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April 21, 2017

Pat Birkeland on Learning DevOps as an Ops Leader

By Gene Kim
Pat Birkland

I recently got a letter from someone that I had met last year, and it resonated with me for two reasons: it’s about how an Ops leader can gain DevOps skills, both for himself and for his team, and also because Pat and I both went through the Theory of Constraints program taught by Dr. James Holt at Washington State University.

In his letter, he had asked for some career advice as someone who is currently an IT Operations lead at Boeing.

Pat BirklandHis request was surprising to me in many ways: here’s a person who has an MIS undergraduate degree, an MBA, and also a Masters in Engineering Management, worried about where to take his career. My first reaction was, “Holy cow, if someone who is as credentialed and successful as Pat is feeling career angst, how much angst are other people in Operations feeling who don’t have the benefits of that many credentials and degrees?”

I’m really excited by what Pat told me, because I think it is extremely relevant to almost anyone person who aspires to be a lifelong learner — which, these days, we all have to be.

I asked him if I could interview him, so that he could provide advice to others facing the same fears and aspirations. He was gracious enough to not only say yes, but also spend hours answering my many questions and writing this up.

To set the context, here was his original message to me:

Good evening Gene. My name is Pat Birkeland. We met at the Microsoft Bellevue DevOps event this year. I was the person who had also gone through Dr Holt’s TOC related coursework at WSU.

I have just finished the DevOps Handbook and it is probably the most important book I’ve read since the Phoenix Project. I was really hoping to get your opinion on skills needed to stay relevant in IT based on some of the information presented in the DevOps Handbook.

Academically I have completed an MIS undergrad degree in addition to my MBA and the Masters in Engineering Management from WSU. I’ve been working in IT operations for the past 12 years and have a number of IT Certifications but no coding skills. With the changes coming to IT Operations with Microservices and infrastructure as code what might you recommend for someone in my position? Just pick up some general coding skills or would something a little more formal be more beneficial (computer science / software engineering degree)? Appreciate your time / thoughts. Pat Birkeland

Gene Kim: First off, can you tell me a little about yourself and your career path? (Pat’s answer is a little long, but I kept all of the text, because it shows how important certifications were in Pat’s early career. )

Pat Birkeland: I completed my undergraduate degree in July of 2003 and for those who were in or around the industry at that time, this was in the wake of the dot-com bubble bursting. Not only was I not finding a job, I wasn’t even able to land interviews. After 18 months I had gotten a job at Emerald Downs race track working as a banquet waiter but had only been able to land one interview for an IT position. It was at this point I decided to enroll in Northwest Technical College where I completed a MCSE program over a 6-month period while continuing to work at Emerald Downs.

After completing the program, I ran into a friend at the gym who introduced me to his brother in law, Kyle Carlson, who worked at Avanade in Seattle, WA. Kyle told me about an opening on the Avanade Operations team and I was able to successfully interview for that position and subsequently started my first real career position at Avanade. Avanade had a strong educational focus on certifications at the time, and given I had previously been in a position where I wanted a job but could not find one I was strongly focused on making myself a highly desirable team member. While I was at Avanade, I added to my education with additional Microsoft, CompTia, and Cisco certifications. I even qualified for my Microsoft Certified Trainer endorsement while at Avanade.

I left Avanade after two years to come and work at the Boeing Company. I was not looking to leave Avanade but I was looking to join Boeing due to an article I had read in The Seattle Times that described their generous tuition reimbursement program. I’m in my ninth year with Boeing and have completed two master’s degrees in addition to certificate programs from half a dozen other schools. This past year I earned IBM Champion status for my work with the IBM Cognos product. I’m also hoping to wrap up my last course this year for the ITIL Expert certification.

GK: The Advice I Gave Pat:

My primary advice to him was that he didn’t need any more degrees — he has plenty, and that he’s like many of us, trying to learn the relevant skills from many different domains. Heck, we met taking the same WSU graduate course, and he reminded me of the other people I’ve met on a similar learning journey at the many workshops I’ve taken, whether it was Toyota Kata by Mike Rother or High Velocity Edge by Dr. Steven Spear — both mentioned in this blog post.

I suggested several places that he research, given his background and experience:

  • Transformational Leadership: My friend Dr. Steven Mayner gave a fantastic talk about the role of leadership in Agile and DevOps transformations. You can watch his presentation and view his slides.
  • Furthermore, I suggested he even take the Multifactor Leadership MLQ assessment that we used in the experiment that Dr. Mayner, Dr. Nicole Forsgren, and I did for DevOps Enterprise Summit 2016. Here’s the MLQ assessment if you want to take it.
  • I also suggested that he has a lot to offer, but he needs for patterns to model on — and then I suggested he watch all the plenary presentations from DevOps Enterprise Summit, speculating that one of those will match his situation and paint a picture of the value he could create for his organization. Almost all nearly 200 talks since 2014 are available for free, along with their slide decks.
  • Lastly, I mentioned that many organizations are like Boeing, with many proscriptions against using new-fangled technologies. This was in response to something had said, something along the lines of “There’s no way they’d ever let us use Puppet/Chef/Ansible/Salt” for our applications. There are many examples in the DevOps Enterprise community, but I had just seen a presentation that was given at Clojure/West, on a team that used Clojure and many other exotic technologies to support some of the fault management systems for in-flight systems on airplanes. I thought this might inspire him to see how other leaders are using novel methods and technologies, even in the most conservative parts of Boeing.

GK: You and I talked for an hour — What advice resonated with you, and what actions are you going to take as a result?

