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How to sell continuous delivery to the business

Suzie Prince Head of Product, ThoughtWorks
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We have all heard a lot about the successes of continuous delivery (CD). Many people in technical teams and IT organizations are embracing these practices. But in my role as a product manager for a continuous integration and continuous deployment product, I am often asked, “How do you feel about CD?”

People ask, “Isn’t it scary for you?” or “Aren’t you afraid that bad software will be released?” Often, the product managers I talk with speak of continuous delivery with caution or worse, with fear. They use phrases such as “more discretion,” “more control” or they claim that “CD won’t work in my organization because we make enterprise products."

Whenever I hear this, I make it my job to convince them of the merits of CD, and I encourage you to make it your job as well. Here are a few tips, based on my experiences, that will help you to convince your business that continuous delivery should be embraced and relished, rather than feared.

Why you need to sell CD to the businesses

Before I delve into the details of selling CD to your businesses, you should understand what is at stake if we don’t. Each year, businesses lose $3 trillion dollars in failed IT projects. These are projects that do not meet business needs for whatever reason—non-completion, failure to release, failure to solve business needs, completed over time or over cost. You’ve seen it.

Why does this happen? Often it's because of dysfunctional IT organizations. Gene Kim calls one common pattern of dysfunction that leads to this level of failure “the downward spiral," and it's clearly illustrated in Kim's book, The Phoenix Project.

It’s a situation where deadlines are missed, issues arise in production, the business reacts badly, and IT starts padding deadlines and acting out of fear. From there the situation goes from bad to worse. Initial underdelivering is followed by unhealthy overpromising. This leads to a vicious, downward cycle that hurts the business, development, operations, shareholders and end users.

By embracing a DevOps culture, and practicing continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery, you can break that cycle. In order to successfully embrace DevOps, you must first build relationships between the business and IT. And for this, you need to start with empathy.

Empathy, active listening help to join hands with your business

One simple way to get to know the people in your business better is to ask them questions that let you understand more about them. You need to know who they are, and what motivates them. What are they trying to achieve? What do they fear, and what makes them tick? Some example questions I use are:

  • Can you tell me more about…
  • What is your desired outcome?
  • What would make you happy?
  • What does a bad day look like for you?
  • What does a good day look like?
  • Is there anything I could do?

The main point is to ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions to learn more about them as people. The point is not to ask critical questions such as “why did you do x?” or “why aren’t you doing x?”

Once you've asked your questions, it's time to stop and listen. Give them your undivided attention. Have an open mind, and don’t assume you know what they will say. Do not immediately jump to solutions. Defer your judgments about what they are saying. Show that you’re listening, learn about who they are, and say thanks!

Tell how DevOps and CD can help them

Once you know your business better you will be in a much better position to influence them and engage them in a conversation about DevOps and continuous delivery. A great way to do this is by telling them stories about what a better future could look like. Use what you have learned about their motivations, pains, challenges and fears to create stories that resonate, and that speak specifically to your organization.

Some of the stories that I have told to encourage change have been about how CD helps get faster feedback for product managers, how it allows the business to be more responsive to customer needs and changing market demands, how it helps to deliver higher quality products, and how it can reduce waste and help build better teams. Here are the "CliffsNotes" versions of these stories that will help you tell your own story to the business.

Faster feedback

Delivering continuously lets the business get product feedback and validation sooner. The moment you deliver a new product or feature to customers, you start getting feedback on what you have built. There is nothing like that getting feedback, after having pushed a new feature to production, to find out if it achieved what you hoped it would—or not.

More responsive

Because CD means you can deliver every build to production, the business gets to choose whether every build goes to production. That means that the time-to-market for new features is, theoretically, just the time it takes to build and test. Responsiveness such as this works in a million ways to help the business.

When the next Heartbleed bug comes out, you can get a fix out before lunch. If your biggest customer needs a change, you can get it done and deployed overnight. Or, if you’re in charge of delivering value to existing customers this quarter, CD will allow you to do that. It helps the business solve problems quickly, fix issues as they occur, and stay on top of customer needs.

Better quality and reduced waste

Service quality is as important a feature as is the actual code or tangible products that your business delivers. If your releases never result in a downtime, if your software is always available, if users never find a bug, then your customers’ opinions of your software will be higher, your referral rates will be higher, and your business will have won your market.

The 2016 State of DevOps Report showed that high-performing teams spend 22% less time on rework and have software with measurably better quality. This ability to deliver quality regularly reduces rework and allows you to spend time on new features, rather than fixing older ones.

Better teams

DevOps is about culture. The more your organization centers around the fundamental qualities of your software, the better the software is likely to be. Likewise, when team members are not siloed, they understand each other, and each other’s work, better.

The less they feel the individual burden of a deployment or a bug-fix or a release test cycle, the more time they have to participate in team activities, share feedback, and the more the whole team will reflect and grow. Moreover, continuous delivery encourages frequent learning, and teams that practice it will get faster over time.

Counter arguments to common objections

After explaining all of that, you may still encounter some holdouts with objections. The most common ones I hear are based on misunderstandings of the what continuous delivery is and how to it's implemented. In these situations, you should be very clear as to the difference between continuous delivery and continuous deployment.

In my explanation of continuous delivery, I explain that a human decides when to release, and the process is all automated in continuous deployment. I make it clear that that the human involved should be someone in the business, not in IT. This empowerment can be very convincing, and often surprising for people in your organization who may fear that these practices are beyond their control.

The other common argument goes something like “Well, they’re in the entertainment business, so none of their users rely on them for anything really important,” or “In a world where safety, reliability, privacy and security aren’t important, it would be fun to try but....“.

In response, I simply point to the growing portfolio of case studies from large organizations (such as Nordstrom, Expedia, Google and Amazon) about how they deliver software continuously, quickly and safely.

There you have it: How to sell continuous delivery and DevOps to your business, in a nutshell. Now get out there, be part of your business, share stories, sell continuous delivery and stop the downward spiral.

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