As everyone already knows, the IT domain is an extremely new addition to the cumulative total of professions in the world. The success of IT-based companies and career successes of it’s practitioners naturally garners a lot of attention. Just recently, large enterprises are being forced to consider their IT shop as something other than a mere cost center that sits there and sucks up highly-coveted funding dollars. Many leadership teams understand that they have to “do better” with regards to their IT practices, but the definition of better isn’t defined, much less how to get there. Companies are desperate to modernize their IT shops, looking for change from within, adopting best practices across the board, and throwing middle management at every buzzword that one can find in a modern IT media piece.
On the surface, this all makes sense. After all, if a business needs a physical building to conduct operations, you say “I want a building here, Mr. General Contractor, please make it to these specifications, and here’s how much money I have to make it happen.” Then, usually, it just happens. Sure the budgets and timelines may be in flux, but ultimately there’s a reasonably clear plan, and all the steps to get to the goal of having a functional building are known in advance and can be planned for. IT isn’t like this; in fact it’s practically the antithesis to the idea that known inputs provide known outputs. The introduction of unknowns naturally creates confusion and frustration; individual contributors are mad that they’re getting told by management to adopt [insert new industry concept/tool here] with no roadmap provided, and less budget than it would take to actually do anything truly transformational.
One of the terms I’ve heard thrown around more often than I’d like is “DevOps.” Now, DevOps could be replaced with just about any other buzz-wordy term that floats about in the IT domain, for instance: Agile, Big Data, DevSecOps, Containerization, even “older” terms like Cloud to this day don’t conjure up a visual in non-IT people. This makes it extremely hard to bridge the gap between business goals and drivers, and IT practices and tools. Desperate to get a handle on IT modernization, management flits from practice to practice, tool to tool, over and over again in an endless effort to “reach IT nirvana.” And by golly if we could just have DevOps we wouldn’t have to worry about anything, right? The visual I always get when I hear these types of efforts coming from leadership teams is a well-meaning, but clueless person writing out a check with “DevOps” in the “to” line. “One DevOps, please!” this nameless executive says, throwing the check across the table. The expectation is that, once I pay this money, once I simply purchase DevOps, I’ll have what I want and my IT shop will be more stable, people will be happier, I’ll get a fat bonus because stuff will be better; granted, I have no idea what better entails, but better is the focus.
This is a trap! It’s certainly a great sales and marketing gimmick that many companies that are either selling a tool or consulting services can take advantage of: “if you purchase [insert thing here] then you too, can have DevOps!” This is the equivalent of eating a kale salad for lunch one day and declaring that you’ve suddenly gotten healthy. Organizational health is just like bodily health. It requires constant vigilance and care. Purchasing a home gym won’t get you healthy, just like purchasing a new tool won’t get you DevOps. It’s a lifestyle change, it’s a total paradigm shift, and many orgs are simply not prepared to make that shift. At least not overnight.
Here’s the part that sucks: just like getting healthier, you have to start small, and you have to stick to your regimen. There are multiple different ways to start on this journey, and each organization is different, but the overarching theme across all DevOps transformations is that you have to identify what area/team/project/product/etc is doing the most DevOps-y stuff, and work with them to get better at operating under a DevOps mindset, and come up with plans on how to continue to upskill those employees, and spread those learnings to other parts of the org.
Typically, it’s usually easy to find at least one person or team that’s preaching DevOps from the mountaintops in an IT org, and if you don’t have that, it’s probably time to find one. After that, the road to organizational health is obfuscated. Perhaps you have long-standing architects that still advocate for bare-metal builds, running custom-compiled binaries because “it’s more secure this way.” Perhaps most people in the org understand the best practices and have an idea of where the org should go, they just haven’t taken full advantage of the existing toolset and knowledge base. Regardless, there’s varying levels of change you’ll need to prepare yourself for. If an organization is so set in its ways that change has been repelled time and time again it may be time to completely toss the pieces in the air and see what happens when they come back down. Before you go down the reorg route, it’s important to understand what it is your future IT organization looks like though. What is DevOps to your org? For instance, when every org says “we’re doing Agile,” what does that actually mean? Do you just want your teams doing Agile, doing DevOps, or is it better to say that you want your teams to be faster to market, produce better quality products, and have more fun at work doing so? I’d say it’s the latter. DevOps is a toolkit to utilize to foster and maintain this type of transformation, it is most certainly not a product you purchase.
The conclusion here is that your journey to DevOps won’t be realized through a purchase; whether tools or people. Tools and people certainly have a place in this journey, but be wary of anyone that says “you’ll have DevOps if you start checking boxes on this list.” DevOps, much like other industry terms is a methodology, a mindset. Getting help on how to be successful on that journey can be an accelerant to change. Employees want to work in a healthy organization, and many of them already know that they, too, “want DevOps;” they want to work in a DevOps styled shop, and maybe they even know some of the steps of how to get there. Often times, it’s difficult to take the feedback of these employees as they’re often individual contributors who are telling you to completely change the way the entire IT org operates. Working with a knowledgeable outside firm to help you figure out what that game plan needs to be can be helpful. Regardless, your focus should be on starting small, identifying where the good individuals and teams are, and enabling them to light the fire elsewhere in the org.
Consumer 360 whitepaper
Note: The industry's accepted term for this initiative is Customer 360, however GE Appliances' initiative isn't focused on our big box customers, but rather our end consumers, or owners and as such is labeled Consumer. For the purposes of this paper, "consumer", "customer", and "owner" are considered interchangeable.
