How we went from System Engineers to Culture Catalysts in 18 months

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few years ago my partner and I decided we would start a company to help “modernize” government programs, specifically defense systems. We thought we knew what that meant — helping large bureaucracies adopt the right technology and tools, adopt practices for rapid capability development and deployment while designing systems that were reliable, adaptable and scalable. We got off to a relatively fast start — within 6 months we had landed a contract and within a year we had revamped our customer’s approach to configuration management, reduced process lead times 75% and designed a scalable prototype system that was capable of responding to operator needs within days. And then something strange happened — no one used it. The old process and lexicon kept creeping back in, and the prototype system — though now hosting newly deployed capability — was rarely used. Before we hit the two-year mark I had a realization:

Our customers need more than just technology to modernize

I was pondering this question while listening to the “Behind the Phoenix Project” on my way into work one morning. “DevOps Handbook” co-authors Gene Kim and John Willis were talking about a presentation that John Allspaw gave at a recent DevOps Enterprise summit. This caught my attention because it was Allspaw and Paul Hammond’s talk at a Velocity conference in 2009 that sparked what we know today as the DevOps movement. Allspaw’s latest talk in 2018 titled “How to Keep Systems Running Day After Day” made a bold claim. Just after the 8 minute mark he says, “the product or service and all the tools you use to monitor and interact with the product or service, you never see them, they are below the line and what’s below the line doesn’t even exist.”

The answer, it turns out, all lies above the line.

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In order to effect the type of changes we were trying to achieve, we had to focus on what was inside the blue circle. We had to put all our attention on how people interact with and respond to the system and technology, because the system and technology aren’t really there— they only exists in a person’s perception of how the system works. Each person perceives the system differently, and these perceptions are what dictates all action surrounding it.

So, we decided to refocus on what happens above the line. Helping teams understand the fundamentals of agile, building a culture of safety and learning through shared experience and understanding. We would begin embedding ourselves as change agents.

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In order to make the shift to become an “above the line company”, we had to, of course, start above the line. We began seeking out and showing up at meet up groups for Agile and DevOps that represented the culture we were trying to create. We hired a coach — a talented programmer himself who had guided teams through their own transitions. And we did something that is rare for a company in our sector — we recruited and hired from the commercial start up world — a talented leader who had lived and experienced the culture we wanted to achieve.

What happened next? Slowly but surely we started to represent a new way of thinking. We spoke up at retros, we set meetings with organizational leaders. We initiated change at the cultural and organizational level. And then we were asked to help a company with their own agile transition. We had become change agents.

Our path has been beset by challenges and frustrations, successes, near misses and outright fails. But we’re ready to share our experience about what’s worked and what hasn’t for us. We want to engage you, hear your thoughts, feedback and frustrations. We want to find out where are the organizational, technological and cultural innovators — particularly in government and defense. Ultimately we want to grow and build a community of Change Agents, Cultural Catalysts and maybe convince a few of those who aren’t to join our cause. We’ll promise to keep our posts short and to the point, sharing honestly with you about our successes and our failures. And we hope you find it useful. Look for about a post a month from our group of Change Agents, engage with us, and join our cause.

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Centil is a development and consulting firm specializing in driving efficiency across product development pipelines.

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