Forging DevOps Culture with Hedge-fund Flair / by James Kelly

teamwork-culture shutterstock_506137132.jpg

People: your most important resource and your greatest predicament to DevOps potency.

When the DevOps consultants recess and you need to scale a pilot-project team’s savvy, how do you affect the wider organization with DevOps principles?

Balancing the ingredients of this so-called mentality is trickier than revamping tools and processes. We all know to let tooling lead thy process, and process lead thy tooling. We know the approach is a rolling upgrade, not a mass reboot.

But in the plethora chapter and verse on DevOps, cultural principles are still parsimonious—not another definition, nor “automate everything,” nor the trite dev and ops working closely—real principles of cultural behaviors, their reasoning and an implementation track record.

When I was pouring through the pages of Principles by the Steve Jobs of investing, Ray Dalio, I was expecting to learn about life, finance and business from this famed hedge-fund investment and business guru. I did. I also realized, Ray’s high-performing investment and management principles codify common aspects of the DevOps mentality with some new ideas and revisions. And he’s got the CEO and CIO track record to support it, only his c-level ‘I’ stands for investment.

In the spirit of the ‘S’ for sharing in DevOps’s CALMS, Ray has provided a principles manifesto in clear, practical terms. I won’t reveal them all—I encourage you to read the book for that—but here are five of his greatest principles, distilled and steeped with my own perspective for the DevOps anthology.

1. Expedite Evolution, Not Perfection

From the opening biography, we come to know Ray as a continual learner by trial and error. He’s always looking for lessons in failures to carry forward, to do it better next time. He doesn’t regret failures; he values them more than successes because they provide learning.

Ray tells how he wouldn’t be where he is today—one of TIME’s top-100 most influential people in the world—if he had not hit rock bottom, having to let go of all his employees and forced to borrow $4000 from his dad to pay household bills until his family could sell their second car.

Because Ray upcycles painful mistakes into lessons and principles, learning and efficiency compound. He embraces evolutionary cycles, and knows a thing or two about compounding. Our human intelligence allows us to falter and adapt in rapid cycles that compound wisdom, without waiting for effects of generations. This iterative, rather than intellectual, approach performs better with the added benefit that, being experiential, you know it works.

If you’re a DevOps advocate, your Kaizen lightbulb may have lit. Kaizen is continuous learning: as I say, it’s the most important of all continuous practices in DevOps—and in life. Drawing from Ray’s rapid iteration of trial, error, reflect and learn, we see how he pairs Kaizen with Agile, values learning from failure, and takes many small quick steps for faster evolution.

To solidify the value behind this concept pairing, imagine a fixed savings interest rate, but change the cycle. What’s better: 12% annually or 1% monthly? “Periods do Matter” in this Investopedia article will show you that shorter cycles are better than longer ones. There is the technical reasoning behind why faster failing, leads to better evolution.

In another great read, 4 Seconds, Peter Bregman exemplifies how to manage learning and failure in business by telling the story of teaching his daughter to ride a bike without training wheels. Managing is knowing just the right time to step in and catch her. Too soon and she won’t learn to rebalance herself. Too late and...wipeout! He explains, “Learning to ride a bike, learning anything actually, isn't about doing it right: it's about doing it wrong and then adjusting. Learning isn't about being in balance, it's about recovering balance. And you can't recover balance if someone keeps you from losing balance in the first place.”

In summary, allow failure, cycle quickly and record the lessons. Depriving your people from the opportunity to fail, you deprive them from the opportunity to succeed—and the opportunity to improve. Breed a culture of rapid feedback and experimentation with guardrails, allowing failure without fatality.

2. Triangulate and Be Actively Open Minded

DevOps aficionados are familiar with “fail fast,” Agile and Kaizen. What’s further interesting about Ray, is how he allows for failure and equally reaches for high standards. And beyond technology, excellence is rarely discussed in DevOps circles.

Ray pursues life’s best. “You can have virtually anything you want, you just can’t have everything you want,” he says. Aside from his uncompromising principles in hiring and maintaining excellent people, Ray insists on excellent decision making to instill quality into evolution.

If failure doesn’t form progress, “fail fast” falls flat. Just like machine learning uses new and quality data to improve, our cycle progress is proportional to the quality and newness of abilities and information we use to pursue our goals.

The approach Ray hammers again and again is triangulation: exploring opinions different than his own or the first one offered up. Varying judgments can’t all be right, but understanding different viewpoints, is like making a quantum leap in an evolutionary cycle compared to learning from one source.

Ray’s dramatic story of receiving a cancer diagnosis indelibly impresses the importance of triangulation.

Obviously shaken up, he began to estate plan and spend more time with family, but he also consulted three experts. The first two doctors had wildly different prognoses and proposals for treatment or surgery. So he got them speaking with one another; they were respectful in understanding each other’s take, and Ray learned a lot. Finally, the third doctor suggested a regiment of no treatment nor surgery, but instead to monitor a biopsy of the cells every 6 months because his data showed treatments and surgery didn’t necessarily extend life in cases of cancer of the esophagus.

The three specialists, Ray and his family doctor agreed that this final approach wouldn’t hurt. The learning value or this triangulation aside, the outcome of the story will floor you: Ray’s first biopsy showed that he didn’t have any cancerous cells.

Back to DevOps, the CALMS ‘S’ for sharing is brilliant, but we can push beyond sharing. Actively seeking, not only sharing, information is key to boosting the quality of our decision making and evolution. Companies like Google do this with a manic focus on data, and data is just one avenue of information that may or may not go against our own beliefs.

