5 hurdles to adopting devops

The devops journey involves significant changes in culture, processes and technologies. Here’s how to overcome the most common challenges along the way.

The concept of devops turns 10 in 2018. Despite that milestone of maturity, most organizations have yet to fully embrace this IT practice, which blends development, operations and testing personnel together into cross-functional teams aimed at improving the agility of IT service delivery.

According to Forrester Research, only 13 percent of organizations have implemented devops, with 50 percent piloting or conducting proof of concepts. Another 27 percent plan to implement devops within the year, while 9 percent are interested but have no plans to adopt devops within the next 12 months.

There are many reasons why devops uptake has been slow. Rob C. Guckenberger, executive director for application development in Kentucky’s Commonwealth Office of Technology, is one IT leader coming up against those challenges as the state grapples with how it wants to move forward with devops adoption.

Guckenberger explains that ownership of application development is dispersed through numerous agencies, while the Commonwealth Office of Technology owns the infrastructure. That has created silos that must to be broken down for devops to work. The state also relies on a broad array of systems, creating barriers to making automation and continuous processes work across the enterprise — two key tenets of devops. Moreover, the state does not have the right skills yet to support full-blown devops.

“We’re definitely going to get there,” Guckenberger says. “It’s just a matter of how.”

The obstacles to adopting and expanding devops in enterprise IT departments, like the solutions themselves, touch on people, process and technology. Here’s a closer look at specific roadblocks CIOs are facing in those areas when implementing devops — and how to circumvent them.

The pangs of culture change

Jonathan Feldman, CIO for the city of Asheville, N.C., says his team uses devops principles — such as tighter feedback loops, shorter sprints and usability testing — although he doesn’t identify his department as a devops shop.

Even so, Feldman says getting to even that space has required a change in how people think and operate. It has required a cultural shift — something that can’t be forced overnight.

“Deciding to go to devops tomorrow is Big Bang IT, and it just can’t work. You’re introducing way too much way too fast,” he says. “And if you’re trying to do devops for everything, you’ll have people revolt. It’s the right approach for many things, but not everything.”

Findings from a fall 2017 survey by software company Pensa identified people-related issues as top barriers to devops adoption. Pensa surveyed more than 200 IT decision-makers in September, asking about the biggest challenges they face in adopting devops practices. Some 19.7 percent listed limited budgets as the top barrier, 9.4 percent cited company culture, 7.9 percent said limited IT skills, and 7.4 percent listed lack of executive buy-in.

Forrester analyst Robert Stroud says CIOs must address culture from the outset of their devops efforts. They must get other executives to understand and support the move by selling the idea of devops not as a set of principles but as a critical tool for digital transformation. And they must get staffers to work collaboratively in a somewhat flattened organization where there’s more flexibility for each individual worker to problem-solve.

“It requires some fundamental rethinking. People feel comfortable in the way they’ve been working and not everyone is a change agent. So you’ll need to find them, bring them forward, and have them drive devops forward and articulate the value,” he says, adding that many IT leaders underestimate “the level of cultural and organizational change [that] is needed.”

He advises IT shops to focus on building strong devops teams by hiring or training for the right skills and by identifying leaders who are business-oriented and not technocrats because “they’re driving the agenda to deliver the functions and features to make their business more efficient and competitive.”

However, Chris Rollins, manager of platform operations for the online ticket exchange site StubHub, which now uses devops principles whenever possible, says it’s challenging to get everyone to embrace such things.

“Some groups in our organization believe we should stick with legacy methods because that has worked well in the past,” he says. “Many folks still like the hands-on approach to software development and system administration while the devops principles say that automation without manual intervention is critical to success.”

Rollins uses evangelism to convert the skeptics.

“I continually championed the benefits of devops to senior management. Once people were aware of the benefits, many of the issues melted away,” he says, noting that he buys and distributes many copies of the popular devops book The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win.

Process: Start small or flame out

Besides culture, process is another key to devops success. With devops, automation is employed to develop a continuous integration, continuous delivery platform that can be tested and monitored automatically. The complexity of such a system leaves many CIOs struggling with where to start, experts say.

Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored enterprise charged with supporting home ownership, has been around since the Great Depression. It has its share of monolithic legacy technology, but it’s working to increase digitization and streamline its business, says Jason Anders, the technology director responsible for cloud strategy and adoption at the company.

He says devops adoption has been part of that modernization.

“For us, it means the ability for a developer to get the development environment, write, test and deploy code into production in a way that’s automated, fast and not risk-free but lower risk than if it were not automated,” he explains.

Fannie Mae has been on its devops journey since late 2013; today, in development and production, it takes hours to do what used to take weeks or even a month to accomplish.

