On Manufacturing, DevOps, and The Phoenix Project: How Private PaaS is the Shortcut to Streamlined IT
by Bart Copeland

Bart Copeland, May 1, 2013

Long before I became ActiveState’s CEO and involved in software, I started my career as a manufacturing engineer in a production plant building electronic devices. My role was to find ways to streamline the manufacturing process, minimize defects, reduce costs, shorten the time it took to obtain raw goods, build the product, reduce inventory (both raw goods and WIP) and get it out of the door to market in the most efficient manner possible.

My mission was to help the manufacturing company do everything better and quicker. I found inspiration in a number of areas, including Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s novel The Goal. In the book, Goldratt analyzed the role of constraints in a manufacturing process, and—through novelized examples—demonstrated how to effectively address bottlenecks. His book left a lasting and positive impression on me, and ultimately resulted in me making a number of changes to the production process.

I filed away Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints in my memory bank as one of my favourite readings in the early part of my career until just recently. ActiveState Director of Product Management Brent Smithurst recently recommended The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford. My colleague called The Phoenix Project a must-read, noting that it indirectly illustrated how a private-PaaS solution like Stackato could solve business problems faced by modern enterprise IT organizations. (I followed his advice and started reading.)

Phoenix borrows plot-format loosely from (and even references) The Goal. Phoenix tells the story of Bill Palmer, newly appointed VP of IT Operations at Parts Unlimited, a leading automotive parts manufacturer that just happens to be on the verge of financial meltdown, thanks primarily to a much-overheated IT operation. The Phoenix Project is a Parts Unlimited in-house software initiative designed to help the company regain its competitive edge. Unfortunately the project is over-budget and years late in delivery. The book compellingly highlights problems many organizations face today when IT department operations grow disconnected from business objectives. In this case, there is a happy ending (spoiler alert!): with the counsel of a board-member IT guru, Palmer successfully transforms his IT organization into a high-performing group delivering true value to the business.

I found The Phoenix Project fascinating. In a way, it closed a loop for me. Going back to my roots as a manufacturing engineer, I realized that IT today operates like a modern-day manufacturing plant, connecting all the parts in an organization so that everything flows quickly. For many, that idea may seem counter-intuitive, and Parts Unlimited’s Bill Palmer does not initially recognize any similarity between managing IT operations and running a factory. It takes the skill of his mentor, Erik Reid, to show Bill that his job is “to ensure the fast, predictable, and uninterrupted flow of planned work that delivers value to the business while minimizing the impact and disruption of unplanned work, so you can provide stable, predictable, and secure IT service.”

Those principles that work within the context of a manufacturing plant also hold true for the modern IT organization. At ActiveState, we have developed a diagram that highlights how applications are typically deployed in an enterprise. It is often a painful back-and-forth process between development, testing, staging, and production—Hurdles exist between each handoff stage. Running a manufacturing plant in the same way would be suicidal. This is one of the basic principles I learned in my early career as a manufacturing engineer: Always go forward, and never take a step back.

The same principle can be applied to IT organizations. This is where private Platform as a Service (PaaS) technology like ActiveState’s Stackato can critically help IT groups rise from the ashes of Phoenix Projects and become high-performing organizations acting as strategic allies of the business enterprise.

Stackato enterprise deployment creates a common platform environment throughout the cycle for developing and deploying applications, enabling IT operations to be streamlined in an analogous way to how a lean-operating manufacturing workflow would be streamlined. An enterprise PaaS eliminates inconsistencies between development and final deployment, automates build and deployment processes, and reduces time to market for applications.

The Phoenix Project shows that a truly collaborative approach between IT and corporate is not just possible, but achievable. The book highlights “Three Ways” to achieve success. Private PaaS puts IT departments on the right track for each of the Three Ways.

The First Way creates the ”fast flow of work as it moves from Development into IT Operations.” The Second Way shows how to “shorten and amplify feedback loops…[to] fix quality at the source and avoid rework.” The Third Way is about creating a “culture that simultaneously fosters experimentation, learning from failure, and understanding that repetition and practice are the prerequisites to mastery.”

Private PaaS is a powerful shortcut to make the Three Ways a reality in the agile enterprise. For example, Stackato enables fast flow of work by ensuring that deployment and production environments are identical, and always available. Developers can launch applications within minutes instead of months or weeks without being constrained by IT infrastructure.

Enterprises can innovate more and faster. Developers are no longer bound by old processes, backlogs, and wait times. Projects move through IT operations workflow faster, which makes it easier for enterprises to test out new ideas quickly and safely. Experimentation becomes possible, and the cost of mistakes is reduced.

If you work in IT (or know someone who works in IT!), read The Phoenix Project. It resonated with me and it will resonate with you. Pairing The Phoenix Project’s principles with advanced private-PaaS technology like Stackato just might make your DevOps org as strategically valuable as Bill Palmer’s team.

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Bart Copeland is our CEO and president. He's passionate about ensuring that everyone at ActiveState has a lot of fun while solving complex problems with applications that provide real benefit to our customers. He holds an MBA in Technology Management from the University of Phoenix and a Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of British Columbia.