The Consumer 360 program objective is to "know the owner." The first problem statement we discussed was the case of an owner registering their product with us, thereby giving us their name, phone number, address, install date, etc. This is all extremely valuable data that we can use to service the product and owner better in the future. However, when the owner called in days later to schedule service for a problem they were having, we suddenly didn't know who they were. Why? As is the case in many organizations, applications and data are located in logistical and physical silos. Registration data goes to the registration team. Service doesn't have access to registration data. Most data sources are in silos, unless an actual project has been completed to tie the two systems together, which is typically a massive effort of figuring out how to tie together two completely different balls of twine. This scenario gave us our first insight into the bigger issues surrounding data availability and data quality, and led the team to proposing three distinct phases for our Consumer 360 initiative.
The Three Phases
There are three distinct project phases that allow for foundational growth when it comes to knowing your owners. They are as follows:
Phase 1: "What data do we have, and who needs it?" Phase 1 is essentially what I consider as "catch up." Most organizations have very good data and information, it is simply stored and accessed in such a way as to make it not useful outside of individual application silos. The objective of this phase is to present a logical view on top of that data to provide it to all the functional areas of the business to allow for greater internal consumption of the data. This is not saying that all data needs to be migrated to a singular repository, with various complicated ETL/batch jobs to replicate, annotate, and move the data. The model for this phase is focused around black box microservices. These services will logically hit all the various sources of truth throughout the company, and structure replies that make it seem as though all the data was actually in one place, when in reality there are a myriad of real-time queries and other API calls going off in the background to pull the data when it is requested.
Example: let's say we have a call coming in from an owner to a call center. Today, that phone number may be looked up in a local database that only has a footprint of the call center in terms of data storage. That means that even if the owner has provided data another way (through product registration for instance) that local database would not have a record of it, and therefore the owner would be expected to supply information they have previously given us yet again. This fosters an exhausting customer service experience. In order to address this gap, the Consumer 360 initiative will develop APIs that call not only the local CR databases, but also query in real-time the product registration database(s) wherever they may be. In addition, there should be real-time lookups to all other systems that may have any owner data, such as parts ordering, delivery, etc. This presents a more complete picture to CR agents allows for quicker resolution to owner issues, and makes the consumer less likely to get frustrated due to the agents not knowing something the consumer feels they should.
The (what should be simple) act of providing data across silos--creating a rudimentary enterprise data bus--immediately drives immense value to organizations with segregated data. The simple act of creating a service that allows for quick part number lookups, versus the current flow which is to literally pull up a terminal for mainframe access, type an archaic command and then parse tens, maybe hundreds of line items to find what you want, will immediately save around 5, 10% handle time for many service calls. By focusing on these small, immediate wins, the team proves its value, and gains momentum for the larger steps that are to come.
Phase 2: "What data do we want, yet don't have?" This phase gets a little tricker: we need to know what we don't know. What data points around owners can possibly be valuable if we want to "know our owners?" Does square footage of a consumer's house provide us any value? Is it easier to market larger, more expensive products to those families? Speaking of families, should we know the size of your family? What about your hobbies and interests? Initially it sounds silly to think of an appliance manufacturer wanting to know personal details about consumer's lives, but if we knew that you liked activities that got your clothes extremely dirty, we could potentially raise awareness of a special clothes washing cycle that is tailored just for your active lifestyle that you probably didn't know about.
Getting the data in this phase is complicated. We can spread our own internal nets, and develop tools and modifications to existing consumer portals to attempt to collect that data, and we can go our and purchase data as well; but when to do that? We have millions upon millions of consumer records, and purchasing a large dump of data would command an astronomical cost. More than likely, the approach will be to supplement our internal data in real time when a request comes in. When calling into our questions department, which is typically done pre-purchase, we probably want to know what existing brands you are familiar with or like. Companies like Neustar provide APIs that would allow us to query consumer likes, dislikes, brand familiarity, and more simply by providing a phone number. Would pre purchase agents be able to suggest the best product if we already have a handle on the type of consumer you are? Absolutely. Experience call center agents are extremely versatile and able to make quick decisions with limited data sets. The more meaningful data we can provide to them, the better decisions they can make, and the happier our consumers will be with their purchasing decision.
Phase 3: "What do we want to know, and how do we change our business processes?" Phase 3 is where things get fun. We now know our owners, and have a series of services that allows the entire business to tap into that knowledge base. Our internal teams are more efficient and have easier access to data they didn't have before, so now what? There's two mini phases here: high level big data analytics, and business process enhancements.
Traditional "big data" analytics, while technically in scope for the C360 initiative, is already handled by an existing team. From the very beginning we are feeding all incoming owner data into their data lake, and then siphoning the data we care about off of that into our own transactional systems. Important point here is that analytics should be happening from the very beginning, so while phase 3 is logically a separate phase, it is occurring in some capacity throughout the entire project. As a quick follow up post-phase 2 (getting more data), it will be critical to have a burst of effort in analytics, by working with a team of PhD-level data scientists to play the big data cauldron stirring game. At this point we will have access to our existing consumer data, new consumer data retrieved in phase 2, among data captured through other projects going on at this time, such as individual part SKUs and serials tied to manufactured products. All of that data can be poured into a giant cauldron, and it is statistically impossible that we won't learn something valuable after performing the actual analytics (I won't get into R queries here). It is at this phase where a lot of hypotheticals come up, and we can begin gaining some insights that we previously didn't even know were possible.
