Friday, January 9 - For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations (2015)

For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations (2015)

Chapter 35

• Friday, January 9

I grip the steering wheel nervously as I drive to Steve’s house. He’s throwing a party for everyone who has worked so hard on Phoenix and Unicorn, inviting people from both the business and IT. The roads are uncharacteristically icy, with no melting even after weeks of sunshine. It was treacherous enough that Paige and I decided to stay at home for New Year’s Eve instead of celebrating with her family as we usually do.

It’s been over a month since that last meeting with Steve and Sarah. We haven’t seen much of Sarah since then.

As I’m driving, I contemplate how quiet it’s been. I keep expecting someone to call in another Sev 1 incident. Instead, my phone just sits in the cup holder, completely silent—like yesterday—and the day before that.

I can’t say that I miss all of the excitement, but there are times now when I literally have nothing to do.

Thankfully, I’m now coaching all my managers through our two-week improvement cycles, according to the Improvement Kata, which keeps me from feeling totally useless. I’m especially proud that for an entire month, my group hit our target of spending fifteen percent of our time on preventive infrastructure projects. And it shows.

We’re using the entire budget we’ve been allocated. We’re closing our monitoring gaps, we’ve refactored or replaced our top ten fragile artifacts so that they’re more stable, and the flow of planned work is faster than ever. Against my expectations, everyone jumped enthusiastically on Project Narwhal otherwise known as the “Simian Army Chaos Monkey” project. Like the legendary stories of the original Apple Mac OS and Netflix cloud delivery infrastructure, we deployed code that routinely created large-scale faults, thus randomly killing processes or entire servers.

Of course, the result was all hell breaking loose for an entire week as our test, and occasionally, production infrastructure crashed like a house of cards. But, over the following weeks, as Development and IT Operations worked together to make our code and infrastructure more resilient to failures, we truly had IT services that were resilient, rugged, and durable.

John loved this, and started a new project called “Evil Chaos Monkey.” Instead of generating operational faults in production, it would constantly try to exploit security holes, fuzz our applications with storms of malformed packets, try to install backdoors, gain access to confidential data, and all sorts of other nefarious attacks.

Of course, Wes tried to stop this. He insisted that we schedule penetration tests into predefined time frames. However, I convinced him this is the fastest means to institutionalize Erik’s Third Way. We need to create a culture that reinforces the value of taking risks and learning from failure and the need for repetition and practice to create mastery.

I don’t want posters about quality and security. I want improvement of our daily work showing up where it needs to be: in our daily work.

John’s team developed tools that stress-tested every test and production environment with a continual barrage of attacks. And like when we first released the chaos monkey, immediately over half their time was spent fixing security holes and hardening the code. After several weeks, the developers were deservedly proud of their work, successfully fending off everything that John’s team was able to throw at them.

These are the thoughts going through my head as I wind my way toward Steve’s house. The sprawling grounds are all covered by snow, hiding the immaculately manicured lawns.

When I ring the doorbell an hour early, as Steve requested, I hear loud barking and then the sounds of a very large dog slipping on a hardwood floor, crashing into the door.

“Come on in, Bill. It’s great seeing you again,” Steve says, holding the dog’s collar and gesturing toward the kitchen with a skewer of vegetables in the other hand. When we get to the kitchen, he points to the counter in front of him, where a large metal bucket of ice sits, full of bottles. “You want anything to drink? Beer? Soda? Scotch?” Looking around, he adds, “Margarita?”

I grab a beer out of the bucket, thank him, and then give him a quick summary of my somewhat boring day as he moves me to the living room.

Steve smiles. “Thanks for coming over early. We’re going to have a record-breaking quarter. We couldn’t have done it without you and Chris. For the first time in years, our market share is up! You know, I wish I could see the looks on our competitors’ faces. They’re probably scrambling, trying to figure out how we did it.”

Steve is smiling broadly. “I actually saw Dick crack a smile the other day. Well, he showed his teeth, at least. Project Unicorn and that new project, Narwhal, are helping us understand what are customers actually want. Our average order size just hit a record last week, and Dick said that Unicorn had the fastest payback of any project we’ve done in recent memory.”

He continues, “The analysts are starting to love us again. One told me last week that if we execute well, it’ll be very difficult for our nonintegrated competitors to follow us. No doubt, they’ll be raising our stock price targets, and Bob is finally withdrawing his support to split up the company.”

“Really?” I say, raising my eyebrows in surprise. “I thought that Sarah was convinced that splitting up the company was the only way for us to survive.”

“Ah, yes…” he says. “She’s decided to look for other options elsewhere and is on a leave of absence.”

My jaw drops. If I’m hearing this correctly, Sarah is being eased out of the company. I smile.

“By the way,” Steve says. “Project Narwhal? Project Unicorn? Can’t you guys come up with better names than that?”

