Agile Operations and Dogfight Monitoring

Working inside the OODA loop helps IT operations optimize agile development.

It is interesting how often military analogies are used to describe software development. Our marvelous coding creations ward off threats while helping businesses to gain first-mover advantage, gather customer intelligence and outflank the competition. Beyond the hyperbole, there’s one comparison that actually does makes a lot of sense.

Back in the 1950s, Colonel John Boyd analyzed the advantages of the American F-86 fighter plane over the Soviet MiG-15. Even though the F-86 was slower and less maneuverable, it won many more dogfights than it lost. According to Boyd, this success was due to American pilots’ ability to OODA loop (observe, orient, decide and act) faster than the enemy.

Although the F-86 was considered inferior to the MiG-15, it was favored by pilots. The F-86’s combination of better all-round visibility and hydraulic flight control meant that pilots could observe more relevant information then orient, decide and act more quickly. Consequently, the F-86 was victorious in nine out of every ten dogfights.

The OODA loop helps to explain the success of agile development. Working in short sprints followed by review, analysis and feedback could be described as “dogfight development.” In a dogfight, speed beats quality. In long-phased development, a loop may only complete upon the final release―by which time the app has been shot to pieces by quicker competitors.

Targeted Monitoring for Agile Operations

Applying the dogfight approach to IT operations is tougher. When an issue emerges, ops typically slows things down and waits for absolute certainty there won’t be performance problems. With quality-focused monitoring coming right at the end of the dev the cycle, you’re left with longer iterations and an increased number of delays―more and more bullet holes.

As with aerial combat, working inside the OODA loop and achieving truly agile operations requires increased monitoring to create a wider field of vision, making it possible to act more quickly, with better results. Today, truly effective monitoring means injecting monitoring at every possible step of the dev cycle―not waiting until production.

Having said that, gaining visibility isn’t nearly enough for truly agile operations. The plethora of alerting tools and log monitors available today could combine to produce the IT equivalent of cockpit noise and radio interference. What is often lacking is the ability to filter all this noise so that it has meaning for developers and becomes actionable.

Just as an F-86 pilot required clear information on the speed, size and maneuverability of the enemy plane, developers need to know what they should be looking for in the data provided by monitoring technologies. Therefore, there is a need for solutions that put all this information into context.

Take continuous integration, for example. Here, an agile ops approach to monitoring means giving dev teams access to dashboards that put detailed performance metrics in the context of each software build. Armed with the resulting insight, developers could immediately see the upstream effect of a particular piece of code on overall module performance.

An Easier Flight Path to Agility

There are other valuable lessons to be learned from aerial combat. Even though the MiG-5 was a nimble machine, it took a good deal of physical effort for pilots to get the most out of it. The F-86’s hydraulic flight stick, by contrast, meant that pilots didn’t have to expend as much energy to perform quick and effective maneuvers.

Similarly, developers expend huge amounts of effort coding new features without fully understanding the impact on the end-user experience. If they could observe critical app usage information in context (who is using what, when and how), together with associated performance details, they could make better decisions, in shorter, faster loops.

Colonel Boyd came to the conclusion that fast OODA was key to winning aerial combat and it’s the same with our own digital dogfights. Speed of iteration does indeed trump the ponderous pursuit of quality. And operations can enhance this agile approach by applying up-to-date monitoring approaches both early and often.

As the agile operations “Maverick” in all of us should say: I feel the need, the need for speed.

By Peter Waterhouse | 14 May 2017

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