Supporting team members who have ideas for improvement

“Dreaming and Doing” by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the foundational practices in DevOps and Agile is to support team members who have ideas for improvement. This is difficult to do because we have a lot of work to get done and trying out new ideas creates more work. When the idea crosses organizational lines and normal job duties, it is even more difficult to take action. We have implemented Wonderful Wednesdays as a way to give time to explore ideas and practice creating self-organizing teams. A recent example reaffirmed to me why this practice is so important, especially when you are trying to transform the way that your team works.

Like most organizations, we have a help desk with software that we use to track all of the requests for support. This software is managed by the help desk team. One of our new help desk team members, Dominic (Dom) Malfara, was looking for ways to be more efficient in updating the software. He wanted to be able to upgrade the software in the middle of the day and be able to quickly recover if any part of the system went down. He reached out to our infrastructure engineering team, who were investigating how to use Kubernetes containers to automate and modernize our server environment.

That team embraced Dom, recognizing that if they could containerize our Remedy environment, which consisted of many servers with a vendor that didn’t support containers, it would be an ideal environment to learn for the entire team. The team leader invited Dom to the team’s daily stand-ups, Trello board, and Teams channel. Throughout the project the entire team was inclusive and accommodating. Despite org chart lines, Dom felt like he was part of their team and it was exciting working towards a goal with them. The infrastructure team reprioritized their work and helped Dom identify all of the layers of systems and management tools needed to fully automate and containerize the Remedy servers. 

This took several months and required full support from the leaders on the help desk and the infrastructure engineering team. Doing this required more time and more people than a traditional upgrade of the Remedy servers. It required making the time to experiment. 

Dom was successful in containerizing the Remedy environment. It did not go perfectly.  We had a bit of user interruption throughout the day as we made the transition. Through the problems, the help desk leadership team didn’t yell or blame anyone, but instead asked what they could do to help. Various team members posted screenshots or descriptions of things that were broken, allowing Dom space to focus on calmly fixing things so they would not happen again.

The results have been everything that we hoped for and worth the investment of time. We halved the needed hardware. Upgrades are now done by building parallel environments which mean we can fully test the new production environment and roll over and back between the old and new environments in seconds. All the hard work now occurs up front, and not during a maintenance window where people are prone to rush/make mistakes. Because the work is now automated and reproducible, bringing up a new test environment takes minutes instead of days. We can monitor the system load and scale instantly when needed. 

A couple of weeks after the transition was done, Dom did a presentation during Wonderful Wednesday teaching others across ITS. I went to the presentation and was in awe of the amount of learning and technical knowledge that was required to make the transition. It was one of the highlights of my year.

Thanks to Dom raising his hand and the infrastructure team fully supporting him, we have a roadmap on how to make the rest of our infrastructure more efficient, modern, and scalable. As a leader, it reinforced to me how important it is to support those individuals and teams who raise their hand and give them the time and resources to learn and make your organization better.

Here are my questions for you this week.

  • How do you support individuals who raise their hands with an idea? 
  • How do you treat others who come to you with an idea that requires you to change what you are doing? 
  • Is there a project you are working on currently that someone could collaborate with you for mutual benefits if they only had some way of knowing about it?

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Epilogue: As part of the process of writing these blogs, I always ask for feedback from the people who are mentioned in the blog. I wanted to include this email from Dominic to me about his view of the experience.

Hello Cindy,

Thanks for sharing, I just wanted to share some quick notes on the overall experience because it was really special to me. Our self-formed team was definitely influenced by all of the changes made to the culture and how ITS members are reacting to that: 

  • Wonderful Wednesday allowed me the freedom and time to invest in pursuing something innovative instead of doing things how we always have, WW got me quick buy-in from Jim and Paul because instead of battling with scheduling time to prove value in something and how it prioritized with our other work, I was able to use that reserved WW time to learn skills and proof of concept this project. I was excited to work on new technologies and make life better for us and that energy didn’t go to waste having to meet and debate and formalize things. Natural experimentation took its course and we got to follow an informal guideline of what we wanted to accomplish and how we were going to do it
  • Slack/Teams promotes open communication across the organization so it is now commonplace to talk to others in ITS, I get to interact with members of IT that I might not even meet otherwise. Help or knowledge with something is a message away, and with group chats I get visibility into what people are working on, instead of knowledge being hidden in email chains that I wasn’t CCed on or meetings I wasn’t a part of (the all-staff meetings, summits, and What’s New newsletter all influence this as well). I heard that Infrastructure Engineering was already exploring Kubernetes and we got to learn that together.
  • Leaders like Jorj, who doesn’t have a reporting relationship with me, but acted as a strong mentor and helped break down any barriers I faced along the way anyway. People like him that are genuinely interested in the technology and making Temple a better place are really inspiring and I hope I can pay that forward and influence those around me

