How Disney organized for an Agile DevOps transition

Conversations about architecting the enterprise for agility often start with a consideration of new technologies. However, this only works when enterprises processes and policies that support them are in place, said Jason Cox, director of system engineering at The Walt Disney Company.

One of the tragedies of the traditional notion of agility lies in the drive for speed without processes that nourish the developers and ops people that support them, said Cox. When Cox joined the group they were in non-stop firefighting mode. They began glorifying the “heroes,” that worked marathon hours without sleep. But over time, these heroes burnt out. The problem was that development engineers looked down on the operations team. Walt Disney management renamed the operations team members ‘System Engineers.’

“This had a profound effect,” said Cox. The developers saw these people as fellow engineers and invited them to discussions about changes to software and infrastructure on equal footing. “The developers were constructing the software together with the systems engineering teams.” This eventually led to collapsing the teams together, which helped to continually improve the applications and architecture.

Architect a common core with distributed engineering

In 2011, they began a more aggressive pursuit of a DevOps strategy. This was as much about rethinking about the communication infrastructure and organization hierarchy as the technology.

This lead to a transition from functional teams to a matrix team organizational model. In the functional team model, developers and infrastructure were tasked with supporting one line of business. In the matrix team model, Walt Disney established a core DevOps team for providing IT services to its four main business groups.

This team is responsible for providing core IT services, and also embeds managers, staff, and engineers across the different Walt Disney Business units. “The benefit is that because we have a centralized connection point, we can be a cross business conduit,” said Cox. “We can take new tools, processes, and lessons learned and share those across the different segments because of the model we have adopted through this embedded matrix organization.”

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