Phase 3.2 here is where things really get fun. We're utilizing our data with more mastery, and now we're learning more about our product, our owners, and how the two work together. With the insights from phase 3.1 we're asking better and better questions, and now it's time to act. With our new insights in hand, let's change the business in fundamental ways. This goes way beyond simply marketing to consumers better, such as identifying brand history as it relates to average household income in a consumer's neighborhood and tying that to likelihood they'll respond to a phone call or an email to upgrade their appliance; this is more of answering the question "should we even manufacture a product that has this mode?" or finding that a particular batch of parts put into a series of SKUs is 20% more likely to fail in the next three months, so we should ramp up service capacity in preparation and send out communications to the owners to inform them of the proper procedures to follow if they experience a problem. These are all things we can't do today. The momentum of the successes of the project should provide the inertia required to uproot long-held (50+ years) business practices. It will be one of the first times in company history that IT will be driving massively disruptive changes to the functions. In my opinion this is the absolute end-all-be-all must have metric of Consumer 360 success. The team will get a lot of kudos and celebration with completion of phase 1, but that ultimately is solving something that we should have solved a decade ago. With a successful phase 3 we go from market contenders to superior market leaders. We don't guess what features our consumers will want, we authoritatively know what they want, when they want it, and how best to communicate to them about their wants. When they call, we know what they are calling about and know how to address their concerns immediately. Decades of "that's the way it's always been done" get blown out of the water, and new processes and procedures are introduced to reduce cost, increase quality, and make employees and consumer's lives much easier. That's what Consumer 360 means to me and my team.
Docker: From Months to Minutes
Here is a video of myself and Tom Barber presenting at Dockercon 2015 in San Francisco about how GE utilizes Docker to manage its environment.
Many business problems are actually easy to solve
I feel as though I've worked on enough projects that I can definitively declare that a few certain processes work, and others don't. For instance I know--for a fact--that teams are more efficient when they are co-located. I know this not only because I've seen it work internally, but also reports that it works, and other successful companies (that we want to model ourselves after) stating that it works. So the "problem" statement is that we're not maximizing team efficiency. The proven (perhaps partial) solution to the problem is to co-locate the teams. However I haven't seen co-location actually happen across the entire org, because it's simply perceived as too complicated of a problem to face. The reasons for not tackling the issue are various, but fairly standard: "That's just not how we're modeled!" "People don't like change and that's a lot of change!" "What about process x, y, z, q, etc?" "We'd need to run every number and report about how this would effect variables a, b, c."
Effectively what business does is become so risk adverse that they ensure that they can't improve or innovate anymore. We fall into this comfortable mediocrity that allows us to just assume that the way we're doing it is the best way because otherwise we wouldn't have started this way. We become biased. This bias in effect is a cancer on any organization: business or otherwise. Enforcing biases limits our scope, and--I think Orwell would be with me here--limits our thought as well. It puts us in a box.
Businesses always say they want to act like small startups. "Startups are cool! They get things done! How do they do all that so fast?" We say we want more innovation, faster innovation, increased velocity. Of course what you actually see is a bunch of panicked employees working longer hours, only to run against the same barriers they already had. Resources become even more stretched and you start seeing employee satisfaction plummet as they realize that they can't make the business happy.
"So what about this whole "easy" thing?" you ask. How do you solve that? It really is as simple as not assuming your way is the right way. It's about riskier behavior. It's about saying that even if we don't have a concrete solution in mind, we know that our current process or org is sub-optimal and we're going to just try a new way of doing things, recognizing that we could be completely wrong.
Let's take my earlier example about co-location. As a business we want to increase our team efficiency, and we're pretty sure a good way to do that is co-located teams. We have global employees so it makes it difficult. At this point it's as simple as holding a workout session for a day with leadership and running through all the possible ways to try to make it work: redefining team responsibilities, getting webcams so remote employees can still be "in the room", completely blowing away the org and redefining teams so that members of a team are always geographically in the same place; now pick one or a mixture of a few, and then go do it. Seriously, just go out of that meeting and do it. Make an announcement that there's going to be this massive change, and it might suck, but by golly we're going to try it and see if it works. Then, we're going to find the pros and the cons of the change, and then change it all up again next month. Keep up this rapid iteration cycle until you get to a good state--and then keep changing. Over time the changes get smaller and smaller because theoretically you're making sound decisions that are actually working.
And then something happens. An assumption you had at the beginning of this initiative breaks. Maybe a business requirement requires that your organization suddenly support this whole new thing that you're not prepared to support because of your current structure. Everything's gone wrong! Panic!
But don't, because this is actually easy again: it's time to pivot. Take whatever piece of your solution is or will be broken by the change of environment and throw it out and re-do it all. Seriously. All the time and effort is now sunk cost and you have to lop it off. By the way, the pros at doing this is Google. They'll take something that has cost them millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man hours and huck it out the window--even if their user base likes the product! What?! Think of your company doing that: taking something customers actually like and just murdering it because that it wasn't conducive to your longer-term success. Brutal, but it works!
By constantly shaking your assumptions of your business world, and through rapid improvement you see shorter cycle times and then a miracle occurs: your business gets better at making changes. Suddenly every week, every day even, something will change for the better. A new feature on an application gets added, in a day, because you're used to making changes!
