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Expert insight: DevOps Culture: A hierarchy of needs

Over 70 years ago, US psychologist Abraham Maslow created a hierarchy pyramid of human needs. The pyramid outlined that some human needs, for example, physiological and safety needs, are more basic than others. Higher-level needs should only be addressed once the more basic needs have been met.

When we look at the evolution of technologies, similarities come to light. Using the right technologies has allowed developers to pursue greater achievements and find solutions to more complex problems.  It’s a pattern that exists at every stage of technological growth as we are driven to satisfy higher motivations. It’s also happening in organisational structures as our work becomes more tied to the capabilities of technology.

This progression deserves particular examination in the role that DevOps strategy plays as organisations mature. The DevOps culture encourages communication, collaboration, integration and automation among software developers and IT operations, but it can also be swept up by a motivation to go beyond the scope of its basic needs and seek constant advancement. Through this lens, it’s helpful to look at how DevOps culture strives to meet the need for a more holistic approach to the end-to-end software delivery lifecycle (SDLC), and how it will continually mature as needs change and evolve.

Level 1: Physiological

At the base of the pyramid are the basic needs for humans – physiological needs, or the requirements for survival, such as air, water, food, and shelter. In the world of technology, this is where manual processes are found, where operators flick a switch, crank a handle or spin a wheel. It’s the basic functions of machinery.

The base of the DevOps pyramid is the notion that organisations have to use software at all, much less manipulate it to fit business objectives. Further development cannot begin until this basic need is recognised. Initially, development teams build applications for quality assurance (QA) teams to then test. The production environment in these early stages gets the job done, but lacks cohesion. Teams could harbour mistrust and production environments could become destabilised by poor communication or differing points of view. Like a simple machine, tasks were performed separately and passed from team to team only after the basics were completed.

Recognising the need for software was the first step; in fact, it’s a basic requirement for most businesses and organisations. To make progress, they must take the next step towards addressing more complex problems and make choices that promote structural growth and organisational progress.

Level 2: Safety

Moving up Maslow’s pyramid, human motivation addresses concerns for safety and well being, as choices of preference are made and a degree of order is sought. In organisations, expanding DevOps teams seek greater usefulness and functionality. It’s not enough for teams to perform a basic function; they need to adapt to get beyond a lack of cohesion. Organisations need a level of comfort (compared to Maslow’s safety) in knowing that the development and operations teams can work together successfully. This stage promotes an upgraded approach to software delivery and a reduction in production issues.

Once it’s realised that software is a basic need for organisations, their focus turns to how best to make it happen across multiple teams with a common goal. And, if a level of internal stability and order can be achieved, the organisation can begin to look beyond itself to develop outside relationships in the manner that Maslow describes in the third layer of his pyramid: belonging.

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Level 3: Social

In the third stage, human motivation shifts to interpersonal relationships and feelings of belonging. For an organisation that services customers or constituencies, once internal structures are in place, greater resources can be allocated elsewhere. This stage in the business mindset is when the focus on outcomes shifts from being vendor-focused to customer-focused. They ask the question: what answers or solutions does the customer want from me? Just like in Maslow’s acceptance stage when humans consider what it takes to be a friend or to find love, organisations decide how to provide customers what they need.

The automation of DevOps contributes here as teams integrate into a structured community that can provide those answers. Teams begin working together and develop the early stages of a feedback loop and full visibility into the SDLC. The workflow takes on an increasingly automated role as a cultural shift toward full-lifecycle ownership occurs, and teams take full responsibility.

Level 4: Esteem

If organisations succeed in putting customers first, the next step is reacting to customers’ needs at an accelerated pace. In Maslow’s pyramid, the next stage, commonly referred to as the esteem or status level, is divided into two elements: internal and external.

Maslow classified these two categories as: (1) esteem for oneself through dignity, achievement, mastery and independence, and (2) the desire for reputation or respect from others.  To achieve everything that they want to for the customer, internally organisations must improve how they function; meanwhile externally, they must demonstrate to the customer that they are listening and the goal is to respond to their needs directly.

Internally, the organisation requires its teams to communicate, collaborate and integrate better, and it puts pressure on its production activity to be responsive. When achieved, this not only demonstrates that an organisation is listening to the customer, but that it is providing solutions at a cadence that makes the customer more successful.

Level 5: Self-actualisation

The final stage of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualisation. This is the point of realising potential or being the most that one can be. In any organisational structure, this may not be an end goal, because striving to improve should always be a core tenet. However, it might be argued that when the the CEO, the CIO, and the board are fully aware that the components of their organisations are working together and what they are achieving, a level of corporate-actualisation can be claimed.

Far from being the end, this is when thoughtful soul-searching should occur, by asking the essential question: is it all working? This is the most important question an organisation can ask itself with regularity and doing so is a sign of great maturity.

You can recognise your basic needs, build structure into your organisation, service your customers, listen to their needs, respond promptly and make them more successful, and recognise internally what makes your organisation successful; but if you don’t consistently ask if it’s all working you risk slipping backwards.

So how can a mature organisation maintain or even improve its progress? The main priority should be to continue implementing qualified actualisation tools and reporting engines. Self-actualisation and corporate-actualisation require tools that can quantify maturity and compare an organisation to its competitors. To do so will require correlation of data against such competitors in the vertical or in common geography, etc., and thereby reassure the organisation that they are leading the way in the industry.

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