The transition from a legacy networking environment to one that more fully embraces the DevOps framework involves more than just deploying and integrating the appropriate tools. Indeed, the hardest part of the transition might very well be the necessary, notable shift in culture. Companies that understand and support the cultural aspects of a DevOps migration will be in the best position to achieve success.
The legacy networking culture is a Hero Culture. Networks have been managed by brute force and arcane knowledge for decades. This favors a prevailing sentiment in the industry that the individual is at least as important as the process. Changes are made through the selfless efforts of those who would stay overnight and fight the good fight. And if we are honest with ourselves, the truth is many of us wear these hero badges and nighttime battle scars with more than a little pride.
This Hero Culture is a product not of our people but of our practice. Our networks are managed through flawless execution of thousands of configuration knobs. Only the brightest have any hope of mastering this environment. It means the people at the top of this networking operations food chain are as much professional athlete as they are network engineer. It’s part of why certification numbers are such a source of pride in the industry — they demonstrate that this individual is among the elite. Certification shows more than just understanding; it speaks to the common pain that all experts of that caliber must endure.
The challenge with this culture is that while it’s good for the ego, it is not good for the business. Companies cannot live by constant Hail Mary passes. At some point in every organization, the ball hits the ground. And where networking is concerned, those drops can be debilitating for the business.
Assuming that your DevOps practice is going to be built around your existing staff, this means you have to change the culture while also integrating a new framework with new tools. The DevOps culture is markedly different than the Hero Culture. As a framework, DevOps is about structure. It is about predictability. It is about automating tasks to ensure that change is frictionless and verified.
At the center of DevOps is the software development lifecycle. In a successful DevOps environment, you manage your infrastructure the way skilled software developers manage their code. The emphasis here is less on the work that happens in the last six hours before crossing the finish line. Instead, success is determined by the work that happens in the months before the finish line is even within view.
Careful attention to system instrumentation allows whatever is deployed to be measured and validated. Thoughtfully creating a suite of tests allows changes to be verified, risk to be identified, and last-minute surprises to be largely avoidable. Automated deployment tools mean that the actual act of pushing changes to the network is fast and fluid, negating the need for network engineers to stay alert and coherent at 3:00 a.m. under duress and the waning caffeine high of a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew.
Beyond that, DevOps is not about the big play. It is about vigilantly moving the ball forward a few yards at a time. Done well, DevOps practices should all but eliminate the Hail Mary pass.
As you make the transition to DevOps as an organization, this means you have to be careful about what you encourage. Do you praise the diving catch? Or do you reward the individual who dutifully made the process and the tests better day after day? At company meetings, whose name shows up on the slides when the CIO celebrates progress? Who gets promoted when annual review time comes around? All the things we are trained to admire will change if a healthy DevOps practice is in place.
Individuals making the change need to have soul-searching moments: Are you excited by the hero worship that exists today? If so, how will you fare in a more predictable environment? DevOps doesn’t signal a reduction in work so much as a shift in work, so any deep-seated fears about being automated out of a job are likely unfounded. But are the new tasks as exciting as the old tasks if they require a bit more day-to-day attention and fewer 3:00 a.m. heroics? There still will be Hail Mary passes, but you will need to be conditioned to see those as a sign that something went wrong rather than an opportunity to revel in the catch.
As an individual, are you excited about adding new skills to your repertoire? DevOps doesn’t mean the death of rock stars. Skilled DevOps practitioners are rare, and there will be ample opportunity to maintain a lofty position. But that position will be founded on more than configuration knowledge. You will think more in terms of systems and control theory. You will focus more on the team rather than the change. Everything becomes about making success not just achievable but also repeatable.
There is no doubt that some organizations and individuals will either fail or outright refuse to make the change. But those companies and individuals capable of embracing a DevOps transition will reap the rewards of a system designed expressly to make change easy. In a world where changing the network is terrifying, this represents an industry-shifting opportunity.