published on 23 August 2013

If you’re interested in continuous delivery or DevOps, you certainly have already heard (or read) Jez Humble. The author of Continuous Delivery and principal at ThoughtWorks kicked off the second day of PuppetConf 2013 with his provocatively titled talk: "Stop Hiring DevOps Experts (and Start Growing Them)."

It’s not surprising that companies are looking to hire DevOps experts, Jez said. With companies like Amazon, Google and Etsy serving as examples, management teams feel an urgent need to release new products, services and features quickly to their customers to gain (or protect) their market positions.

But hiring in “DevOps experts” from outside is the wrong approach, Jez said. First of all, it’s pretty much impossible to hire in cultural change. “If a person with the skills [the company wants] is hired in, and there’s no culture of cultivation, it’s really disruptive and painful." At best, people in the company aren’t used to how the hired gun works, and while they may be interested, it’s difficult for one person to change the organization, because organizations by their nature resist change. But it’s just as likely that people will be hostile to the new person, with the result that the hired-in expert is either miserable, or quits.

In fact, there are actually people who are as comfortable writing Bash and Puppet code as they are writing, say, Java, Clojure or Ruby, as Jez demonstrated by asking for a show of hands in the Grand Ballroom where he spoke. But these people haven’t learned their skills at some kind of training program for DevOps — they’ve learned because they needed and wanted to, to do their jobs better.

Cultivating DevOps Skills Within Your Organization

That’s exactly what companies need to do, Jez said: Cultivate the people they need from within. How to do that? By deliberately creating a culture of cultivation.

That culture includes creating time for people to experiment and innovate, and also creating the working methods that promote people learning from each other, rather than relying on formal training or relying only on new tools. “Pairing is the most powerful way to grow knowledge,” Jez said, while admitting it’s not really scalable. But the power of pairing for developing knowledge is well worth the time invested.

Creating a culture of cultivation can only happen when management is seriously committed to it, and provides an environment where “it’s safe to experiment and learn,” Jez said. And of course, management needs to measure how well people pass on their knowledge: How many blog posts have they written? How many lunch-and-learns have they done?

Cultivating the growth of knowledge can confer a key competitive advantage, Jez pointed out: Competitors “can steal the plans, but they can’t steal the culture that creates new ideas.”

Cultivating Resiliency Matters, Too

Another thing that’s too often neglected in companies is cultivating resilience: the ability to recover from errors and other disasters.

Just as skills and know-how need to be practiced by working together, creating a resilient system must be created through practice. Jez talked about how both Amazon.com and Google deliberately turn off parts of their systems to test whether they’ll be able to meet service commitments in case of an emergency such as an earthquake, a flood or a major internet traffic cable being cut – or even all of these occurring at the same time.

Deliberately applying stress to a system is how you develop strength, whether it’s in an organization, a system or a person, Jez pointed out. But the stress has to be created thoughtfully and deliberately, with the goal of creating resiliency. It’s an important part of learning, of training the muscles that do the work.

Building in these exercises, along with person-to-person learning, creates “an organization where learning is valued,” Jez said. “People enjoy working there because they get to learn new things, and you won’t have a hiring problem. Just sayin’.”

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