How innovation became everyone’s business

Is innovation part of your remit? It probably should be.

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Natali_Mis / Getty

There’s a great quote from the American programmer John D. Carmack: “Programming is not a zero sum game. Teaching something to a fellow programmer doesn’t take it away from you.”

This is more or less the guiding principle behind the last 20 years of enterprise software development. The democratisation of knowledge. Sharing the IT burden. Upskilling departments in the importance of Agile, iterative software development, operations and security. Collaboration over compartmentalisation.

Carmack was talking about the video game industry (he co-founded ID Software and developed some of my personal favourites including Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake), but his fingerprints are all over almost every SaaS juggernaut. It took several years, but software publishers finally realised you could make much more money (and build better products) by making innovation everyone’s business.

Today, this trend is best represented by a relatively new kid in town amongst most technology businesses: DevOps. Despite being one of the fastest growing development practices globally, there’s actually no unified definition of what DevOps is. It remains such a nebulous term that even the cutting-edge Atlassian folks describe it as “ ..a culture, a movement, a philosophy.” Peace, man.

Essentially, DevOps evolved around 2009 from traditional Agile frameworks (commonplace in developer circles since the 1970s). Traditionally development and operations teams worked in silos and the two only met to debate “It’s not my code, it’s your servers!” The DevOps philosophy considers this a total waste of human potential. Under DevOps, these teams have a firm handshake and participate in the entire service lifecycle, from design and deployment all the way through to production support. It’s a more collaborative approach uniting agile, continuous delivery, automation, and much more, to help development and operations teams be more efficient, innovate faster, and deliver higher value to businesses and customers

So is DevOps a good thing?

It depends what you mean by ‘good’. The ultimate goal of DevOps is to put valuable software in the hands of users as quickly as possible, with as few bugs as possible. Anything that works towards that goal is ‘good’, and anything that distracts from it – like internal bureaucracy, inefficiency or clunky compartmentalisation – is ‘bad’.  We also can’t ignore the fact that anything which breaks down silos, and drives collaboration, teamwork, and shared accountability will always lead to a more effective, efficient, innovative and ultimately more profitable company. So, yes – very good!

Perhaps the reason it took software companies so long to get behind DevOps is that restructuring businesses tends to be lengthy and expensive, and there’s little incentive to change, particularly if the rest of the industry is happy to do things the old-fashioned way. By way of example, John D. Carmack was also famous for pushing back on release date targets instead stating that “the game will be released - when it's done.”  Even visionaries don’t always rush towards change.

So what happened? Well, for a start mobile phones and software as a service happened. According to market intelligence company App Annie, global mobile applications will be worth US$6.3 trillion by 2021 (that’s five times the mobile revenue in 2016). The overall SaaS market is also on track to hit $164 billion by 2022. The explosion of these two fields forced enterprise companies to change the way they developed software. It was no longer feasible to spend 24 months developing an app, only to ship it, forget about it, and wait for the money to come rolling in.

To stay competitive software developers had to move new, high-quality products to market quickly, and then relentlessly test, iterate, automate, and continuously improve them over time. It’s the rise of ‘continuous everything’, where software is never really ‘finished’ or ‘boxed’ (like my still shiny copy of Doom II), and market share goes to the company that creates the fastest, smoothest, most value-driven user experience. The one that gets their nose in front (just as Spotify did to iTunes) and keeps it there.

So, where does innovation come in? DevOps and innovation culture go hand-in-collaborative-hand, because each one is process-driven. Both of them are focussed less on the How and more on the Who. The ‘How’ is regarded as almost a symptom of good internal processes – get the people, the teams and the workflow right and innovation will almost take care of itself.

Companies like Amazon are really leading this charge, embracing innovation as a core business principle, if not an actual KPI. And not just in an annual hack-a-thon either, but every single day and with every single employee (the company’s internal innovation secrets are already common knowledge). This culture has become remarkably contagious. Go to any software conference and you’ll hear the word ‘innovative’ almost as often as you hear the word ‘DevOps’. More and more companies are starting to see innovation, not as some lofty marketing spiel or vague IT metric, but as everyone’s responsibility. Atlassian (which became a $50 billion company last year) calls this the “defining feature of innovation culture”.

If there are two universal truths in the world of software development, it’s rapid change and high expectations. Change which is only growing faster, and expectations which only move in one direction. Is DevOps the best tool to meet those expectations? Well, it’s one hell of a foundation; already leading to an explosion of new models like ‘DevSecOps’ (embedding security practices into DevOps), and ‘NoOps’ (who needs operations teams anyways – lets automate the lot!) and who knows what’s next.

As long as companies, but more importantly their leaders are willing to adapt, foster, and importantly keep up with this growing innovation culture we are up for a very, very exciting chapter ahead.

Will Calvert is director technology and enablement at RMIT Online

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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