Hear from DevOps leaders who’ve been there: Todd Wilson

DevOps practices are transforming the tech sector in fascinating ways, yet our frame of reference is still relatively new, and DevOps practitioners are often viewed as outliers and disruptors when we dig in deep to lead large scale invasive change across an organization.  It’s not easy modernizing the average enterprise, but these shifts in practices and culture are critical to help organizations remain relevant. Here, we will share stories from the leaders in our industry to discuss DevOps challenges, so we can continue the momentum and all end up in a better place. I wanted to be the first to share my story.

Opening up government

We’ve all been there; stuck in a job that perhaps isn’t the best fit and fantasizing about someone showing up to magically offer the right role. That very thing happened to me early in my career.

One day, a face I didn’t know appeared over my cubicle wall. “You’re the new guy?” He asked.  “I hear you led a development team that created a cancer screening program and led developer focused medical data integrations. Would you be interested in creating a developer program here?”

My interest was piqued. He guided me to his cluttered office which was deep down in the basement of the building, in a small windowless room just big enough for a desk. I was wondering which senior executive he had ticked off to earn such glamourous digs; certain my hopes of finding a compelling role were dashed. That is, until he presented a slide deck. 

With just bullet-listed black words on a white background, he had mapped out a plan to remake the organization: he wanted to revamp service delivery, procurement, standards, policy, security, you name it. He was calling his plan “API Commercialization”; not the greatest name but truly a great plan. His vision: open up government data and code to the private sector through easily accessed APIs so they could develop apps for everyone to use. This would be done via the creation of a vibrant developer community that would deliver API’s both the public and private sectors need to be competitive. Everyone would be working as agile teams delivering with modern development methods.

The vision was transformative and disruptive – the kind that would ruffle lots of feathers. It was exactly what was needed. This was the most exciting moment of my career. 

Creating a foundation for digital transformation

Senior management believed in what we were doing, and gave us the green light to test out some of the visionary ideas. Together, we were determined to break the mold of traditional government technology projects. To do this, we had to operate differently, act like entrepreneurs, and think like a start-up. We packed our laptops and began squatting in government offices and hanging out in cafes to meet with various stakeholders to share ideas.  

Before long, we had recruited a lean crew, combining forces of the private and public sectors, that open sourced all the government’s new code. It was the foundation of a digital transformation before anyone was using the term. The next step was to turn our focus internally to engage the government ministries to evolve the new way of working. 

We had a picture in our heads of the model. We discovered we weren’t alone dealing with our challenges. There was a global movement to discover a better way to deliver technology and they were leveraging DevOps ideals. We wanted to follow the industry innovators and join a community rather than design a bespoke government-specific solution.

Senior management approved a small team to colour outside the lines, with DevOps as an umbrella, working in a total greenfield delivery environment. We chose, Jenkins, Red Hat OpenShift and RocketChat as our DevOps platform cornerstones, essentially modernizing the datacentre in a single step. We decided to put our DevOps label on the platform, rather than do it as a “container” or “CI/CD”project, or just a pure technology move. It was about culture change, abstracting complexity to achieve a better way to deliver and avoid getting stuck in the weeds of technology debates.

There is strength in numbers so we appealed to others – ministries, private companies, vendors – for their help in creating what was needed, and they delivered. The result was a coalition of the willing that multiplied our efforts beyond mere sandboxes and POC’s to deliver all the way to production: the new way. We did simple things that had cascading impacts, such as launching a monthly meetup called the DevOps Commons where everyone was welcome (those who understood government and those with no relationship at all). 

Success and the government cadence

We helped deliver over 200 production open source apps onto the container platform from 18 different departments, representing about 10 per cent of the government’s app workload. The DevOps maturity was variable across the teams, but overall progress was excellent. It was a starter package and we nailed it. We paved the way for teams to achieve ten times faster delivery than traditional government app dev projects. 

But, when it came time to turn to the rest of the government, we stalled. We realized we had ventured too far outside of the “normal” government cadence – the budget planning, governance committees and the standard machinery of legacy government. The senior leadership were on board, but we realized we should have engaged them every step of the way. We just showed them the destination. It was a foreign country to them, and they had no idea how to get there. It was challenging for them to view the DevOps community as a valuable investment, rather than incidental. 

This is a common journey in DevOps; it isn’t easy. We often start to get really good initial results, and then progress gets wedged. There is no 12-step, one-size-fits-all plan. Everyone’s context is radically different, depending on your environment. So there we were: in a better place than before, but with still a long way to go.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Todd Wilson
Todd Wilson
Todd has worked with leading edge technology and leveraging his skills as a change agent to deliver success through partnership and innovation for over 20 years. Prior to joining Red Hat Canada as a Chief Strategist, Todd was instrumental in helping government agencies in British Columbia increase public- value through the rapid creation of digital services using modern technologies and DevOps principles. His experience with enterprise technology transformation, coupled with a passion for open source collaboration drives him to seek out opportunities where he can share his knowledge at scale and spread the capability of digital delivery across sectors.

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