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Adam Hawkins
Adam Hawkins

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The Principle of Feedback

This is a podcast episode transcript. Visit the podcast website for the episode, show notes, and other freebies.

This episode continues our discussion on the Three Ways of DevOps. The previous episodes introduced DevOps, the "Three Ways", and the flow-the first way. This episode covers the second way of DevOps: Feedback.

The DevOps philosophy works by establishing ways of working that feed back into each other. The first way establishes fast from flow development to production, or in other words, high velocity. Organizations can’t stop there. Imagine yourself driving a car but with one catch: there’s no speedometer, fuel gauge, or other indicators. You could accelerate to a point, but eventually you’d need to know how fast you’re driving so you can speed up or slow down; or you’d need to know how much fuel is left so you can stop to fill up or not.

This is the principal of feedback in action. We need telemetry about our ongoing actions to make subsequent decisions. Driving a car reliably without a gas gauge would be pretty hard. The same idea also applies to software. Production systems provide a wealth of information about them. Let’s call this information telemetry. Telemetry may be time series data, alerts, or logs; it’s any data that provides insight into operational conditions. Once teams have telemetry, then they can use as the basis for subsequent development.

This usually take two forms: using telemetry to automatically detect error conditions and page an engineer or as maintenance work.

Here’s an example of each: automated monitoring detects a critical job hasn’t run in 48 hours then pages an engineer; Engineers observe telemetry to detect increased memory then decide to allocate more memory to prevent future out-of-memory errors.

Both these examples are technical. Teams tend to focus on these areas, but they need to aim higher. The Principal of Feedback must be applied to all layers in the value steam, so that means the business too.

Good businesses track their "success" metrics. They’re likely enumerated by quarter in some huge Google Sheet. They’re numbers like "new user signups", "monthly recurring revenue", or "minutes watched". Management deeply cares about this telemetry since they driving short, medium, and long term planning.

Plus, this telemetry has something that technical telemetry does not: it’s much easier to understand. That makes it a rallying point for more people in the organization. Let’s face it. It’s just harder to rally an entire business behind"Let’s drop the frontend to backend latency!" compared to "Let’s boost our signups!".

There’s another important point here: something may only be improve if it’s measurable. This is where DevOps overlaps with the "Lean" philosophy. I’d like do a future episode on lean because it’s so powerful and fits nicely along side the second and third way of DevOps. For now let’s focus on lean and it’s relation to the second way of DevOps.

Lean proposes thinking about business as a series of hypothesis validated by real world experience. A common example is first putting up a landing page for a non-functional product, then seeing if the landing page converts users. If the page converts users, then there is interest so it’s worth subsequent experiments to further validate the idea. If the page does not convert, then try something else. Repeat as many times as necessary. This example demonstrates the principal of feedback. In this example, the team is measuring the conversion rate, then plotting a course according to empirical data.

I cannot over emphasize the importance of empirical data. If we are not using empirical data then we’re effectively guessing—and that is dangerous! Here’s one of my favorite passages from the DevOps Handbook:

The outcomes of A/B tests are often startling. Ronny Kohavi, Distinguished Engineer and General Manager of the Analysis and Experimentation group at Microsoft, observed that after “evaluating well-designed and executed experiments that were designed to improve a key metric, only about one-third were successful at improving the key metric!” In other words, two-thirds of features either have a negligible impact or actually make things worse. Kohavi goes on to note that all these features were originally thought to be reasonable, good ideas, further elevating the need for user testing over intuition and expert opinions.

Whoa, scary right! So, if Microsoft only had 1/3 success rate for well designed experiments, imagine their luck if they were shooting from the hip.

As scary as it seems, this is great rallying point for the principal of feedback. The Principal of feedback calls for establishing automated telemetry across all phases of the value stream—from planing, development, and into production—so that teams can monitor their health across the value steam, then ultimately their progress towards business objectives. In other words, if teams have telemetry about their current course, they’re able too—and hopefully more likely too—take a step back and see if things are moving in the right direction.

That’s a good stopping point because we can pick up this conversation again with the Third Way of DevOps in the next episode. Head over the podcast website for a transcript and show notes. If you enjoyed this episode then please tweet it and share with your friends and colleagues.

Until the next one, good luck our there and happing shipping. Adidos!

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