Wide Awake Developers

What’s Lost With a DevOps Team

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Please understand, dear Reader, that I write this with positive intention. I’m not here to impugn any person or organization. I want to talk about some decisions and their natural consequences. These consequences seem negative to me and after reading this post you may agree.

When an established company faced a technology innovation, they often create a new team to adopt and exploit that innovation. During my career, I’ve seen this pattern play out with microcomputers, client/server architecture, open systems, web development, agile development, cloud architecture, NoSQL, and DevOps. Perhaps we can explore the pros and cons of that overall approach in some other post. For now, I want to specifically address the DevOps team.

A DevOps team gets created as an intermediary between development and operations. This is especially likely when dev and ops report through different management chains. That is to say, in a functionally-oriented structure. In a product-oriented structure, it is less likely.

This intermediary team gets tasked with automating releases and deployments. They are the ones to adopt some code-as-configuration platform. Sometimes they are also tasked with building an internal platform-as-a-service, but that more often falls to the infrastructure and operations teams.

So the devops team has development as their customer. Operations has the devops team as their customer. Work flows from development, through the tools created by the devops team, and into production. It would seem to capture the benefits of automation: it becomes predictable, repeatable, and safe.

All of that is true. However, even though this is an improvement, it misses out on even greater improvements that could be realized.

The key problem is the unclosed feedback loop. When developers are directly exposed to production operations, they learn. Sometimes they learn from negative feedback: getting woken up for support calls, debugging performance problems, or that horrible icy feeling in your stomach when you realize that you just shut down the wrong database in production.

With a DevOps team sitting between development and operations, the operations team remains in the “learning position.” But they lack the ability to directly improve the systems. Suppose a log message is ambiguous. If the operator who sees it can’t directly change the source code, then the message will never get corrected. (It’s important, but small… exactly the thing least likely to be worth filing a change request for.)

Over longer time spans, the things we learn from production should influence the entire architecture: from technology choices to code patterns and common libraries. A DevOps team sitting between development and operations impedes that learning.

DevOps is meant to be a style of interaction: direct collaboration between development and operations. A team in between that automates things is a tools team. It’s OK to call it a tools team. Tools are a good thing, despite what corporate budgeting seems to say these days.

Instead of creating a flow from development to DevOps to operations, consider putting development, tools, and operations all together and giving them the same goals. They should be collaborators working shoulder-to-shoulder rather than work stations in a software factory.