3 Reasons why DevOps isn’t changing IT faster

iStock_RobotRaceThe recent article from Luke Kanies (from Puppet Labs) on Wired.com really got me thinking. Similar to Luke, I have had an interesting vantage point to observe the changing nature of systems administration – spending time as one myself – over the last decade or so. From my graduate physics department, to Loudcloud, EDS, BladeLogic, BMC, and now Sumo Logic, I have seen the best and not-so-great IT shops and how they operate. Not all of those IT teams I saw in action were, or are now, adopting best practices like automation and DevOps. The trend that Luke points out means that operations teams that continue to languish in constant firefighting mode, relying on ad-hoc scripts and the sweat off the admin’s brow, are becoming more obvious for being clearly out of step with the direction of the industry.

So, why aren’t all operations teams, and the techies themselves, falling over each other to embrace tools like Puppet, SumoLogic, and other DevOps/Automation tools? Clearly some organizations are embracing them. Why not all of them? I have few of my own ideas here, and I would like to hear yours as well.

1. The move from “Artist” to “Manager” is not natural

Back when I started in IT, most IT admins “owned” a small collection of devices or applications. Server admins owned a handful of servers, database admins a few databases, network admins a few switches and firewalls, etc. They controlled access to their systems jealously, and took personal pride in their operation. They were artists, and their systems, and the way those systems were managed, were an art form. As IT budgets have shrunk, and the load on IT increased, this level of care is impossible.

Yet, you still find many admins jealously guarding their root access privileges, instead of moving to a shared responsibility model with other admins. Why? I think it is the same reason why I feel such satisfaction after cooking a meal, building new shelves in my garage, or fixing a leaky faucet. I did it myself, and it feels good to start and finish something. Participating in automated processes can be deeply unsatisfying. That is why admins need to learn new skills, and find new pride in the quality of their automation or find satisfaction in steadily improving quality.

2. Using Automation may seem like losing control

One conversation from my IT past sticks in my mind more than any other. I was on site with a customer trying to explain the benefits of automation to a group of systems administrators. One system admin floored me by insisting that she could more accurately, and more quickly, make changes to 20 UNIX servers than I could ever do with automation. It was like some modern version of John Henry calling me out to some man vs. machine contest, and subtly decrying the inhumanity of my automation tool. I can’t even remember my answer now, but this perspective is at the root of much of the push-back against automation and DevOps. Instead of looking at the business outcome – better experience and value for the customer – some frustrated system admins see these new ideas as a direct affront to the quality of their work. This is precisely why I think the fundamental shift in DevOps is from a internal IT focus to an external customer focus. That way admins can measure their success by customer impact. Not an easy change to make, but it is essential for IT’s continued relevance.

3. Change seems hard/bad/unnatural/unneeded

Isn’t the root of the resistance here really the natural tendency to resist change? On the other hand, how many times have operations teams been assured that the latest IT fad will reduce their workload and improve quality, only to see the opposite happen? So what’s different about DevOps? I think I could write a whole blog entry just on that, but a few things come to mind. First, the focus is on customer value, which greatly simplifies priorities. Second, it’s all about outcomes, not process for the sake of process. Finally, it is all about continuous improvement driven by the experience of the people on the frontline. This means that admins must be rewarded going forward for doing things that increase customer value, rather than putting out fires or pleasing angry executives.

So, it all comes back to culture – surprise, surprise. I think this will be the primary challenge of DevOps going forward. How do we overcome the IT culture so resistant to change, while providing an attractive way for all of those systems administrators to breathe easily in their new roles?