug riddled code is being unleashed on unsuspecting downstream teams.  This tends to indicate the need for a more varied and balanced set of measures.

…and further more
A big problem here is that first impressions last, velocity it is such a convenient, accessible term that people intuitively grasp it; incorrectly. This first impression may be very difficult to unlearn, corrupted understanding spreads, particularly when carried by people with influence and a penchant for direction. Thanks to these unstructors, before you know it you’re being asked why your velocity isn’t 400 like Team Over-achievers in the corner. Analogous to technical debt, this is a kind of methodology debt, as unproductive habits become calcified and baked into culture, it is just as hard to pay down.

Ultimately I have a simple plea: think before you use velocity, consider the side effects and take time to educate stakeholders. Ideally bring other perspectives on progress and discourage the comfort often brought by over simplification. This is especially true if you publicise raw velocity values outside the team, it is a fragile concept, and if miss-used it could leave the team with compromised estimates and a painful legacy.

 

 

 

The Entirely Random DevOps Days London Write Up

There are some great posts out there on the superlative DevOpsDays London 2016 Conference. Of particular note are Manual PaisDevOpsGuys  and Helen Beal’s DevOpsDays London: Making Happy. These are well structured, balanced pieces which neatly represent each talk along with insight from experienced authors.  I hate to disappoint, but this post is not one of those. It’s a random collection of the things that peaked my interest at DevOps Days London.

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What is Legacy?
There was lots of talk of legacy, the BiModal debate rolled on. Much like the sporadic agile wars many of the detractors use out dated definitions as convenient ammunition, Gartner’s understanding of the challenges seems to have evolved away from its original strategy towards an exploit and explore approach for recent and legacy systems respectively.  Defining legacy is challenging, with considerations beyond just the age of the software or system. There were a few definitions I really liked:
“Legacy is code you can’t iterate on as quickly as you need to” – Casey West
“Legacy is code you don’t have automated tests for. – Micheal Feathers
“Legacy is where your customer money lives” –  Bridget Kromhout

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The merits of really reading
I keep having the same conversation, like being in a endless loop, it goes like this:

Person: “Yeah, I know all about Conway’s law, it is super insightful”
Me: “Exactly, that example about teams building compilers, that’s a light bulb moment”
Person: “….the compilers?”
Me: (Thinks) “Have you really taken time to understand what you’re advising people to do, or are you just reciting tweets?”
Me: (Says) “ Check out the article, there’s lots more in it”

It is like this with so many topics, REST, OODA, Learning. That’s why I was so pleased to hear the ever-eloquent Gareth Rushgrove call out the value of reading academic papers in his talk.  These days we are so prone to snacking on sound bites we seldom get the satisfaction of a full reading meal, yet our brains cry out for this kind of nourishment. I believe papers, and source material in general, are the best way to gain a firm understanding of a topic, particularly because they build a picture of what motivated the author, not just what they did.  Much like software patterns, understanding the intent and motivation is key to successful application.

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Burnout
A couple of talks touched on burnout, as did a well attended and lively open space. What surprised me was how many people had direct experience of it, it remains an issue in the industry despite raised awareness and talk of sustainable, humane ways of working. Oliver Wood talked about his experiences working so many hours that he slipped a disk. Keen that others may avoid the same fate, he created GoodCoderBadPosture.  During his ignite he reminded us “you are ephemeral , you are not highly available“.  My talk (Things I learnt About DevOps When My Car Caught Fire) used the analogy of looking through the windscreen of my burnt out car, all the instruments you normally rely upon to sense the world are warped and confused, your view is fogged and distorted. If only we could see metal strain as readily as we can bad posture.

I noticed much of the burnout open space was concerned with what management and organisations can do prevent burnout, and recognise it’s occurrence. This is a reasonable standpoint given that our behaviours are generally shaped by the systems we work within. However In the spirit of DevOps we should also note that it isn’t a problem for effected individuals and their mangers to tackle alone.  While organisations take action, we might also ask ourselves:

1. “How would I know if one of my colleagues was suffering from burnout?”
2. “How would I help someone I thought on the verge of burnout?”
3. “How do my own behaviours effect the likelihood of burnout in my colleagues?”

There was a nice note in Jeromy Carriere’s talk, and a potential answer to question 3: “Work hard to make every alert exciting” this has implications for burnout, exciting alerts implies only being disturbed for hard problems, not simple switch flicking exercises.

Change
There was plenty of talk of change, particularly the danger of not evolving and experimenting.  Change strategies were discussed, including the value of heading into conversations well armed with data.  It was clear from their talk that Microsoft are changing in places, for instance setting up open team rooms or neighborhoods.  I rate this approach, it appears to balance team privacy, open communications and the distractions of full open plan.

“It is not necessary to change, survival is not mandatory” – Deming (Who wasn’t present!)
“The riskiest thing is not to change” – Joanne Molesky

The change theme included the importance of investing time in the most valuable activities, and how to discover them. It highlighted that many of those valuable activities are operational features, not just shiny new toys to please users. If you’re in the mood for self reflection you might give some thought to this quote from Bridget Kromhout:
“When evaluating yourself don’t forget to look at the value you are adding”

A conference, with a culture
The thing I love about DevOpsDays, and the way it’s organised, is that it still feels like a community event, sure it’s scaled, but the level of friendliness, inclusion and support are almost as the first time I spoke in Goteborg 2011. The story of this scaling and principles behind it were told by Kris Buytaert, it’s surprising how many of the early adopters are still active. The conference manages to short circuit a lot of anchoring and group think by giving almost 50% of the time to open spaces. Taking responsibility for the schedule out of the committee’s hands into the delegate’s ensures that topics are relevant to attendees, right then and there. The willingness of speakers to stay and participate in these sessions is key to their success and makes for some great learning.  Not bad for a movement that still can’t agree what its about.

Inflicting Trust

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I often introduce teams to the notion of ‘inflicting help’, those well-meaning activities which deprive the recipient of an opportunity to learn, or practice.  For example, if I always helpfully facilitate retrospectives for a team, they will miss the experience of running their own. If someone helpfully handles all the build work for the team, ‘because they are best at it’ the team will not learn how to deploy for themselves.  This notion is of particular importance for agile and DevOps teams, as they cross skill, and share responsibility.

I also believe it is possible to ‘inflict trust’, that is give so much trust that it is detrimental to the recipient.  This idea may not be popular, how can it be plausible when the agile and DevOps communities talk so much about building trust?

Consider the following example.  It is day one for a new employee in the fictional organisation Great Western Widgets. At Great Western Widgets we deploy a few times each day, and we chase the Continuous Delivery Nirvana of making deployments boring. The new employee makes some code changes and is then is asked to deploy to production, following steps in the build book. “You’ll be fine, I trust you” says the senior engineer. Except things don’t go fine; the load balancer doesn’t route traffic away from the node that’s being deployed to, alerts don’t fire and eventually end users report multiple errors.
The new start suffers a massive dent in their confidence.  They are now far less trusting of their mentors, and apprehensive about battling a reputation for being ‘the one who broke production on their first day’.

In this instance the senior engineer was too trusting of the new start, they inflicted trust. In other, more severe situations, you may recognise this lack of support as a form of negligence. As leaders and mentors that’s something we should be wary of.  In addition to good intentions, it is often convenient (time wise or politically) to use the mantra of ‘high trust’ to expect others to do things, perhaps even things we wouldn’t risk doing ourselves.  Being ready to support, and if necessary rescue, those we are placing trust in is critical to creating an environment of safety, in which people are willing to challenge themselves. It is this feeling of safety that makes teams comfortable taking calculated risks, going fast and innovating. These traits are often seen to lead to high individual and team performance, not to mention a more pleasant work environment.

When encouraging learning and granting more trust, it’s often useful to consider various likely outcomes, if, when and how to step in. Doing the thing for the person is not an option, being ready, and available, to avert to disaster is mandatory.

One example is helping a child learn to carry a tray of drinks to the table, at some point they are going to just have to get on and try it, unless their parents want to follow them to every dining hall, café and pub they visit in their lifetime. So in that moment some steps are taken, almost without thinking; don’t use the best China, don’t over load the tray (you’ve just reduced the consequences of failure) and be ready with a tissue and some wise words if anything does spill (to encourage reflection and restore confidence). The converse, ‘inflicting trust’ would be to load up the tray with boiling hot drinks, fragile, expensive crockery put them into the hands of the wide eyed child and say “Off you go, I trust you”.

The key question to ask yourself is:  When you suggest someone tries something for the first time, which style are you using, supporting or inflicting trust?

The Final Countdown; Adjourning Agile Teams

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www.flickr.com/photos/mbiddulph/5310895988/

When introducing agile  I’m sometimes asked to assist with the creation of teams, I’ll be asked questions like:  how many testers do we need?  Is ten people enough?  Who manages performance?  Should they wear shorts?  These are predominantly valuable questions, lucky covered at length elsewhere.  Something that’s very seldom planned is what happens when these teams disband.  And yet, without due care team members may end up demotivated, disappointed or feeling unappreciated.  In the age where everyone is fighting to retain smart people, and to transform their organisations, at the expense of a little forethought, it seems a high risk to take.