This all requires a fairly substantial paradigm shift on the part of literally everyone in the organization: CEO to Jr. Analyst. And what's more, there's a few prerequisites as well:
1) You have to hire and hold smart people. Yes, that means you may have to offer higher salary packages to attract those people. 2) Trust these smart people. This means removing barriers from your employees and opening yourself to risk. Sure, technically, if you have these eight approval steps before someone can push code to production you're getting 6 Sigma levels of removing risk, but you've also taking something that should only take 5 minutes and turned it into a month long nightmare. Which, by the way, means that your smart people you're paying all this money to are not only being less productive, but they're probably pissed off about it too. 3) Embrace risk. Like point #2, you're going to have to change your process. This should be easy if you're following the message of this blog which is to stop being so biased. Remove barriers for your smart people to do their jobs, even if it means you might get burned. Then, if you do get burned, find out what happened: was it not actually a smart person but dumb one you hired? Find him a new role or cut your losses. Was it actually a process oversight that should be addressed because we absolutely cannot afford to have this problem again? OK, now add in a barrier. If you can intelligently and objectively determine appropriate barriers for risk at the beginning of a process then all the better, but you should constantly be evaluating those barriers and go back and remove them where acceptable.
Even still, with these prerequisites, and all of this paradigm changes, this is all still very very easy to do in any business environment, you just need the gumption to shake the modus operandi up. You have to tell yourself "let's just do it." Just go, just try, worst case scenario you've managed to make things worse in which case you just go back to the way it was. That's the beauty of the philosophy behind not being biased, is you can always say "oops, nevermind."
Organizational Approach to High Priority Initiatives
This is a short whitepaper I've whipped up for General Electric, but I like the message so I'm posting it here for public consumption.
Purpose The purpose of this whitepaper is to explain the current environment within General Electric and propose arguments why it would be beneficial to The Company along with Technology and Services to organize the creation of a "SEAL Team" consisting of four or five highly specialized members capable of being applied to virtually any problem given a specific time frame drive to completion of the goal.
The Birth of the SEAL Team "President John F. Kennedy, aware of the situation in Southeast Asia, recognized the need for unconventional warfare and special operations as a measure against guerrilla warfare." (1) The nature of modern warfare had changed after the end of World War II. No longer was trench warfare between two behemoth military complexes the norm. Small, lightweight battles were seen, engaged, and run to completion within the minutes and hours, not the days and weeks. We see a similar shift in the approach of problems internally to GE, and, indeed the entire Information Technology paradigm.
The "New" Paradigm The paradigm of technology in the past decade is changing much like the warfare paradigm changed around the Vietnam War. This change is manifested in the speed of battles (or initiatives) and the organizational makeup of the military force (or teams). Guerrilla warfare ("little war" in Spanish) is made up of small groups of individuals utilizing military tactics in order to achieve a small objective (plunder a camp, assassinate a target, etc). The term "guerrilla" was first used within the English language as early as 1809. However, Guerrilla warfare can be traced back to Sun Tzu in his The Art of War (6th century BCE) Some authors argue that his example directly inspired the development of modern guerrilla warfare. (3) Similarly, within the IT space, we have seen a shift from large, leviathan forces (ERP excluded!) and technology stacks to smaller, quicker, lightweight implementations. Within GE we considered the adoption of PHP as one of these "contained" initiatives; where there wasn't a lot of bureaucratic overhead around the technology itself; TAS simplly "let" the business utilize a common PHP stack in their own environment to achieve their goals. Technology is changing at an increasing rate (something all talking heads have been babbling about forever), but just to visualize it, here is a Linux distribution timeline (the beginning being 1991).
The knowledge required to understand every line in that graph is shocking. This graph is only displayed as an example of the shift in number individual solutions available to the market. Similarly there are similar data points in every domain that we at GE care about: mobile apps and OS's, web technologies, storage capabilities and data structures involving NAS, SAN, Hadoop, Vertica, NoSQL concepts, etc. Each new technology addresses a particular need, but the ability to fit it all together*and then use that knowledge to address future problems*is a daunting task. Each new initiative is (typically) no longer about large changes which effect every facet of technology and our day-to-day MO's; but rather we have a series of encapsulated problems, which while the decision of which technologies to utilize is extremely important, it becomes less important as many technologies play together well when architected in a way where the control and governance mechanisms are more abstract and holistic.
Precedence The SEAL Team concept is not new internally at GE. In the past we have utilized the concept of a highly knowledgeable, 100% dedicated team coming together to solve problems. The formation of these teams is typically temporary, with at most one or two of the members staying to handle capacity requirements after the initial objectives have been completed. I personally have been involved in multiple SEAL initiatives which have usually been an enormous success and completed with no budget other than the usual cost of employee rumination. As an example, here are just a few of the internal SEAL-type initiatives that we have internally performed as an IT organization: o IT Asset data collection (found the majority of computer assets in the organization) o Project Transformer (mobile POC which paved the way for GEAppliances iPhone app) o NewFi (revolutionized the way service technicians service Mission 1 appliances) o Mobile Scanner app for M1 products o Mission 1 Tiger Teams o GE Cloud o Black Friday capacity and testing initiative o Superbowl preparedness o XMPP (Nucleus effort) These are even only the initiatives that immediately come to mind, and within the past few years. Each would have cost a lot of money and time to outsource, and we had the internal resources necessary to handle the initiatives in-house. It must be noted that even though these initiatives went well, there was still a catch up time for the members to "meet" each other, agree on roles, and begin to work in harmony. With a dedicated SEAL team, this warm-up time is unnecessary, and allows for the team to hit the ground running.
