DevOps and software disruption: The new assembly line

How do you put the current software disruption in its proper perspective? CloudBees CTO Kohsuke Kawaguki says look back 100 years to the Ford assembly line.

What's the big deal with DevOps?

Too often, the answer devolves into a combination of business buzzwords and platitudes.

You know -- DevOps is a major change agent. DevOps is driving software disruption. DevOps is tearing down silos and upending the enterprise.

Perhaps the answer is more apparent when you put DevOps in perspective. Were there similar "change agents" that "upended enterprises" on the same scale or with the same potential as DevOps

The 1914 Business Disruption

It's hard to overstate the impact Ford had on the automotive industry. Specifically, the impact that Ford's introduction of the assembly line more than 100 years ago had.

Ford didn't optimize or squeeze 15% more efficiency out of its assembly process. It redefined the entire industry, whittling the time it took to produce a car, in this case, the Model T, from 12.5 hours to just 1.5 hours.

The productivity led to higher profits, which led to higher wages for the assembly-line workers and cheaper Model Ts for everyone else. Ultimately, the Model T went from a starting price of $850 to $260. But, because the work was repetitive and turnover more common than before, Ford had to raise wages higher still to retain and attract employees.

In terms of raw numbers, Ford produced 300,000 cars with just 13,000 employees in 1914, one year after introducing the assembly line. That's more cars than Ford's 300 competitors, which included GM and Chrysler, with their 66,300 employees combined.

The software disruption

Does DevOps have that same potential? CloudBees CTO Kohsuke Kawaguki seems to think so, judging from his keynote presentation at the recent DevOps Connect event in Boston.

KK, as he was introduced, used the Ford example to illustrate the potential of the DevOps software disruption, which itself is fueled (or fueling, depending on your point of view) the software revolution.

He expounded the point with another automotive anecdote.

Tesla had a problem in 2013. A handful of its Model S electric sedans caught fire after striking road debris, which punctured the batteries. Rather than issue a clunky and time-consuming recall, Tesla "rolled out an over-the-air [OTA] update to the air suspension that will result in greater ground clearance at highway speeds," according to a blog post by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, addressing the issue.

That's a software fix to a hardware problem. And Tesla didn't stop there. It's since released more OTA updates adding new features to Tesla models, most famously drive assist and autopilot. As KK explained, that's a game-changer for the auto industry. Tesla has the ability to add value to its cars post-purchase when other cars typically depreciate up to 10% one minute after being driven off the lot.

Every company that wants to compete must become good at producing value through software, the solution essentially lies in the ability of your company to morph into a software company.
Kohsuke KawagukiCTO, CloudBees

As if he was speaking to the other automakers competing with Tesla, KK claimed, "Every company that wants to compete must become good at producing value through software, the solution essentially lies in the ability of your company to morph into a software company."

And not just any old software company. Today's top software companies are constantly developing, constantly updating, constantly fixing, constantly tweaking, constantly releasing, and constantly delivering. Achieving that is easier said than done.

"Merely saying that you want things to happen more frequently, releasing more, doesn't just happen in a snap," he explained. "This is not about releasing 10-15% more frequently; it's about moving from once every two years to multiple releases a month, with proper customer releases happening several times a year."

In what could be an understatement, he added, "This is a huge change."


Continuous delivery was a continuous theme in Kohsuke's presentation, given the role of Jenkins in facilitating CI/CD. He claimed it's now necessary to think of continuous releases, with continuously available information and constant monitoring, especially from the business side so that it has an idea of how the new paradigm is affecting the bottom line.

Of course, all that requires automation. You can't just speed things up and expect quality results. Ford's assembly line laid the foundation for automation on the plant floor, and DevOps and CD apply the same logic to the IT department, or the "application factory," as Kohsuke called it.

"Software is eating the world," Marc Andreessen famously wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2011.

He predicted that the entrenched players in industries seemingly immune to the software and DevOps software disruption are in for a surprise within the next 10 years. Amazon's early dealings with Borders, in which the latter outsourced its online sales to the former in 2001 before going out of business ten years later, remains the classic example. But you don't need to look any further than the havoc DevOps darling Airbnb has wreaked on the hospitality industry without owning a single hotel or how Netflix decimated Blockbuster.

So that's the big deal with DevOps. We see it with each bite software takes out of an entrenched player, as it encroaches with increasingly velocity on formerly hardware-centric tasks and services. If software is the product, think of DevOps as the figurative assembly line, and all the companies embracing DevOps concepts and philosophies as the new Fords, the "change agents" that are driving disruption," and "upending the enterprise."

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