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DevOps Leadership

Successful Agile Software Leadership in the Age of DevOps

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In the age of DevOps, there are multiple tools for automating the building, testing, and deployment of software. However, while these sophisticated tools can help streamline the software development lifecycle, organizations often overlook one critical element: effective leadership.

Even with the use of DevOps tools and the employment of specific DevOps-related employees, projects still fail at an alarming rate, proving that DevOps principles alone can’t unilaterally solve the project failure problem. Strong leadership is necessary for creating the organizational agility required to implement DevOps effectively.

According to a DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) study, organizations with high-performing DevOps teams are twice as likely to exceed their commercial goals, such as profitability, market share, and productivity, compared to their low-performing counterparts. Without proper leadership, projects are still failing. How can leaders articulate and set forth their visions for strategic DevOps oversight?

The Role of DevOps and CI/CD

Leaders have many tools to help increase the effectiveness of software development projects. These process-oriented tools—including continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery (CD)—are foundational to modern DevOps practices when implemented.

CI involves developers regularly integrating their code changes into a shared repository and validating it. Each integration triggers automated build, test, and inspection processes, allowing teams to detect and fix integration errors quickly and easily. CI ensures that these code changes are continuously validated and integrated into the main codebase, reducing the risk of integration conflicts, and ensuring a more stable development environment. Many teams, unfortunately, only implement half of CI and leave it there.

CD is an extension of CI that focuses on automating the entire software delivery process, from code integration to deployment to production. With CD, teams can automate the deployment of code changes to production-like environments, allowing for rapid and reliable releases.

By automating deployment pipelines, CD reduces manual errors, accelerates time-to-market, and enables teams to deliver new features and updates more frequently. Fortunately, most of the benefits of CD come from simply automating deployments and deployment validation.

Most software teams focus on developing software features and lack the expertise to fully implement automated DevOps practices. In this case, leaders should bring in external experts to facilitate the adoption and cross-train the team members.

If leaders ignore this expertise gap, the team will believe they have adopted Continuous Integration, for example, but they will continue to be frustrated by a high defect rate. After significant lost time, the leader of the team will realize that CI was only partially and ineffectively implemented.

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How Effective Leadership Enhances DevOps Agility

DevOps principles like CI and CD are not panaceas, but they are useful. This is why effective leadership is so critically important for implementing any successful DevOps strategy, and for making sure the strategy is implemented fully.

Effective leaders articulate a clear direction and goals for software development efforts, ensuring alignment and focus across teams. This clarity enables quick decision-making and facilitates rapid adaptation to changing market conditions or customer requirements.

Benefits of Cross-Functional Leadership for DevOps

It’s often said that a good leader can oversee any technical field. This is especially true in software development. DevOps is simply a framework for engineers; it is not a leadership methodology, but the benefits are organizational.

While it begins with technical details, such as patterns for storing code, testing, and doing local- and team-level builds, a good leader can peel back the tech-speak jargon and apply the common language of business to DevOps principles.

Leaders serve as cornerstones for project success, guiding teams toward enhanced agility and effectiveness throughout the DevOps process. By creating clarity around project objectives and aligning team members with a common vision, leaders set a foundation for successful software development initiatives.

Furthermore, leaders establish and uphold quality standards within DevOps practices, ensuring that teams prioritize excellence and deliver high-quality software products.

In the process of creating clarity, establishing quality, achieving stability, and increasing speed, leaders can use DevOps automation, thereby enhancing organizational agility and driving business success.

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Create Clarity

Leaders need to ensure that the entire DevOps process is aligned with a common vision and an understanding of the purposes and goals of software development efforts. To gauge performance and effectiveness, leaders must implement mechanisms like scorecards and metrics to track progress and provide real-time visibility into project status. This clarity can then set the foundation for successful software development.

Establish Quality

Establishing a robust quality control function is a critical step in the DevOps process. Leaders must ensure the full implementation of quality control within the DevOps process by inspecting and verifying these controls and preventing defects from reaching deployed environments. This is done through automation, but it must be done.

Achieve Stability

Stability means that the software is always doing what we expect it to do. To achieve this, we must know what the software is doing and if it is healthy. That’s why observability is an important capability. Standards like open telemetry help with this. Observability is crucial because if a development team can’t see where and when a software deliverable fails, freezes, or creates errors, there is no way to predict or prevent them.

Increase Speed

Efficiency can be the enemy of effectiveness. While increasing the speed of throughput is a common goal (and an important one), leaders must prioritize quality and stability ahead of speed. By establishing quality and achieving stability, they protect the time of the team to deliver new features. Without quality and stability, the team is constantly fixing problems and has no time to deliver new features. Therefore, without quality or stability, there is no speed.

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Lead the DevOps Team: Rhythm and Cadence

With clarity, quality, stability, and speed all aligned, leaders can then add rhythms of performance, a steady cadence of deliverables and milestones, and guardrails to keep teams following the right path. Software development leaders are the linchpins of organizing workflow and preventing bottlenecks, not unlike a production line manager in manufacturing where quality problems or distractions can tank overall throughput.

A cadence of measurement and realignment will keep the team on track. A project scorecard can keep everyone focused on actual progress and shine a light on bottlenecks. A simple weekly cadence is best for reporting progress, metrics, and discussing course corrections.

Agile has given way to DevOps as an accepted industry methodology. The foundational principle in both of is short, iterative cycles. This sounds simple, but it’s often not implemented well. Avoid the mistake of iteration on a portion of the software development lifecycle while delaying or deferring other portions, like complete user testing, production deployments, or even automated testing.

As a leader, have confidence in your ability to communicate. Avoid jargon. Ensure all team members speak the language of your business. If you can’t communicate an approach, it’s not workable because only one person will ever actually understand it.

Leadership in the Age of DevOps: Putting It All Together

Software development leaders play a crucial role in introducing, implementing, and optimizing these best practices within their teams. If the existing team lacks expertise, leaders should bring in external experts to facilitate the adoption and cross-train the team members.

By optimizing holistic throughput and adopting a weekly cadence of measurement, leaders guide their teams toward success. Effective leadership transcends technical jargon and focuses on clear communication and strategic implementation of foundational practices like DevOps with CI/CD. This brings rapid feedback, increased efficiency, greater reliability, and enhanced collaboration with the software development and deployment process.

This comprehensive approach to leadership in the age of DevOps ensures that software development projects not only keep pace with industry trends but also thrive in an environment of continuous improvement and innovation. By catching problems sooner, testing deployment processes, and automating the delivery process, teams can deliver higher-quality, more profitable software innovations to market.

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