Jaime Gago Condensing Information Systems From the Vapor Of Data


Running IT like a Soccer Team

While thinking about Devops culture metaphors (I like them a lot and have used and abused them through out my career) I enjoyed David Lutz post "Running IT like a rock band" but there was something sensiabout that metaphor that bothered me. I also remember a tweet stating something along these lines "Show me your rockstar developer and I'll show you your bottleneck" and the analogy of a soccer team as opposed to the Rock band started to materialize. When John Willis presented at the Silicon Valley Devops last month his 100% culture focused "State Of The Union" presentation added another layer. In particular his emphasis on systems thinking (the fact that I've always had "systems" in my job title is most likely not a coincidence).

It then was clear to me why I was having this second thoughts about "Running IT like a rock band", that is, I like to think of the IT Industry as a science based industry, and in that regard I think a soccer team has much more in common with IT than a Rock Band, here is why.

The Goal

A Soccer team has a clear purpose, one that is clearly understood and shared by everyone, in the team , but also by the non players stake holders (coaches, doctors, spectators, board members, soccer moms,...). That common goal appears in any team sports, but it's soccer I've played competitively for 10+ years so I'll stick to what I know. This shared, precisely defined, goal can be compared to Simon Sinek's "why", a goal that every group, every member of an organization needs to know and act towards, IT because of its affect on the business probably more than any other group whether or not the company's business is IT itself.


The Rules

I remember being stuck during one of the *NIX SysAdmin class I took when one very friendly tutor solved my problem by removing a comma while laughing and mumbling "those goddam rules aren't they annoying?". Syntax, indentation, firewall, dependencies, SELinux, classes, protocols, you name it...So it goes with soccer, don't touch the ball with your hand (except if you're the goalie), stay within the field defined perimeter, the referee calls the shots, don't punch your opponent in the face (that's boxing), and so on.


The Requirements

A soccer player can not play without a Team an adversary and the required environment (a ball, a field, jerseys,...), the same goes for an IT team.

Now if you think a single person can provide, professional end to end IT operations and software engineering services even at a small scale then I'd say either one of us got it wrong or we are not talking about the same Industry, either way stop reading-you'll be bored.

This is a good place to remind recruiters and managers not to mistake generalists aka T-shape folks with "one-man orchestras". Yes our egos feed on being called wizards  (some of use even like to wear wizards hats ) but we seriously would prefer you consider either hiring a DBA or giving us more than 30 seconds to figure out what this Maria DB setting we've never heard of has to do with tuesday 2 AM queries spike (but really hire a DBA).

That's for the team, for the adversary what is commonly referred as "the competition" should do just fine. Then comes the dedicated environment, well have you ever tried to work as an IT professional without a computer or a network?

The Roles

A "mature" soccer player will usually characterize himself as mainly a Defense or an Offense player, doesn't mean defense players don't know how to attack, doesn't mean offense players don't have what it takes to defend. These two main roles are diametrically opposed but they come together nicely because of the common goal, does that sound familiar yet?

So it should go for an IT team where everybody:

  • Can play ball and pass it in good conditions which could be compared to knowing the basics of object oriented programing, navigating a *nix filesystem at the command line, knowing about the different TCP/IP layers and so on.

  • Know the basics of both Defense (Operations) and Offense (Development) while the team performing as it bests when everybody is spending most play time focusing on their areas of expertise.

There is much more to expand about the roles much like David Lutz did with the the Rock Band analogy, but that'd make this post quite the tl;dr (it probably already is...), maybe in the next one.

The Team Continuity

Have you ever heard of Soccer team disbanding?  What is clear (to me) when John (Allspaw) argues with John (Willis) that one guy should never be fired for making mistakes no matter how many, it's that an IT team just as a Soccer team must be approached holistically...ALWAYS! Thus there is no room for individual failure nor success, it's the team that delivers a great service or fails, end of the story.


The Strategy and the Tactics

I don't have to look at the results of a google search on soccer strategy nor soccer tactics, I've been in many soccer whiteboard sessions starting at quite a young age. Dig a bit deeper and you will find there's an entire science dedicated to soccer strategy. Because there is a common goal, defined rules (and lots of $$$) system thinking can be applied and trust me it is.

And so it should be with an IT Teams where a "fail to plan is a plan to fail", now of course the plan doesn't make the win but the absence of it certainly makes the fail.

The Performance Levels

In soccer as like many other sports, key performance indicators (KPI) are plethora, either they are per leagues,teams or individuals. Now I'm pretty sure many amongst us IT Professionals don't collect KPIs (Key Pi what?) that much but that doesn't mean they're not present and that it's ok to leave KPI to Forester analysts, we should care as teams, and as individuals.

What's a valid Rock Band KPI? iTunes Sales? Number of Facebook fans? meh.

I'll finish the post with a video of a soccer team defending and attacking with great velocity to push a new update, uh I mean score a goal (yeah I know, I'm so funny...not!). Seriously though notice how the ball always move forward once the attack is launched, doesn't that remind you of something you've read about Kanban?


Special thanks to my buddy Ben VanEvery for the post review!

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