Now that you know why you shouldn’t become a software business, you need to know about becoming a learning organization instead. As discussed, a learning organization rapidly learns about the customer, the problem domain, and the tools they must wield to fill the customer’s need. But what are the ingredients of learning itself?
To learn about any subject, the following three elements must be present:
A clear purpose. You must have a goal in mind, a challenge you are trying to address, or a question you are trying to answer. Learning only happens when you are actually interested in the subject, as my classmates in my Hebrew class in third grade will attest—it was very boring and I retained next to nothing from that year. On the other hand, when you are genuinely committed to the subject, you will persevere despite challenges. As a child I didn’t have the “rounded” Lego pieces necessary to build the iconic black-and-white Airwolf helicopter, but I devoted hours and hours over several weeks in repeated attempts to constructing the best replica I could from the only pieces I had, mostly blue and grey rectangular bricks. It was really cool (in my pre-teen opinion). And I persevered because I had a clear purpose in mind: to create something really cool.
A commitment to and curiosity about truth. Curiosity and commitment to truth are the engines that drive learning via the scientific method. Brook no hidden agenda, accept no propaganda, and harbor no preconceived notion of what the solution must look like. As a young software engineer I once was helping a colleague debug some anomalous software behavior. We interrupted the program to debug it step by step, and watched the internal state of the program while it—we thought—was exhibiting the faulty behavior. Convinced we were witnessing a bug, we tried to explain every observation accordingly. But we failed to reproduce the issue, calling into question all of our explanations. Only afterward, when we allowed the program to continue running to completion, did we understand what had happened: I had pressed the wrong key, which executed a completely different function than the one we were trying to diagnose, so all of our explanations were wrong. Yet we had been doggedly trying to explain how correct they were! Respect the data: If the conclusions don’t match your hypothesis, then the problem is in your hypothesis, not your data.
Rooting out frustration. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” driving economic progress is the human desire to eliminate frustration from our lives. We seek lower prices for commodities because it irks us to pay more than our neighbor pays for the exact same product. We invent new labor-saving devices because less labor means less frustration. Frustration points us to opportunity for improvement. In your organization, what frustrations are important? What are your customers’ frustrations, and what about the frustrations that workers encounter while building and delivering your product or service? These are the frustrations you should identify and seek to eliminate. Too much attention has been paid to “promoting empathy,” which cannot be measured objectively in a corporate setting. Frustration can be identified and measured. Rooting it out forces you to focus on the very areas that are opportunities for improvement.
When you have clear purpose, commitment to and curiosity about the truth, and a relentless pursuit of rooting out frustration, learning ensues. You learn about your customers, the problem domain, and your own tools and processes with fresh eyes, open mind, and focused energy. That is what it takes to be a learning organization.
You may have heard that the goal of DevOps is to rapidly deliver and reliably operate high quality software-based services. But that is only partially true. True, that is the desired result. But fostering the habits that produce that result consistently is integral to the goal.
In my work with clients I have found several cornerstone habits essential to creating DevOps results, and I have helped software organizations embrace these habits and earn the payoffs. Let’s explore the cornerstone DevOps habits and why these habits are as much a goal as the results they promote.
Habits come in two flavors, and the first flavor of habits is practical.
Habits of Practice
Habits of practice are the behaviors we routinely engage in, often without thinking about it. We buckle our seatbelt when sitting in a vehicle, or we stash our wallet in the same pocket or the same place in our purse. What today is an unconscious habit once began as a conscious choice to behave in a certain manner. Perhaps we were reminded by our parent to fasten our seatbelt, and we complied, consciously, until repetition forged an unconscious habit. Perhaps we were alarmed at the thought that we would forget our wallet or keys someplace, so we patted down our pockets, consciously, like Peter Falk in the final scene of The Princess Bride, until that, too, through repetition, became an unconscious habit. Whether conscious or unconscious, these habits of practice create the results that we are safer while sitting in the car, and that we do not forget our wallet.
Habits of practice create results. In DevOps, we want to deliver high quality software-based service rapidly. The habits of practice that create these results include, generally, automation, measurement, and sharing.
The particular practices of these general categories vary with each organization, as each has its own business situation to contend with. But it is impossible to deliver high quality, reliable service without these practices, especially as the scale of the operation grows to significant size.
We want to foster these habits of practice. In order to successfully develop them we need the other flavor of habits.
