Rethinking Contemporary Operations Teams
By Stephen Dillon |Schneider Electric| Global Solutions| Engineering Fellow| Data Architect
If, like most people, you are very interested in the end game Big Data and Analytics promises then you should consider how your infrastructure supports your solutions and how you support your infrastructure. Does it support what you intend to deliver? Do you have the correct teams in place to be successful?
Infrastructure and technology are often taboo subjects whereas people tend to be more interested in the end results instead of the effort it takes to succeed. However; the infrastructure and technologies that comprise contemporary solutions play a larger role than ever due to the direct influence they have on analytics. If we consider that such solutions now consist of more technologies, and the increased complexity of each, we may realize the opportunity for things to go awry has increased. Thus the teams that manage and support this have become more important as well.
Presuming you have chosen the correct technologies, which itself is a different topic, the next question is can you implement and maintain them correctly? Do the people on the supporting teams have the knowledge, skills, and capacity to succeed? Too often the answer is no. For the purposes of this discussion, I am placing all such people, including DBAs and system admins, into the category of the Operations team. Yes; we understand these typically may be broken into more granular teams and rightfully so.
It is fairly easy to imagine why such teams play a larger role than ever before. First; the importance we place on analytics is continuously increasing. The efficiency and reliability of the various systems play a significant role in the success of your data scientists and data driven solutions. Second; the multitude of ever changing technologies raises the likelihood mistakes can be made and increases the required knowledge and skills such teams must possess. Third, and maybe most importantly, plans change more rapidly than ever. Teams must be able to adapt to such changes without an ensuing catastrophe. Thus the people you hire for these teams must be better than ever, if you are to succeed, and such people must be specialized. To be clear; the people must be special more so than possessing a specialized skill-set.
Such teams are not only responsible for maintaining and supporting the daily availability and upkeep of your systems and infrastructure, they are also often contributors to the evolving design of a product. Unlike traditional Ops teams of a decade or more ago, the members of such teams cannot rest on many years of experience with a particular technology. NoSQL and NewSQL technologies, for example, are relatively young and the breadth of material available from the field is limited. Cloud architectures and virtual deployments compound this complexity even further. Thus Ops teams must consist of thinkers and doers with a knack for excelling in technology in general. They must be capable of adapting to an ever changing set of technologies and business strategies. They will often be required to not simply be best-practice followers but best-practice generators. This is a subject often overlooked and is the cause of many headaches, delayed product releases, unmet SLAs and a myriad of other less than ideal scenarios. Many of these issues are avoided with a bit of careful planning and some attention given to choosing the correct people for the task at hand.
How do you build such teams and ascertain who the correct people are? It’s not easy. Many hiring managers focus too much on skills and certifications or a degree. Let’s face it, a Masters degree is the new bachelors degree and in the IT field; just about everyone has one. Certifications, at this point in my career, amount to very little personally and I place the proper level of importance on them when reviewing candidates. I am more concerned about a candidate’s fundamental skills and knowledge of concepts. A certificate is a nice way for someone to demonstrate they had the motivation to learn one of the many applications of concepts but quite frankly we may forsake that technology a month into a project due to changing business needs. If you are spending more time managing than leading your Ops people, you have the wrong people. Instead a modern Ops person must have mental resilience and a hunger for problem solving and technology. You need someone with the ability to get beyond obstacles whether they are physical or mental.
In my opinion; a good team will consist of people in possession of a balance of specialized and general skills but more importantly always evolving skills. Hiring too many specialists is fraught with peril whereas they tend to work within a narrow scope and not deliver when faced with today’s changing landscape and rapidly evolving business plans.
What happens when your business strategy demands a change in technology? One of the best approaches is to hire a team of people with enough specialization who are willing to be cross trained in other technologies as well as other roles merely to provide coverage in an emergency. That proposition frightens a lot of people. To be clear, I am referring to cross training in activities very similar to your own. For example, your hardware admin may need to be cross trained in cloud provisioning or perhaps your SQL Server DBA may need to know a NoSQL technology.
I hope this has cast some insight into a small corner of the IT field and behind the curtains of Big Data and Analytics. It may sound a bit cliché but without the proper foundation to build upon you should not expect much success.