DevOps represents the emergence of systems thinking in IT

Welcome to the new world of IT: systems thinking.

I've written before about how DevOps taught me the importance of thinking systemically (and Deming taught it to us decades ago) but it is worth calling out another aspect of this: I see IT as having gone through four generations of thinking.

Originally information technology was obsessed with objects. We solved problems with things. In my father's day he went to "computer" conferences where they talked about water cooling and magnetic tape and card readers.

Then we realised that these systems work better with some practices wrapped around them and that is when thinking like ITSM/ITIL and Lean blossomed.

Then somewhere around the middle of last decade it finally dawned on us all that IT is about people; and we saw talk of Agile, culture change, leadership and teams.

So IT has evolved as an industry, from our technology-centric origins through a phase of being process-centric, to in recent years understanding that IT is fundamentally about people and changing the way they behave.


There is one more stage to this evolution, which is to understand that people process and technology are all simply nodes in a system, which we must understand as a distinct entity. DevOps is the next generation of thinking, which draws on both Agile and Lean to drive optimisation of flow across a whole system of work. The system is made up of people practices and things but like all complex systems it has its own emergent properties and behaviours which need to be dealt with separately.
Having an engineering background I have understood systems thinking all my life and occasionally applied it in IT but DevOps has reminded me of how fundamental it is to understand IT as a complex system.

Complex systems have emergent properties which are not caused by any individual node in the system and which are beyond the control of most participants in the system. A famous example of this is The Beer Game which is a simulation game about the flow of beer through a system (note that it is not normally played with real beer). In the game, the flow of beer is made to oscillate wildly and the oscillations are beyond the control of the participants in the game (at least initially until they learn to change the whole system not just be a part of it).

This is the new world of IT today where you must be able to think and talk systems.

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