100% Dedicated The SEAL Team must be 100% dedicated to the initiative at hand, as this is critical to the entire concept of the team. SEAL Teams in the military may have multiple objectives during a particular mission, but that mission is still for a fixed timeframe, has very specific goals, and is in a single geographical location. Likewise an IT SEAL Team may have multiple things they are trying to accomplish, but they would all have one fixed timeframe, specific CTQs and deliverables, all for a single overarching initiative. Justification for this is the same justification the military uses. Highly specialized, dedicated groups of individuals when put into a close-knit team where they eat, sleep and breathe together learn to act as a single entity; and when that force is correctly applied to a single goal, there is a great chance of success.
Organizational Makeup The decision of who becomes a SEAL is a critical decision as the SEAL members will be put through high stress situations and be critical to the success of Category 1 initiatives. The highest priority items which will dictate the success of GE will be in their hands so it can be no small step to become a SEAL member. The military approaches this from a similar standpoint: "SEAL training is extremely rigorous, having a reputation as some of the toughest anywhere in the world. The drop out rate for SEAL training is sometimes over 90 percent." (1) Internally within GE, the members of the SEAL team should be voluntary. Allow all members to apply for SEAL team membership. Then put them through a rigorous testing process and weed out all those who do not meet the cut. For the first team, key architects and executives should own and operate the screening process. This screening accomplishes two things: 1) You are ensured the highest level of quality for the members of the team 2) Other individual contributors in the business don't see the SEAL team members as "Ivory Tower" workers, who loaf around, not contributing. Another thing critical to the success of the SEAL teams is geographic proximity. This is quite possibly the biggest political detractor within our organization, but it has very real consequences. The SEAL team must be in the same physical location. There could arguably be one exception per team, but out of a four or five man team, all but one must be physically together at least in the same building, preferably in the same room so that they can always have quick access to each other as they will all have different skillsets each of which is critical for operational success. Of course to combat this, we could argue that each location need its own SEAL team simply shuffle the size and members for locations we deem non-critical; and allow the SEAL leaders and champions to facilitate the communication between SEAL teams, allowing them to all act as a single unit when required.
Rotation of SEAL Resources Eventually SEAL members will wish to roll-off, or leave for other opportunities, so the makeup of time plays a critical role into the team's success as well. There must be processes in place to immediate backfill members who may leave the SEAL team; in order that the team may get back into the "one-mind" method of operation as soon as possible. Of course, as in the military's special groups, operatives don't stay in the field forever. There must be a plan for retirement from SEAL teams, which could be accomplished through a few mechanisms: o Have each SEAL team for a pre-determined amount of time o Each member, upon acceptance signs a contract for three to five years to work on the SEAL team. At the end of that time served they have the option to "re-enlist", or return to "normal active duty" o This approach also allows for the creation of a new team a year or two prior to the old team being disbanded, allowing the new team to get up to speed before the old team rolls off, ensuring a constant internal capacity. o Have a rolling team with rolling members o Harder to accomplish due to the fact that more processes must now be put in place to handle knowledge transfer between old and new team members, along with the financial and political problems caused by backfilling. o Team dynamics will naturally suffer because the team now has a little more warm-up time getting to know each other and how each other operates. Life after SEAL The CIA's highly secretive Special Activities Division (SAD) and more specifically its elite Special Operations Group (SOG) recruits operators from the SEAL Teams. (1) It stands to reason that a member who completed a successful SEAL stint would be looked at as a role model within the organization. These members should advance in rank either up the technical or leadership career paths. While this is not an avocation for automatic promotions, the mark of an IT SEAL should be seen as a tremendous boon which would boost an employee's EMS ranking and put them in line for more important duties going forward.
Operational Duties Just as the purpose of the military's SEAL team isn't to "occupy Iraq", the purpose of the IT SEAL team is not to "implement ERP." The SEAL team must be available for small-to-medium sized high priority initiatives at a moment's notice. This may mean that the team does not have a "hopper" of initiatives lined up to constantly work on. The team may be idle for a good chunk of time throughout the year. However during this time they will be responsible for many critical aspects which constitute a good team: o Continuing training in all aspects of business process and technology o Learning to work together as a single unit through activities, events, and challenges o Following up with old initiatives and capturing any lessons learned that they can apply to the next initiative From an actual SEAL team operative: "There is no typical "day at the office" for a Navy SEAL. SEALs constantly learn, improve and refine skills working with their teammates. Their office transcends not only the elements of the Sea, Air, and Land, but also international boundaries, the extremes of geography and the spectrum of conflict. A SEAL's day usually includes physical training to ensure he is kept at a peak fitness level as well as whatever training or operations that are required of his particular unit." (2) Politically this is the most critical of concepts which is that the SEAL members may be doing "nothing" in the eyes of their fellows. This must be managed from both a top-down and bottom-up approach. Top-down: Senior leadership must continually be bought in to the value that SEAL teams drive, and communicate that value to their teams. Team members will not usually be directly helped by the SEAL teams, but will themselves assist the SEAL teams. Leadership must always communicate the wins of SEAL teams and their initiatives to drive positive perception. Bottom-up: There must be a desire to be a part of an elite group such as a SEAL team. Such a desire will naturally foster an element of respect for members who can make the cut to become a SEAL. The rigorous testing and screening procedures outlined in an earlier section will be a part of this, but there can be other "good-will" things the SEALs could do to place value at the individual contributor level such as assisting with the spin up of a new environment during a severe downtime. Such decisions would be left to the leader of the SEAL team, or the commander.
