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Andrew Johnson

Cloud Engineering Manager at Northwestern Mutual

Efrem Powell

Senior Enterprise Architect at Northwestern Mutual

DevOps Accelerator Team Sparks Creativity at Cream City Labs

Topics: Cream City Labs.

For the past year we've been driving DevOps enablement here at Northwestern Mutual as a way to help teams within the company migrate to modern platforms and grow technical capabilities tied to organizational outcomes.

We recently had the opportunity to expand our efforts during a three-month stay in Northwestern Mutual's Cream City Labs, and the experience has helped us advance our goals. Cream City Labs is our new innovation center, a space that allows us to scale our innovation efforts. The environment is hip, vibrant and different—by design—because we believe that when a space is completely different, it gives people permission to think, act and work differently.

From January to March, we, along with a dedicated team of engineers and coaches, ran the DevOps Accelerator out of the lab, hoping the environment would help participating teams shift their mental models and rapidly adopt the practices we were teaching.ß

One of our DevOps Enablement Engineers, Sam Dobias, described the experience this way:

"If we are truly attempting to shift the culture of our development teams away from traditional methodologies to a new DevOps culture for the obvious benefits it provides, the culture surrounding that idea is both the most difficult and single most important piece. Cream City Labs is a space that excites developers who want to be there; a place where what we're learning is completely different from anything we've done before. It's an environment that allows for open communication, easy collaboration and relationship building—a temporary escape to reset your brain."

The discussion about the space came up frequently; participants felt it helped them detach from the external pressures of the rest of the organization and focus, together as a team, to collaborate and get things done. And while we leveraged the space as a mechanism to change our team’s thought process, the accelerator experience was about more than just the environment.

The philosophy behind the DevOps Accelerator was this: We wanted to build a connection between the work our teams are doing and the impact of those efforts. How does their work add value to the organization, our advisors in the field, and our policy owners? We call it “outcome-based” work.

Katie Kopecky, Developer and one of our participants, recently described the value of connecting the dots:

“This has been really great. Before this, it felt like I would write code and then ship it to a server where it seemed to mysteriously start up and function. Now I have a better understanding what is happening on the infrastructure side and how my code impacts it. I feel more confident that if something went wrong in deployment, I could debug and understand the issue.”

After a 4-6 week engagement in the accelerator, our goal was for participants to deliver business features faster and with fewer errors. We trained teams on the use of new tools, tech and ways of working. As they were being up-skilled on modern design and architecture, they applied those learnings to (and completed) their committed work.

One team, for example, came into the accelerator with a goal of reducing the time it takes to process 100,000 records – which had been about five or six hours. At the end of the accelerator experience, the team was managing upwards of 10 million records in a matter of minutes. They are now taking what they learned and assisting with developing a pattern that others can easily use.

While our DevOps team is no longer operating out of Cream City Labs full-time, we do continue to take advantage of the space for specific activities. We want the DevOps transformational mind shift achieved in Cream City Labs to remain with teams, so it can grow across the organization. Some teams that came through the accelerator are now investigating how to run the experience on their own (basically, a franchise, with our support) so more teams can benefit. The development of these DevOps accelerator experience franchises across the organization will make this effort truly transformative. Experienced participants recognize the value of spaces like Cream City Labs and are now looking to use the space to run their franchises. We hope Cream City Labs can expand its footprint to accommodate all of the teams looking to shift their mindset. In the words of Jaws star Roy Scheider, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

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