DevOps as Art

Yesterday I had a twitter exchange with John Allspaw about the subtlety, and consequently the difficulty of adoption, of the complex-systems view of failure. That afternoon I read James Urquhart’s excellent post about DevOps and Anti-Fragility. By the end of the day, I was more convinced than ever that IT managers and engineers should study and practice the arts.

James characterizes an anti-fragile system as one that can tolerate many small failures while capitalizing on any successes that arise from continual change. He posits DevOps as a potentially anti-fragile methodology for enterprise IT. While I think this idea has a lot of promise, its adoption, in any non-cargo-cult manner, may be challenging. The anti-fragile view turns everything we’ve learned about engineering and IT on its head. We need some way to shift our minds into a new mode of thinking. I believe exposing oneself to the artistic process may be the best way to accomplish that mental shift.

Art is anti-fragile by definition. Artists constantly experiment. A painter will paint the same subject over and over again, each time a little differently. When a good artist arrives at a good result, their impulse is not to start repeating themselves, but to do something different. They push themselves, and each other, to produce “bad” work. Why? Because they understand that failure is the fastest route to truly new success. Picasso, Joni Mitchell, and Miles Davis are examples of great artists who never rested where they were. They all produced multiple different styles of brilliant work. They did so by forcing themselves to change, and by having the courage to release pieces that their previous supporters might hate.

Artistic experimentation has a relatively low cost of failure. One can paint over a painting, edit a poem, rewrite a piece of music, or just throw it away and start over. The key component, though, is the attitude that innovation requires continual change, and that continual failure is the driving force in that process. Ultimately, even a successful piece becomes a failure. The artist’s world changes, and the piece no longer accurately reflects that world. Art is not fundamentally about production, but about creation. Creation, driven by continual destruction, is never-ending.

Enterprises seem to be starting to accept the need to be innovative and adaptive. They are showing increasing interest in technologies such as cloud, and methodologies such as DevOps, that support continual change. To fully embrace anti-fragility, they need to embrace continual failure as a mode of practice. To do that, they need to think less like managers or engineers and more like artists.

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