Agile Mindset The introduction of Agile certainly stirred up quite a pot, and began the process of many organizations beginning to question how they were structured organizationally*and how they approached initiatives and problems. An (un)intended benefit of a SEAL organization is the ability for that team to approach problems utilizing a pure agile approach; bringing the benefits of agile to a large, complicated organization. SEAL members would be trained in agile and SCRUM/Kanban, and bring that mindset and pack of tools to each objective they tackle. The agile approach also allows for quick updates to staff and other stakeholders on a weekly or biweekly basis at the end of each sprint, and allows for leaders or even internal team members to assist in the prioritization of the next sprint's stories and objectives.
The Commander's Duty In the military's SEAL teams, there is a large organization that supports a core group of operatives. Each SEAL Team is commanded by a Navy Commander (O-5), and has a number of operational SEAL platoons and a headquarters element. A SEAL Team has a Staff Headquarters element and three 40-man Troops. Each Troop consists of a Headquarters element consisting of a Troop Commander, typically a Lieutenant Commander (O-4), a Troop Senior Enlisted (E-8), a Targeting/Operations Officer (O-2/3) and a Targeting/Operations Leading/Chief Petty Officer (E-6/7). Under the HQ element are two SEAL platoons of 16-20 men (two officers, 14-16 enlisted SEALs, and sometimes assigned non-NSW support personnel); a company-sized Combat Service Support (CSS) and/or Combat Support (CS) consisting of staff N-codes (the Army and Marine Corps use S-codes); N1 Administrative support, N2 Intelligence, N3 Operations, N4 Logistics, N5 Plans and Targeting, N6 Communications, N7 Training, and N8 Air/Medical. Each Troop can be easily task organized into four squads, of eight 4-5 man fire teams for operational purposes. The size of each SEAL "Team" with Troops and support staff is approximately 300 personnel. The typical SEAL platoon has an OIC (Officer in Charge, usually a Lieutenant (O-3)), an AOIC (Assistant Officer in Charge, usually a Lieutenant (junior grade), O-2), a platoon chief (E-7), an Operations NCO/LPO (Leading Petty Officer, E-6) and other operators (E-4 to E-6). The core leadership in the Troop and Platoon are the Commander/OIC and the Senior Enlisted NCO (Senior Chief/Chief). (1) Within GE's organization, we can attribute the entirety of IT (and even potentially outside of IT if the initiative require it) as support for the SEAL team. For instance, if it comes to pass that during a critical operation the SEAL team requires the Compute team to spin up an instance of Oracle Linux then we should be able to count on TAS to support that decision, and make the spin up of that instance top priority for resources on that team. It is the duty of the commander of the SEAL team to ensure that these support lines stay staffed, and that engagement of the various teams and sections of the business are top-notch. The key duty of the commander is to keep the SEAL team engaged on their initiative. The commander must ensure that the SEAL team is maintaining 100% dedication to a single initiative, and no other. If a higher force in the business comes down and demands the SEAL team's presence then the commander must be sure to handle these priorities, and if the new priority takes precedence over the other then the team must drop everything they are doing for the other priority and focus on the new one. The commander must be sure that outside influences don't affect the work of the team, and allow them to operate as they should. The commander must also not be present during operational activities outside of status checks and normal operations such as in the Agile approach to problems, the end of a sprint and the activities associated with it. In other words, the commander should never be in the weeds with the SEAL team operatives, and must allow them to operate on their own as an autonomous unit while at the same time providing an umbrella to shield the unit from anything that would hinder their goals.
Action Items "Well, I'm on board," you say. Let us now consider the practicalities of a SEAL team, and how we might go about creating this internal capacity. Our approach is divided up into a few sub-groups: o Recruiting members o Finances o Political cruft Recruiting members As stated earlier, entry into a SEAL team must be voluntary in most cases (in a true emergency, conscription is perfectly valid). This provides soft benefits of knowing which individual contributors are looking for a new challenge in their jobs, regardless of whether or not they pass the screening process. After rigorous screening, we can decide on the team of four or five members and begin the on-boarding and training processes for the team. Finances Possibly the most daunting of challenges, employee remuneration will measure ~1M a year; which will be difficult to justify when it is possible (as stated) that the team may have a "large" amount of downtime. We must use previous precedence and constant "wins" to justify the expense. There is of course another benefit here which suggests that we are investing in our employees as well. Also to be considered here is the pay of the actual SEAL members themselves. As the SEAL organization is of the "one body, one mind" philosophy, great care will need to be taken into what the members themselves are paid; as the comradely of the members increases, we can expect salary to become one of those topics which is discussed, and all SEAL members are equally valuable to the organization. Political cruft This must be attacked*aggressively*from the very beginning. Any individual which is on board with this initiative must pass along the value of such a team at any chance they get. If the creation of the team goes ahead then every champion for the team (those besides the team "commander") must constantly be communicating the wins from this team at every chance they get. Only after a few years of proven success will the team be looked at as a true value-add.
