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“Netflix” your organisation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Denys Prykhodov / Shutterstock)

Uberisation, Amazonisation… and, now the society has come to the age of Netflixation.

Netflix has grown from an upstart DVD rental business to a 100 billion-dollar business in the space of 20 years and if analysts’ expectations ahead of its latest earnings tell us anything, it’s that the streaming service is ever more successfully championing a new way of video consumption. Through a data-driven approach the business has been able to provide targeted content tailored to its viewers’ needs and invest in programming they know will be successful with its audiences. The result: Netflix has grown its subscribers at an incredible rate.

Many businesses would attribute Netflix’s current growth to the surge in people staying at home due to global lockdown and quarantine. However, its success does not come from content alone, but also from a future-proofed and robust technology. Netflix is thriving in an increasingly competitive market, with the likes of Amazon Prime, Now TV and the newly established Disney+, adding pressure from all sides. What’s more, a freeze in current production means the business is having to look for more creative ways to serve viewers new content - or direct them to existing content they have not yet seen but will likely enjoy.     

Netflix’s dedicated team of specialist engineers is key to delivering films and series to the masses. In order to increase engineering performance, Netflix has set up processes and engineering working methods that have been helping the company to support its business model. One ingredient of Netflix’s secret sauce relies on DevOps methodology.

If you are working on a research and development team, the reliability of your solution is what keeps you awake at night. Organisations which rely on your software often have aggressive business objectives and their operations and IT infrastructures should operate 24/7; failures can have huge impact on a business – an e-commerce website where customers can’t finalise purchases or a travel booking platform which is not able to serve users hotels in the locations they need. The same is true of Netflix, right now customers rely on being able to turn to Netflix anytime, any day, and get the same quality of service they have come to expect.

As an engineer or software developer, your objective is reliability and to achieve the zero-failure situation. In order to achieve this goal, engineering teams will work on ensuring resiliency and will test the level of resilience of particular infrastructure, features and tools. Netflix was a forerunner in the resiliency testing method. When the company decided to move its infrastructure to the cloud, they were concerned about the resiliency of the infrastructure. They then had an idea called “chaos testing” and it is quite simple: killing the applications when running and monitoring how they are able to recover without impacting the user experience. This is the ultimate resiliency testing method: “fail fast and recover fast”.

By implementing this testing strategy Netflix was able to strategise and plan for almost all possible failures that could occur. As they say practice makes perfect and the more practice Netflix could get at recovering systems means when there is a failing for a consumer they can respond almost instantaneously. A well-equipped DevOps team will mean a business is able to successfully practice chaos testing and deliver a resilient and reliable service to consumers.

To achieve the Netflix level of engineering resiliency, something increasingly important with consumers spending more and more time online in their homes, there are two things organisations should think about: cultural change and skills.    

DevOps is impossible without a cultural change

While DevOps has entered organisations in a big way in the past few years, some companies are struggling to successfully implement DevOps methodology and fully benefit from it. Organisations have been pushed to adopt DevOps to support digitalisation including a cloud-first approach and an increasing need to access data by different functions like finance or marketing. Indeed, adopting a DevOps strategy implies a wide range of benefits: more agility to fit better with the expectations, faster deployments for better time to market, early feedback, more automation for fewer human errors and better testing and security for more reliability.

But DevOps can’t be implemented overnight. Typically, a DevOps team functions as the bridge between development and operations. It combines the needs of both teams in order to be more efficient. Through this philosophy, the entire lifecycle is controlled from design to production thanks to continuous integration, development and deployment. If you want to start with DevOps, the first place to begin is to think about the potential organisational changes to accompany this transition. This is necessary for each digital transformation project or process: to prepare and drive cultural change. In cloud companies like Netflix, the teams must operate 24/7, in order to manage this Netflix will leverage teams in different time zones but will have also worked closely with the HR departments to build a duty policy to ensure they have people ready to solve issues around the clock. With Netflix’s model where the majority of people will be consuming content outside working hours and at weekends this was key to business success. In this way, organisations must ensure that their employees understand the criticality of having applications and infrastructures operating trouble-free as the impacts on the business could be highly significant. Key people should also be responsible for driving and supporting this cultural shift, making sure the different departments understand the issues and answer questions employees may have such as the impact on their work-life balance for instance.

Identify your skills shortage

The skills shortage is a trend impacting most of industries right now, even before this pandemic. A recent Gartner survey showed that the global talent shortage is now the top emerging risk facing organisations across the world, with 63 per cent of respondents indicating that it was a key concern. Industries across the board are affected from financial services, industrial and manufacturing to consumer services, governments and nonprofits, plus the retail and hospitality sectors. Respondents from these industries had more than two thirds signalling the skills shortage as one of their top five risks.   

So, it is not surprising that the IT industry is facing similar challenges in general. Putting in place a young methodology like DevOps - which was born only a few years ago - requires specific skills which makes it challenging for organisations to find the right candidates. According to research conducted by 451 Research and Polyserve, 41 per cent of organisations surveyed said they are facing a skills shortage in DevOps.

DevOps practitioners need to have a range of different skills; the job requires soft skills like leadership, communication and collaboration but also skills linked to technologies enabling the DevOps methodology. DevOps pros should be able to work with technologies for continuous integration and continuous delivery like Jenkins or Gitlab; they should know the cloud providers’ technologies – many organisations are adding more and more experts in AWS or Microsoft Azure. They should also be able to leverage containerisation technologies like Docker or Kubernetes which make development, testing, production and updates easier because the tasks are operated in a unique environment accessible by everyone.

Even though organisations are struggling to find these new profiles – due to the youth of the technologies and the relative lack of education programmes in this area – it is possible to empower current employees into career changes. This can be achieved by enabling them to learn about how to become a master of DevOps through dedicated learning programmes.

Implementing a DevOps methodology can be very beneficial for organisations looking to learn lessons from Netflix and emulate its model and success. Customers now expect to consume content, shop and even invest on sites that can offer them consistent reliability, with quick fixes if problems do arise. For businesses looking to follow in Netflix’s footsteps and achieve full reliability of applications and infrastructure, they have to think first about people and culture. Addressing the cultural changes and skills shortage that exist are the first steps for any business looking to make its mark in the same way Netflix has done.

Jonathan Lamiel, Product Manager, Talend