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Successful DevOps transitions are literally taking off

With 1,400 systems to integrate, American Airlines had their work cut out for them when they decided to embark upon a DevOps transition.

American Airlines set a precedent this year as the first airline to present at the DevOps Enterprise Summit in San Francisco. Managing Director of Operations Technology Susanna Brown and Director of Shared Services Benjamin Chan paired up to discuss the effect of the merger between American and US Airways on internal IT teams. With 1,400 systems to integrate, comprising about 2000 projects, Susanna predicted that combining the technology of these two companies would take many years. As of 2016, the process was about 70% completed. Brown and Chan shared what the journey was like along the way.

From mistrust to interdependence through socialization

Any successful project requires team cohesion. It’s never enough to focus on the technical aspects without taking the human factor into the equation. Susanna found this to be the first challenge in bringing two large IT organizations together. "Mergers are the perfect vehicle to foment a lack of trust. And trust was exactly what we needed to get the work done." There was certainly a high FUD factor at play, with fear, uncertainty, and doubt muddying the waters. With some technologies certain to become redundant, it was no wonder that many staff wondered if their jobs and skills would be considered dispensable as well.

According to Chan, working with different standards, technology stacks, and cultures made the blending of systems an exercise in change management as much as anything else. American Airlines found that cultivating a shared vision was essential. Communication, education, and face to face interaction were given priority during this difficult transition—and beyond. Helping people get to know one another better included the usual team building exercises along with shared experiences volunteering for various causes.

Onboarding teams to the internal website (based on Java EE’s Jive platform) was an essential step in helping merge the cultures. According to Susanna, "We wanted any team member to be able to add value from anywhere." Participants could use the site to post about everything from code and projects to lunchroom options and social events. Videoconferencing and shared whiteboards promoted virtual face to face interaction for distributed teams to collaborate.

Technology to support effective DevOps teams

Deciding what to keep and how much to streamline the technology was a complex decision. In Chan’s view, pragmatism had to win out over idealism. "The DevOps toolchain is where all of us, as technologists, gravitate. With our merger, we had different technology stacks and wanted everyone to come together around a single set of tools. But in the end, it’s best not to slow down work or impede progress in pursuit of this utopia." The goal was to deliver business capabilities rather than to create a paradigm of DevOps unity. For this reason, American Airlines decided to support both Java and tool-chains instead of trying to consolidate under one system.

With that said, automation and the use of tooling like slack and puppet in the DevOps environment did deliver significant gains. Configuration that might have taken 17 hours manually or 3 hours using scripts could now be accomplished in five minutes with Puppet. Environments that traditionally took two months to develop and test could now be created in a matter of minutes as well.

Self-service was also implemented, giving developers the ability to spin up their own environments using Blueprint. Besides providing consistency, this technology also supported experimentation by making the learning process of trying and failing a low-cost proposition. Surprisingly, Chan found that adoption of the portal was only modest in the beginning. He assumed developers would rush to these tools. As it turned out, developers started using the self-provisioning resources at their own pace. It was a lesson in the power of cultural change in the DevOps space. It could not be rushed, only encouraged and supported.

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