Who in their right mind has a book club about IT book published ages ago? Everything moves so fast and people invent new things that it makes no sense to read something old from the – checks notes – last decade! Right?
But we are talking about DevOps Handbook, which has stood the time well as it focuses on principles rather than detailed techniques or technologies. Naturally this is not something that everyone likes, which you can read from those few 1 or 2 star reviews for example on Amazon.
So here we have a handbook which does not teach you how to configure Jenkins, Travis, Circle CI, Github Actions or how to use docker registry in your selected cloud environment. Why would you want to read this book? Why would you want to waste your time as a technical person reading about the stuff you have read already in blog posts, watched in videos and done in practice while you were setting up components to do things and stuff?
If you see your mission only as doing individual tasks like setup a pipeline or do other technical tasks - and want to keep it in that, then reading and reflecting the ideas of The DevOps Handbook might not be of use. But if you have even small nagging feeling that you might not understand the whole big picture completely and you could understand other perspectives to the same puzzle a bit better, then reading the book with colleagues could be valuable.
My englightenment came with the facilitation done by my friend Ferrix Hovi at our employer Siili Solutions. Ferrix started his new position as the big Head of DevOps at Siili - and as one of the first interventions into the organisation started this low effort book club with our experienced professionals. Now, I say experienced professionals and I truly mean that. We got a really good group of people to start to read the book for the first time, or rereading it after some time with new colleagues. All the participants came with their different perspectives and experiences - and boy did we start to have great conversations right from the start.
I was blown away how professionals who have deep experience in certain fields, might have never seen or thought the big picture from another perspective. And yes, I had and have my own blindspots too. The feeling was exhilarating when a conversation where a simple question or a thought said out aloud opens up further discussion and dialogue between people who have some common ground - but are used to see the world just from their perspective. Conversations had empathy and understanding tone, and I assume that many of us had those lightbulb moments when listening to or while speaking to colleagues your own sense making process about the topic discussed.
And this is the important thing.
Our book club is not about lecturing one perspective or gospel, but about reflection, sense making and learning from each other. We all bring our own experiences and customer cases into the discussion, and leave each discussion session with some new insights from our experienced colleagues who have had their own exposures to different contexts and customer environments.
As busy professionals we spend most of our time in day to day grinding, and these sessions have become moments of big picture thinking and reflection for me. I have walked out from our discussions with a better understanding and reflection of things that I could and should also remind to take a better look at in our daily work. And that pays back the investment made into the book club fast.
But the long term benefit is even bigger.
Through this process of mutual learning we improve our thinking, adopt a better common vocabulary and eventually become more valuable professionals both inside Siili - but more importantly inside the customer organisations where we work. I have already seen few of our colleagues get new insights and thinking tools they can use to improve the environments they work in and how to engage with their stakeholders better in the near future. So this process can be transformative. This learning can enable our talented experts to become also better communicators and coaches - and increase their impact in the wellbeing and improvement of the organisations they work in.
Our process for the book club has been super simple and kept it as very low effort thing. We have had good lessons about such book clubs on multiple different topics, but that will be another series of posts.
Book clubs have just two roles: facilitator and participants.
Facilitators responsibility is to schedule events and set the pace for the group. Additionally facilitator is responsible for guiding the discussions in a way that the group manages to more or less finish the discussion within the timebox reserved. But as the goal of the club is mutual learning facilitator has freedom to follow whatever paths our discussions might lead us to.
Our The DevOps Handbook book club our pace has been two chapters per week, and one hour discussion session. In the discussion session our format has been following:
Each participant has the opportunity to say what was the most important thing for them in this section
Potentially free dialogue based on ideas / reflection raised by participants
More directed skimming through of the chapters - and discussion on the details and themes as we go though each section.
Wrap up discussion and reminder of the next session
This is a super simple format in principle, but requires that the facilitator is able to keep the discussions going on and still within the timebox so that the group does not just wander away to super interesting side quests and problems that are interesting. When you get super smart people who have super interesting experiences from super interesting cases to come together it is always the possibility that you wake up 4 hours later from a narrative sideline that combines obscure internals of JVM and ideas of esoteric management theories.
Idea in this structure has been to give every participant opportunity to speak up first, and then proceed to make collective sense of the topic. Collective sense making is always a process that depends on the group dynamics and here the experience of the facilitator can help a lot. We are on a learning journey, so how can we learn the most from experiences and ideas that others have?
Going through the material together in the step 3 finally offers us the opportunity to reflect the material we have previously read with new eyes and insights received from the discussion and insights our colleagues have said to have received. More often than not I have in this step understood some nuances from the text better than in the moments when I have read the text alone. So yes, I learn so much better with the help of reflection that other people do in the group.
We understand the world differently. Discussing big thoughts and principles in a group allows us to learn efficiently. The DevOps Handbook is excellent resource to use as a structure for these discussions.
These discussions and community learning is fun and makes us better human beings.
And all this because we read a book from the last decade.