How to "Nudge" DevOps in the Right Direction for Business

Encouraging DevOps across an organization comes down to four simple principles.

If you’re a bloke and you have the inclination to visit the restroom at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport you’ll see an odd thing. Etched into the bowls of the urinal, just to the left of the drain is the image of a house fly. It seems that if you give men a target during their lavatory forays, they’ll aim for it.

The result of this simple idea: wayward spillage declined by 80 percent, translating into savings in maintenance costs … and well, a much improved passenger experience.

The “fly in the urinal” is an example of what’s commonly referred to as a “nudge”; interventions that attempt to move people in directions that make their lives better (or at Schipol airport, drier). As suggested in the best seller “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, nudges alters people’s behavior in predictable ways without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

Thinking about the restroom fly, what does any of this behavioral guff have to do with DevOps? Well, probably more than you think. 

“Using insights from behavioral science to encourage IT teams to make better choices for themselves, their colleagues, and the business, isn’t as crazy as it sounds.”

— Peter Waterhouse, Senior Strategist, CA Technologies

Ready, Fire, Aim…

In the rush to release software, it’s human nature to get the aim wrong; hurrying through development, but soaking the operational and support floors. Of course, it’s not intentional—but doing the right thing at a program or cross-team level often plays second fiddle to frenzied, project-based delivery.

Furthermore, agile style empowerment means teams are encouraged to make their own choices to speed delivery. All well and good, but what happens when the organization ends up with multiple databases, coding languages, container technologies, communication methods, configuration, deployment and monitoring tools?

It’s probably OK in the early stages of a project, but who supports it all when priorities change and people move on? And pity the poor “IT janitorial team”—the ones who end up mopping up all the “legacies” and trying to figure out in all the additional complexity from where bad smells (outages and performance problems) are coming.

Nudge … nudge—lessons from the U.K.

No matter how empowered teams are, they’re not always inclined to worry about supportability and optimizing application performance. Rather than hope for the best and prepare for the worst, applying behavioral insights and nudge theory could help persuade any desperado development team to do what’s best for the business.

Thankfully, it doesn’t involve etching house fly images into their code, but rather, applying a framework developed by the U.K.’s Behavioral Insights team (or aptly named Nudge unit) for influencing behavior.

According to the Nudge unit, if you want to encourage a behavior, it must be Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely (EAST). Though the work of the unit uses behavioral insights to shape government policy and service delivery, the four principles can be applied in a DevOps context.

1. Make It Easy

The effort required to monitor application performance often puts developers off. Too often they’ll have to put down one set of tools and pick up another, resulting in build and delivery delays. To address this, each team might resort to their own tools which aren’t transferable, or worse still, neglect performance.

Nudging developers to do the right thing when it comes to performance and supportability has to be easy. This means serving performance insights immediately and in context of their daily work. So if developers want to understand the performance impact of their code on a build, information should be presented as they perform that build, together with granular insights into what application and infrastructure changes are causing performance problems.

2. Make It Attractive

According to the Nudge unit, we are more likely to do something that our attention is drawn toward—including images, color and personalization. This holds true for developers, but very hard to achieve with traditional performance monitoring tools—especially those that flood them with email alerts, false-positives and noise.

A nudge toward application performance involves drawing developers’ attention to anything that impacts the customer experience (good and bad). That won’t happen with rule-based alerting systems and scrolling consoles, but from new analytics approaches that can both predict problems and prescribe solutions in context of desired business outcomes.

3. Make It Social

As the Nudge unit says, we are embedded in networks and those we come into contact with can positively shape our actions. This holds true in IT, but too often teams operate in silo’s and rarely engage in collaborative fashion to drive systemic improvements.

Just like governments, IT leaders can foster networks to encourage highly collaborative behaviors to spread across the organization. On the people front this could be as basic as systems administrators attending agile standup meetings and retrospectives, but tools can help too. For example, providing a single collaboration app that integrates all team workflows and surfaces critical performance issues so cross-functional teams have one point to react, decide and solve problems—collectively.

4. Make It Timely

Timing matters to developers. Performance information presented from production systems is important, but less impactful than information delivered in context of a developer’s daily grind. To encourage better behaviors therefore, monitoring must “shift-left”; providing developer’s earlier guidance on performance impacts—in their world, in their code and in their terms. Do this consistently and watch the behavioral mindset shift from preventing problems to driving and sharing improvements in both architecture and design.

Using insights from behavioral science to encourage IT teams to make better choices for themselves, their colleagues, and the business, isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Like the nudge fly, purposeful application with the right tools can help teams collectively aim towards delivering high performance IT.

Better this than the business getting its feet wet.

Pete Waterhouse
By Pete Waterhouse | September 08, 2016

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