DevOps, Adam Smith and the legend of the Generalist

Is DevOps at risk of being misinterpreted as “everyone should be able to do everything”? 

That somehow DevOps means you should be able to switch seamlessly between Development and Operations tasks, writing some Java application code in the morning, re-configuring the SAN in the afternoon and finishing off with a bit of light firewall maintenance in the evening ?

Take this great quote;

I’ll tell you EXACTLY what DevOps means.

DevOps means giving a shit about your job enough to not pass the buck. DevOps means giving a s**t about your job enough to want to learn all the parts and not just your little world.

Developers need to understand infrastructure. Operations people need to understand code. People need to f***ing work with each other and not just occupy space next to each other. –  John E. Vincent (@Lusis)

Whilst we whole heartedly agree with the sentiments in the quote I think that there is a risk that the phrase “need to know” about Development or Operations will be misinterpreted by some as “we need generalist staff who can do it all”.

Sadly, this would be a tragic mistake for several reasons but first and foremost because division of labour exists for a reason.

There is literally hundreds of years of economic theory, dating back to Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” in 1776 and beyond, that shows how & why division of labour increases overall productivity.

Whether it’s making pins, cars or software applications the correctly co-ordinated activity between a sequence of specialists will massively increase overall productivity. In the context of making pins Smith quoted an increase in productivity of 24,000% (in comparison to one person performing all of the tasks required to make a pin).

Note that there is a critical caveat in the paragraph above – “correctly coordinated”.

Poorly coordinated activities between specialists impedes productivity and creates bottlenecks, mistakes and re-work. Reinert’s ideas of “flow” in product development, Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (TOC) and the whole Lean movement are about ensuring that activities in the “value chain” are correctly aligned and smoothly flow from one stage (or specialism) to another to ensure that maximal productivity and value are achieved.

So what does this mean in terms of DevOps and the quote above?

Coordination requires effective communication so I think that the quote above could be re-stated to say “need to know enough about Infrastructure/software development in order to be able to communicate effectively with other specialists”.

For example, Developer’s need to know enough about infrastructure and web operations to understand why a scalable user session state management solution is critical when running a distributed system because “just running it all on one box like we do in my dev environment” isn’t a good solution. Conversely Operations need to know enough about the language stack they support to be able to read a stack trace as part of their troubleshooting workflows to help identify the root cause of a problem.

So whilst hopefully agreeing that DevOps doesn’t mean the end of specialists performing specialized skills and ergo the creation of hybrid generalists it’s worth mentioning that Adam Smith did have some warnings on the downsides of over-specialization that have some resonance for DevOps:

“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life” – Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations)

Alexis de Tocqueville agreed with Smith:

“Nothing tends to materialize man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labour.” Alexis de Tocqueville

Smith warned that workers “become ignorant and insular as their working lives are confined to a single repetitive task” which is the silo-oriented mental state that @Lusis rails against in the opening quote when he says DevOps “means giving a shit about your job enough to not pass the buck”.

DevOps “First Way” emphasises “Systems Thinking” – looking at the larger system as a whole not just your narrow silo view – so the risks raised by Smith and De Tocqueville are valid concerns for DevOps.

So there is a tension here… we need the productivity of specialisation but we don’t want the insular worldview of “extreme division of labour”.

Scrum in Agile software development addresses similar concerns by emphasising cross-functional teams, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and generally focussing on high-bandwidth communication as a way to tear down silos.

DevOps can (and should) emphasise the same solutions to resolve this tension.

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Readers Comments (4)

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  • Though strongly worded to make a point, this is an excellent piece that reinforces two additional well known texts — one specifically written for DevOps called “The Phoenix Project”, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford, as well as an older but classic management text by Peter Drucker, “Managing in Turbulent Times” comes to mind, where the the management proper application of highly skilled knowledge workers are critical to the business. In my mind, DevOps is a critical evolution in thinking and approach that will become common place — much like Agile methodologies have become. It’s no longer acceptable for the Development and Operations to work solely in their respective silos.

  • Very nice posting. It’s almost like we need a “Fitts” list for DevOps. At the extremes, you could have either total specialization or total generalization. Reality is that you need to assess who does what (primary) functions based upon some objective criteria.

  • Pingback: The Economics of DevOps Part II – Ronald Coase and Transaction costs | Dev Ops Guys

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