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April 06, 2016
Hackathons Ignite DevOps Culture
By: Jonathan Hamilton

DevOps shows no sign of fading from the modern zeitgeist and is delivering transformative value to many. The benefits are clear: shorter time from idea to value, improved quality and expanded delivery throughput.

However, some are just starting their DevOps journey or running into issues along the way. DevOps is an evolution of culture, process and tools, but the latter two are usually prioritized at expense of the former. Culture change is difficult to enact and often not a natural skill for technologists. In fact, Gartner estimates that “by 2018, 90% of I&O organizations attempting to use DevOps without specifically addressing their cultural foundations will fail.”1

One common fallacy is that more time is spent talking about and documenting cultural change than performing cultural change. This is akin to “dancing about architecture2 and makes it difficult for teams to appreciate the value of a DevOps culture. What if there was a way for people to experience DevOps culture prior to a massive organizational change process?

I propose hackathons as just such a vehicle. A hackathon is a time-bound event in which software professionals collaborate and/or compete to build a solution based on a given theme or topic. My group just conducted our first global hackathon with over 200 participants from more than 50 teams at 7 locations, including India, Europe and the United States of America.

As co-sponsor of the event, I was impressed by how much DevOps cultural aspects permeate a hackathon. Now, these cultural aspects don’t necessarily take the same form that they would in an enterprise, but the key point here is that it gives people a chance to experience DevOps culture hands-on and in a safe environment. That’s much different than reading about culture and has a powerful impact!

Rouan Wilsenach has a great synopsis on DevOps culture3 that I’ll reference in what I observed via our hackathon.

Dev & Ops Collaboration
  • The hackathon teams have a shared responsibility to solution and build to a common goal. That common goal is established via the theme of the hackathon, but then the team uses Feedback loops to refine their solution and understanding of the theme. They realize that applying real-time learnings over the course of the event rapidly helps them evolve from an initial idea to a well formed one.

  • Hackathon teams usually comprise 3-5 people and as such, they are a microcosm of autonomous teams. To complete a solution on the event’s tight timelines, the team needs to trust each other to operate independently and limit convoluted decision processes. They experience the freedom of an environment that acknowledges mistakes will happen, but treats them as learning opportunities.

  • No silos and closer collaboration are experienced through a hackthon’s single room approach. Participants in the hackathon are co-located and free to interact directly within their teams and outside their teams. They find the empowerment of having unfettered access to the knowledge and experience necessary to accomplish a goal.

  • Automation and Building quality-in are constrained in a hackathon—just as they are in real life. However, a successful hackathon team will quickly see that an up-front and on-going investment in these cultural characteristics pays big dividends down the road. The fixed duration of a hackathon highlights the critical ROI from automation and quality first.

All these aspects give team members a chance to experience the possibilities of DevOps culture in a rapid and low-risk environment. Ultimately, this will help make the teams more receptive and engaged when management pushes for a move to DevOps. Spreading an appreciation of DevOps culture through hackathons is a small but impactful way to avoid the pitfalls of a cultural shift.

1http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3032517

2http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/

3http://martinfowler.com/bliki/DevOpsCulture.html

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