So what you gonna do about DevOps?

Having to deal with the ‘next big thing’ once or twice a year is a fact of life in the IT industry. Whether it’s cloud, social, big data or the internet of things, we seem to go from no one having heard of the term to widespread frenzied promotion almost overnight.

All of this is fine for IT vendors who can afford and justify the expense of an evangelical sell, and are prepared to absorb the additional cost of non-billable effort needed to implement unfamiliar and unproven solutions successfully. Looking for early market leverage and high profile reference sites, they tool up and get stuck into large, progressive accounts that have lots of IT resource and an appetite for risk.

Things are usually different if you work in the channel, though. Seeking out early adopters and gaining initial experience is fine, but without same motivation as vendors to recover product/service R&D costs, there’s probably a limit to how much of this you can sustain. Meanwhile, the more conservative accounts that are likely to make up the bulk of your target market will want to talk about the next big thing, but will rarely spend money on it until it’s properly proven in organisations similar to theirs.

So how do you avoid getting sucked into conversations that go nowhere, and redirect that interest into more tangible opportunity? This can be achieved by working back from what’s being promoted to the underlying business need or objective, then tabling a more established alternative.

If the starting point is big data, for example, and the prospect has latched onto the idea of gaining greater customer insight, you can talk about how things like Hadoop might be overkill in their environment, but a lot can be achieved by exploiting the latest developments in more familiar data management, CRM and BI tools. If it’s mobile technology, and the focus is flexible working, you can point out that the latest email and collaboration environments deliver mobile access as standard, without the need for specialist tools and skills.

The aim is to redirect interest to system upgrades, extensions and other proven solutions that might be less glamourous than the next big thing, but are much more likely to be actioned, and will often deliver against customer needs pretty well anyway. The key principle is: keep it real, keep it buyable.

And the same applies to dealing with conversations around ‘DevOps’, the latest big thing coming down the pipe.

While precise definitions vary, DevOps is fundamentally about implementing a smooth and lean approach right through software development, integration, testing and live rollout, with feedback mechanisms to enable continuous improvement. An important part of this is breaking down the traditional barrier that exists between development and operations teams – hence the name.

In practical terms, a whole bunch of tools and techniques can be used to enable a DevOps way of working that we don’t have space to go into here. If you want to learn more, look out for concepts such as agile development, continuous delivery and codification of the operational environment.

If you sell into organisations that do a lot of in-house development then there may be a direct DevOps related opportunity around tools and consulting. To implement DevOps properly, though, requires a fundamental cultural and philosophical shift. Unless a serious commitment is already in place (which is relatively rare at the moment), you are therefore back to the expensive evangelical sell. By focusing on the underlying business drivers, however, conversations can lead to other more tangible opportunities.

If you listen to a vendor pitching DevOps, they will generally start with the imperative for IT teams to deliver value on a more rapid and continuous basis. Whether this is to support ever evolving working practices within the business, or to keep up with ever changing customer demands and expectations in a digital customer engagement context, the days of 6-9 month delivery cycles are over.

Fair enough, but if you focus on the business problem, the discussion is not just about software development, rollout and iterative improvement, which is the DevOps view. Indeed in many cases that’s the least of people’s worries. What’s more likely to be throttling the pace of change and continuous optimisation at a business level is rigid and poorly integrated systems that require IT expertise and resource when you want to do anything new with them.

So if it’s business level agility and responsiveness the customer is after, focus on selling them modern systems that put more control in the hands of non-technical people. This could translate to ERP, CRM and other applications that allow user provisioning and the setup of rules, workflows and analytics independently of IT. It could also be a website infrastructure that enables business users to create pages, define navigation, and publish content themselves. One or two data-driven mobile apps might be another possibility, and you’ll undoubtedly be able to think of more options yourself based on the nature of your business and its customers.

So, rather than groan when vendors ask you to take their DevOps story to market, take it as a hook to stimulate a broader business agility discussion. Play it right, and you’ll be able to open up a much broader opportunity.


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Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.