DevOps programmes require servant leaders

Adam Bowen, Worldwide Innovation Lead at Delphix, tell us why he believes DevOps programmes require servant leaders.

In the last four years, we have seen a fantastic shift in ability for companies to innovate thanks to what has been aptly called “DevOps.” Drastically oversimplifying it, DevOps is the unification of the operations and development groups inside of an organisation; leveraging culture, automation, lean, measurement, and sharing (CALMS) to rapidly accelerate software from development to productionUsing DevOps to develop products

Companies like eRetail startup Etsy have used DevOps to rapidly develop their products and capture huge market share; likewise, DevOps has brought light speed agility to established giants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Fidelity to be able to deploy thousands of times a day. In the face of such demonstrable results, it is uncertain how companies that aim to compete in the marketplace can do so without embracing DevOps.

“DevOps is a human problem.”

Since software rules the world, we tend to look to software to improve our situation. Software has allowed us to automate, measure, and lean “all the things” to achieve some amazing results.

Yet everyday companies seem to be waking up to the realisation that software alone isn’t enough. Just a simple search of “DevOps failures”, limited to this month’s results, provides several pages of new listings. It seems that these companies are just late to learn what Patrick Debois discovered near the beginning of the DevOps movement: “DevOps is a human problem.”

Fittingly, the IT Revolution Press bookends the DevOps acronym of core principles with two people-centric items: culture and sharing. But, even some of those models that put people first are among those who have failed. So then, what is the missing ingredient that hinders IBM’s success with DevOps and enables the Etsy’s? It seems to all revert back to a company’s leadership style.

Servent leadership

In reading numerous interviews of some of the most widely acknowledged DevOps experts, there’s a recurring pattern: servant leadership. Ken Blanchard breaks down servant leadership into the roles of servant, steward, and shepherd:

  • The servant seeks to meet the needs of others
  • The steward takes great care and consideration of what has been entrusted to them
  • The shepherd protects, guides, and nurtures those under their sphere of influence

In the preface of The DevOps Handbook, Jez Humble, Gene Kim, Patrick Debois, and John Willis give brief interviews as to how they got involved with DevOps. The common theme among their interviews was that they saw their peers struggling and felt compelled to find a better way to help their community.

This required many years of swimming upstream against a long-established IT culture of anti-patterns rewarding fiefdoms, silos, and lone wolves. For those of us who have been in the industry any real length of time, we have either been participants or victims of this culture – or perhaps both.

The idea of servant leadership necessarily precedes culture. While culture is the result of group action and thinking, and each of the aforementioned pioneers had to initially go it alone. Such was their isolation, that in their brief interviews, each of them noted the moment when they encountered like-minded individuals.

This is a common missing component across the technology-sphere, whether DevOps is your priority or not.

One cannot simply list “Servant Leadership” as a core value in the employee handbook and reap the rewards in a few quarters. To truly get your organisations to go against the current, begin to openly collaborate and share, and work to a common business objective; you are going to have to rely on individuals that are driven by interest in a greater purpose. Even if this requires a transplant.

But, it is not enough just to have servant leaders in the lower ranks.  With top-level servant leaders in place, your front-line servant leaders will have the support they need to continue to face cultural adversity for the sake of everyone under their watch.

Fortunately, this is a priority that can be taught, but it must be taught by example. When company leadership at the top prioritises on serving others, they can help focus mid-managers’ efforts in that direction as well. This creates a culture of “none of us is greater than all of us”, which is the ideal climate for generating servant leaders.

In building upon “the shoulders of giants”, DevOps teams can iterate faster, toward better results than they could have if any one expert had been working on it individually. Building a culture of shared successes then attracts other servant leaders, and the potential for explosive innovation is limitless.


Edited for web by Jordan Platt.