Trying to make DevOps work? Learn how Nike just did it.

Many organizations struggle as they transition to DevOps. But it can be a challenge making DevOps work. Here we look at how Nike applied DevOps principles and made DevOps work for them.

Nike is famous for its slogan: Just do it. But when it came to one of its most popular campaigns for building buzz for limited new shoe releases, it wasn't doing it. Consumers would flock to the Nike site for a limited release shoe and wait online for 2-3 hours, only to discover they would not be wearing the latest.

Nike being Nike could get away with this for a while, but business realized something had to change if they wanted to build a better brand. At the DevOps Enterprise Summit, Scott Boecker, VP of Nike.com product management described how making DevOps work helped to build a better experience. 

Boecker explained, "Imagine being on your phone and then suddenly you are out of the line. We had these moments of high consumer demand, and some of the lines would last 2-3 hours. Unfortunately, because demand outweighed supply, the result was the shoe was out of stock when their order was finally processed. This was not an ideal customer experience. It did not leave people feeling warm and fuzzy. We knew we had a problem to solve for consumers, our brand, and the business to meet the needs that where there."

So Boecker's team worked with Nike business leaders and developers to craft a better strategy. To make DevOps work, they needed a reliable, secure, and stable foundation. They also wanted the experience to be fair, which is a hard challenge where there are a limited number of units available. So, they combined elements of a unique lottery and a first in first out line that provided fairness whether an order was taken from their Website or the mobile app.

Making DevOps work fast

The infrastructure also needed to be fast. The business team wanted to develop services that could be used on the web, iOS, and Android at the same time. Forrester said, "Once you get all that right, you get to make it fun."

A key part of Nike digital transformation lay in bringing development in-house. The company called its older ecommerce initiative "North American Lean Business Solution." The focus was on cutting costs, rather than building value. Ron Forrester, VP of Nike.com engineering said, "When I got there, the culture was one of vendors, agencies, and contractors." Forrester was tasked with helping to transform Nike from a physical products company to the beginning of a digital one.

"The key was asking how to transform our platform. We had a monolith driven by contractors," said Forrester. "We would throw solutions architects at it. Monoliths get a lot of bad rap. But the monolith was not the problem. The problem was that we could not scale it or innovate on it. It was serving our business needs, but it would not take us to the next level."

A key part of this process involved some deep discussions about shared valued. For example, scaling had a lot of meanings and could refer to scaling infrastructure, scaling number of consumers, or scaling the number of experiences they could roll out. "This was a key insight."

The next step lay in developing an internal team at Nike. This was a big project, because at the time, Nike did not have a strong team in house. They hired about 250 new people four years ago, which was considered astounding for a shoe company. The next step lay in identifying industry luminaries to drive ideas and inspiration from. Netflix provided a good model for scale. Spotify provided insight on how to build teams internally.

Prioritizing ways to make DevOps work

The next goal was to speed up the release cadence without affecting quality. They started with monthly or quarterly releases. They also began adopting more opensource software, which allowed their team to focus on building new value rather than adding more plumbing.

During this phase, the team decided to take a step back and prepare the foundation based on a consistent engineering foundation, rather than adding new features. They embraced microservices and created an internal blueprint for a starting set of tools and principals.

They focused on creating process of small 2-pizza teams and short 1-week sprints. However, Forrester said they would only do a ceremony at the end of each 6-week cycle. He said, "If you are doing 1-week sprints, the ceremonies can take more time than the actual work. We wanted to put ceremonies in one place, but still have stories broken up into sprint boundaries."

Balancing accountability with overwork

Another good practice to help make DevOps work was to decentralize quality. Previously a central QA team was responsible for the quality of new products. But more and more, engineers have taken responsibility for maintaining the quality of their own projects. This was hard because there was some anxiety about engineers getting frustrated and leaving. But Nike persevered, and the result has been that developers are now improving quality earlier in development, which has meant fewer problems down the road.

Forrester explained, "This was a very culturally disruptive idea. It is not about technology, the tools, or the process. It is more about this cultural accountability for the wok you do. I try and think about how we spend a lot of time decomposing technical problems. A part of this is decomposing the organization into simple autonomous units for the people that do the work."

A lot of legitimate questions came back from engineers. They wanted to know what product support did in this new realm. Another challenge was in improving the monitoring so that the right engineers could solve a specific problem. When the same platform is used for providing many experiences, it is not always clear which system needs to be investigated when something breaks. For example, problems with inventory or payment systems can impact other products. Forrester said, "How do we get alerting so the right people are alerted on the right problem. What can happen is that experience owns support and they get tired."

After the all the ground work was done, Nike incorporated it into a new sneaker platform. Making DevOps work allowed them to roll out the largest and most successful show launch in company history by reducing the processing time for millions of orders from 3 hours to a few minutes. They sold out of the new line of Air Jordans in only 12 minutes and achieved 110 million social media mentions in 12 hours. Nike is just getting started. As Boecker said, "There is no finish line. There is a famous Nike statement that we are never done. There is a finish line for each race, but there are lots of races."

Next Steps

What types of DevOps challenges are modern enterpris organizations facing?

Don't make DevOps security an afterthought

How to make legacy IT systems better by applying DevOps techniques

This was last published in November 2017

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What approaches have you used to make DevOps work for your organization?
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I have been a part of some dev efforts where the teams were challenged with accountability for their work as the risks/impacts of field failures and performance issues were vast and well understood. We supplied complete at-scale, synthetic customer environments where they could sandbox, solution and prove their readiness. Watching systems live, before they touch any customers, touched all departments/teams. No more silos. When teams have the tools to support the ask, amazing cultural shifts just happen and success is inescapable.
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I like the idea of holding ceremonies after 6 small sprints. We currently have 2 week sprint cycle and the ceremonies are overwhelming at times as business have limited resources to interact with dev. PODs. smaller sprint also ensure a more focused development and faster issue resolution.
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