Conclusion I hope the case has been made for the creation of a SEAL team, or at the very least some form of dedicated internal capacity to handle emergency issues and initiatives as they arise. The cost when you compare it to other initiatives that are underway is extremely minimal, and the benefit is very high. I encourage those that are bought in to this initiative to talk about it openly in internal forums and private discussions, and communicate that feedback to the author or other champions you may know of.
Addendums Naming Conventions What is a SEAL team named internally? SEAL stands for Sear, Air, Land Teams but perhaps that name doesn't translate well internally. While not critical, it is entertaining to come up with a few possibilities: Special Information Technology Team (SIIT) Information Technology Tiger Team (ITTT) Software, Process, Infrastructure Team (SPIT)
Sources (1) Wikipedia article United States Navy SEALs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Navy_SEALs (2) FAQ of SEAL members http://www.sealswcc.com/navy-seals-frequently-asked-questions-faq.aspx (3) Wikipedia article Guerrilla warfare http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guerrilla_warfare
What is good in tech these days
Given the somewhat dreary nature of my last blog, it would be nice if I talked about all the things that are right in the technology landscape. I had the pleasure of being one of the 6000 developers attending Google I/O this past week; and as Google is one of those companies that likes trying new things and seeing how they work after the fact (a style I'm very fond of and I've heard referenced as "Ready, Fire, Aim") I was excited to see what they had in store for the world this year.
Fortunately, I wasn't entirely suprised by the more major announcements. Project Glass was the major reveal that us HUD geeks have been salavating over for the past few decades. The reveal at the first day's keynote (video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7TB8b2t3QE) was obviously widely talked about, being arguably one of the best consumer product introductions ever put on. Glass is turning out to be one of the most hyped products ever, and it is still around a year (or more) until expected release. Which actually is good timing for the next critical item in the upcoming Google tech stack which is...
Google Now. Now is a new service by Google basically promising to target the functionality of Apple's Siri. Siri being based off of Wolfram Alpha for its logic, Google so far is using proprietary voodoo magic to provide quite possibly the most frightening--and helpful--bit of technology ever: intent. Google will take everything it knows about you (sports team searches, Google Plus +1's, travel history, GPS data, etc) and perform extremely complicated analytic processesing on that information, and then provide important and pertienent information to you when it is needed. For instance, lets say each day around 5 PM you go home via I-65. Google knows your typical timing of movements, and they know the route you take, so 4:45 PM Google Now will display a card showing the traffic to your house, and suggest alternate routes should something be wrong with your normal one. These two points are interesting when taken together because as Google Now gets better at predictive analysis, and the hardware is spec'd out appropriately for the Glass, we see a magical merger of two technologies when taken together makes everyday life that much easier. I would expect with the small display for the Glass (however exactly it works is still a secret), you will need to present very limited data on that real estate. If you take predictive analysis, and intelligently determine which information is actually important, you've suddenly created a way to maximize benefit and minimize useless cruft. I am extremely excited about these two technologies and their effect on everyday life.
The rest of the conference didn't turn any worldview I had on its head. There were some valuable talks about design, and a few things to learn about organizational manipulation and how to compare organizational environments and weed out good and bad practices. Something that has definitely stayed with me is the notion that if you treat someone like a child, they will act as a child. Conversely if you treat individuals like adults, they will (usually) behave as such. Paraphrased, this means don't wall in your garden and put up unnecessary artificials boundaries. People that you lead in an organization do not need to be micromanaged, or be restricted. Instead enable your employees and co-workers to be more efficient. If you remove boundaries you can expect a much better return on your investment.
I don't have a lot more to share on the topic of I/O. It was certainly worth the trip across the country to be in what I would consider the heart of technology. Google as a company has many new technologies that are pretty exciting, and a few potentially earth-shattering. In typical Google fashion I expect the first releases to be buggy but generally an improvement over the existing tech stack. As time moves on I expect Google's philosophy and devices to become an even greater part of my daily life. That said, it certainly feels as though Google does not have all the answers. Some of their services simply seem average, and not particularly impressive. That's OK of course considering almost their entire line of product offerings are relatively new, and in new markets. I am excited to see what they do going forward.
How Oracle ruins job satisfaction
Oracle. Now that's a name that strikes fear into the hearts of many an IT architect (unless of course you are an Oracle architect). ERP. Now that's an acronym that strikes fear into the hearts of company accountants. Both of these together make me realize that Harvard Business Review and CIO magazine are forces to be reckoned with; and that these imagined, arbitrary benefits are very hard to realize, and can also have more hidden negatives than they do positives. I will attempt to detail some of my problems with Oracle and ERP-type systems, but realize that I am not suggesting that Oracle is a bad organization or ERP systems are a bad idea for companies; it is simply the case that I see the same things in Oracle products and ERP as I did with the big outsourcing craze years ago: the quality is often suspect, the benefits exaggerated, and there are always hidden "costs" that aren't realized or accrued until years--if not decades--later. So sit back and let me try to take you through my thought process, I'm sure it will be a fun ride.
Let's get the nit-picking out of the way first First I want to get all the petty, stupid junk out of the way. You know, that stuff that isn't in any way intellectually satisfying, and can't really be applied in any other way than to be childish complaints. With that said, let's get going!
