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Verizon, Walmart embrace DevOps dojo for IT training

Some IT training experts say 'Dojo is a no-go,' but companies such as Verizon and Walmart say the DevOps dojo approach has been well worth it for them.

A skills shortage has made IT training a hot topic for enterprises that want to digitally transform legacy businesses, and some household name companies said the DevOps dojo model has worked well for them so far.

DevOps dojos are difficult to define, as early adopters' implementations vary. Initial approaches emphasized a separate, shared space for immersive learning by IT teams in six-week sessions, but some more recent iterations of dojos embed internal training staff within team spaces, rather than bring them to a separate immersive location.

What these approaches have in common, however, is an IT training method that emphasizes learning new skills in the context of a team's real daily work, rather than simulated examples; an immersive, experiential learning process, and an emphasis on Agile workflow fundamentals such as thorough testing, and breaking down work into small increments.

These companies, members of the Dojo Consortium, an industry group comprising hundreds of members from 36 companies, spoke about their experiences in response to a recent research report from IT training experts at Google DORA that concluded DevOps dojos are less likely to be effective than more incremental approaches. Dojos were used by high-performing organizations just 9% of the time, according to DORA's 2019 "State of DevOps Report."

"Dojo is a no-go," Nicole Forsgren, DORA founder and CEO, told SearchITOperations in August. "The highest performers focused on structural solutions that build community to practice grassroots proofs of concepts."

Early adopters tout DevOps dojo results

DevOps dojo practitioners acknowledge that there are downsides to the approach, which often calls for teams to attend six-week immersive learning sessions apart from their day-to-day work.

"The [return on investment] is great, but it's still hard to tell people who are delivering for the enterprise, 'Yeah, why don't you take six weeks to come to a dojo and learn?'" acknowledged Roger Servey, senior manager of systems engineering at Verizon, who helped establish the DevOps dojo model for IT training at the telecom in 2017, after the company hired Ross Clanton, who is widely credited with creating the DevOps dojo model at Target. "Nobody wants to slow down to get faster."

High performers don't have dojos, because they don't need them. The rest of us actually need some training.
Bryan FinsterValue stream architect, Walmart DevOps Dojo

However, Servey and other DevOps dojo proponents said the results of this practice speak for themselves. A team at Verizon that spent about eight weeks in Verizon's dojo in 2018 came out with a new product launch that saves the company $2 million per year, lowered the number of defects per release from 400 to 150, and improved their deployment cadence from 9 days to 2.5 days.

"They worked faster, they produced fewer defects and they had a great time," Servey said.

Moreover, as the Verizon Dojo program has grown under Servey's successor, Jaclyn Damiano, it has begun to mint new developers, often from backgrounds underrepresented in tech, through Project Athena, Verizon's first IT apprenticeship program. Last week, Project Athena graduated its first class of 36, the majority of which will return as full-time Verizon IT employees.

Measurably improved results and experiential learning are also the goal of the more incremental IT training processes favored by DORA, however, and DevOps dojo proponents acknowledge that their method is unlikely to be used by "unicorn" high performers in the Agile and DevOps world. But for enterprises that want to bridge a wider gap between their legacy approaches and the DevOps ideal, the most drastic dojo approach may be necessary.

"High performers don't have dojos, because they don't need them," said Bryan Finster, value stream architect at Walmart's DevOps Dojo, a program that was put in place with mentoring from Verizon's Servey and his team two years ago. "The rest of us actually need some training."

Walmart sometimes takes the six-week boot camp approach in its DevOps dojo, Finster said, but it primarily embeds dojo facilitators with IT teams in their own workspaces. The higher priority in Walmart's DevOps dojo approach is internal consulting; some outside IT training experts may be brought in for limited engagements, but whether it's one engineer mentoring a colleague or one company mentoring another, as Verizon did with Walmart, DevOps dojo isn't something a company can buy from a vendor, Finster said.

"One of our requirements is that we expect [teams] to be evangelists after we leave," Finster said. "Verizon has the same requirement, Target has the same requirement -- 'You're now part of the dojo. Push it out. Don't wait for us to train.' We're just facilitators."

DevOps dojo lessons learned

Dojo Consortium members must still work on hammering out a more standardized definition for what DevOps dojos are, Servey and Finster acknowledged, since the inorganic patterns of which DORA is critical may not actually be integral to the dojo method as it evolves.

One major drawback to the immersive DevOps dojo approach to IT training that uses a separate space is reverting to old ways of working once teams leave that space. As with Walmart's DevOps Dojo, Verizon Dojo 2.0 emphasizes the embed model for dojo facilitators alongside the boot camp model, in part to combat recidivism.

"In this new model, we take eight individuals with the right skills and capabilities, instead of an established product team, and they learn together," Servey said. "They then go back as ambassadors of that learning, or perhaps [an established] team rotates in their members one at a time, because they really can't afford to commit their whole team for six weeks."

Verizon Dojo 2.0 programs have also broadened to include business leaders in addition to technical staff, and one thing DORA researchers and DevOps dojo practitioners agree on is the importance of measurement in defining problems and delivering results, in both software delivery and IT training.

"Measurement's a big part of [getting] the leaders [to go] along with the journey," Servey said. "If they're not bought into this, you're going to experience recidivism."

DevOps dojo: The next generation

Such measurements also help larger companies demonstrate the value of DevOps dojo for IT training to other organizations that follow them on the path to digital transformation, such as Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a power utility in Knoxville, Tenn.

DevOps dojo may have its challenges, but it's a vast improvement over traditional IT training methods, said Alexander Herweyer, manager of cloud and process at TVA. Herweyer said he believes the immersive approach to learning for entire teams within a DevOps dojo is less prone to recidivism than the time-honored IT training custom of sending one or two engineers off site to gather theoretical knowledge, then bring it back and instill it in their skeptical colleagues.

A separate space to learn and practice new techniques is also important at a company such as a power utility where testing in production, and failure, fast or otherwise, is out of the question, Herweyer said.

"Having spaces that allow folks to try things and fail fast, and fail well, we'll really empower our workforce to innovate and come up with ideas and put them in for production in a rapid fashion," he said. "In traditional models, that process required a business justification that was usually too onerous to actually execute. [Dojo] democratizes innovation, so it becomes a part of how you actually operate as a company."

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