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How DevOps went mainstream in 2016

2016 was the year that DevOps became part of IT organisations’ everyday language. While forward thinking, agile businesses have embraced DevOps from the outset, what we’re seeing now is what, in the Technology Adoption Lifecycle are known as “the late majority” shifting towards new DevOps practices.

Bringing development and operations together to deliver what a business needs, quickly, reliably, flexibly defines the DevOps approach. It can transform how an organisation works, breaking down traditional barriers between IT teams and the business. It’s the opposite of the siloing and segmentation that limit so many businesses. And, as more people realise its benefits, more IT leaders are demanding it. Yet while it redefines what is possible for a business, it can require challenging changes. Ones that seemingly more organisations were finally ready to take on in 2016.

DevOps – a slow burn?

There’s no single driver to DevOps becoming mainstream. One factor is that as an approach, it’s clearer and more descriptive now. Innovators in the technology space are often better technologists than they are communicators. So, the tooling or practices created have an audience of fellow innovators. Features like user-friendliness, documentation and other "softer" concerns aren't really addressed until the early adopters come along.  While early adopters are happy to cope with a few rough edges, they'll engage with the communities around a tool bringing real world insight to shape the solution, and, make it more consumable. DevOps today is the result of 6 years of iteration and improvement, which is gradually driving that wider understanding.

We know that late majority and laggard businesses are typically quite conservative; they're unlikely to take many risks with their technology strategy. For these businesses, industry best practice – or, what everyone else is doing – will shape thinking. And, as major influencers like Gartner become increasingly positive towards DevOps and what they're calling "Mode Two" operation, so more executives dutifully follow.

2016’s increase in adoption ties in directly with the growing confidence in and uptake of public cloud technologies too. DevOps and cloud remain closely linked; it’s our view that a cloud strategy without a DevOps approach will probably fail.

What’s more, increasingly all businesses are becoming technology businesses whether they realise it or not, and any company involved in delivering technology will benefit from adopting a DevOps approach. 

Customer expectations and the DevOps landscape

As customers, we’re getting less patient. When we're making purchasing decisions or engaging with a service, it’s all about immediate consumption. This sort of SaaS business model means that companies need be able to adapt to changing demands more quickly than in the past. Agility is a major differentiator for the top players in any market now. DevOps practices help to unlock that agility without undermining the quality of the offering. It’s inevitable more organisations build this into their approach towards technology and business transformation.

As understanding around DevOps has grown, so more businesses fear being left behind. We’re now getting to the stage where, without a DevOps approach, businesses can't unlock agility without compromising on quality, security, and people. It’s become a requirement to stay ahead of the game.

Opening up DevOps understanding

Having grown a business during the genesis of the DevOps movement, we can be honest about the industry’s own role in affecting uptake. As practitioners, we can come across quite dogmatic. This isn't unique to DevOps: the same criticisms can be levied against, for example, the Agile movement. Often the advocates of a movement are working heavily on gut feel, and can't quantify, in clear ROI terms, why their approach is better. For business leaders with a bit more appetite for risk, or who make decisions more emotionally, this isn't a problem. For more traditional, risk averse organisations, it becomes a much harder sell. As our industry matures, and becomes more professional, we’re becoming more empathetic towards customers’ needs, more savvy about how we communicate and more sensitive to how we sell.   

In part, businesses that have embraced DevOps have gained a strategic advantage over those that haven't. This means that adoption elsewhere has nudged towards inevitability. With early adopters fully on board, the availability of real world data can make a case to those more conservative business leaders. Particularly here, the work that Puppet has invested in its State of DevOps report (run annually since 2011) shows a clear link between DevOps adoption and improvements in agility, time-to-market, defect rate, defect recovery time and general employee happiness. This evidence, the increased real world success stories, means we no longer need to rely on dogma or emotion to sell a DevOps story. Equally, resistance to DevOps has traditionally been led by fear and uncertainty around the outcomes. Weaving success stories into our approach helps shift doubt.

A shift in thinking

DevOps edging towards mainstream IT has required a cultural shift from within organisations. With increased understanding comes the realisation that you can't just sprinkle a company with some "DevOps tools" and expect success, regardless of what you might hear from vendors on the golf course.

If uncertainty is a barrier, communication is the way to break this down. We encourage our customers to think about communicating their plans ahead of the transformation. Be clear on the business outcome. Think about ownership, responsibilities, accountability and define clarity around these across the business. Success comes from aligning business goals, ensuring your teams understand how their role directly links to this and new behaviours. It’s this collaboration which is the essence of the DevOps approach. Some organisations will research this, attend DevOps community events, and have the right conversations while some will attempt to "buy a DevOps", learning the hard and expensive way that this doesn’t work.

A roadmap for 2017

Looking at the UK, the industry is getting closer to understanding the benefits of DevOps, but adoption hasn't gone far enough yet. Some businesses are still early in their journey, and they'll have a good few years to go before they're properly reaping the rewards 

DevOps is effectively just the tip of a much bigger iceberg that some are referring to as "digital transformation". Once we've improved collaboration between developers and operations, and fully empowered them to understand and align to business goals, there are other stakeholders who deserve attention.  We're already talking about "DevSecOps", where we make sure security is included in the process. But let’s consider other operational functions. How about finance? Procurement? Sales? How can we better enable those parts of a business for agility and collaboration?

2017 must be the year that we take this more cohesive, inclusive approach, demonstrating the potential that DevOps can bring right across the business. It is iterative, and a learning process. Ultimately, we encourage our customers to apply DevOps principles in a way that complements their individual cultures. Learn, adapt, iterate. Appreciate that so much of the value will be in the journey as much as the destination. We’re excited to see how 2017’s DevOps story unfolds.

Jon Topper, Founder and Principal Consultant, The Scale Factory 

Jon Topper
Jon Topper is CTO of The Scale Factory, a DevOps consultancy that helps organisations of various sizes design, build, operate and scale their infrastructure.