In general, DevOps leaders must advocate for a culture and habits of active open mindedness, seeking opinions of other believable people and data. Like Ray, assertively explain your own opinions, while maintaining poise and humility to change your mind.

3. Radical Truth and Transparency

At the heart of Ray’s high-performing company, Bridgewater, is a culture of radical truth and transparency. Their patriarch trusts in truth, and loves his people like family, but also equitably protects the whole more than any part. For the greater good he doesn’t hold back in accurate evaluation, root-cause analysis, and openly pointing out problems, even in people. “Love the people you shoot,” he writes, “Tough love is both the hardest and most important kind of love to give.”

The firm keeps an internally available “baseball card” on each employee’s strengths and weaknesses synthesized from evidence-based patterns and a collection of business tools with psychographic-data crunching backends. Weaknesses aren’t misconstrued for weak people, and employees aren’t pigeonholed; the transparency enables orchestrating employees’ best work and identifying their believability in decision making.

For decades, Bridgewater has been using data on people and their track records to do believability-weighted decision making with the help of computers. The company’s “Idea Meritocracy” tools like the Dot Collector Matrix collect data and help teams make believability-weighted decisions, even instantly in meetings. While this was pioneered for investment decisions, Bridgewater later adopted the system for management decisions. Ray also hints he’s working toward offering the system as a service.

This principle is about being ruthless in demanding integrity, honesty, accuracy and openness. Common workplace biases like loyalty, niceness, confidentiality and secrecy might seem safe or well-intentioned in small contexts, but are ultimately self-defeating of the big-picture success of the whole.

Every person and organization has a unique twist on values and workplace politics, but while Bridgewater’s success speaks volumes, its radically straightforward approach is also reported to be the preference of techies and millennials that make up many DevOps-forward teams.

Embracing DevOps, results in more than dev and ops working together—it’s working more closely with the business too. While DevOps leaders can’t control the culture in the wider organization, they can shape the sub-culture of their own teams. Not only is it more manageable on that scale, but this cultural principle and corresponding tools seem a natural fit for IT workers. Just maybe as the role of IT is growing in most businesses today, the culture might catch on.

4. Be Candid and Fearless, Rather Than Blameless

Blameless post-mortem or retrospective meetings are not uncommon in a DevOps culture.

You can probably guess how Ray might see this differently.

If your culture is blameless, there’s less accountability, so you’re more likely to miss lessons and chances for improvement. It’s not just about fixing the machine neither, it’s about helping individuals. And if someone is truly not capable, you could fail to see it if you don’t dispassionately trace the blame.

Accuracy requires great diagnosis, and Ray’s method for root-cause analysis makes Toyota’s 5 Whys look skin deep.

Ray advocates to keep people responsible for investigation reporting up independently of where diagnosis happens, so there’s no fear of recrimination. “Remember people tend to be more defensive than self-critical. It is your job as a manager to get at truth and excellence, not to make people happy. Everyone's objective must be to get the best answers, not the answers that will make the most people happy.”

Having said that, Bridgewater’s culture also pushes everyone to tell the truth without fear of adverse consequences from admission of mistake.

When an employee missed placing a trade for a client, it ended up costing millions for younger, smaller, less-capitalized Bridgewater. With the whole company watching so to speak, Ray decided not to fire this employee—he knew that would lead to a culture of people hiding their mistakes instead of bringing them to light as soon as possible.

With respect to handling missteps, this hedge funder would admonish blamelessness in favor of candor and staff fearlessness. It has the efficiency of earlier learning and earlier redesign for prevention. It also doesn’t eschew accountability, encouraging individual improvement that eventually lifts the whole team.

5. Management by Machine and Metrics

Techies will appreciate how Ray talks about his business as a machine.

If you have great principles that guide you from your values to your day-to-day decisions, but don't have a way of making sure they're systematically applied, you leave their usefulness to chance. We need to cement culture into habits and help others do so as well. Systematizing any cultural principle into a process, tool, or both, “it typically takes twice as long,” Ray says, “but pays off many times over because the learning compounds.”

Bridgewater always put investment principles into algorithms and expert systems, and has long since run the rest of their business by software machinery as well.

Is this just the well-worn “automate everything” DevOps call?

Automation advances scale, performance, correctness, consistency and instrumentation. But high-performing businesses like Bridgewater also manage by metrics: they compare outcomes and measurements to goals.

While data-driven decision making is eminent these days, data-driven measurement and accountability is less common. We have KPIs, QBRs and performance reviews, but how many teams are consistently managed by metrics? We more easily look forward, than take an objective look in the mirror even though it’s critical for evolution.

Goal-setting zealots argue that goals must be measureable, and Ray’s advice takes it one step further: Don’t look at the numbers you have and adapt them to your needs. Instead, “start with the most important questions and come up with the metrics that will answer them,” he says. “Remember any single metric can mislead.” Furthermore, like big-data analytics, data garbage in equals information garbage out.

Be the Change

Ray also says, “An organization is the opposite of a building: it's foundation is at the top.”

But we all know stories of change percolating from all levels of organizations, communities and countries. If you’re not a CEO like Ray was, you can still make a meaningful difference bottom-up or managing your own team, leading by example.

You could simply publish your team’s principles, create a tool, or ignite behaviors you want to spread. Of the DevOps people-process-technology, people are your most important resource; so forge the principles of their operating systems: sharpen, tweak, prioritize and balance. With the transformation door open in your digital business and DevOps journey, there’s no better time to make an invaluable mark on culture—in IT and beyond.

image credit Jacob Lund/Shutterstock