What makes a DevOps unicorn?

Three key areas that DevOps unicorns such as Netflix, Amazon, Etsy, and others utilize to drive success from DevOps are discussed. CIOs can learn from unicorns, and these three practices, to accelerate their use of DevOps, and the business outcomes.

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An unknown person once said, "Sometimes the only thing that people see is what you did, when in fact they should be looking at why you did it." This is a critical perspective when it comes to understanding DevOps unicorns such as Netflix, Etsy, Amazon, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, ING group and a handful of other companies that are known as leaders in their use of optimized DevOps practices, and organizational and business outcomes.

Understanding why changes take place is just as important as the changes themselves. As I advise CIOs and their teams that run application development and IT operations, it has become clear that everyone wants to know what Unicorns do differently with DevOps, but most don't necessarily want to be compared to them. Below is a summary of what makes a DevOps unicorn so incredibly effective and efficient in their use of DevOps practices.

Three key characteristics are:

1) Omnipresent culture: In all of the Unicorn organizations, there exists strong cultures which culminate around values such as accountability, organizational and continuous learning, collaboration, and experimentation. The culture is strong, and tends to dictate the type of staff hired. There is a cultural undercurrent that supports the notion of delivering organizational impact through meaningful work. Failure is not seen as failure, but seen as step towards finding the right answer.

The culture exudes high levels of patience, trust, ethics, and empowerment, with very little patience for waste, and inefficiency decision-making and bureaucracy. An openness and appreciation for new ideas, no matter how crazy they seem, is a core cultural value. The use, acceptance, and integration of automation across business and technology processes is another underpinning of unicorn cultures. In these organizations, automation is not seen as threat, but rather an optimization strategy that provides career development, and career opportunities.

2) Technology savvy, customer obsessed business leadership: One of the areas that stands out is the ability of business executives at all levels at unicorns to fully understand the importance of technology to their success. Unicorns invest in technology, and build (and experiment with) their own technology platforms, and have an understanding that their business models, both current and yet to be invented, are 100 percent dependent on their technology investment decisions. It’s a fully loaded business perspective across people, process, information and technology.

From the boardroom, the CEO, and across all business functions, there is a tight strategic alignment with technology investment and decision making. Metrics are used to measure progress and failures, leading to a more transparent organization, and set of expectations. It's important to recognize that the customer is at the center of everything. From the top down, the importance of having a customer first approach to each problem, being empathic to the customer, and making an effort to execute on collecting and incorporating customer feedback into every decision, is paramount across the culture, leadership actions, and organizational processes and structures.

3) Optimized organizational structure: Unicorns approach their technology organizations very differently. From the success and performance metrics, to how the actual organizations are structure, and their expectations, are often very different. One Unicorn organization actually looked at IT Operations, carved it up into a DevOps unified model, and refocused a new team on high performance engineering for the existing services.

There is no silver bullet for all organizations, but DevOps unicorns take advantage of the organizational changes to rethink structure, staffing, performance metrics, and how teams will own various tasks and responsibilities moving forward. Even critical areas such as business process acumen, business and financial acumen, and new titles such as automation engineers, process owners, and product managers become commonplace.

While there are many other strong unicorn characteristics, these are three that other organizations can learn from. While somewhat hard to copy, they present significant opportunites for every CIO and DevOps projects. Each CIO must determine what they want, and the best DevOps strategy to achieve it. Learning from DevOps unicorns can help accelerate success.

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