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How Atlassian built a culture around DevOps developers

DevOps developers are a special breed. Learn how Atlassian introduced tools and techniques that helped both engage and retain those who thrive in a DevOps culture.

Atlassian is one of the rare breed of cash-positive tech startups, and it's growing fast. Over the last three years, the company has gone from about 550 employees to 2,300. It's also fostered a culture that caters to DevOps developers, which has sped up the company's delivery of new applications and features.

Dominic PriceDominic Price

Dominic Price, head of R&D and work futurist at Atlassian, thinks one key strategy in this success has been emphasizing a new type of meeting format to encourage collaboration and engagement across its many development teams. When Price joined Atlassian about three years ago, he remembers his new boss saying, "I don't want to be famous for being big. I want Atlassian to be the best place to work."

Aiding DevOps developers with health monitors

Price spent years as a business consultant working with various IT shops to improve agility and software quality. He said, "Every other program management job had been like firefighting." In contrast, Atlassian already had a pretty robust process built around the concept of DevOps development, and it was deploying high-quality code with a relatively small QA team.

The first thing Price did when he started his new job was read up on various software management trends. But he realized, if he introduced these at Atlassian, he would be drawn and quartered. So, he decided to create his own culture program from scratch. He figured the best strategy would be to create a better process that connected development team members rather than introduce a new app or technology. The missing ingredient in the Atlassian process might have been human interaction. Price thought DevOps developers should talk to each other in real life, rather than just connect through enterprise messaging boards and GitHub pull requests.

Over the course of a couple of days, Price and his team unveiled the Health Monitor, a meeting style that promoted honest and useful feedback with an in-person setting. In contrast, a retrospective meeting tends to be more technical. DevOps developers sit and talk about project successes and failures. But retrospectives don't create an environment of psychological safety that gives developers a chance to discuss the human side of working with each other.

My hypothesis is that we have lost a bit of that human interaction over the last 15 years.
Dominic PriceHead of R&D and work futurist, Atlassian

For example, a lot of teams imagine they have a shared understanding of the project and everyone's roles. But it isn't until teams start to explicitly describe their vision of team objectives that they can see how their perspectives diverge. Some developers might focus on saving money, while others might focus on adding new features that deliver business value.

Build collaboration, don't force it

Over the years, Price observed a lot of companies trying to enforce collaboration from above. He has had CIOs visit the team for a casual chat only to discover some DevOps developers are scared of rocking the boat. This can make it hard to build a collaborative development environment. "It is not collaboration when you have to get everyone in the room to agree," Price said.

Without the context behind a project, developers may focus on goals that don't deliver a lot of business value. For example, some teams might be good at shipping out every Friday, but their new code might not improve the customer experience. "We were measuring shipping iterations," Price said. "As a result, we were busy, but not effective. By recalibrating our shared understanding, we produced better software."

The core idea focuses on the eight attributes for measuring team health. Teams grow sustainably when they focus on one theme during and immediately after meetings. The challenge is to pick the area to focus on with the biggest potential impact.

The doctor is in

Atlassian beta tested the idea with a couple of teams, but when the results started to come in, more signed up to try out the new process. Within a month, 100 different teams had started to try Health Monitor meetings.

Price took on the role of a doctor. He booked out a meeting room and began scheduling health checks with all the interested teams. In the last two years, Atlassian has done over 1,000 sessions and about 100 sessions for customers who wanted to try out the same process.

"There is no such thing as the perfect team," Price said. "It's important to find the right mix of reflection to understand the different mindsets and skills. It is also important to find a common way of working to drive continuous improvement required to build high-performance teams."

Some teams do these health checks as often as once a week; others do them every couple of months. This helps build a muscle around cultural improvement. A guiding principle has been that there is value in human-to-human interaction. "My hypothesis is that we have lost a bit of that human interaction over the last 15 years," Price said.

This was last published in March 2018

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