5 Minute DevOps: Flying Cars are Boring
Continuous delivery can be a frustrating topic. Those of us who use this workflow will never go back to legacy ways of working. The lack of Fear Driven Development and objectively better results are amazing. We get so much joy from building things that deliver more value with less effort and less waste. On the flip side, those who haven’t worked that way rarely believe and cannot seem to imagine that pain reduction is possible. So instead of spending time on ways to make defect detection ever faster and to make pipelines even more secure, we spend time trying to convince people who are in pain about the basics to help them have less pain. It’s one of the reasons many of us are so passionate about MinimumCD.org as a method to help people get over the hump at the beginning. Yet, we still run into the same conversations ad nauseam
“CD won’t work here. Our developers aren’t skilled enough. CD is too dangerous. Our customers don’t need changes that often.”
All of those are false.
Imagine you have frequent conversations with people about flying cars with people who have never seen humans fly. You start every conversation with “flight is possible” and then spend the next month countering arguments about the hubris of Icarus and how dangerous it is to slip the surly bonds of earth. Now imagine you get the opportunity to visit a place where flying cars aren’t just common but are so ubiquitous and boring that no one talks about them. Then you come back and hear the same tired arguments again. This happened to me recently.
I’ve been an advocate of continuous delivery since my first experience on a team learning how to solve the problem of “why can’t we deliver today’s changes to production today?” Solving all of the related problems of shrinking the batch size of everything, testing better, working as a team better, and getting faster feedback from the end-user removes pain that I had always thought was just part of the job. In 2017, a teammate and I gave a talk at DevOps Enterprise Summit about the impact of CD on teams and said, “it made us love development again!” Since then, I’ve spoken with peers in other organizations who are trying to help roll out CD. The reality is that the vast majority of success stories are not widespread in their organizations. The changes required are mostly people-related and are far larger than rolling out new tools.
Recently, I visited a company with a reputation for modern development practices to learn how they work. For the first time, I was able to witness an example where reputation understated reality. Continuous delivery permeated every thought of everyone I spoke to whether discussing software or manufacturing. Spending time there was both exhilarating and a little frustrating. I kept thinking, “why is it so hard to convince everyone that this is obviously the best way to work?”
The best measure of delivery is outcomes. This company is the industry leader in its field. The problems they have been solving are nothing short of revolutionary. They are on the bleeding edge of what they do and continue to astonish people by delivering things many consider impossible. Their success is directly related to the same things I’ve always found to be important: mission, mindset, and execution.
If you ask anyone at the company, they will tell you the company’s long-term mission. The scope of that mission is breathtakingly aspirational. Everyone can tell you how their work contributes to the mission and how their team’s work contributes to the larger mission of the company. There is no separation between “business” and “IT” or “manufacturing” and “software”. There is one team, one mission.
“We are all engineers solving hard problems.”
Sitting at the coffee bar, I could watch new hardware being built to my left using revolutionary manufacturing processes that enable rapid design change at scale. Operations on my right monitored delivered products and everyone could see the status of critical deliveries. If a new hardware design is sent to manufacturing, the engineers assemble the first examples themselves to ensure they are easy to assemble to prevent increasing the effort of manufacturing. Simplicity drives everything they do. One software engineer told me, “if you aren’t adding something back to the design, you haven’t removed enough yet.” Extreme Programming is corporate culture.
There was a passion for the work in everyone I talked to, hardware, software, and even the baristas at the coffee bar. This shared understanding gives everyone a North Star to compare to their daily work. Everyone has a say in the success of what they do and anyone at any level can “pull the andon” if they see something that appears unsafe. Mistakes could cost lives and everyone takes that seriously.
As I said, mistakes could cost lives. This is serious work they do and they want to be safe while also pushing the envelope. They do this with a CD mindset. One of the frequent arguments against continuous delivery is that it’s too risky. “If we deploy the wrong change to this device it could kill someone. We need to make sure it’s perfect first!” My experience has been that the more you strive for perfection on every delivery, the less perfect it will be. Larger changes are the result and large changes contain large defects. If we put processes in place to optimize for learning, rapid feedback, and automating checks for the things we learned then we are far more likely to find problems early and reduce risk. It also gives us the confidence to rapidly innovate rather than stagnate.
“Efficient and effective delivery to enable rapid improvement”
I’ve been watching this company for several years as they delivered hardware. I was very skeptical at first about what they claimed they would do. However, I’ve been astonished at the rapid improvements I’ve seen and recognized the workflow they were using. Usually, with complex hardware, there will be years of development time, an assembly line will be built, and then every delivery from the assembly line will be the same. What I’ve witnessed though is that they see every delivered unit as an opportunity to learn and improve. Each one is a prototype with a delivery goal as well as a learning goal. Once they have one feature working as intended, they immediately begin iterating on the next feature. This is how software should be delivered, but to see it done with hardware and at the scale they do it is astounding. Pulling back the covers reveals that the CD mindset permeates all the way to the design of their factory floors. They design everything for rapid change. They know that to meet their goals and to stay ahead of their competition they must continuously improve everything they do, and even their assembly line layout cannot be a constraint.
Naturally, this applies to their software as well. The refreshing thing for me was that continuous delivery isn’t something they talk about. It’s just the underlying assumption in everything. They know that operational stability depends on the ability to correct issues rapidly so they practice delivering constantly. In one example, they have several thousand devices deployed globally that require significant uptime. To ensure this, they update weekly and test in production. If a post-deploy test fails, the device self-heals by reverting the change without human intervention. They act just like well-engineered micro-services. One of the core behaviors of CD is trunk-based development. This branching pattern frequently receives pushback when we talk about it, but it is not possible to execute CD without it. One engineer told me that they do TBD but used to use release branches. They found this to be both process-heavy and error-prone. “We decided we needed to harden our CI process and release from the trunk.” They replaced process overhead with improved quality gates in their pipeline. This saved effort and reduced errors. Again, this isn’t for some tertiary system. This is the process for the core OS of their hardware.
There’s so much more that could be said, but all of it comes from an organization that has a deep understanding that when you are inventing a new solution, this is the best way to do that. Optimize everything for better communication, faster feedback, efficiency, and learning. They have repeatedly demonstrated with real-world outcomes that they are right.
They aren’t special. Nothing about what they are building makes this easier. What they have is a shared mission, a mindset driven by innovation and winning, and disciplined execution. It’s baked into the culture. Flying cars are real and boring there. No one talks about them. They just use them to beat everyone else in their business space.