The Importance of Leadership in Moving to DevOps
January 06, 2022

Craig Monson
2nd Watch

DevOps is a set of practices that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of IT operations. Utilizing many aspects of agile methodology, DevOps aims to shorten the systems development life cycle and provide continuous improvement. As you consider incorporating DevOps into your operations, understand the effect DevOps has on processes and culture. Successful implementation is about finding the right balance of attention on people, processes, and technology to achieve improvement.

The ultimate goal is continuous improvement through processes and tools. No amount of tooling, automation or fancy buzz words can cause any greater effect on an organization than transforming their culture, and there's no other way to do that than to focus on the change.

What You Are Trying to Accomplish with DevOps?

Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. It may seem obvious, but you may get on the wrong track without thinking about what you want your development and operations teams to achieve.

Often, when companies think about incorporating DevOps, they are really asking for automation tools and nothing else. While automation has certain benefits, DevOps goes beyond the benefits of technology to improve processes, help manage change more effectively, and improve organizational culture. Change is difficult. However, implementing a cultural shift is particularly challenging. Often overlooked, cultural change is the greatest pain companies encounter when trying to make substantial organizational changes. Even implementing things as simple as sharing responsibility, configuration management, or version control can cause turmoil!

From IT Management to Leadership

There is a distinction between what it means to be a manager versus being a leader. And, in all industries, being a manager does not necessitate being a good leader.

It's helpful to consider the progression of those in technical roles to management. Developers and operations personnel are typically promoted to managers because they are competent in their technical position — they excel at their current software development process, configuring a host or operating a Kubernetes cluster. However, as a manager, they're also tasked with directing staff, which may put them outside of their comfort zone. They are also responsible for pay, time and attendance, morale, and hiring and firing. They likely were not promoted for their people skills but their technical competencies.

Many enterprise organizations make the mistake of believing employees who have outstanding technical skills will naturally excel at people management once they get that promotion. Unfortunately, this mistake breeds many managers who fall short of potential, often negatively affecting corporate culture.

Leading the Change

It's imperative to understand the critical role leadership plays in navigating the amount of change that will likely occur and in changing the organization's culture.

Whether you're a manager or leader matters a lot when you answer the question, "What do I really want out of DevOps?" with, "I want to be able to handle change. Lots and lots of change."

Better responses would include:

"I want our organization to be more agile."

"I want to be able to react faster to the changing market."

"I want to become a learning organization."

"I want to embrace a DevOps culture for continuous improvement."

The underlying current of these answers is change.

Unfortunately, when bungled management occurs, it's the people below that pay the price. Those implementing the changes tend to take the brunt of the worst of the change pain. Not only does this cause lower morale, but it can cause a mutiny of sorts. Apathy can affect quality, causing outages. The best employees may jump ship for greener pastures. Managers may give up on culture change entirely and go back to the old ways.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. With a bit of effort and determination, you can learn to lead change just as you learned technical skills.

Go to well-known sources on management improvement and change management. The book Leading Change by John P. Kotter details the successful implementation of change into an organization. Kotter discusses eight steps necessary to help improve your chances of being successful in changing an organization's culture:

1. Establishing a sense of urgency

2. Creating the guiding coalition

3. Developing a vision and strategy

4. Communicating the change vision

5. Empowering broad-based action

6. Generating short term wins

7. Consolidating gains and producing more change

8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture

It's all about people. Leaders want to empower their teams to make intelligent, well-informed decisions that align with their organization's goals. Fear of making mistakes should not impede change.

Mistakes happen. Instead of managers locking their teams down and passing workflows through change boards, leaders can embrace the DevOps movement and foster a culture where their high-performing DevOps team can make mistakes and quickly remedy and learn from them.

Each step codifies what most organizations are missing when they start a transformation: focusing on the change and moving from a manager to a leader.

The 5 Levels of Leadership

Learning the skills necessary to become a great leader is not often discussed when talking about leadership or management positions. We are accustomed to many layers of management and managers sticking to the status quo in the IT industry. But change is necessary, and the best place to start is with ourselves.

The book 5 Levels of Leadership by John C. Maxwell is another excellent source of information for self-improvement on your leadership journey:

Level 1 – Position: People follow you only because they believe they have to.

Level 2 – Permission: People follow you because they want to.

Level 3 – Production: People follow you because of what you have done for the organization.

Level 4 – People Development: People follow you because of what you have done for them.

Level 5 – Pinnacle: People follow because of who you are and what you represent.

Leadership easily fits into these levels, and determining your position on the ladder can help. Not only are these levels applicable to individuals but, since an organization's culture can revolve around how good or bad their leadership is, this ends up being a mirror into the problems the organization faces altogether.

Conclusion

When transforming to a DevOps culture, it's essential to understand ways to become a better leader. In turn, making improvements as a leader will help foster a healthy environment in which change can occur. And there's no better catalyst to becoming a great leader than being able to focus on the change.

Craig Monson is Principal Cloud Consultant at 2nd Watch
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