I laugh. “No one is more upset about it than Maggie. She’s convinced that all her product managers are laughing at her. She’s told her husband that if the next project is called ‘Hello Kitty,’ she’ll quit.”

He laughs. “As you can guess, though, I didn’t ask you to come early to critique your project names. Have a seat.”

As I settle into a cushy armchair, he starts to explain. “We’ve had an open position for the CIO for months. You’ve been a part of that interview process. What have you thought of the candidates?”

“Honestly? I was disappointed,” I say slowly. “They were all senior people with a lot more experience than me. They kept talking about tiny parts of the problem. They proposed only a fraction of what we’ve done in the past couple of months here at Parts Unlimited. I feel that if they signed on, we’ d be at considerable risk of going back to all the bad old ways.”

“I agree with you, Bill. Which is why I’ve decided that we should fill this position internally. You have any suggestions on who we should promote?”

I go through the possible candidates in my mind. It’s not a long list. “I think Chris is the obvious choice. He was the driving force behind Unicorn, as well as Narwhal. If it weren’t for his leadership, I’m pretty sure we’ d still be stuck dead in the water.”

He smiles. “You know, it’s funny. Everyone thought you’d say that. However, I won’t be following your recommendations.”

He continues, “This is going to take a while to explain. You were everyone’s unanimous choice to become CIO. But to be brutally candid, I don’t want you there.”

Reacting to my obvious distress, he says, “Hey, relax. Let me explain. My board holds me responsible for making the best use of company resources to achieve the goals that maximize shareholder value. My primary job is to lead my management team to make that happen.”

He stands up, walking over to the window, looking out at the snow-covered yard. “You’ve helped me see that IT is not merely a department. Instead, it’s pervasive, like electricity. It’s a skill, like being able to read or do math. Here at Parts Unlimited, we don’t have a centralized reading or math department—we expect everyone we hire to have some mastery of it. Understanding what technology can and can’t do has become a core competency that every part of this business must have. If any of my business managers are leading a team or a project without that skill, they will fail.”

He continues, “I need each and every one of my business managers to take calculated risks, without jeopardizing the entire enterprise. People everywhere in the business are using technology, so it’s like the Wild West again—for better or for worse. Businesses that can’t learn to compete in this new world will perish.”

Turning back to me, he says, “In order for Parts Unlimited to survive, the business and IT can’t make decisions exclusive of each other. I don’t know where this is all going, but I know the way we’re organized now, we’re not firing on all cylinders.

“I’ve been discussing this with my board for the last couple of months,” he says, sitting down, staring right at me. I know this expression. It’s like my first meeting with him last year. This is what he looks like when he’s trying to seduce someone. “I’m impressed with your performance and what you’ve done with IT. You used the same skills that I would expect anyone leading one of our large manufacturing divisions to use.

“Now I want to see you grow and learn, and build new skills to best help all of Parts Unlimited. If you’re up to it, I am prepared to invest in you. I want to put you on a fast track, two-year plan. You’ll do rotations in sales and marketing, manage a plant, get international experience, manage the relationships of our most critical suppliers, and manage our supply chain. Trust me, this will not be a vacation. You’re going to need help—a lot of it. Erik has kindly agreed to mentor you, because we both believe this will be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done.

“But,” he continues, “if you achieve each of fifteen specific performance targets we’ve laid out for you, we’ll move you into a provisional Chief Operating Officer role in two years, where you’ll work closely with Dick while he gets ready to retire. If you work hard, get results and play your cards right, you’ll be the next COO of the company in three years.”

I feel my jaw hanging open, my beer bottle dripping water onto my leg.

“You don’t have to answer now,” he says, obviously satisfied that his pitch is having the desired effect. “Half my board thinks I’m crazy. Maybe they’re right, but I trust my instincts. I don’t know how this is going to shape up, but I have confidence that this is what’s best for the company. My gut tells me that in ten years, when we’re mopping the last pieces of our competition off the floor, this is the gamble that will have made that possible.

“While we’re dreaming big dreams here, let me say this,” he continues. “In ten years, I’m certain every COO worth their salt will have come from IT. Any COO who doesn’t intimately understand the IT systems that actually run the business is just an empty suit, relying on someone else to do their job.”

Steve’s vision takes my breath away. He’s right. Everything my team has learned, as well as what Chris and John have learned, shows that when IT fails, the business fails. It stands to reason that if IT is organized so that it can win, the business wins, too.

And Steve wants to put me on the vanguard of this movement.

Me. A technology operations guy.

Suddenly, I think of how one of Erik’s higher ups decided to mustang him from a senior NCO to a lowly lieutenant, forcing him to climb the ladder again from the very bottom of the officer ranks. Obviously, Erik had the courage to do it, and the rewards for him (and his family, if he has one) seem pretty evident. He’s living a life that seems to have transcended our mortal plane of existence.

As if Steve knows what I’m thinking, he says, “You know, when Erik and I first met, many months ago, he said that the relationship between IT and the business is like a dysfunctional marriage—both feel powerless and held hostage by the other. I’ve thought about this for months, and I finally figured something out.

“A dysfunctional marriage assumes that the business and IT are two separate entities. IT should either be embedded into business operations or into the business. Voilà! There you go. No tension. No marriage, and maybe no IT Department, either.”

I just stare at Steve. In some Erik-like way, something about what he says seems inescapably true.

In that moment, I decide. I’ll still have to talk with Paige, but I know with certainty that the journey Steve wants to send me on is important—both for me and my family and for my entire profession.

“I’ll think about it,” I say, solemnly.

Steve smiles broadly and stands up. When I grasp his outstretched hand, he clasps my shoulder firmly. “Good. This is going to be fun.”

Just then, the doorbell rings, and within a few minutes, the whole gang is here—Wes, Patty, John, and Chris—so are Maggie, Brent, Ann, and, holy crap, even Dick and Ron.

As the party starts to get louder and louder, each of them congratulate me, drinks in hand. It’s obvious that they knew everything already, including Steve’s startling offer to go on a three-year training plan to become the next COO.

Dick approaches me, holding a glass of scotch. “Congratulations, Bill. I’m looking forward to working closely with you in the years to come.”

Shortly, I find myself laughing with a bunch of other people, accepting their congratulations, and trading stories about the amazing journey we’ve been on.

Wes claps me on the shoulder. “Now that you’re being promoted,” he says, even more loudly and brashly than normal, “We all thought we should give you something that celebrates what we’ve accomplished. Something that you can take with you that will remind you not to forget about us, you know, little people.”

As he reaches into the box at his feet, he says, “We argued for a long time about what it should be. But in the end, it was obvious…”

When I see what he pulls out from the box, I burst out laughing.

“Your old craptop!” he exclaims, holding it high in the air. “It was a shame to make it unusable by bronzing it, but you’ve got to admit, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

In disbelief, I gape at it as everyone laughs, clapping and cheering. It really is my old laptop. Taking it from Wes, I see the broken hinge and the duct tape I put on to hold the battery in. And now the entire laptop is covered in what looks like a thick layer of gold-colored paint, and it’s mounted on a Mahogany pedestal.

At the bottom of the pedestal is a bronze label. I read aloud, “In fond memory of dearly departed Bill Palmer, VP of IT Operations,” with the last year in parentheses.

“Holy crap, guys,” I say, genuinely touched at their gesture. “You make it sound like I died!”

Everyone laughs, including Steve. The evening goes by quickly, and I find myself surprised that I’m having such a good time. I’m not usually a social person, but tonight, I feel like I’m in the company of friends and colleagues who I respect, trust, and genuinely like.

Sometime later, Erik arrives. He walks over to me, pausing to scrutinize the bronzed laptop. “You know, even though I give you a fifty-fifty chance of washing out, I still believe in you,” he says, standing in front of me, taking a swig of beer. “Congratulations, kid. You deserve it.”

“Thanks,” I say, smiling broadly, genuinely touched at his faint praise.

“Yeah, well, don’t let me down,” he says gruffly. “I’ve never liked this town, and you’ll be making me fly into that godforsaken airport for years to come. If you screw this up, it will all be for nothing.”

“I’ll do my best,” I say with a surprising amount of confidence. “Wait a second. I thought you’d be coming into town anyway for our board meetings?”

“After what I’ve seen, I don’t want any part of it!” Erik says, laughing loudly. “I think Parts Unlimited is going to make a lot of money. We’ll see how good your competition really is, but my suspicion is that they’ll have no idea what hit them. For me, this isn’t just idle theory. If all goes according to plan, within a couple of weeks, I’ll likely be one of the largest investors in this company. The last thing I want is a bunch of insider information that restricts my ability to buy and sell!”

I stare at Erik. He has enough money to become one of our largest investors but still dresses like a manufacturing line worker? I never would have guessed that he cared so much about money.

Eventually I ask dumbly, “What do you mean by ‘insider information?’ ”

“I’ve long believed that to effectively manage IT is not only a critical competency but a significant predictor of company performance,” he explains. “One of these days, I’d like to create a hedge fund that invests in companies, taking long positions on companies with great IT organizations that help the business win, and short the companies where IT lets everyone down. I think we’ d make a killing. What better way is there to force the next generation of CEOs to give a shit about IT?”

He continues. “I can’t do that if I’m tied up as a board director in all these companies. Bad optics. Too much potential jeopardy with the SEC, auditors, and all that.”

“Ah,” I say.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt,” John interjects, “but I wanted to congratulate you and pay my respects.” He then reaches out to shake Erik’s hand, saying, “And to you, as well, sir.”

Erik ignores his hand, staring at him up and down for a couple of moments. Then he laughs and shakes his extended hand. “You’ve come a long way, John. Well done. And by the way, I like the new look. Very Euro discotheque.”

“Thanks, Erkel,” he says, deadpan. “I couldn’t have done it without you. I’m grateful.”

“My pleasure,” Erik says jovially. “Just don’t hang out with auditors too much. It’s not good for anyone.”

John shakes his head agreeably, returning to the party. Erik turns to me and says conspiratorially, “Now that is a rather remarkable transformation, wouldn’t you agree?”

I turn around to look at John. He’s laughing and trading insults with Wes.

“So,” Erik says, interrupting my train of thought. “What are your plans for the rest of the IT organization? Given this promotion, you’ve got some positions to fill.”

I turn back to Erik. “You know, I could never have predicted this.” Erik snorts dismissively, which I ignore. “Wes, Patty, and I have talked about this a lot. I’m sure I’m going to promote Patty to be VP of IT Operations. She’s the closest we have to a plant manager for IT Operations, and she’ll kick ass,” I say with a smile.

“Good choice,” he responds. “She certainly doesn’t look like your typical IT Operations manager, though… And Wes?”

“Believe it or not, Wes made it very clear he doesn’t want to be VP of IT Operations,” I respond. With less certainty, I say, “If I’m supposed to vacate my role as CIO in two years, I think Wes will have a big decision to make. If I could wave a magic wand, he’d take over for Patty as head ofIT Operations, and Patty will be become the next CIO. But how am I ever going to get everyone ready if Steve keeps heaping more responsibilities on me?”

Erik rolls his eyes. “Give me a break. You’re bored in your current role. You’re going to become a lot less bored. Fast. And remember that there are a lot of experienced people around you who’ve been on similar journeys, so don’t be the idiot that fails because he didn’t ask for help.”

He turns to leave but then looks at me with a glint in his eye. “Speaking of helping other people, I think you owe me something.”

“Of course,” I respond sincerely, suddenly wondering if I’ve been set up from the very beginning. “Whatever you want, just say the word.”

“I need you to help me elevate the state of the practice of how organizations manage technology. Let’s face it. Life in IT is pretty shitty when it’s so misunderstood and mismanaged. It becomes thankless and frustrating as people realize that they are powerless to change the outcome, like an endlessly repeating horror movie. If that’s not damaging to our self-worth as human beings, I don’t know what is. That’s got to change,” he says passionately. “I want to improve the lives of one million IT workers in the next five years. As someone wise once told me, ‘Messiahs are good, but scripture is better.’ ”

He says, “I want you to write a book, describing the Three Ways and how other people can replicate the transformation you’ve made here at Parts Unlimited. Call it The DevOps Cookbook and show how IT can regain the trust of the business and end decades of intertribal warfare. Can you do that for me?”

Write a book? He can’t be serious.

I reply, “I’m not a writer. I’ve never written a book before. In fact, I haven’t written anything longer than an e-mail in a decade.”

Unamused, he says sternly, “Learn.”

Shaking my head for a moment, I finally say, “Of course. It would be an honor and a privilege to write The DevOps Cookbook for you while I embark on what will probably be the most challenging three years of my entire career.”

“Very good. It’ll be a great book,” he says, smiling. Then he claps me again on the shoulder. “Go enjoy the evening. You deserve it.”

Everywhere I look, I see people who are genuinely having fun and enjoying each other’s company. With my drink in hand, I ponder how far we’ve come. During the Phoenix launch, I doubt anyone in this group could have imagined being part of a super-tribe that was bigger than just Dev or Ops or Security. There’s a term that we’re hearing more lately: something called “DevOps.” Maybe everyone attending this party is a form of DevOps, but I suspect it’s something much more than that. It’s Product Management, Development, IT Operations, and even Information Security all working together and supporting one another. Even Steve is a part of this super-tribe.

In that moment, I let myself feel how incredibly proud I am of everyone in this room. What we’ve pulled off is remarkable, and even though my future is probably less certain than anytime in my career, I feel incredible excitement at the challenges the coming years are going to bring.

As I take another sip of beer, something catches my eye. A bunch of my people start to look at their phones. Moments later, on the other side of the room, one of the developers next to Brent is peering into his phone, too, with everyone huddled around him.

Old instincts kicking in, I urgently look around the room for Patty who is making a beeline toward me, her phone already in her hand.

“First off, congratulations, boss,” she says, with a half smile on her face. “You want the bad news or the good news first?”

Turning to her, I say with a sense of calm and inner peace, “What have we got, Patty?”