The Second Machine age – How DevOps radically shift organisations to accelerate to survive

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Is DevOps the new magic potion for Companies? Is it the answer to allow companies to stay relevant during the second machine age? I think so – DevOps seems to be pushing enterprise setups from being an organisation to being an organism, achieving amazing benefits. DevOps is simply about three things – speed, quality and […]

Is DevOps the new magic potion for Companies? Is it the answer to allow companies to stay relevant during the second machine age? I think so – DevOps seems to be pushing enterprise setups from being an organisation to being an organism, achieving amazing benefits.

DevOps is simply about three things – speed, quality and innovation – and DevOps is a philosophy (read here); a concept that allows companies to focus on three key aspects – people, process and tools. For a while now we have realised that if you want to accelerate deployments (so from the point when someone has an idea to the point of implementing the solution so that people can benefit of the new feature) whilst reducing (or eliminating) outages + to drive innovation, you have to focus on tools and process optimisation. However, it seems that far more important is the people aspect area. Furthermore it seems that DevOps, maybe inadvertently, is radically changing the business environments, shifting enterprise setups from being an organisation to being an organism. 

Today’s typical enterprises, like a retailer have separate business organisation where business analysts and business consultants define and identify with business owners new requirements. They would work with customer focus groups to ascertain what IT related capabilities would be beneficial on their web site or on their mobile app etc. They would document these and at some point engage with their IT department to issue a SOW (statement of work) to develop the IT solution. A Developer would create the code, hand it over to a testing team, to then ask the business analyst and the business user to test the code before engaging with the release management team to get the code into production. It’s a bit like a relay race – someone takes a baton that has been handed over the wall to cover a part of the entire solution lifecycle, each losing time as well as getting further away from the actual business. 

The result? From idea creation to deployment it can take weeks, month and sometimes years – a client told me that they are still working on their online backlog from 2009 – that is 6 years. In addition functional and non-functional requirements are incomplete, with either issues or outages in live and / or gaps in meeting the expectations. And to make matters worse, it stifles innovation as it can only successful flourish within each silo and gets lost as soon as it moves over the wall. This is a typical setup for an enterprise – running well ordered and clearly set out silos of organisational structures that will apply quality assuring measures onto every aspect that is being handed over.

So how do you then accelerate deployments (say from once every 6 month to every day), how do you reduce outages caused by these deployments and how do you drive, enable and encourage innovation? Next to deploying more automation and process optimisation the real answer seems to point to moving to a more horizontally aligned structure where people / team of people take more accountability across the entire lifecycle, working much more autonomous. Working independently each group will have to work as a cell in an organism – independent, yet aligned in an wider ecosystem. Quite a big shift for people who have been accustomed to a particular structure. Go back to the Retailer example. Let’s assume Tom is working in the IT delivery department, which is reporting to the CFO and has been working for the retailer for 10 years now. He looks after the online web servers, not really knowing what is actually running on them, and ensures that all is well at all times – ie meeting uptime and performance requirements. John is a Developer writing java code for the online web based catalogue. He reports eventually to the CIO and has been with the retailer for 8 years now. Both work on the same application yet both would never directly engage directly – Tom looks after a web server to meet a certain SLA (service level agreement) and John is tasked with delivering features to ensure that the retailer retains and grows its customer base. To accelerate, to drive quality and innovation both Tom and John have to work much closer together – both are part of a jigsaw of capabilities to deliver one service – ideally they should be “one”  autonomous organism to deliver end2end online capabilities for the retailer.

These autonomous organism / teams will have to apply a new set of principles:

  1.  Partner with customers to focus on business value
  2. Work towards a shared vision and objectives to advocate for your constituency
  3. Deliver incremental value and take pride in workmanship
  4. Invest in quality and deliver on your commitments
  5. Empower team members and keep a solution perspective
  6. Set clear accountability and foster a team of peers
  7. Learn from  experiences and practice good citizenship
  8. Foster open communications and improve continually
  9. Stay agile (expect & adapt to change) to understand qualities of service


Within each organism every team member will work and relate to his/her peers. Some will have a business focus whilst others will tend more towards technology. Roles and responsibly develop over time with people assuming accountability for aspects they happy to take on. The organism is made up of people with different strength from “the mechanic”, “the thinker”, “the visionary” to “the doer” (see here) covering business and technology related skills. The autonomous Team (or better the organism) will transform and adapt to maximise value and impact, delivering faster, with less outages and with more innovation than its organisational brother (or sister). 

