DevOps vs Agile: Why Understanding Their Similarities and Differences Is Key to Effective IT Leadership

DevOps vs Agile: Why Understanding Their Similarities and Differences Is Key to Effective IT Leadership
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Agile. DevOps. Chances are great that if you’re reading this blog, you’re familiar with both.

But at the same time, you may not have ever had a formal introduction. In a world of fast-paced onboarding where the typical employee “orientation” is to run down all the logins you need to know, it’s easy to overlook the actual definitions of two key concepts that have — separately and together — rewritten the business world as we know it.

To understand why both Agile and DevOps are so important, it helps to define each and offer historical context. This will help contextualize how the philosophy and leadership of your organization fit within these two larger frameworks.

Even more importantly, IT leaders must be prepared to understand the idealized versions of Agile and DevOps in order to more effectively modify their processes to best-suit their organization. By combining both, IT operations teams and the organizations they serve can be optimized to meet the situation at hand. So, when people can better understand Agile, DevOps, and the similarities/differences between the two, everyone benefits.

Agile Definition and Historical Context

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) defines Agile Product (i.e., software) delivery as a “customer-centric approach to defining, building, and releasing a continuous flow of valuable products and services to customers and users.”

The key difference with Agile and prior versions of software development is that Agile teams focus on building out functional prototypes and features rather than developing the entire application all at once. Instead of a ‘big bang’ launch, an agile team delivers work in smaller, but useful, increments.

An Agile software development cycle focuses on defining and reaching frequent milestones as quickly as possible. Then, once that milestone is reached, the team can then focus on adding new features or expanding existing ones. Teams always focus on modifying the product in ways that bring added value to end users. This iterative approach allows teams to not only produce results quickly but to also define their requirements with a much shorter development window in mind. 

One of the benefits to this methodology is that requirements, plans, and results are evaluated continuously based on customer feedback, so teams have a natural mechanism for responding to changing business needs quickly.

Why Agile Was So Groundbreaking

The Agile methodology was developed in 2001 by a group of software developers and entrepreneurs. This gathering of “rebels” was interested in creating software applications with a different approach than what the past 20 years had ingrained upon business culture.

In the past, ideas for software came from top-level executives, and the product requirements were handed down to respective teams. Low-level teams were ordered to produce a product feature or function based on a mere concept, and they were left to figure out the details themselves. Product launch dates were set months in advance, and the idea was that the product would be released as a fully-functional and fully-featured version on day one.

Software teams could be, understandably, frustrated by this arrangement. Launch dates were often unrealistic, leading to brutal crunch and delays. Some features had no feasible way to be implemented, whereas others proved to be more trouble than they were worth. 

Ultimately, the shortcoming of this “top down” methodology was that it was based on an imagined final product driven by a wish list of requirements that represented business needs at one point in time. It did not take into account evolving business needs and the experience of development teams that were building and discovering on a daily basis.

Agile was designed to break this hierarchy. It said development should happen from the ground up, starting with a functional prototype. Teams could then expand the prototype based on ideas and capabilities that grew from the initial “seed bed” concept. Instead of working for months on something that may never come together, dev teams had features and concepts that were ready to test within a week or two.

Important to Agile’s founders was the idea that individual teams set the tempo of development. A team’s ideas helped a product grow organically through discovery, as well as responses to emerging opportunities in the current business market.

The philosophical bend to this approach was no accident, as evidenced by the Agile Alliance’s definition that opined: “When you approach software development in a particular manner, it’s generally good to live by these values and principles and use them to help figure out the right things to do given your particular context.”

DevOps Definition, and How It Iterated Upon Agile

“DevOps is a set of practices that works to automate and integrate the processes between software development and IT teams, so they can build, test, and release software faster and more reliably.” — Atlassian

Agile came about at the same time that many major internet platforms began to first hit their stride. The iterative approach to software development translated perfectly to web-hosted platforms. These platforms needed to change and evolve alongside growing user bases and the latest available technology. Another realization from these live platforms was that “someone has to make sure all this stuff keeps working.”

Enter IT operations: an approach to product support that utilized constant monitoring and live updates to address issues while optimizing product performance. Importantly, IT ops was also responsible for integrating and deploying iterative changes spawned by the development team.

The confluence of Agile development, IT operations teams, and the internet prompted many companies to realize that iterative improvement is the only logical way to maintain a “live” product. Agile’s quick, iterative “design, build, test” development cycles could be mirrored by an IT operations cycle of, “deploy, operate, and monitor.” 

This philosophy gave birth to DevOps. It was a process that not only focused on creating something but also giving it the human and technical resources to thrive. Since iterative dev “sprints” kept adding to and improving products, someone was needed to integrate and deploy those changes. Data gathered by IT operations could then offer ongoing feedback to let dev teams know what changes were stable and whether future changes were needed to maintain a product’s value offerings.

The DevOps cycle’s chief concern, therefore, is to facilitate:

  • Continuous integration (CI) and deployment of newly developed changes
  • Continuous feedback to influence development priorities

The Key Differences Between DevOps and Agile

The biggest difference between Agile and DevOps is that:

  • Agile was envisioned to serve the needs of software development teams to incrementally build and adapt to new learning.
  • DevOps was envisioned to serve the needs of companies and enterprises that already had a value-producing product they wanted to improve and maintain.

While both development methodologies were born from much of the same philosophical DNA, DevOps was always focused on preserving value and introducing reliability to technology that was already considered worth investing in.

PrioritizesIterative, experimental developmentMaintaining and improving a stable existing product
Time FocusShort sprintsLong-term business periods
Productivity GoalsEvolve products in an efficient and innovative wayContinuously develop, integrate, and deploy stable value-add changes
Team Leader AccountabilityResponsible for specific feature progressResponsible for specific performance areas
Development CyclesShort release cycles. Focus on constant expansion/improvement of existing productShort release cycles. Focus on constant expansion/improvement of existing product
FeedbackComes qualitatively from customersComes quantitatively from customer experience and behavior
AutomationOnly prioritized when it specifically fits a project’s goalsPrioritized in all areas to add speed and efficiency to change deployment and other vital processes

an that the latter is outdated. Instead, each is best suited to the environment in which it was created. If IT leaders recognize internally which processes and teams have environments best-suited to each, they can respond with organizational improvements accordingly. That’s how educating yourself more about Agile vs. DevOps can lead to small improvements that collectively have a dramatic positive effect.

Learn how IT analytics can reduce risk and provide stability to your DevOps environment, even while innovating, in our recent webinar: “Mastering DevOps with AI-powered Change Risk Prediction

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