DevOps Journeys: Jon Topper

17/01/2017   Industry insights   DevOps Journeys  

As part of our DevOps Journeys series, we spoke to Jon Topper, Principal Consultant at The Scale Factory about his experiences with DevOps.

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What does DevOps mean to you?

DevOps is a mindset, rather than a set of tools or techniques.  Specifically, that mindset is one of shared understanding that in any business, you need both change and stability to succeed. Everyone -- not just developers and operations, but managers, product owners, infosec practitioners and designers too -- shares responsibility for delivering those changes as quickly as required, and for keeping the platform as available, secure and performant as the business needs.

What was your first experience of DevOps like?

You could say I've been practising DevOps since before anyone was calling it that! I worked as a sysadmin at a mobile startup from 2005, managing environments and releases, working closely with a team of Perl developers.  

I'd worked as a software developer for a number of years myself by that point, and some of the dev team had worked in operations before, so we already understood each others' challenges pretty well.  I'd always worked in small companies, so it was natural to me that all the engineers would work closely with each other - it didn't cross my mind that there could be any other way to structure a delivery team.
Back then, I guess the main challenge was that the tooling we take for granted now just didn't exist. I'd lived in the virtual server hosting world earlier in my career and so I was used to thinking about repeatability, automation and immutability because we managed thousands of customers' virtual servers.  It made sense that we'd use something similar for per-developer environments, but the tooling to put those together needed writing from scratch.  Now, tools like Packer, Vagrant and Puppet solve these problems quickly and easily, which means we can spend our time on more interesting things than writing fragile configuration tools in Shell.

If you could give yourself some advice when you first started your DevOps ‘journey’, what would you say?

I don't know if this is specific advice relating to DevOps, but it's good advice for anyone setting out on a technology career: always remember that the problem you're solving is unlikely to be unique to you. Look for existing solutions.  Ask your colleagues and your peers for recommendations.  Try those existing solutions.  You should only ever consider building something brand new when you're entirely satisfied that nothing else is suitable.  The easiest code to write is no code at all. The other advice I offer to young engineers is to seek out and engage with meetup groups and other similar communities. When I started out, these were either less available or I just didn't go looking for them. The perspectives I get from other people working with the same technologies I use are invaluable, and the contacts I've made there have often come in handy whilst I've been building my business.

The other advice I offer to young engineers is to seek out and engage with meetup groups and other similar communities. When I started out, these were either less available or I just didn't go looking for them. The perspectives I get from other people working with the same technologies I use are invaluable, and the contacts I've made there have often come in handy whilst I've been building my business.

What's exciting you within the DevOps space at the moment?

I'm really into Terraform right now. It solves a real user need: ever since I discovered Puppet, I've wanted to deploy infrastructure components with a similar workflow.  At The Scale Factory we build our ReadyScale platform design for new customers all the time, so repeatability is really important to us. We've used our own tools for provisioning up to now, but this story is cleaner and more effective with Terraform involved.  It's by no means perfect yet (I'm tracking a handful of bugs that cause me some discomfort), but it's improving all the time - since the first git commit just over two years ago, some 500 people have contributed over 10,000 commits. I don't get excited easily, but it's difficult not to be in awe of such rapid development.

What challenges are you seeing at the moment?

As a business owner, I have two main challenges right now, challenges which I suspect we share with most other companies.

The first challenge is remaining current in this climate of constant innovation.  As well as the gradual evolution of parts of our stack (the ELK components, for example, have all moved on a lot in the last year or two), there are other new tools to keep up with.  The container ecosystem gives us new things to try all the time, and as a consultancy, it's important that we familiarise ourselves with this stuff so that we're well informed when our customers ask about it.  Ultimately, if there's a demand to use something new, we want to be able to embrace it, but only when we can do so without it becoming a support burden, so we're always evaluating new things with production-readiness in mind.

My second main challenge is hiring.  Because we're a consultancy, we hire for good people skills as well as good technical skills, and that can shrink the candidate pool pretty considerably. On top of that, it seems to be the case that beyond a certain level of experience, a lot of suitable engineers put themselves on the contract market. Add the fact that universities don't seem to be teaching relevant DevOps skills, and it's clear why there's such a challenge even before we take into account our industry's disgraceful structural problems as regards gender and race discrimination.

What do you think the next 'big thing' in the DevOps world will be?

The hype train is currently going full speed ahead on what we're inaccurately referring to as "Serverless", so I don't think it's much of a stretch to suggest that this will feature. Really this is just another example of commodification, just like the other thing-as-a-service plays, enabling end-user organisations to spend more time worrying about their product instead of on servers, networks and operating systems.

On the human side of the equation, I expect we'll see some of the things we've learned in DevOps and agile transformations of technology departments start to spread into wider business contexts. Once IT change stops being the bottleneck, other parts of the business will need to get slicker and leaner too, or they will be seen as the impediment to change. That's going to take the type of radical transformation the DevOps movement brought with it. We'll see "digital transformation", spread into everything else.

What are your predictions for DevOps in 5 years?

In the infrastructure space, we'll see AWS continue to stay out way ahead of the competition. They'll keep adding services until most new users won't need to run operating system instances at all, but there'll still be a need to employ people who understand how the pieces fit together.

Microsoft will continue to surprise us.  They won't stop with Linux versions of SQL Server and .Net runtime, we'll see more announcements along those lines. They'll release more open source, and integrate with more and more non-Microsoft applications.  Azure will become a promising alternative to AWS for some specific types of workload. Larger, slower enterprises will increase their adoption of DevOps practices now that Gartner has given cowardly executives permission to do so. The big integrators who got them into this slow-moving mess by encouraging them to outsource their operations in the first place will land enormous contracts to "implement DevOps".  This will look like every other previous engagement, only the graduates tasked with this work will show up in polo shirts instead of suits.

Jon Topper has worked in infrastructure and operations for 15 years and has the facial hair to prove it. His consultancy, The Scale Factory, are a team of DevOps specialists, helping businesses design, build, operate and scale their infrastructure.