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Does Microsoft's message to DevOps pros oversimplify?

Let’s be clear: Microsoft is dead serious about DevOps and wants to help DevOps pros. With its Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS) and Azure DevOps Project offerings, the company has delivered some of the most comprehensive DevOps tooling that you can get from one vendor.

Competitors such as IBM, CA and others also provide comprehensive DevOps tooling to help enterprise shops adopt DevOps to improve productivity of their developers, build products faster and enhance the quality of the software they deliver. But Microsoft is fresh in my mind because I attended the company’s Build 2018 developer conference recently in Seattle.

Rub some DevOps on it

It’s also fresh because I got some grief when I paid homage to one of Microsoft’s emerging star speaker’s use of the slogan “rub some DevOps on it,” which has become his tagline. The guy is Donovan Brown, principal DevOps program manager at Microsoft. Some observers questioned it, even calling it trite, dismissive and possibly even condescending to DevOps pros.

Brown has emerged as one of Microsoft’s top speakers and product demonstrators. He lives and breathes DevOps, and loves to do live demos of Microsoft’s DevOps technology to show the capabilities and openness of the platform. According to one published profile of Brown, he once pulled an all-nighter to rework a demo when someone pointed out an omission. With one hour of sleep, he got back onstage to present his new demo.

As a developer of 20 years, an Agilist and a former process consultant, Brown knows that the adoption of DevOps is no small feat. He knows the cultural and technical transformations that must occur for an organization to move to DevOps.

He explained that the phrase emerged while he and a small team from Microsoft visited a customer that had trouble implementing VSTS.

“While we were working through their process and identifying all the pain points they had, I made the comment that we were going to ‘rub a little DevOps on it and make it better,'” Brown said in a blog post on the slogan. “Everyone in the room started laughing at the thought of DevOps being a pain reliever. But when you think about it, it really is.”

He used the phrase during his DevOps demo at Microsoft’s Build 2016 event and it caught on. He said that when he got offstage, Twitter “was having a field day” with the phrase so he turned it into a hashtag: #RubDevOpsOnIt. That hashtag trends every time Brown presents. Folks familiar with Microsoft’s DevOps story know and enjoy Brown’s shtick.

Cringe worthy?

But obviously, not everybody.

“Honestly I’m not a huge fan of the catchphrase. It’s pithy, it’s catchy, but all it makes me think about is Silence of the Lambs: ‘It puts the DevOps on its skin or it gets the hose again,’ ” said Ted Neward, director of developer relations at SmartSheet, Bellevue, WA.

Rather than Silence of the Lambs, when I hear Brown’s catchphrase, I think of the old Chris Rock joke from his “Bigger and Blacker” HBO stand-up special, where he says when he was young his parents viewed Robitussin as a cure-all. He said if he had broken his leg, his dad would’ve said pour some ‘tussin on it! But I know that as a joke and I know Microsoft’s approach to DevOps and appeal to DevOps pros is for real.

Brown’s intent with the catchphrase is to connect with the audience as he demonstrates how to use Microsoft’s tools to set up an end-to-end DevOps pipeline, he said.

“To talk down to the audience would be putting myself down as well; I have DevOps in my title,” Brown told me. “Why would I dismiss or talk down about myself?”

Perhaps, you just had to be there, as folks often say about things that don’t translate well from an event to the telling of it.

Works for me

In any event, I get it and it works for me. In this age of rapid app development and deployment to meet increasing demand for applications to power digital transformation efforts, DevOps is a must-have, Brown says. And like rubbing an ointment on a burn or some dry rub on a rack of ribs, it’s going to make it better.

I also must admit that I like that Brown is an African-American that excels in a field where greater diversity is sorely needed. He may come in with a light-hearted catch phrase, but watching him present, even the uninitiated quickly learn that they are watching a well-prepared DevOps master at work. He puts in the work, rehearsing relentlessly.

Still, “I’d steer clear of that catch phrase, personally, simply because I think there are better ways to express the ideal of DevOps being something that you can apply in a number of scenarios and in a number of incremental ways,” Neward said.

What is DevOps really?

Meanwhile, although Microsoft customers love Brown because he’s a great speaker, the premise of DevOps itself has yet to be clearly defined, said Theresa Lanowitz, an analyst at Voke.

Brown authored Microsoft’s definition of DevOps: “The union of people, process, and products to enable continuous delivery of value to our end users.” Yet, Voke’s research indicates that there is no standard definition for DevOps. In a survey they received more than 80 unique definitions.

Moreover, if DevOps is supposed to encourage collaboration between the dev side of the house and the ops side of the house, “Microsoft never addressed the ops side,” Lanowitz argues.

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