New teams are recognised  to move through similar phases, regardless of their domain.  Tuckman’s stages of group development is the ubiquitous cycle, suggesting that teams move through the following stages as they gel and become productive:
Forming – When a team gets together there is a buzz, there is expectation, and caution as they figure out their mission and their colleagues.
Storming – The team realise what they are up against, both from their mission, and each other, there is vying for position, conflict and resistance.
Norming – The team start to behave as more collaboratively, making progress towards goals, and developing team relationships, they are increasingly effective as a group.
Performing – The team is stable and performing its best, there is respect, understanding and a strong sense of shared purpose.

The sequence provides a useful heuristic for what to expect as a new team gets together.  Of course progress isn’t strictly linear, and teams iterate through these stages.  Something as simple a desk swap may prompt a little storming, with care though the overall trend remains towards performing.

Having studied and developed the concept, a decade later Tuckman added a fifth stage.  It is sometimes referred to as ‘mourning’ although I suspect that’s largely due to rhyme compatibility with the other stages, Tuckman named it ‘adjourning’.

Imagine this:  you go on a sunny holiday with a bunch of  new friends, sure the journey was a bit fraught, it took a while to get used to the new place, pace and lifestyle, there were some heated words along the way, in the end everyone is getting along, doing their thing and generally having a good time.  The holiday peaks when everyone gets together, sharing experiences and ideas, the energy is tangible.  Then one day you notice someone has left the group; “needed elsewhere” apparently.  Next day the hotel barman disappears, then you notice no-one is organising activities anymore.  The swimming pool is turning a curious green hue.  Two people wonder off because ‘there’s a more interesting holiday going on over there’.  The kitchen runs out of food – the chef is only there once a week, mumbling about “other priorities”.  The manager who used to stroll over enthusiastically and ask; “how can I help today?” now seems afraid to look you in the eye.  Slowly people drift off until the sense of fun and bonhomie are lost.  Triumphs forgotten, you kill time until the holiday reaches its end date.  A sense of loss and a slow fade to boredom becomes the overriding memory.

The adjourning phase in teams is important because it sets up the attitude, enthusiasm and levels of energy taken to the next team.  What is carried forward is largely based on the emotional response someone has looking back at the project.  The final weeks are particularly important because we are recent creatures, more recent negative experiences will replace older positive feelings.

Sensitivity to the adjourning phase is especially important during an agile transformation, and when introducing change in general.  In those early days a change initiative needs allies and evangelists to support and promote it.  Peer to peer recommendations are particularly respected, and people who have enjoyed a project help form a cohort of change agents.  The opposite is also true, word of a poorly handled team will soon spread, and be seen as part of the ‘new way’.

So you need to make sure that a team has a positive emotional response when they think about the project otherwise, regardless of what ‘facts’ or ‘reasons’ are given, it’s the emotional side that will determine whether a similar initiative is supported, or resisted.  I’d suggest the following:

Mark The Occasion – Lunch, cakes, a flaming aquatic Viking burial for the team board, anything that underscores that the project is done.  No need for speeches, but be sure to say thanks, recognise achievements, and just mark the last time the team exists in this form.  Often it feels more useful to do when the whole team can attend, rather than the calendar close date.

Close it down – Agree what work should be completed, rather than allowing that nagging unfinished, lost opportunity feeling.  Consider the tasks that will make it possible for other teams to work with product when handed over.

Retrospect – There are two motivations for this, firstly to gain learning and insight for future projects, secondly so team members feel like they’ve been heard and that things will improve in future projects.  A good option is to hold a ‘futureospective’ focus the retro on the future, asking each participant to choose a couple of initiatives they’d introduce to their new team.

Communicate – Often team changes are requested by outside influences,  it is good to soften the feeling that team changes are being ‘done to them’, especially in an agile environment which encourages self organisation and team responsibility.  If the team faces a slow wind down with people moving over a few weeks, explain why, ask for input into how the team’s remaining commitments and assets should be managed.  Again you’ll uncover solid ideas and increase engagement.

In the aspect of adjourning agile teams are no different to any other, except perhaps that they are expected to move through the stages of group development more often and more rapidly than their counter parts.  We should be mindful that our search of agility does not lead to disenfranchised groups and teams that never truly form due to prior poor experiences when disbanding.

Compared to the effort we put into forming a team the effort required for a successful adjournment is small, and the rewards are high; raised enthusiasm, engagement and even increased support for transformation.  So let’s not short change our teams, lets facilitate the closing phase of team life with as much thought and attention as the beginning.