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The challenges of outsourcing in the age of DevOps

Tony Bradley Editor-in-Chief, TechSpective.net

Many organizations outsource elements of their IT capabilities. As companies embrace DevOps, though, it becomes more important than ever that all parties—whether internal or outsourced—are on the same page and function at the same pace. This raises the question: Is it possible for an organization with a DevOps culture to outsource IT? What sorts of unique challenges arise when outsourcing with DevOps?

Outsourcing in general is an effective tactic. It allows a company to stay focused on its core values and mission, and dedicate as much of its resources to innovating and delivering the things that make it unique. Meanwhile, peripheral tasks—whether accounting, janitorial services, or IT support—can be handed off to a third party. The third-party is ostensibly expert at that one specific thing, and the costs of hiring the third party are generally less than trying to develop and maintain a similar capability internally.

When outsourcing, it's always important to find a provider you’re comfortable with and that you trust to get the job done efficiently and effectively. In most cases, you can let go beyond that and just allow the third party to handle what it has been brought on to do. But with DevOps, things get a little trickier. This article describes the ways you can take advantage of outsourcing within a DevOps environment and recommends a few things to avoid, too.

Can your work culture be extended beyond your team?

Taken by itself, adopting DevOps doesn’t necessarily alter the pros and cons that typically affect an IT organization’s decision to outsource elements of its processes. The primary difference is that traditional IT outsourcing is typically driven by a focus on cutting or reducing costs. An organization looking to implement DevOps is typically seeking to gain business benefit, such as agility and reduced IT costs through improved productivity. 

In order for an organization to succeed at DevOps, though, the initiative must start with a culture shift. DevOps relies on breaking down traditional silos and removing the bureaucratic hurdles that bog things down. There are tools and practices that are part of DevOps as well, but a successful DevOps transition begins with changing the core mindset of how things get done and working more seamlessly and collaboratively. While accomplishing that internally is challenging enough, it's even more difficult to extend such a culture outside of the organization with outsourcing.

Pros and cons of outsourcing DevOps

Just as there are unique benefits and pitfalls when outsourcing any aspect of your business—particularly IT—there are also pros and cons of outsourcing DevOps. One of the primary benefits of outsourcing remains the same: You can engage with a partner that is more experienced or more skilled at a specific aspect of DevOps rather than trying to organically grow that capability internally.

Mirco Hering, an analyst at Accenture, says it’s not necessary for every company to try and reinvent the wheel but adds it's important to be careful about how your cultures mesh. “The con is obviously the need to align culture and incentives across two different organizations, which is an extra challenge. If you are OK to use a PaaS [platform as a service], then you can leverage the vendor to create your own PaaS and you don’t have to worry too much about the cultural aspects.”

Martin Croker, Hering's colleague at Accenture, describes DevOps as a spectrum rather than a binary black-and-white solution. He suggests that organizations consider DevOps as an aspect of how IT services are delivered rather than a stand-alone IT function. Hering adds that hiring third-party providers to deliver DevOps capabilities can also be a catalyst for adopting DevOps internally through the consultancy and services provided.

Choosing an outsourced partner

In selecting an outsourced service provider for DevOps, you can't just apply the same old criteria you’ve always relied before. The first big question is, should the company you choose to partner with also embrace DevOps? 

The answer is yes. In a nutshell, organizations seeking to implement DevOps need to work with service partners committed to implementing DevOps. Croker explains, “DevOps requires IT service suppliers to actively seek to eliminate unnecessary effort. There is a level of sophistication and drive for client value creation needed for service providers to see this as not being accretive to revenue.”

Hering agrees, adding, “Too much is in details and between the lines to be able to contract yourself to DevOps. It needs to be a partnership of sorts where both sides understand what they are trying to achieve.”

Outsourcing DevOps itself

What if you flip that around? Is it possible for a company that hasn’t really embraced DevOps internally to take advantage of its strategic and tactical advantages simply by hiring third-party providers that do DevOps?

Yes and no. DevOps comprises a large suite of practices, many of which can add value in isolation. But in general, the more teams involved in the DevOps approach, the greater the beneficial impact to the business. In other words, you can buy some of the benefits of DevOps through outsourcing without adopting DevOps internally, but it’s sort of like trying to race a car with the parking brake on.

“When an organization doesn’t embrace DevOps culture internally, this is inevitably going to reduce the benefits realized,” stresses Croker. “In such cases, where an organization hasn’t embraced DevOps, there is an increased probability that the focus will be exclusively on cost reduction rather than on a wider set of business benefits. In many cases, this focus is reflected in the nature of the outsourcing arrangements. A focus from an organization exclusively on supplier day rate will not aid implementation of DevOps.”

Consider the big picture

“When considering the benefits of IT service outsourcing, it’s important to align the outsourcing agreement and commercials to your organization’s DevOps objectives,” sums up Croker. “DevOps describes a culture shift in the way in which IT services are delivered and the ways in which teams interact to deliver those services. When an organization outsources IT services, unless carefully managed [with] partner objectives aligned, this can create an organizational divide which works against DevOps.”

There is no reason that you can’t outsource some aspects of DevOps—whether your organization has embraced DevOps internally or not. Regardless of where you’re at in your journey, you should keep the end objective in mind. DevOps is a broad and ambiguous concept, so it helps to start by defining what problems you’re trying to solve.

Once you know what the goal is, you can be more effective in identifying third-party partners that understand your problem and can help you address it. Make sure you choose a proven company with demonstrable experience rather than one simply promising to deliver.

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