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February 7, 2023

What is DevOps? An Updated Definition for the Next Generation

By Leah Brown

What is DevOps? What about DevSecOps? Or DevBizOps or DevSecBizOps? And, finally, is DevOps dead?

These questions seem to permeate our social media feeds and community chat rooms more than 10 years after the initial inception of the term DevOps. As we here at IT Revolution look back at our 10-year history, we thought it might be time to look at a fresh definition of DevOps. What did it mean then, what does it mean now, and what will it mean in the future?

Basic Definition

In its most basic form, DevOps is simply a portmanteau (pronounced port-MAN-toe), or a word made by blending at least two words. In this case, development and operations. More specifically, the development and operations departments of any organization that is developing software. The word combo is meant to show that Dev and Ops should cross the proverbial wall and work together.

But 10 years on, I think few of us would leave the definition there. And indeed, even from the beginning, DevOps represented something far larger than the simple reorg of two adversarial groups. Let’s dig down another layer.

Broader Definition

In broader terms, I like to look at Patrick Debois’s definition of DevOps. Debois is, after all, credited with being one of the first to use the term “DevOps” after watching the seminal “10+ Deploys per Day at Flickr” presentation by John Allspaw and Paul Hammond. (The first to use DevOps was Andrew Clay Shafer.)

In the Afterword to the second edition of The DevOps Handbook, Debois says:

Since the term was first coined, I’ve settled on my own definition of “DevOps”: everything you do to overcome the friction between silos. All the rest is plain engineering.

That bares repeating: DevOps is everything you do to overcome the friction between silos. All the rest is plain engineering.

This definition of DevOps is particularly appealing when you look at how many other departments and functions have been “shifted left” in the ten+ years since the term was coined. DevSecOps, DevBizOps, DevEverythingOps. The terms keep getting bigger and broader, and perhaps they are starting to pull us further away from the original intent.

This brings me to Jez Humble’s view of DevOps (also from the afterword to the second edition of The DevOps Handbook):

I think of DevOps as a movement of people who are working out how to build secure, rapidly changing, resilient distributed systems at scale. This movement was born from seeds planted by developers, testers, and sysadmins many years before, but really took off with the enormous growth of digital platforms. In the last five years, DevOps has become ubiquitous.

This feels more welcoming and synonymous with the intent behind the community. Time and time again at conferences and online, what we see in the DevOps community is a group of people who are looking to help one another be successful. It’s not about putting all the hats on one “DevOps Engineer,” it’s about working together toward a shared goal across all functions.

Lasting Impact

Talking about the DevOps community gets us closer to a definition that resists aging in a rapidly changing environment. In fact, the DevOps community is inspiring those outside the traditional software development and operations functions. It’s starting to transcend IT altogether and root into the business functions of organizations as well.

Gene Kim, bestselling author of the seminal DevOps novel The Phoenix Project, is known for talking about how much he loves seeing the success of DevOps go beyond technology roles. He states:

In one of the last pages in The Phoenix Project, the Yoda-like Erik character predicts that technology capabilities not only need to be a core competency in almost every organization but that they also need to be embedded throughout the organization, closest to where customer problems are being solved.

The DevOps Handbook, second edition

A Definition for the Next Generation

So what about the next ten years? What will our definition of DevOps be in 2033? Will DevOps have died and been replaced by platform engineering or some other term, as some would hail? It may not matter. Words come and go. Terms can be misused. What does matter is if the intent behind the term lives on or is lost to history.

It’s clear that DevOps has brought many organizations success. Just look at any of the State of DevOps Reports or read the many case studies out there. The larger point, as Dr. Nicole Forsgren eloquently points out in The DevOps Handbook, is the “responsibility we have to ensure our improvement journey continues. The opportunities are exciting, and we wish you well on the journey.”

So as you all go forth on your journey over the next 10+ years, what do you want the definition of DevOps to be? What do think will continue progressing this community forward to better and better ways of working that not only bring our organizations success but improve the lives of workers across industries?

- About The Authors
Leah Brown

Leah Brown

Managing Editor at IT Revolution working on publishing books for the modern business leader.

Follow Leah on Social Media


  • Anonymous Feb 14, 2023 1:53 pm

    I view DevOps as bring Operations into being a peer of Development. For the longest time, Operations has been underfunded and has lacked technology support. Tasks have been done manually and directly, for the first time, done on production equipment. Even recently, we have seen major outages by a large organization due to some sort of DNS change. Where are the test environments or simulations (many production environments are too large to reproduce) to verify these types of changes? Where is the technology to actively push these changes to the appropriate devices (rather than wait for them to eventually propagate)? Where is the incrementalism and parallelism to mitigate large scale problems? I agree that there are other facets, such as security and business that can also benefit, though I feel a separate term would provide better focus and not diminish all in an acronymn fog.

  • Anonymous Feb 10, 2023 6:19 pm

    Those are all good definitions! My own definition of DevOps is a thousand words, so I drew a picture instead:

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