In my previous post about the Dream of DevOps, I discussed my vision for how we achieve the true vision of DevOps. Namely how having an inclusive culture around software development where not only developers work in a silo, but rather include disciplines such as software testing, infrastructure, and build/deployment.

What DevOps is not…

Let me first go into what DevOps is not meant to be. It’s not meant to be a separate team. Unfortunately, I see many organizations falling into the trap of saying, “We need a DevOps team.” If the organization read The Phoenix Project or any number of other articles on the topic, they would quickly realize the fallacy of building a “DevOps team”. The whole point is that you want integrated project teams that solve customer problems.

How did we get to thinking we need “DevOps teams”? As eluded to in the prior blog post, I feel that this is because many organizations see this is a new engineering function. Since this new engineering function doesn’t fit within the context of the pre-existing functions (such as frontend or backend engineers), there’s a feeling that this needs to be a separate team, operating alongside other software teams.

Instead of treating DevOps as a new team, an organization needs to come to the understanding that this is a function of a team.

Some organizational styles

While many software engineering organizations may start off with the need for a new “DevOps team”, engineering leaders should begin to see the need to have this function be part of software delivery teams.

How does an organization begin to transform with respect to DevOps? An early way to begin making changes is creating a matrix organization. This is an organization where a software delivery team is comprised of engineers from a variety of different teams managed by multiple managers.

The matrix organization

A good example of this is a team delivering something like a web storefront. This application involves a web frontend for users to interact with, some backend for product listings, shopping cart and checkout, some infrastructure that the store will run on, some build and deployment pipelines, and perhaps even a mobile application. In this fictitious organization, let’s start with the frontend engineers having one manager, backend having another manager, mobile having yet another, and let’s say that the build/deployment and infrastructure are managed by someone else. In a true matrix organization, the project scope would be roughly identified and some seed of folks from each of these teams would begin to work together as a software delivery team. They would wholly understand the needs of the customer and work to build a solution meeting those needs across each of their areas of experience. This software delivery team would likely have a team lead, but ultimately not be managed by any of the managers of the individuals working on the team. This type of organization is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: An example matrix organization, with project leads denoted in bold.

The hierarchical organization

Contrast this to a classic hierarchical organization where software delivery teams do not exist. Rather projects are defined and are worked on in silos. The backend team may be told that they need to deliver a way to list products and provide a shopping cart and checkout. The frontend team would be told that they can query the backend for a list of products. So on and so forth. In this manner, each team only gets a small glimpse of what they need to deliver without understanding the bigger picture. Designs of one team may be incompatible with the other’s leading to rework later. This type of organization is detailed in figure 2.

Figure 2: An example hierarchical organization where managers are the project leads.

The hybrid organization

A third way to organize is a hybrid of the two styles above. Let’s call it the hybrid matrix organization. In this organization, it generally follows a matrix organization. The key difference is that certain functions — typically “DevOps”, infrastructure, or testing — will remain under a manager with either dotted-line reporting into a project or working with an engineer in a project team that has some interest in taking on those skills. The idea of this is to allow this specialized team to remain intact while providing input into software delivery teams and grow interested engineers on those teams to take on the work the specialized team would have done in the past. Some teams may not see a need for input from this specialized team, in which case there would not by any liaison. Additionally, there may be engineers who do not work with any software delivery team and instead focus on building some shared tooling or have some specialized role that otherwise doesn’t lend itself to working within a software delivery team. This organizational model is outlined in figure 3.

Figure 3: An example of a hybrid organization, with engineers reporting to manager 3 working with liaisons from some software delivery teams.

Contrasting these organizations

Some may say that how we organize doesn’t matter since software eventually gets delivered in either organization. Some software will indeed be delivered in any of these organization styles. However, what will be impacted is how teams interact.

In a hierarchical organization, teams may play the blame game when dependencies between managers aren’t delivered in a timely and high-quality manner. Requests of one team on another for features or addressing defects may be delayed as this requires injecting the requested work into a different schedule that has different delivery priorities. Requests to infrastructure or test teams often come late and these teams are generally not consulted on the software implementation.

In a matrix organization, software delivery teams are empowered to work together on delivering a set of functionality on the same schedule. Feature requests and defects are a normal course of business and prioritized according to the priorities for that software delivery team. There are no requests for infrastructure or test teams as they are fully incorporated into the fold of the software delivery team.

A hybrid organization has some benefits of a matrix organization expect when it comes to that specialized team. If there is a liaison established, the partner in the software delivery team may be keen to take on the work of that specialized team, but they may also be overwhelmed with their normal responsibilities or have been selected without having any interest in being the liaison. This poses a new problem unique to this organization type. In the case where no liaison is established upfront, but the need arises later, similar problems to that of the hierarchical organization emerge. Additionally, there become questions about what other work that a specialized team is delivering.

Of the organizational models presented here, a true matrix organization offers the ability for software delivery teams to deliver software holistically.

What’s next?

While this is relevant to the previous post on the Dream of DevOps, this is the first of two parts on organizing for collaboration. This part focused on three common ways to incorporate DevOps, infrastructure, and test engineers into software delivery teams. The next part will look at some of the foundations of this including diving into organizational research and Agile management practices.

A teaser… what if teams were able to self-organize as the needs of the organization evolved?

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