DevOps Needs Great Managers

by David Fredricks

There has been much discussion about DevOps and the benefits it offers to organizations. A lot of what I’ve read discusses defining what DevOps is and how it will improve the bottom line. Much of the information is general in nature, more broad stroke, theoretical type content. According to Wikipedia, “Getting Developers and Operations talking to one another”, “Tearing down the wall of confusion”, “Collaboration between different departments”, “Automating your systems”, etc, etc. This really makes it difficult for one to take specific actions.

From my experience, defining DevOps is personal. The direct challenges that one deals with on a day-to-day basis really shape the concepts of DevOps and the benefits one hopes to accomplish. This makes it difficult to plug and play the process. What works for one organization is not necessarily the right direction for another.  The best case scenario is starting from scratch and building your people, process, and policies around core best practices. (This is why most of the success stories you read about come from greenfield startups). Unfortunately most do not have this luxury.  Reality is companies have layers upon layers of legacy systems, process and people interconnected with technology running in production. Herein lies the challenge.

Achieving a successful DevOps transformation means complete transparency, disclosing all of the cultural bias, loyalties, motivations and scars that internally exist. This is a huge undertaking. Many of the failures in transformation happen because companies are not transparent with themselves.  Having a deep understanding of systems, process, people and customers is vital to being successful. What? Where? When? Why? These questions must be addressed, understood, and accepted before you can move to the “How”.

This is why managers are the key to success. No one else understands the complexities of the business more than the managers. They know where the “skeletons” are buried, who is in bed with who, what systems work, what systems do not. Why some process is done one way, and in other cases done another. Managers are the bridge between what is being told and what is actually getting done. Great managers define the realities for their team, and communicate that back up to leadership. They understand information sharing is vital for success in transformation and growth within the organization. Great managers provide work environments focused on continuous learning for their employees. They create clear and focused workflows for their teams. Shielding them from naysayers or negative process and time sucks. They influence executive direction and gain acceptance. Great managers are able to keep their teams unified and committed. Great engineers stay with and work for Great Managers.

DevOps need More Great Managers!

Key Characteristics of Great Managers:

1. Emotional Intelligence/Empathy: Great managers understand their team. They have personal connections with each member. They know how and when to engage teammates. Great managers accept their role as coaches, mentors, therapist, and sometimes friends. They are able to build  mutual trust and respect from their teams. Great managers lift team members up to achieve more than even they, themselves, believed they were capable of.

2. Teaching and Learning: Great managers create an environment of “Teaching and Learning”. They understand the distribution of information is a strength not a weakness. Dustin Collins wrote a great blog highlighting the risk when information is not shared in “From Zero to Hero, Or There and Back Again”. Great Managers believe in continuous learning, learning with the intent to teach others. This single methodology builds an expectation for everyone on the team to learn with the  intent to teach. Every member of the team is always learning and teaching.

3. Strong Communication/ Listening skills: Great managers create environments of transparency and sharing simply by listening. They understand that all information is important. Being a great communicator also means understanding what questions to ask and why. QBQ by John Miller is a great reference. Uncovering true motivations behind one’s dialog is essential to being a great manager. They deflect white noise and focus the team on the main message. They define clear goals and expectations. This is especially important when organizations are shifting culturally. Change is only scary when information, expectations and direction are not fully and properly communicated and understood. Leadership voids cause fear and fear kills innovation.

4. Protectors/Blockers: Great managers understand their role to block and shield their teams from issues outside of their influence. They take accountability for the actions of their team. If something goes wrong they take the blame. When things go well, the praise goes to the team. Great managers care more for their team’s success and well being than their own. They create a “No Fault Environment”, allowing employees to try new things without the fear of failing.

Great managers are honest with their team, leadership, and especially themselves. They are constantly defining realities for the people around them. Great Managers have the respect of executive leadership. They are able to influence real change at the very top of an organization. They create stable work environments for their teams. PuppetLabs State of DevOps “Engineer do not leave companies, they leave managers.” Great Managers build and retain cohesive teams. Employee churn is one of the most disruptive elements to successful DevOps transformations. DevOps is hard! Having great leadership in place is essential for guidance and reassurance when something doesn’t go as planned, and it WILL happen. Great managers know how to respond in these situations without sounding the alarms. Great Managers keep the ship calm in rough waters to ensure smooth sailing and success for all.