Choose Culture over Tools for Devops Success

ToolsAsk any of the folks at the heart of the DevOps movement which aspect of Culture, Automation, Measurement, and Sharing  (CAMS) is the best predictor and enabler of DevOps success, and I expect each one of them will say “Culture”. In fact, John Willis realised back in 2010 that “if you don’t have culture, all automation attempts will be fruitless.” That’s right; no amount of Puppet, Chef, Ansible, Amazon EC2, OpenStack, or any other infrastructure automation or metrics tooling will by itself lead to real, sustainable DevOps practices, not without an appropriate organisational culture.

The importance of organisational culture has become increasingly apparant and investigated in recent years. In their empirical study of 2006, Ravasi and Schultz defined organisational culture as

“a set of shared mental assumptions that guide interpreta tion and action in organizations by defining appropriate behavior for various situations ” (Ravasi & Shultz, 2006)

The culture within an organisation turns out to have an  incredibly powerful influence on behaviour of people within the organisation, and becomes manifest in cooperation, antagonism, communication, knowledge hoarding, and a sense of shared (or divergent) purpose between teams. Organisational guru (‘social ecologist’) Peter Drucker is often quoted as saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast“, meaning that the strategy of the organisation will be driven by the culture, whether implicit or explicit. That’s another way of saying that unless your strategy is aligned with the culture, then your strategy will probably fail.

If this is true, why do so many people jump straight for shiny new ‘DevOps’ tools when they begin to adopt a DevOps approach to building software systems, instead of taking some time to consider the organisational culture? In August 2012, John Willis (@botchagalupe) frustratedly declared:

I am officially pulling the “C” out of CAMS… No one really gives a shit about it anyway.  It’s always about the tools… #devopsIsDead


More than a year later (in September 2013), John has still not found much change in the many different organisations he has spoken to:

People look at you with stare-y eyes going “Shut the hell up” or “Yeah, we get it John. Our culture, absolutely, yeah. NOW CAN WE GET THAT CHEF RECIPE RUN?”

No doubt part of the problem is that playing with cool new tools is much easier in the short term than nurturing and growing a culture which will help to deliver effective collaboration and automation; part of what makes geeks geeks is that geeks like new tools. However, buying a set of tools, or even hiring a team which is really good at coding up infrastructure using those tools, does not give you a DevOps approach. In fact, that will probably just create a DevOps silo, pushing Dev and Ops further apart, the very opposite of what we want from DevOps. Changing the culture of an organisation is not a small task, requiring orders of magnitude more effort than buying some tools, ‘buy-in’ from leaders, and a long time. However, as Damon Edwards eloquently explains, we can all change our day-to-day behaviour and over time this can lead to a change in culture.

What does a DevOps culture feel like for those who have never experienced one? At DevOpsDays London in May 2013, a group of us began discussing ways in which something of the culture of DevOps could be experienced by people new to the practices. What has emerged is the Experience DevOps workshop series, which gives people hands-on experience of the differences in behaviour and culture between existing organisation structures, with Dev and Ops in separate silos, and an organisation following DevOps practices, where collaboration, trust, and flow are much are apparent. In addition, people attending an Experience DevOps workshop will take away ideas,materials, and experiences to help the nurture a DevOps culture within their own organisation. The workshops do not pretend to somehow ‘provide’ a shrink-wrapped DevOps culture, but Experience DevOps gives people a starting point for exploring and nurturing DevOps culture within their organisations.


Ravasi, D. and Schultz, M. (2006) ‘Responding to Organizational Identity Threats: Exploring the Role of Organizational Culture’, The Academy of Management Journal, 49(3), pp. 433–458, [online] Available from: (Accessed 15 October 2013).

-Matthew Skelton

Software build & deployment specialist
Experience DevOps

(Matthew is presenting a webinar on the 25 October, “What Does DevOps Culture Feel Like?”. Click here for the registration link. For all other webinars and webinar recordings click this link. Matthew will also be co-hosting the Experience DevOps Workshop & speaking at DevOps Summit Amsterdam.)

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