The future for companies is to unleashed their “sleeping potentials” – to allow their staff to drive and lead according to their potentials and not based on what his/her direct report believes. To allow staff to “do what is right and needed” rather than “do what others have defined, documented and expect”. It seems that this could be the answer to increasing speed, quality and innovation – three key criteria’s for enterprises to stay relevant. Trusting your staff to do the right thing seems to be a good start – see Richard Branson explain why his staff can take as much as holiday as they want (read here) – same as Netflix is doing before him. The result – happier staff who are more productive and are driving more actively innovation.

Another radical way of driving innovation is to “use” people leave the company as a leaver to bring in new ideas. We are used to “force” notice periods and clear T&Cs that outline in fine detail what constitutes IP (intellectual properties) and what the impact is for ex-staff to “reuse” these at the next role. Some companies see this as stifling innovation and have turned this well-established enterprise protection on its head – “no notice period and please take our IP as we will recruit someone else from competition getting his/hers current companies IP in return to develop new ideas”. Crazy? Well not according to some of the companies in the bay area. Today, it might be restricted to innovative, bay area based IT companies but it does look like it’s a model that might be replicated elsewhere.

“Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.”

—Milton Friedman written by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee imply that we are just at the start of technology developments and there is much more (exponentially more) innovation to come. Quote from this quite brilliant paper : “After surveying the landscape, we are convinced that we are at an inflection point—the early stages of a shift as profound as that brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Not only are the new technologies exponential, digital, and combinatorial, but most of the gains are still ahead of us. In the next twenty-four months, the planet will add more computer power than it did in all previous history. Over the next twenty-four years, the increase will likely be over a thousand-fold. We’ve already digitized exabytes of information, but the amount of data that’s being digitized is growing even faster than Moore’s Law.”

It seems that to fuel the innovation engine, to deliver the amount of increased changed that Andrew and Erik outline in their book, a completely different business model is needed – enterprises have to shift from a ridged, fixed and constraining to much more open, autonomous and empowered structure – an organisms.

So how does the move from “organisation” to “organism” relate with DevOps? DevOps is the change agent for enterprises to shift their people related structures. To speed up, to drive quality and to increase innovation to differentiate in the market, enterprises have to empower their staff. People are the “assets” that drives the change in an organisation and as many successful enterprises demonstrate, traditional fixed  organisations will have to change, or face demotion to a lower league, or even extinction. The signs are clearly here – more than 50 “FTSE 100” have left the index since 1999 and the rate will increase if enterprises don’t wake up.

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”

—Elbert Hubbard

In addition the enterprise landscape is shifting at the same time as well – long gone are the days where to be big you had to make plenty of money and own significant physical assets :

  • Netflix, the world largest movie company, has no cinemas;
  • Apple and Google are the largest software vendors who do not develop any software;
  • Skype and Webchat are the world largest phone companies with no telco infra;
  • Uber owns no cars yet is the latest taxi company;
  • World most popular media and content provider creates no content – Facebook and snapchat;

The list goes on and it seems that there is no stopping. DevOps is the concept that enables enterprises to automate by using tools such as docker, puppet, Pivotal or Bluemix, to streamline the “idea to operation” process and to change the people aspects. However the people side is the one that flip many organisations on its head.

The result? Enterprises working in an IT context and who want to make use of this new DevOps phenomenon, must realise that in order to gain the maximum value they must radically change and shift their people structure. The DevOps resulting people implementation plan must cover aspects such as (but not restricted to –as  these are just some generic ideas / suggestions) :

  • Trust your people to do “what is right”. Don’t worry – via “natural” selections people who don’t will either change or leave
  • Create autonomous teams; Teams of people that can cover the entire scope from eliciting requirements to operating the solution
  • Work with each person to ensure open, constructive and collaborative engagement are the norm – glass half full vs half empty
  • Ensure that the Teams include most of the 16 different types of people
  • Only provide framework related guiding principles to each autonomous teams
  • Ensure all share same / similar objectives that are bonus related and work with all to take them as close to the end customer
  • Stop policing your people – instead apply an expecting based governance where the Team will decide what quality controls should be applied
  • Put innovation at the heart of everything. Give the team a pot of cash to innovate and don’t apply too strict ROI to avoid stifling the innovation process. Celebrate success!  

Of course I am making a number of assumptions here and it is clearly not certain that it will turn out that way. However, assuming that Eric and Andrew are right in stipulating that innovation will increase it seems to me that one key way to fuel this is by “enabeling” and empowering the people…

Thanks for Reading

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