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Steering DevOps: a leader’s role on deck

September 28, 2020

In periods of both smooth sailing and rough waters, organizations depend on their leaders to steer the vessel. The economic downturn is creating more uncertainty and business disruption than ever before, and organizations face the pressure to adopt more flexible, remote, and agile-based ways of working in order to keep their businesses afloat. Within IT, DevOps answers the global call for organizational transformation.

The case for DevOps leadership

DevOps represents a change in IT culture. It is a mindset shift that seeks to break down preexisting siloes between development, quality, security, and operations teams. It does this by combining principles rooted in transparency and experimentation with new technologies – particularly test, security, and deployment automation tools – and in the areas of Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment.

However, shifting to DevOps is only possible when there are capable and transformative leaders at the helm.

With over half (53%) of senior business leaders still wed to traditional approaches, navigating turbulent waters is not easy, especially when doing so requires shifting long-ingrained ways of working, processes and beliefs. Leaders must inspire their workforce to innovate and create change through encouraging ownership, trusting their teams, and displaying ethical, authentic, and cooperative behavior. DevOps transformation is a symbiosis between top-down leadership commitment and bottom up change from the team level.

How do we bring this to life?

Let’s look at a client – a New York-based financial services firm with over 10,000 employees. While the developers were pushing new functionalities into production, operations had to smooth away the difficulties. This resulted in a high number of incidents after each deployment.

This client saw DevOps as the solution to address these tensions and knew that leadership was at the helm of making a DevOps transition successful. They asked us to provide guidance on enabling their leaders to steer their organization in the new direction.

To address this client’s concerns, we first encouraged the leaders at the client organization to embrace the four key responsibilities of a transformational DevOps leader:

  1. Set the mission statement: Organizations need leaders who can explain the “why” behind DevOps, create a clear vision of a better future, and motivate employees. Leaders need to be culture builders by carrying the mission and strategy into the team and creating goals.
  2. Be the safety guard: DevOps transformations require leaders that ensure the safety when experimenting and learning through failure. They must create the basic conditions for the team and bear the responsibility and risk to reach goals.
  3. Build the core DevOps team: The core DevOps team must accelerate the culture transformation and support the Agile squads in their adoption. Leaders in DevOps transformations are required to coach and form this core DevOps team. DevOps leaders need to coordinate the activities of the core team according to the bigger picture and drive delivery with the main KPIs. Teams should be organized around seven key roles: the DevOps evangelist, change and deployment manager, automation architect, pipeline architect, quality assurance professional, security engineer, cultural change lead. A DevOps transformation is only technical on the surface: the success lies within the people.
  4. Be the communication enabler: For a DevOps transformation to occur, leaders must establish, promote, and maintain communication channels. Especially in uncertain or turbulent waters, leaders need to be able to communicate in a way that inspires and motivates.

A skillful sailor is not made overnight and neither is a DevOps leader. We provided the client with a variety of tools resources to help guide their leaders’ development into their four key roles and responsibilities.

  • To create DevOps leaders that could set the mission statement and be the communication enabler, we organized one-on-one leadership coaching sessions with each leader. During these sessions, we crafted the change vision and defined communication messages, channels, and activities with IT and business leaders. We provided customized solutions and tools that fit individual leaders’ needs, served the broader organization, and enabled for DevOps implementation success.
  • To help leaders understand the necessities for building the core team, we conducted a DevOps maturity assessment and value stream mapping to determine the strategic direction and investment areas for their DevOps transformation. Value stream mapping is critical as teams need to shift their thinking to align teams to products. We examined the current level of DevOps maturity across various dimensions, including collaboration tools, enterprise architecture, and organizational structure. We hosted a roadmap rollout workshop, bringing together leaders and DevOps teams to create a plan for coordinating and driving the efforts by focusing on the optimization of bottlenecks. We shifted managerial roles from functional areas such as testing into tribe-leader roles. We ran disaster recovery testing exercises or “game days” in order to build strong bonds and trust in cross collaborating teams. Outages were simulated forcing teams that did not ordinarily collaborate to forge strong working relationships to maintain and restore service levels. To be successful, organizations need to accept system and process failures as a means of learning.
  • To be the safety guard, leaders should seek feedback early and often, but also build an environment where it is safe to fail. Blameless post-mortems brought leaders and key stakeholders together to identify success, failures, and recommendations for improvement in process and systems. A blame-free environment allows individuals to treat failures as opportunities to learn and innovate. 360° feedback helps informed performance, training needs, career development areas while reducing bias. We enabled the tribe leaders to coach their tribes for adherence to best practice processes.


With our support, our client was able to navigate their IT department to new waters. Because leaders embraced their role in driving the DevOps implementation, a DevOps environment that emphasized automated deployment, standard production, and collaboration was able to flourish. Ultimately, employees’ time and energy were freed up to innovate and focus on other workplace activities.


Olivia Taglich

Though leaders cannot control the storm, they can adjust the sails of their ship. As we’ve seen in our client example if leaders adopt the four key responsibilities of DevOps leadership and take actions to engage their team members throughout a transformation, they can help steer the organization to calmer waters and sustain an organization that runs smoothly towards the future.


Olivia Taglich