Thanks again to Jorj for all his help and mentorship, and to you for the culture you are creating in Temple ITS! This project wouldn’t have been possible without it. I have learned a lot of valuable career skills and the failures/mishaps along the way that gave me real world lessons and I honestly had fun doing it! 😄

Thanks again, 

Dominic Malfara

Creating Momentum for Organizational Transformation

The IT world has been shifting drastically. Everyone knows about cloud computing, but most people do not understand that the way software needs to be developed to be truly cloud-based, is substantially different than how software has been built for decades. Quick development cycles and continuous updates to software are now required. To make this shift, some organizations are transferring the LEAN operational principles that propelled Toyota to produce high quality and reliable cars to software delivery. In software development, the LEAN principles are referred to as Agile Development or DevOps.

LEAN principles can be effectively applied to almost any process to make it better. The main idea is that for work to happen in the fastest possible way, it needs to flow through the system continuously without stopping and not come back into the flow of work because of poor quality.  To integrate these principles requires a transformation in how an organization acquires and builds software and the infrastructure to support it.

The challenge is how to create enough energy and momentum within your organization for this transformation.

To introduce Agile and DevOps practices within ITS at Temple, we have done several things to increase the awareness, understanding, and support for this transformation.

We looked for experts. My leadership team went to visit Pivotal, a company that trains organizations on how to make this shift. After that visit, we sent several team members from different parts of the organization to the SpringOne conference, where Fortune 25 companies who have adopted the Pivotal methodology and tools converged. The team came back energized and awed by what they saw and excited about what we could do. The conference also helped them understand that this shift is not about technology, but about people.

We spread the word. After these evangelists started talking to their teams about what a difference DevOps could make at Temple, we sent 27 attendees to a local one-day DevOps conference. The participants came back with a better understanding of the principles of DevOps. They were also encouraged that other organizations were struggling with how to apply these changes as well, understanding that we weren’t as far behind as we feared.

We started experimenting with the principles. My leadership team made a Kanban board of our work across the organization to try to get an understanding of our work in progress. The visual display of our work traffic jam was powerful. Although I have been studying these principles for years, this exercise drove home to me that I had not done my job of focusing our teams on the most impactful work for our organization.

We invited everyone to participate. We announced a retreat to develop the strategic vision for how ITS could adopt Agile/DevOps principles. Everyone was invited. The only requirement to attend was to read “The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win.” Several people commented that although it was fiction, it accurately described how we feel overwhelmed as we juggle the unending stream of requests and the unplanned work that happens when things break.

Over eighty people came to the retreat and it was an energizing and productive day. We created a shared vision for Agile and DevOps at Temple, learned about the principles together and brainstormed ideas about how to move the culture and operational change along. This is the shared vision for Temple ITS that the attendees created at our retreat.

Culture
We are educators, who support an inclusive environment that is respectful, people-focused, and fun!

We encourage learning and recognize people’s positive intent. With trust, we grow from our mistakes by continually supporting a quality improvement mindset (LEAN principles).

Innovation
We strive to be innovative in technology, cost efficiency and creativity. We advance our mission by creating opportunities to explore improvements and expand our personal development. We lead by supporting a rapid development environment.

Optimization
We optimize our time by identifying and automating repeatable processes to efficiently utilize our technical resources. We seek to minimize redundancies, rework, and defects to strengthen our resolve to follow LEAN principles. We use agile processes and choice architecture to present different alternatives in process and user experience to our customers.

Collaboration and Communication
We operate everyday with clear communication, collaboration and information sharing. We build and foster all of our relationships by inviting internal/external stakeholders to be a member of our team and encouraging feedback with authenticity in our discussions.

We have already instituted changes with daily leadership stand-ups, created Wonderful Wednesdays to encourage innovation and experimentation and started to visually track our work. As we head into a new year, we have so much energy about the possibilities, and the really wonderful thing is that the transformation is being championed by the group and not just me.

I can’t wait to see what the new year brings!