Habits of Mind
Habits of mind are the manners of thinking and the internal monologue we conduct inside our own heads. Just as our behavior can be habitual, so can our thought patterns. Habits of mind are important because they can create and change habits of practice. For example, we all know the feeling of frustration when something in our lives isn’t working for us. It grates at us, it taunts, and it refuses to budge. Frustration is a sign that we need to change something about our lives. Our internal monologue upon encountering frustration influences whether we will change and what kind of change we will make in response. When our thoughts reflect passivity, I always have bad luck, we are not motivated to change. When our thoughts are empowering, this is an unfortunate but temporary setback, we are moved to change something about our situation—to try again, to try in a different way, or perhaps to let off steam and simply get over it.
In order to consciously create a new habit of practice, you need to have certain essential habits of mind. The essential habits of mind drive you to change your behavior over time, until you have improved your habits of practice. Without the supporting habits of mind, habits of practice are created by default, without our awareness, and these default practices seldom are the most effective at reaching our desired goal. Even once you have changed your practice, you can only improve by honing those practices, and the drive to improve your practice stems from your habits of mind.
In short, habits of mind create habits of practice create results.
In the DevOps field the factors that influence practice have been collectively termed “culture.”
But culture is an opaque term that does not lend itself to scrutiny. It is more useful to consider the habits of mind that foster habits of practice.
Shlomo’s Four Cornerstone Habits of Mind for DevOps Practices
The four cornerstone habits of mind necessary to foster DevOps practices and DevOps results are agency, awareness, respect, and healthy selfishness. Read on for more details on each of these habits of mind.
Agency means thinking that you can change things, that you can improve your lot through your actions, that you are an agent in your own life. If you believe you are able to change things then you can summon the motivation to try to change your behavior. On the flip side, if you lack agency—if you believe nothing you do will change anything—then you will be disheartened and won’t bother taking any of the steps necessary to change behavior. The more agency is ingrained as a habit of mind, the more you will feel in control and able to change your behavior.
This is a cornerstone habit of mind for DevOps because DevOps habits of practice require constant refinement, and you must believe that you can change and improve the current situation in order to do so. In an organizational setting agency is sometimes called “empowerment.” Organizations, too, cannot improve their practices unless members believe that they can change the way things are done. This is why agency as a habit of mind is so important for cultivating DevOps habits of practice.
Awareness is the mental habit of perceiving what is around you. We are not aware of everything that transpires in our lives, and often we do not recognize that our practices can be improved. We cannot change our habits of practice if we aren’t aware that they need changing. This is true in life in general and with DevOps in particular.
Respect means acknowledging the feelings and opinions of others. Organizations consist of, and exist to serve, individuals with varied feelings and opinions. If you want to change habits of practice you must acknowledge the feelings and opinions of others who are involved. This doesn’t mean you need to feel those feelings yourself; it only means you need to believe that those feelings exist and are valid.
Healthy selfishness is thinking of your interests so that you can help others. It means thinking about how to overcome your obstacles to success and enabling yourself to do the same for your teammates. It means wanting to make your world better so you can make the world at large better. It is the driving force behind economic and technological progress. And healthy selfishness is essential for DevOps because it is the motivating force behind improving habits of practice.
What About Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the emotions of others. It requires lowering your emotional defenses and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to the stirrings of another’s heart. Within the context of a supportive friendship or life partnership, empathy is vital. Understanding and sharing your partner’s emotions is essential to support them through pain and adversity and to grow together with them—in fact it is the essence of such a long-term relationship.
But empathy’s importance for DevOps has been drastically overstated. At our jobs we do not need to open our hearts to feel pain. Demanding that someone exhibit empathy evokes alarm and raises their defenses. Even professionals who do directly confront emotional pain, the psychologists, counselors, and ministers, do not allow themselves to be moved by the emotions they are exposed to in the course of their work. They maintain their emotional defenses. For the rest of us who do not deal directly with pain at work, which includes everyone in the IT and software industry, respect—acknowledging feelings and opinions of others—is enough for the professional setting. Insisting on empathy at work is irresponsible.
The Habits Are the Goal
DevOps is the continuous improvement of practices to rapidly deliver and reliably operate high quality software-based systems. Continuous improvement means regularly, consciously, and intentionally developing and honing those skills. In other words, DevOps is more than just the goal of delivery and operations. It is also the habits—of mind and of practice—leading to continuous improvement.
Fostering the three DevOps habits of practice—automation, measurement, and sharing—requires the four cornerstone habits of mind: agency, awareness, respect, and healthy selfishness. In all, those are the Seven Habits of Highly Effective DevOps.
The classic formulation of DevOps, Culture, Automation, Measurement, Sharing—”CAMS”—is an expression of habits of mind and habits of practice: culture is a habit of mind, automation, measurement, and sharing are habits of practice. To succeed at a DevOps initiative, you and your team members must exhibit these four habits of mind. They are the keys to forming productive habits of practice and, ultimately, the results you want to achieve: rapidly delivering and reliably operating high quality software-based services.