Empathy is key

Growing up my favorite book was Ender’s Game by Scott Card. This book is a Sci-Fi novel about a boy, Andrew Wiggin, and his battle with the “Buggers”, an alien race that nearly pushed humanity to extinction. Without going into deep detail of the book, Andrew is a genius and has an almost superhuman ability for empathy that he uses to defeat an enemy of aliens that cannot communicate with. This depiction of the power of empathy has stayed with me to this day.

…At least until something frustrating comes my way.

DevOps has taught me 2 things, 1.) that empathy is so important to organizational change and 2.) being empathic is a really, really difficult thing to do.

Most of the challenges of DevOps I hear and read about involve some stubborn people who have 30 years of experience who don’t want to change or DevOps. I run into some like that, but that’s not hard to empathize with honestly, even I know what it’s like to despise change and do stuff that doesn’t feel comfortable. Many of them just don’t believe that things can change, but once they get it, they love it.

The people I have difficulty empathizing with are those who I can’t interact with, the nameless forces who say “So it shall be DevOps as I have willed it!”, and then come down with all kinds of crazy demands and ideas about how automation is the thing we were missing this whole time.  Not once mentioning anything about building bridges and gaps, talking to Ops Engineers, Devs, Finance, Business, nor actual customers! Going against the very fabric of everything I believe about DevOps! The tragedy, the ignorance, the arrogance!!!

So I suggest to them a book, the Phoenix Project or the DevOps Handbook. “You’ve just given 300 more pages to read, thanks! I’ll see if I can get to it.” Of course, they never do…

OOOOOO the endless sea of frustration before me! HOW CAN ANYONE PUT UP WITH THIS!!!!

The truth is, however, even these leaders need empathy from me. As little as this belief relieves my frustration, it is none the less true. Many of my leaders have so much on their plate and work so many hours how could they have time to read another book, and for work no less, on top of their current responsibilities? The truth is they can’t, and it’s silly to ask them too. So where does that leave us?

The other hard truth is that if they can’t take the time to learn then this responsibility should be delegated. Steven Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  says, “But effectively delegating to others is perhaps the single most powerful high-leverage activity there is.” The character Bill in the Gene Kim’s The Phoenix Project was the V.P. of Infrastructure who drove much of the change of the company delegated much the actual implementations to the characters, Patty and Wes, to take to their teams and make things happen. Leaders should do the same, even with something as high level as “DevOps.”

How do we convince people to let go? I have no idea! But if I was a betting man, I would say, going back to the Seven Habits, empathetic listening might be a good place to start. “To seek not to be understood, but to understand.” When this 2-way empathy is established, perhaps then we can begin to lay the real groundwork for the real transformation to begin.


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