Respecting Culturally Diverse DevOps Teams


In her Personality Matters series, Leslie Sachs examines the personalities and people issues that are found in technology groups from cross-functional, high-performance teams to dysfunctional matrix organizations.

The year ahead likely will be filled with unprecedented challenges in terms of both technology and business demands. Many corporations are struggling to meet the need for skilled human capital and many technology managers find themselves unequipped to handle the personality and people issues that arise when trying to manage a diverse group of people. Dysfunctional groups can cost the company a great deal in terms of lost productivity and defects, which negatively impact production systems. While technology and business needs are certainly complex, the people and personality issues may be even more challenging to deal with. This article will get you started with tackling some of these people-related challenges that you will likely encounter in the coming year.

Many technology professionals are focusing on the emerging practices in the field becoming known as DevOps. Development and operations professionals are often both highly skilled and capable resources, but the demands of software application development often attract people with a personality makeup that in many cases is very different than that of operations folks. Operations is focused on maintaining reliable and uninterrupted services while developers usually excel at learning new and challenging technology they utilize to build the next greatest mousetrap. I don't want to overgeneralize here, though, because you can certainly encounter gurus who straddle both functions. But what is clear is that employees in both development and operations need to improve their communication skills or DevOps won't be successful. In fact, all stakeholders need to be communicating, including QA, testing, and data security. Some groups struggle with effective communications and that is exactly where you may find that you can make a difference by helping the team to interact more effectively. Just as individuals each have their own unique personality, so too do groups often have exhibit distinct cultural norms.

If you have ever been a sports fan then you certainly know that high-performance teams often have their own culture, sometimes complete with an inner language that allows teammates to understand one another with a unique shorthand. This cohesiveness can be based upon a shared experience, such as being together on a minor league baseball team (go Cyclones!) trying to have a successful season, and sometimes the group exists for a more focused critical function like deploying a missile defense system as we recently saw with Israel's Iron Dome. (It is interesting to note that the very successful head of testing for this mission-critical project was a woman in her ninth-month of pregnancy. Keenly aware of the imminent danger to millions of civilians from incoming rockets, this professional coordinated an amazing team effort and managed to help roll out a life-saving missile defense system ahead of schedule.) While groups in a shared experience may develop a very distinct culture, many international firms also need to consider how the cultural norms of the parent organization impact employees from other backgrounds.

Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, are known for their aggressive competitive nature, which in many instances leads to excellence—as we see in New York City's Silicon Alley with its impressive list of very successful internet startups. This personality trait may seem foreign to technology workers from other countries where the norm is more focused on group and collaborative behavior. You may find yourself working in a culturally diverse team where everyone seems to come from a different, distant land. However, it is also common to join a team that has its own distinct personality. The first step is to understand the team's structure and behavior. Then you need to consider how you fit into the group and what adjustments you may need to make in order to fit in and work effectively with the others. One of the biggest challenges may be in handling conflict.

Some cultures are notoriously “in your face” and perfectly willing to grow through creative and effective discussions that may even turn a bit combative. But I have also worked with some colleagues who come from cultures where they are considerably much more conflict avoidant. These teams can be very challenging for newcomers and outsiders to adjust to because it is not always easy to tell where you stand. In cultures where aggressive and oppositional behavior is considered impolite, it can be challenging for some Westerners to understand where they stand and what they are expected to do. There are no right or wrongs in this situation and what matters is your ability to size up the team and understand how you fit into the group. If you get this right, then you can be more effective and also help act as a change agent for the entire organization. Keep in mind that understanding these different cultures needs to encompass both the behaviors, as well as the language and communications style and some of the differences may be quite subtle. For example, Indian, Japanese and Israeli firms all place a strong value on group behavior. However, the cultural norms in a Japanese firm can be very different than an Israeli firm.

The DevOps paradigm often encompasses both the technological group behaviors as well as some of the complex cultural norms we have mentioned in this article. You may find yourself working with a development team located in India with its own expectations and operating mode while the operations team is United States-based or perhaps working out of a data center in the former Soviet Union. Don't underestimate the impact of culture on your team and organizational effectiveness. It may take some effort to learn how other people operate, but remember to appreciate the many positive aspects of employee diversity. Teams that go beyond respect and also manage to enjoy one another and have some fun are often the most successful, as well. If you add top-notch people skills to your resume, you should be well-positioned for success in the coming year!

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