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DevOps: The importance of clear communication

Phil Simon Speaker/Author, PhilSimon.com

In my article in the Back to the basics DevOps series, I described several of DevOps' key characteristics. Put briefly, corporate nomenclature only gets you so far. The mere presence of a DevOps group doesn't guarantee anything. In this way, it's like having a Chief Data Officer (CDO). By itself, it's neither a necessary nor sufficient cause for success.

So, what is? Alternatively stated, what does an organization need to do to maximize its chances that DevOps and the specific projects on which it works is ultimately successful?

I could rattle off a series of technical prerequisites in the form of:

  • Technical certifications
  • Mastery of different programming languages
  • Facility with mainstream application program interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs)
  • Familiarity with big data technologies like Hadoop and NoSQL and its antecedents: relational databases, traditional data modeling, etc.

But I won't.

Communication gets critical

Are those things (and more) critical for DevOps folks? Of course, and only a fool would contend otherwise. Today, however, I'm going to argue that communication and interpersonal skills are more important than pure technical proficiency.

Think about the very nature of contemporary technology and business. Change happens faster than ever, a point The Economist echoed home in an often-cited piece on the web's 25th anniversary. What's more, this trend is only intensifying, not abating.

This means that agile methods will become increasingly prevalent. DevOps folks won't just work with employees in HR, finance, marketing, and sales during sporadic upgrades and new system implementations. No, interaction becomes more frequent, not less.

A different era (sort of)

To be sure, the way in which organizations deploy enterprise technologies has undergone a seismic shift. Today is a far cry from the era in which I developed my technology chops. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, I worked as a consultant on mostly large-scale enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and business intelligence (BI) projects. I call these Enterprise 1.0 projects. Some of my clients would go for days or weeks without even speaking to anyone with a technical bent. When IT called, they shuddered.

Fast forward to today. Some things have changed but others have remained the same—and not for the better. As I discuss in Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It, employees are generally unable to communicate effectively with one another while on the clock. The Project Management Institute (PMI) understands this all too well. In May 2013, the PMI released its annual "Pulse of the Profession" report, which included the following jarring statistics:

$135 million is at risk for every $1 billion spent on a project. Further research on the importance of effective communications uncovers that a startling 56 percent ($75 million of that $135 million) is at risk due to ineffective communications.

From personal experience, I can tell you that much of this waste stems from the fact that techies and non-techies often speak different languages. The need to communicate clearly has never been more pronounced—its consequences never so inimical. Today—more than ever—speed kills.

It's a two-way street

It would be a mistake to put the onus of change completely on DevOps folks, though. Sure, techies need to understand that their audience doesn't possess the same interests, skills, and knowledge. By the same token, though, business users need to get more familiar with technical concepts and data. As I've argued before, the latter must become more numerate.

Those in DevOps who believe their work or skills are too complex or technical to be simplified would do well to heed the words of Albert Einstein: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

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