Culture over technology: The key to DevOps success

(c) Keating

Don’t take this the wrong way. As anyone who has been reading my articles can tell, I am all about the technology that enables DevOps but sometimes the greatest change in the enterprise comes from non-technical places.

To many of you reading this statement, that might be a radical concept – but when it comes to overarching changes such as implementing a DevOps program, culture is much more important than what code repository to use. DevOps in particular not only relies on changes in the technical environment, even more so in how people work together, interact and develop.

The DevOps Enterprise Summit (DOES) attracts development, operations, and business leaders from companies small and large looking for information on implementing DevOps and fundamentally changing their business. A theme which runs through every keynote speech is “you need to change the culture of your enterprise while changing the technology.” Every DOES speaker that I have heard stresses this message and discusses the cultural challenges that they have gone through.

There are three main areas of cultural change which can enable implementation of DevOps:

Teamwork and communications

First and foremost, a one-team attitude must be adopted. This applies to people from application development, infrastructure development, architecture, operations organisations, or business stakeholders. No matter the person’s specific job, satisfying the enterprise goals are everyone’s job. Equally, never say ‘it’s not my job’; although everyone comes to a project with their particular expertise, it is the team’s responsibility to successfully reach the enterprise goals.

Keep your partners close. Partners bring their own unique expertise and capabilities to the enterprise. Involving them in projects early and keeping them involved throughout will provide a new perspective. Make life challenging and exciting; engage those people who have passion and are excited by the prospect of doing something new, then challenge them to go beyond what has already been accomplished.

Leadership also needs to foster a culture where communications is critical. No skunk works allowed here; everyone on the team is kept up to date on progress and – if needs be – setbacks.

Leadership and sponsorship

Leadership’s first job is to identify roadblocks and eliminate them. Whether these roadblocks are process based – the three weeks it takes to get purchasing to read the purchase order you sent – or communication based – ‘oh, you sent me an email last week?’ – leadership must work to reduce and, or, eliminate the bottlenecks that are so prevalent in today’s IT world. To use networking terms, it is not just fostering communication within the team in an east-west manner, but also north-south between leadership and the team, executive management and the rest of the enterprise.

In the traditional model, without executive sponsorship and especially in large organisations, a major rollout will be slowed. When it comes to DevOps, executive sponsorship can be helpful in terms of funding and communicating to the rest of the organisation, but growing the effort at the grass roots level is how DevOps implementations expand. When a DevOps team member sits down to lunch with his or her friend from another development group and talks about how great things are going...well, you get the picture.

Starting up and growing

One team buying in doesn’t guarantee growth, but you have to start somewhere. DevOps in every instance that I have heard of started with one development group and the operations staff that supported them. No grand, big bang implementation of DevOps can work because it requires people of all types to buy in and get used to doing things differently.

Engineers, developers, operation support, techies of all types like to innovate. Technologists see value in doing something new that benefits them and their organisation. A representative of banking firm Capital One, when speaking about the value of DevOps to their engineering staff, was recently quoted as saying “the intrinsic value for engineers is so high, they’ll even willingly deal with lawyers.”

Crucially, DevOps should be fun. Schedule events to get other people involved – not stodgy speeches, but interactive events. Target senior group managers Heather Mickman and Ross Clanton have spoken twice at DOES and have stressed the importance of what they call “DevOps days” – events in growing awareness and interest in joining the wave of DevOps at Target.


Ultimately there are a number of key technologies and methodologies that need to be brought to bear in order to enable DevOps in the enterprise. But while we are implementing cloud environments, common code repositories, agile development practices and infrastructure as code, we need to keep in mind that the cultural aspects of DevOps implementation are just as important, if not more so.

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