Oracle contractors are outsourced and I don't like it First off, by "outsourced" I don't mean foreign. I work with some Indian and European teammates, and they've gotten me out of so many jams, I'm quite sure I'd be fired by now without them. I was even landlord to a wonderful friend who had to move back to India to be with his wonderful wife. My life is changed for the better thanks to him. In this case "outsourced" means Oracle went out and purchased their talent, gave them a quick bootcamp on whatever product they were to become "experts" in and threw them out into the field. At least that is what it seems like. My team has performed more work and gotten more knowledgeable in the Oracle products than the Oracle consultants that have come in to install and configure these products. Granted, after a month of failed implementations, and complaints from management, Oracle finally sent in some experts who got the job done; but the fact that those tens of thousands of dollars were spent on sub-par expertise leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Everyone businesses are hiring to take care of Oracle / ERP matters are getting better pay and benefits than the veteran employees. This irks me like I'd imagine it would irk any professional. In America it is explicitly taboo to talk about salary, benefits and the like. I disagree with this practice for various reasons, but I certainly understand why corporations discourage the practice. The professionals I work with become privy to the information as to what these new consultants and direct hires are receiving for their Oracle / ERP expertise, and the result is indignation and resentment. Even when those coworkers are performing the same work and working at the same level as these new individuals, their relative compensation is much less, and it makes these professionals feel less valuable. This actually goes further beyond pay and even into perceived value of employees from the business--as these new ERP experts are receiving all the attention and guidance from management, leaving the existing professionals to participate in whichever way they can.
Like I said, petty complaints which I hope are very specific to a few limited organizations, and they don't have any real implications except where detailed later in this blog. It's also a bit immature, but never let it be said that I'm not honest with everything that I'm contemplating.
You don't need to purchase ERP I don't know how Oracle did this (if I knew I'd be a lot better off I'm sure), but they managed to practically trademark ERP. You hear ERP, you think Oracle (or perhaps SAP!). That's marketing. However, ERP is not a purchase, ERP is a series of processes, governance, SI's, etc. I actually like Wikipedia's definition: "Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems integrate internal and external management information across an entire organization, embracing finance/accounting, manufacturing, sales and service, customer relationship management, etc. ERP systems automate this activity with an integrated software application. Their purpose is to facilitate the flow of information between all business functions inside the boundaries of the organization and manage the connections to outside stakeholders." (link)
Oracle sells ERP as a thing which addresses every aspect of your enterprise, but the gaps are so large and so numerous that you'll still be customizing your development, and determining your own process so that you can handle the cluster that is the Oracle suite. A thousand purchased 3rd party modules that Oracle attempted to mash together and slap their logo on doesn't address all the needs of a Fortune 10 company. I'd be surprised if they could address a Fortune 200 (disclaimer: this doesn't mean Oracle and ERP are worthless, I need to keep iterating that).
This brings me into my next point: a very alarming trend that I am seeing is the substitution of definition of two words: process and technology. During a conference the other day the discussion quickly led to a need for some kind of governance around an Oracle product (SOA if you were interested) and the absolute first thing that was brought up is that we should purchase a new technology module that Oracle offers that is supposed to address our governance needs. Governance is a process. Technology can enable these processes, make them quicker, better, slower, more or less bureaucratic, etc, but it is never a substitution for process. The concept that you can purchase governance (and not a governance tool) is a very misguided one that will ensure that you spend more money than you need on products that you will either not use, or at best use poorly. Despite the direction of many businesses around make or buy (and the overbearing direction towards buy only), governance is something that cannot be bought. Each team/group/body needs its own set of governance that it must generate itself and with the help of management. It is an organic approach, and while you can purchase consultants who will tell you how to rightfully govern and create process, purchased services cannot govern for you so long as you hold employees on your payroll.
What does the future hold? What happens a decade from now, well past the MTBF for most of the machinery that we are installing this software on? I see a few potential scenarios that could unfold, depending on how many CEOs get sick of seeing inflated IT budgets with little operational benefit.
Organizations are purchasing previously organic work as a service, which disenfranchises existing workers. This is not a problem in itself (because if it were then standardization would be a bad thing), but on a grand enough scale (i.e.: when all important work is completed outside of organic methods) you create a large rift between leadership and individual contributors. When you discourage organic growth, and treat employees as workhorses to push out these prepackaged solutions, the result is that they feel worse about their jobs. Sure, maybe leadership isn't communicating their vision as to why Oracle contractors and ERP experts are descending like locust on your campus; but honestly even if the communication was impeccable, people don't see individual, personal value in the business saving $X / per year or whatever arbitrary figure was thrust in front of the CIO/CEO by some Oracle salesman or magazine. I've seen plenty of TED talks and other research that suggests that employees need a reason and justification for their work more than they need salary. Oracle and other (major, enterprise) purchased solutions remove that personal justification for the individuals responsible for their installation and development. I cannot see organizations that perform this way retaining their top talent. Sure, they'll be able to hire any old "engineer" which can read a spec sheet and comb through documentation to install whatever new module is required for this quarter, but they're not going to enjoy it, and they will only be doing it for the paycheck. The innovators: the Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak's of the world aren't going to stick around in that type of environment, because it is not intellectually stimulating, it is simply too dull.
Is there a point to all this? Short answer is no, not really. I really want to simply put these thoughts into "print" form so maybe 10 years from now I can look back and see if my predictions rang true. Maybe if they do I can send out a few emails full of red, size 72 font with "I told you so" a thousand times to a few people.