DevOps success relies on supportive and communicative senior leaders, research shows

The 2017 State of DevOps Report highlights why supportive, communicative and visionary senior leadership is a must for agile software development to succeed

The influential role played by supportive senior leadership in helping organisations successfully shift away from big-project, waterfall-like software development is laid bare in the 2017 State of DevOps Report.

Compiled each year by software automation supplier Puppet and DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA), the report seeks out the opinions of DevOps practitioners to gauge how adoption of the software development methodology is progressing worldwide.

The 2017 edition includes input from more than 3,200 respondents, whose feedback has enabled its authors to pinpoint five characteristics that they claim successful DevOps leaders tend to share.

According to the report, IT leaders who are inspirational, communicative, visionary, supportive and go out of their way to recognise the good work their reports do tend to head up better-performing IT teams.

“Low-performing teams reported the lowest levels of these traits, and teams that reported the least transformative leaders were half as likely to be high-performers,” the report said.

This finding adds weight to the view that DevOps adoption by organisations can fail to take off without senior management support, and highlights just why this is so important, the report added.

“Leaders have the authority and budget to make the large-scale changes often needed; to provide visible support when a transformation is under way; and to change the incentives of entire groups of engineers, whether they are in development, quality assurance, operations or information security,” it said.

“Though we often hear stories of DevOps and technology-transformation success coming from the grassroots, it is far easier to achieve success when you have effective leaders lending their support.”

Strong leadership needed

Several of the report’s authors, including DORA co-founders Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, Gene Kim and Puppet chief technical strategist Nigel Kersten, ran through its findings during the final keynote at this year’s DevOps Enterprise Summit in London on 6 June.

DORA general partner and DevOps Handbook co-author Kim said the results reinforce how important it is to have strong leaders in place for DevOps to thrive in organisations.

“One of the most exciting findings for me is around transformational leadership,” he said. “Really, the punchline for this is leadership matters and it matters even more than we initially thought.

“And it turns out that leadership significantly amplifies the ability for organisations to become high-performers.”

This year’s report also pinpoints some improvements in the results both high- and low-performing teams achieve with DevOps, but suggests the latter group might be sacrificing other characteristics to report such gains.

Code differences

From a throughput perspective, the gap between how frequently high- and low-performers deploy code has narrowed between the 2016 and 2017 reports, but the difference between the quality of code they produce has widened.

“We speculate that this is due to low-performing teams working to increase speed, but not investing enough in building quality into the process,” the report said. “The result is larger failures, and more time to restore service.

“High-performers understand that they don’t have to trade speed for stability and vice versa because, by building quality in, they get both.”

Forsgren stressed that, when done properly, organisations should not have to sacrifice the quality of code they produce in order to achieve a desirable rate of code deploys.

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“With the low-performers, this is the first time we are seeing evidence of these trade-offs, where they are trying to get these throughputs, but at the expense of stability. And it’s not working very well at all,” she said.

“The high-performers are consistently maximising their throughput and consistently maintaining that stability, which is really exciting. The low-performers have got better at that throughput but are sacrificing on their stability.

“What this tells us is that if you are doing DevOps well, you are able to get this throughput and stability together. Trade-offs are not necessary. You can have it all.”

Quantifying DevOps success

The report, now in its sixth year, also uncovered evidence that the benefits DevOps can bring to a company’s performance is not limited to financials, but extends to other important business metrics.

High-performing companies were also found to be twice as likely to achieve and exceed their operational efficiency, customer satisfaction and corporate social responsibility goals. The same applies to the measures companies use to gauge the quality and quantity of the products and services they create.

“We find it very interesting that high-performers in both for-profits and not-for-profits are twice as likely to achieve or exceed objectives,” the report said.

“This suggests that DevOps enables mission achievement for any type of organisation, independent of industry or sector.”

DORA CTO Humble said the underlying technology environment a company relies on also has little bearing on how successful, or not, any push to embrace DevOps will be.

“You can achieve these results in any organisation,” he said. “I spent the last year working in the US federal government doing this stuff with very complex legacy systems in a highly regulated environment. You can do this stuff in any environment

“But just because you’re working in a new environment with shiny technology, you can still end up with a horrible, big-bang, orchestrated deployment that happens to be on Kubernetes.”

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