The Mythical Application Owner – And Why They Matter to DevOps

I have been on both the customer and the vendor side of Application Management over the last decade. So, I was surprised how much trouble my team and I had really defining the Application Owner as a sales target. With our collective backgrounds, I expected it to be a breeze. Of course the CxOs, VP Operations, and others are well know entities. So why is the application owner so difficult to find? One reason is because the definitions are all over the place.

For example, one definition on the IT Law Wiki says:

An application owner is the individual or group with the responsibility to ensure that the program or programs, which make up the application, accomplish the specified objective or set of user requirements established for that application, including appropriate security safeguards.

Snore… I could be in charge of Microsoft Office for my company and fit that technically focused, but inherently logical, definition. NIST has a similarly technically oriented definition. Now in all seriousness, we can see that part of the problem is that I really mean a business application owner, not a technical owner. In that vein, a definition much more to my liking can be found on this blog entry from Nick Spanos on his Lean IT blog. In the spirit of lean methodology, he brings in business/customer outcomes, business processes, etc.

So, who cares? I think anyone who cares about DevOps should care. As DevOps expands from a grassroots movement to a business-changing phenomenon, it needs to continue to develop thought patterns that appeal to those footing the bill. This is where so much good thinking in IT falls down – the inability to articulate the value to the business. That said, I don’t think it has to be complicated. I see two over-riding characteristics:

They live, eat, and breathe application revenue

For every revenue-generating application out there, there is someone being measured on that revenue. For a small company, that might be the CEO. For a Fortune 500 company, there could be dozens of applications, each with an owner. Regardless of industry, somebody goes to sleep at night worrying about whether is measuring up to expectations.

They care (or should care) about customer value

Customers pay the bills, so worrying about revenue means obsessing about customers. I think that one of the common themes for companies successfully implementing DevOps is the over-riding need to deliver customer value. This is coincidently very much in line with lean methodology – which is why lean and DevOps are so good together. An application that is always in danger of losing customers and competitiveness is fertile ground for DevOps. If your application isn’t in a competitive space, why would you even bother?!

Pretty much everything else is going to be different by industry. An application owner at SuperCoolStartup dot com will likely be very different than the app owner at BigRetail dot com or the MBA educated person running SomethingOrOtherFinancial dot com. What they should have in common in the commitment to increasing revenue by increasing customer value.

Now, one caveat. Not every application has revenue. I would argue that the lack of the profit imperative makes a wrenching change like DevOps much more difficult, but you can insert “mission” or “fund raising” for most of these points.

So, why does this matter? DevOps practitioners, and IT organizations in general, have an unprecedented opportunity to make IT matter to the business more than it ever has before. IT can become an enabler for revenue, rather than a pure cost center. However, to do that, they need to learn to express the value of DevOps in revenue and customer-focused terms, and begin to make the case directly to the application owner. Over time, I think the pendulum of power is swinging from the CIO and VP operations to the application owners. So, IT needs to make some new friends!