I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about what Operations is, in an existential sort of way. I changed jobs several months ago and as part of the settling-in process, I’ve been reflecting on what sort of work I do and what shape I think it will take in the coming years.
In this moment I will make this claim: Operations is about telling stories.
NOTE: The term “operations” may be vague. My thoughts in this post will help get no closer to a specific definition; I’m sharing ideas I have about an important facet of the work. For reference, the context I’m working within is that of web/computer/IT operations.
Working in Operations means developing an understanding about systems and how they behave — both in success (“normal”, expected behavior) and failure (unexpected behavior) — and being able to tell their stories. The deeper one’s knowledge, the richer the stories become. To get that knowledge requires a degree of curioisty; a drive to answer questions. Consider some trite examples:
- What’s the temperature in the room?
- How fast am I driving?
With some instrumentation and some dashboards, we can get simple answers like 75 degrees Fahrenheit and 60 miles per hour. But simple inspection isn’t the sole purpose of these questions. With a little more detail, a few more questions, we can begin to tell a story.
- Is the room warmed by a cozy fire in winter? Or is it summer and the AC is busted?
- Am I cruising down the highway, window down, a breeze in my hair? Or am I a timid Formula One driver?
My background has been some form of Operations for nearly 20 years. This has tended to be defined as work in specific roles such as system administration, systems engineering, backroom office, etc., and some folks may infer a particular focus in that work, but I’ve always been curious about, well, everything. And by ‘everything’ I mean questions like the following drive me:
- How does tweaking a kernel option manifest in the user’s experience?
- How much more traffic can we push by scaling systems and services vertically or horizontally?
- How does the speed of code deployment impact the business’s interests?
- How do technology decisions impact events or things downstream, like the environment?
In short, I’m not that interested in the profile of a single CPU or how disk space is being used, in general. As discrete bits of information, those data can be useful in diagnosing a local problem. But I want to know what the story is. Why do those things matter?
As we gather answers, we can develop our stories. We can describe behavior. We can evoke in folks why they should care about the system. We may even want to sell a thing. In order to do that, we use stories, because they help us connect with others. I love telling stories. And so do you. It’s why services like Facebook and Twitter are popular: we all want to tell our stories and connect with people.
I love sets of three and adroit alliterative aids so let’s explore the idea that stories are intimate, illustrative, and informative.
Stories bring us close. Whether they’re about shared experiences or some novel idea, good stories tend to envelope the audience and evoke some level of intimacy. They are compelling in a visceral way; you want to know more, hanging on each word. They grab your attention.
We’ve been telling stories for millenia and we’re drawn, innately, to storytellers. A recent article in The Atlantic (HT @sigje) describes how, “[a]mong Filipino hunter-gatherers, storytelling is valued more than any other skill[.]” It goes on to state the storytellers among the Agta people enjoy higher status than even the best hunters.
Like a painting of a scene, many things may be going on or there may be a single subject. In any case, it often captures a point in time and provides an image of a moment that we may see in our own mind. It may conjure our memories. More importantly, it can be the catalyst for us to think of a larger picture, to ask more questions.
When we’re engaged by a story, our brains light up with activity, as if we were actually experiencing the characters and events within it. And Susan Weinschenk Ph.D. says that stories are a “[rich] brain event…” where “you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.”
At their most basic, stories can teach us something. Often, the intent is to do just that, as in the case of Australian aborigines’ songlines used to teach navigation routes. Stories may contain facts and figures or they may include a moral. We can learn something practical or come away with something to reflect upon. Stories are an excellent medium for sharing information.
The further or broader your knowledge and experience with systems, the more rich and compelling your stories become. This is certainly why I am attracted to stories from folks who have been in the depths of distributed systems or the internals of the Linux kernel: the amount of time folks have spent learning and understanding how those systems work means their grasp of the subject is sure to keep me enthralled. Perhaps I, too, can make it to their level and share in those tales.
In a previous post I described my takeaways from Donella H. Meadow’s ‘Thinking in Systems’. One of her statements has always stuck with me as a beautiful bit of prose about systems and I think it’s applicable here as it relates to telling a story:
[M]astery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly, letting go and dancing with the system.
Operations is about living, crafting, and sharing stories.
Dance with your systems, come to know them, and tell their stories.