I love the movie Cast Away. If you haven’t seen it, it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the movie is about a talented, successful man who finds himself cast away on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. His island is a dramatically less predictable environment than the comfy, suburban neighbourhood he’s used to. Externally, his idea of what to expect on a “normal day” is obliterated as mother nature continuously blasts him with unexpected challenges and opportunities. Internally, he finds his lifelong skills do him very little good in managing these novelties and thus he must develop entirely new skills and tools to survive in this setting.

I believe the story provides an allegory for modern organisations attempting to survive in the Age of Information. In this strange new world, well-established, robust organisations find themselves less able to rely on their traditional expectations of what the external environment will bring and also what their internal capabilities can deliver.

Externally, global digital marketplaces are massively diverse and constantly changing. As new waves of digital products and channels augment organisations’ abilities to influence consumer behaviour, each organisation must strive to catch these new waves just to stay in the game. The impact of the global pandemic has made that even more challenging because the speed of change has accelerated. There’s never been such uncertain times in living memory.

Internally, modern organisational infrastructures are becoming increasingly composed of software and information. These new digital mediums don’t respond as favourably to yesterday’s operational practices that were designed to manipulate traditional physical mediums. Therefore, organisations must decipher how to transform their operational practices and management values in order to continue to maximise efficiency and effectivity.

How can any organisation navigate successfully when faced with such uncertainty from both outside and inside, and what role does DevOps play in achieving that success?

Turning Points for relearning

This turmoil is not without precedent. Technology historian Carlota Perez demonstrated a pattern over the last few centuries where the largest technology innovations always result in a highly tumultuous business phase that she calls the “Turning Point”. The Turning Point’s tumultuous nature is due to the fact its related innovation is powerful enough to drive rapid and simultaneous change to both external markets demands and internal infrastructures. To survive the turning point, businesses have to disenthrall themselves from the so-called “common sense” of the previous age and instead undertake the “uncertain” path of exploring new ideas and pioneering new values that will eventually define the new age.

Our current Age of Information is no different. We are learning that yesterday’s management dogmas – e.g. Taylorism, functional hierarchies and standardisation – don’t produce as much value with today’s knowledge workers striving to delight global digital markets.

Fortunately, there are some companies (you know them already – Google, Amazon, etc.) that have already beaten the odds and enjoyed meteoric success in this strange new world. While these so-called "unicorns" come from different industries and geographies, their various paths to glory share a common element – that is a strategic focus on building high-powered IT capabilities that allow their businesses to change direction and execute quickly.

These IT “engines” can execute, detect, learn and respond at speeds several orders of magnitude faster than their counterparts who are still stuck in last century’s Age of Mass Production. The characteristics of their amped-up IT engines define a new common sense for product development in the Age of Software, which we call DevOps.

As the new common sense of product delivery, DevOps is obviously critical for every organisation to master. However, mastering this discipline starts with building DevOps talent in your organisation; and this is proving to be very challenging. Here are two of the key challenges:

Challenge number 1: Reskilling is not easy

The first challenge is that it’s not so easy to reskill your existing talent to become DevOps gurus.

Many of the world’s most experienced IT professionals built their careers with yesterday’s technologies and paradigms – monolith architectures, massive product teams and waterfall software product lifecycles. To them, the mastering of DevOps technologies and paradigms (e.g. continuous integration, continuous delivery, infrastructure-as-code, small-batch and trunk-based development, automated testing, chaos engineering, lightweight architectures and small collaborative product teams) is not just a matter of gaining new knowledge, it’s a matter of redefining the very common sense of how best to do work efficiently and effectively.

Therefore, getting seasoned pros to understand and excel in a DevOps world requires more than a few hours in the classroom, it requires deeper cultural transformation.

Challenge number 2: DevOps is a dynamic competence

The second reason is that it’s very difficult to find new candidates with the right set of skills to fit the way DevOps is evolving within your organisation. This is because, like Perez’s Turning Point theory, the very definition of DevOps is still evolving.

In its earliest incarnations, DevOps was about the application of yesterday’s dogmas to the new-world infrastructure, such as applying Deming’s "systems thinking" to software delivery to give birth to agile and continuous integration.

More recently, DevOps continues to evolve with new thinking such as complex adaptive system engineering. This has given rise to subdisciplines such as cloud native architecture, resilience engineering, team topology management and flow outcome management. Furthermore, each additional subdiscipline comes with a wave of new vendor products and tools to consider for your DevOps roadmap.

As you evolve what DevOps means to your organisation, newer and more specialised skills will be expected of your internal DevOps talent pool. All this complexity makes it nearly impossible for traditional recruitment teams to identify and attract suitable candidates.

Building DevOps talent is the battlefront – you need a strategy

Despite these two challenges (as well as many others) to building DevOps talent, failure is simply not an option. Software continues to “eat the world” and the only companies that will survive will be the ones who win the race to build the strong DevOps talent able to generate value from infrastructures made from bits and bytes. The battle to build the superior DevOps talent is therefore the front line in modern business competition, so having an effective DevOps talent strategy must be the top priority for all organisations.

Too many of the DevOps transformation roadmaps I have seen are replete with details on architecture and technology strategy while relegating talent strategy to a supplementary role. If your organisation is undergoing a DevOps transformation, you must construct a DevOps talent management strategy that considers both short-term needs and long-term sustainability, both technology mastery and team dynamics, both yesterday’s common sense and tomorrow’s DevOps culture. Only then will you be able to develop the right capabilities to navigate both the external challenges of digital markets and the internal opportunities of digital infrastructures.

In a future blog, I’ll give some ideas on how to build and execute your DevOps talent strategy.

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