PB: I will be taking the MLQ assessment this month. Really looking forward to seeing the results of that assessment. I will also go back and look at some of the previous DevOps Enterprise Summit keynote sessions on YouTube. This is a free source of knowledge which I have been overlooking for sometime and am glad to have come to this realization.

More importantly I’ll be sharing the assessment and DevOps Enterprise Summit keynote sessions with members of my team and the teams around me. I really think getting people exposed to the experiences of others will help energize our own efforts and creativity.

As I’ve gotten further and further my career I’ve realized that I am not always going to be able to lead in the way that I lead now. Right now I am in a position where I can really lead by example because I’m as heavily involved with the technical work as the rest of my team is. However I realize that at some point this will not be the case so I need to develop the ability to continue to lead when I can’t set the example by leading the weekend effort on a production impacting event. I also see myself as responsible for making sure that my team maintains or exceeds our current performance levels when I move on.

With all of this in mind we heavily emphasize learning and growth on our team. We talk about career goals and try to find opportunities for people which will support those goals. We try to identify opportunities where we are doing something that is first in industry or unique in industry with our COTS products and help people propose sessions at vendor conferences such as IBM or Tableau.

It is common discussion in our team that all of us are on this team temporarily, meaning this will not be the last stop for any of us career wise and it is OK to acknowledge that. I think this is a good way to keep the need for self directed education top of mind because if you are just doing what you are asked from 9 to 5 you may not like where you find yourself a few years down the road because so much is changing around us . . . and a lot of it is really cool!

GK: What are you going to do to start putting this into practice?

PB: My team is currently looking at more automated ways to do what we do today. For example we are looking at using MD5 for configuration management so that we can confirm our current production configurations match our desired production configurations. I’m not aware of MD5 being used for this purpose at my company so we may be proving out a new use for the product within the enterprise. We are also looking at internal options for our automated testing. This is going to be key for us as IBM Cognos has recently moved to a more rapid release model and we need to control our labor costs currently associated with our regression testing efforts.

I am personally coming up with a plan to develop more of my “Dev” skills to pair with my “Ops” skills. After our conversation I have the advantage of understanding that my goal with Dev is really becoming competent in deploying infrastructure-as-code as opposed to becoming a software engineer. Discovering this shorter finish line is a big deal for me and makes the goal more tangible and motivating

I’m a charter member of a new internal interest group here at Boeing which is focused on “DevOps for COTS.” The goal with this is to provide a landing pad for those looking for what is going on in the company with this area of knowledge as well as a forum to discuss things we would like to bring into the company and identify ways to make that happen.

I’m also looking at ways to get more involved with local communities. I actually led an effort to revive the local itSMF group here in the Puget Sound last year but we couldn’t fill the last required leadership post. I’m going to pick up that effort again. I will also be looking to become more involved in the Seattle DevOps community.

GK: What advice do you have to others about learning? And maybe more importantly, what prevented you for doing this before?

PB: I think the biggest takeaway I have when it comes to learning about new things is to not make it a bigger task than it really is. By that I mean do not be intimidated about what is coming and what is unknown. I’ll be using the DevOps Enterprise Summit keynotes as my starting point. There will be serendipitous paths which will branch from there. The hard part will be understanding which paths to take and which paths to not take. I think a lot of us would like to know everything but it just isn’t possible. I will strive to understand the language of many things but focus in a few areas for depth of knowledge.

The DevOps Enterprise Summit sessions and they have all been great! The content alone is worth the watch, but I think the communication style is something many of us in industry should take note of. I believe a lot of what I’ve seen has been in the spirit of a book called Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. The communication style really “speaks to the other side,” so to speak. 🙂

Instead of focusing on the reasons I did not do this sooner, I would like to focus on the reasons for doing it now. Reading The DevOps Handbook both exposed me to new topics and helped to solidify my understanding of other topics.  The information in this book, and the information I am discovering in some of the books referenced in The DevOps Handbook, has been a great inspiration and guide in helping me to focus our team goals as well as my own goals.

GK: What has changed in your thinking?


  1. Learn how to learn

I think some of us need to learn how to learn in the current environment. In the past I have looked to academia and certification prep for my learning guides. However it seems that at this time things are moving too quickly to rely on academia and certification prep. The tools I am now focused on are YouTube and Twitter. Identifying the right channels and people to follow is the first step. The second step is to listen to the content and when a term is being used or an idea is described that does not sound familiar that is a queue to go and learn.

  1. Take time to learn

The current velocity of change warrants focused time to be set aside for learning, as described in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Some people may be able to set aside some time daily while others may only be able to do so weekly. Regardless of the interval, time needs to be set aside and booked on your calendar to learn about what is going on in industry. If you have the time don’t limit your search to just IT. For example, much of what is occurring in industry right now is coming from manufacturing operations via the Theory of Constraints body of knowledge.

  1. Focus and apply learning

As we identify tools, technologies or processes that would be of benefit we will need to focus on actually delivering on benefits, or ideally diminishing a current limitation. To help us focus we will use what is known an Intermediate Objective Map (aka Goal Tree), introduced by William Dettmer in The Logical Thinking Process, and modify it with a stop light chart. I saw Chris Hohmann demonstrate this and have found this to be a valuable communication tool in establishing where we stand in contrast to our ideal state. It also helps us see where our pain points are.

GK: To conclude, I’m really excited by these exchanges with Pat, because I think his situation is extremely relevant to almost anyone person who aspires to be a lifelong learner. I know this is something is strive to be. I really appreciate Pat letting me interview him, so others facing the same fears and aspirations could learn from his situation.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Award winning CTO, researcher, and author.

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