Anders says Fannie Mae leaders support the devops efforts; even so, he says it’s tough to get everyone to agree on what needs to happen and how the new principles should work within the company.

“Keeping everyone in synch is a real challenge. We’re trying to move faster, and every team is so heads down with their deadlines, it’s really hard to keep up with the communication, to say, ‘This is the way I’m going,’” Anders says. “I don’t have a silver bullet for that. It’s just hard work, it’s taking the time to talk as much as you can.”

To help get everyone in sync, Anders says he started with small projects to develop the processes that would yield early devops successes. Those provided the foundation for the processes, principles and practices that could be used on larger, more extensive projects throughout the organization.

“We started devops with the newer technology so we could design it the way we thought it should be, and so we could get good at it and get good with the tools,” he explains. “And as you develop for a brand-new application, you can put the right automation patterns in place that you can start to apply [elsewhere].”

Feldman took a similar tack when launching Ashville’s devops journey about five years ago, applying devops concepts to small experiments so his team could get some experience developing and deploying software in a new fashion.

Edward L. Haletky, CEO and principal analyst at Austin, Texas-based TVP Strategy, agrees with such an approach, noting that many IT departments take on more than they can handle as they start with devops — and then flame out.

“It’s good to start with a project that’s small and where you know that you can succeed,” he says.

A question of authority — and stability

There are other process-oriented roadblocks to successful devops as well.

For example, Guckenberger says devops can enable rogue behavior or shortcuts as authority and autonomy is pushed down from executives and managers into the devops teams.

“With authority comes some ability to do things you shouldn’t do.” Workers can, for example, fix immediate glitches but ignore underlying problems. “They’ll just do things that are unsafe, very risky things, things that aren’t sustainable.”

Meanwhile, Rupen Sheth, executive vice president of operations for Iono, a Milpitas, Calif.-based tech company, says he sees challenges in creating processes that enable the flexibility and speed devops teams require but that also support an organization’s need for IT stability.

Sheth says IT must tackle these issues from the start by determining what controls make sense in a devops world. “IT [has to] say, ‘Here’s all the approved things we can provide; here are all the ready-to-use application environments that can be provisioned,’” he says.

Guckenberger offers similar advice, saying CIOs can limit risk by backing up from full authority for their teams and defining changes that require approved. Although he says some would argue against that move, saying it will slow down the devops cycle, he also says it introduces a check to the potential for problems that exist otherwise.

Testing data

When you’re provisioning code into production automatically, testing must be dependable and complete. Here, for many organizations, data can be an issue.

Fannie Mae has bumped against this hurdle in expanding its use of devops to further gain from the velocity devops brings to IT, Anders says, as the lack of data to use for testing code can dramatically slow down work.

“It can take weeks to get the right data sets to test against, and if you’re trying to do everything agile like Fannie Mae is and run everything in two-week sprints, then it’s impossible if it takes three weeks to get data,” he says.

So Fannie Mae automated the data piece, using the Delphix platform and adopting the DataOps methodology to deliver test data within hours instead of weeks. The result is increased speed, stronger testing and more creativity; developers now know they can quickly access the data needed for testing, and won’t feel they’ve wasted too much time if the innovation fails.

Betting on the right tools

There are, to be sure, other hurdles around the technology needed to be successful with devops, Anders says. He ticks off the challenges — integrating code, finding flaws quickly, and lacing devops into legacy technologies — that he and his team have encountered with continuous integration and continuous delivery and working in an increasingly automated environment.

He also cites tooling as a potential barrier. IT leaders need to ensure their teams are comfortable with devops tools, such as configuration management tools, continuous delivery platforms and automated testing, Anders says. They must also know how the organization will decide which tools to use, how they’ll be managed and whether they need to limit how many different tools should be used within the organization. Moreover, IT leaders should be watching for which tools make sense for the future — and which ones don’t — to avoid being left behind.

“It’s a challenge to find the right tool sets, and the industry is changing so fast. There were times when we invested in something because we thought it was cutting edge at the time, but the tool set didn’t continue to innovate so we had to replace it. You learn those lessons along the way,” Anders says, explaining that he and his staff continue to evaluate available tools to determine which ones are the best choice.

Forrester’s Stroud says it’s critical that leaders adequately invest in the technologies needed to support devops.

“Executives don’t always give the teams the ability to play effectively, and to experiment with tools or products,” he says.

Stroud and others stress that leaders who don’t adequately support devops within their organizations — whether it’s in getting the right tools or hiring the right talent or backing new ways of working — will find in this age, where devops can deliver the speed and agility necessary to compete, that such decisions could tank not only their devops efforts but now the company as well.

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