by Byron Connolly

DevOps an uphill battle: Dick Smith IT boss

Nov 14, 20144 mins
Cloud Computing

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Dick Smith’s IT chief Paul Keen quotes from Charles Dickens’ literary masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities to describe how he feels about deploying DevOps, a concept aimed at improving interaction between app developers and IT operations staff.

During a presentation in Sydney, Keen, who is general manager of IT at the retailer, shared his insights around moving DevOps to the cloud using an all-in-one approach with pure play retailer RedBalloon, and employing a hybrid model at Dick Smith.

“When it’s working, it’s a thing of beauty, there’s lots of backslapping going on and everyone’s very happy,” he told attendees. “But most of the time, it’s really an uphill battle to get it to work. But it’s worth it.”

He said the implementations at both organisations were very different. At RedBalloon, the building and testing was done in-house because the organisation had the right internal skills.

At Dick Smith, some of the work has been outsourced to a third-party with skills that the retailer does not have internally, he said.

Keen said there’s a misconception that DevOps is easy but he believes organisations can’t move from nothing to a full-scale DevOps environment in less than one year. It’s a matter of doing a little bit at a time, he said.

“It’s a really painful journey, it’s a thing you get a little bit better at each time.”

The tools used during the process are also only a few years old, which contributes to the pain, he said.

“When Amazon Web Services bought OpsWorks [an application lifecycle management tool], it sucked, it really did suck. You couldn’t use the Elastic Load Balancer to move environments over, you had to use a special third-party [app],” he said.

“It’s an early process [but] I think things are getting much better. If someone like Dick Smith can start doing DevOps, then it’s definitely achievable for everyone else.”

Selling DevOps to the executive

Moving DevOps to the cloud is allowing Dick Smith to move faster than the competition, said Keen.

“We have to iterate faster than the competition – we need to be more agile than the competition,” he said.

“When Dick Smith was looking to replace their head of IT, they picked me, an e-commerce guy, [which reflects] where the next wave of the business is.

“In the airline industry, they talk about moments of truth when you first interact with the customer. For a retail organisation, the moment of truth is generally online – that’s the first time they get to talk to you,” he said.

Keen said, depending on the stats, 70 per cent to 90 per cent of people do research online before they come into the store.

“So we need to be better than everyone else,” he said. “Because if we are better than everyone else, they either will buy online, click and collect and come into the store, or just walk into the store – it’s critical for our ongoing success.”

His advice for organisations wanting to do DevOps?

“Culture is absolutely key to getting this right,” he said. “If you have people who are very guarded around their areas – if you are the CIO – you can fire them … just get them out of the organisation.”

Secondly, in the cloud, “the easy stuff is easy and the hard stuff is very hard,” he said.

“Either get those skills internally or get somebody to help you manage it. What we have found is that once you get people to write some of the scripts for you, to set those templates up, you can actually self-manage those fairly easily,” he said.

Thirdly, he urged attendees not to be scared of vendor lock-in because “you are going to get locked in anyway if you really want to leverage the [cloud] platform”.

Paul Keen was speaking at an event hosted by recruitment firm Randstad.

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Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly