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Distributed DevOps puts IT communication strategies to the test

DevOps communication between team members is crucial, but how does that work when they're on different continents?

IT communication strategies have been put to an unprecedented test, as corporate globalization collides with DevOps.

Close collaboration is a hallmark of successful DevOps teams, but often finding the right IT talent means expanding a candidate search beyond the company's locale, possibly even to the other side of the planet.

"That's not to say there aren't good people everywhere, but I'd say that there aren't necessarily available people who are that good all the time where and when you need them," said Patrick McClory, director of automation and DevOps for Datapipe Inc., a provider of managed hosting services for Amazon Web Services in Jersey City, N.J. McClory manages a team spread out to all four corners of the United States, Costa Rica and the U.K.

Tools of the trade

Naturally, technologists turn to technical tools to bridge gaps, whether geographic or not. McClory said his team makes heavy use of ChatOps through Slack, as well as video conferencing through Highfive and Zoom. Most practitioners of distributed DevOps say such technologies, which also include Atlassian HipChat, Google Hangouts, Cisco WebEx and others, meet most of their IT communications needs on a daily basis.

"It's all about that centrally available tool set for everything from code collaboration down to plain old team building," McClory said. Zoom allows his team members to use a virtual whiteboard for planning, and Slack has dedicated channels for both social and business purposes.

Strong management at each office location and smooth handoffs between teams that follow the sun are crucial. To foster this at Kairos AR Inc., a provider of human facial recognition and analytics for developers, daily face-to-face standups with the core team occur via Google Hangouts at a set time each morning, said Cole Calistra, CTO for the Miami-based company, with engineers in Boston, Silicon Valley, Singapore and London.

However, there are limitations to even the best IT communication strategy, Calistra said.

"This doesn't work for all the team members, so we just have to keep up to them on Slack as best as possible," he said.

Distributed DevOps pros and cons

Global IT communication strategies can have unexpected benefits, according to IT managers.

"Adding in a non-U.S. perspective is always a good thing for the team to understand that things are different around the world, especially in terms of culture, laws and customs in various countries," Calistra said.

With a distributed team, a work and life balance can be another advantage.

"When you are working remotely and distributed, the standard 9-to-5 office hours aren't as applicable anymore," Calistra said. "It means being able to step out for a doctor's appointment, or watch your child's basketball game without feeling guilty for missing work."

But with these upsides come downsides. For digital video camera maker GoPro, support coverage has been an unexpected challenge for its distributed DevOps team with engineers in Europe and the U.S., said Theo Kim, head of DevOps engineering. Engineers in each remote location outside the U.S. are deputized to handle some operations during off-hours in the U.S., but there can still be snags.

"We had a situation where we had one guy who was the pseudo-DevOps resource, but then he went on vacation," Kim said. "And he didn't deputize someone else, so there were a bunch of issues, complaints at 3 o'clock in the morning. And, of course, we didn't see them until the next morning [in the U.S.]."

McClory dictated that his distributed teams share four to six continuous office hours every day, but lets the team self-govern and decide when those hours are from project to project.

"Setting up some structure around allowing teams to self-govern helps them adhere to their own rules," he said.

Strategic gatherings recommended for IT project planning

While day-to-day work can be done using modern technologies, such as ChatOps or video conferencing, IT managers who have built successful distributed DevOps teams say the best IT communication strategy is still an in-person meeting.

"What we've seen organizations do is have a smaller collocated team come up with the application design, and then they'll parcel off pieces of work to get executed and built, using the distributed team for that," said Zubin Irani, CEO of cPrime Inc., an Agile software development consulting firm based in San Francisco.

McClory and Kim said they also regularly get team members together for face time, and Kim advised rotating team members through the main engineering location so they feel like an integral part of the organization.

"Even today with Slack and conferencing, face-to-face [communication] really builds relationships, and having that personal relationship is even more important when you're dealing with remote staff than when you're in an office," Kim said. "Things get lost in translation via email or Slack, but if you know the person's personality, it goes a long way."

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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