Mathias Meyer
Mathias Meyer


Failure is still one of the most undervalued things in our business, in most businesses really. We still tend to point fingers elsewhere, blame the other department, or try anything to cover our asses.

How about we do something else instead? We embrace failure openly, turn it into our company’s culture and do everything we can to make sure every failure is turned into a learning experience, into an opportunity?

Let me start with some illustrating examples.

Wings of Fury

In 2010, Boeing tested the wings of a brand new 787 Dreamliner. In a giant hangar, they set up a contraption that’d pull the wings of a 787 up, with so much pull that the wings were bound to break.

Eventually, and after they’ve been flexed upwards of 25 feet, the wings broke spectacularly.

The amazing bit: all the engineers watching it happen started to cheer and applaud.

Why? Because they anticipated the failure at the exact circumstances where it broke, at about 150% of what wings handle at normal operation.

They can break things loud and proud, they can predict when their engineering work falls apart. Can we do the same?

Safety first

I’ve been reading a great book, “The Power of Habit”, and it outlines another story of failure and how tackling that was turned into an opportunity to improve company culture.

When Paul O’Neill, later to become Secretary of the Treasury, took over management of Alcoa, one of the United States’ largest aluminum production companies, he made it his first and foremost to tackle the safety issues in the company’s production plants.

He put rules in place that any accidents must be reported to him within just a few hours, including remedies on how this kind of accident will be prevented in the future.

While his main focus was to prevent failures, because they would harm or even kill workers, what he eventually managed to do is to implement a company culture where even the smallest suggestions to improve safety or to improve efficiency from any worker would be considered and would be handed up the chain of management.

This fostered a culture of highly increased communication between production plants, between managers, between workers.

Failures and accidents still happened, but were in sharp decline, as every single one was taken as an opportunity to learn and improve the situation to prevent them from happening again.

It was a chain of post-mortems if you will. O’Neill’s interest was to make everyone part of improving the overall situation without having to fear blame. Everyone was made felt like they’re an important part of the company. By then, 15000 people worked at Alcoa.

This had an interesting effect on the company. In twelve years, O’Neill managed to increase Alcoa’s revenues from $1.5 to $23 billion dollars.

His policies became an integral part of the company’s culture and ensured that everyone working for it felt like an integral part of the production chain.

Floor worker’s were given permission to shut down the production chain if they deemed it necessary and were encouraged to whistle when they noticed even the slightest risk in any activity in the company’s facilities.

To be quite fair, competitors were pretty much in the dark about these practices, which gave Alcoa a great advantage on the market.

But within a decade of running the company, he transformed it into a culture that sounds strikingly similar to the ideas of DevOps. He managed to make everyone feel responsible for delivering a great product and for everyone to be enabled to take charge should something go wrong.

All that is based on the premise of trust. Trust that when someone speaks up, they will be taken seriously.

Three Habits of Failure

If you look at the examples above, some patterns come up. There are companies outside of our field that have mastered or at least taken on an attitude of accepting that failure is inevitable, anticipating failure and dealing with and learning from failure.

Looking at some more examples it occurred to me that even doing one of these things will improve your company’s culture significantly.

How do we fare?

We fail, a lot. It’s in the nature of the hardware we use and the software we build. Networks partition, hard drives fail, software bugs creep into system that can lead to cascading failures.

But do we, as a community, take enough of advantage of what we learn from each outage?

Does your company hold post-mortem meetings after a production outage? Do you write public post-mortems for your customers?

If you don’t, what’s keeping you from doing so? Is it fear of giving your competitors an advantage? Is it fear of giving away too many internal details? Fear of admitting fault in public?

There’s a great advantage in making this information public. Usually, it doesn’t really concern your customers what happened in all detail. What does concern them is knowing that you’re in control of the situation.

A post-mortem follows three Rs: regret, reason and remedy.

They’re a means to say sorry to your customers, to tell them that you know what caused the issues and how you’re going to fix them.

On the other hand, post-mortems are a great learning opportunity for your peer ops and development people.

Web Operations

This learning is an important part of improving the awareness of web operations, especially during development. There’s a great deal to be learned from other people’s experiences.

Web operations is a field that is mostly learning by doing right now. Which is an important part of the profession, without a doubt.

If you look at the available books, there are currently three books that give insight into what it means to build and run reliable and scalable systems.

“Release It!”, “Web Operations” and “Scalable Internet Architectures” are the ones that come to mind.

My personal favorite is “Release It!”, because it raises developer awareness on how to handle and prevent production issues in code.

It’s great to see the circuit breaker and the bulkhead pattern introduced in this book now being popularized by Netflix, who openly write about their experiences implementing it.

Netflix is a great example here. They’re very open about what they do, they write detailed post-mortems when there’s an outage. You should read their engineering blog, same for Etsy’s.

Why? Because it attracts engineering talent.

If you’re looking for a job, which company would you rather work for? One that encourages taking risks while also taking responsibility for fixing issues when failure does come up, and one that enables a culture of fixing and improving issues as a whole rather than to put blame?

I’d certainly choose the former.

Over the last two years, Amazon has also realized how important this is. Their post-mortems have gotten very valuable for anyone interest in things that can happen in multi-tenant, distributed systems.

If you remember the most recent outage on Christmas Eve, they even had the guts to come out and say that production data was deleted by accident.

Can you imagine the shame these developers must feel? But can you imagine a culture where the issue itself is considered an opportunity to learn instead of blaming or firing you? If only to learn that accessing production data needs stricter policies.

It’s a culture I’d love to see fostered in every company.

Regarding ops education, there have been some great things last year that are worth mentioning. hangops is a nice little circle, streamed live (mostly) every Friday, and available for anyone to watch on YouTube afterwards.

Ops School has started a great collection of introductory material on operations topics. It’s still very young, but it’s a great start, and you can help move it forward.

Travis CI

At Travis CI, we’re learning from failure, a lot. As a continuous integration platform, it started out as a hobby project and was built with a lot of positive assumptions.

It used to be a distributed system that always assumed everything would work correctly all the time.

As we grew and added more languages and more projects, this ideal fell apart pretty quickly.

It is a symptom of a lot of projects that are developer-driven, because there’s just so little public information on how to do it right, on how distributed systems are built and run at other companies for them to work reliably.

We decided to turn every failure into an opportunity to share our learnings. We’re an open source project, so it only makes sense to be open about our problems too.

Our audience and customers, who are mostly developers themselves, seem to appreciate that. I for one am convinced that we owe to them.

I encourage you to do the same, to share details on your development, on how you run your systems. It’ll be surprising how introducing these changes can affect working as a team as a whole.

Cultural evolution

This insight didn’t come easy. We’re a small team, and we were all on board with the general idea of openness about our operational work and about the failures in our system.

That openness brings with it the need to own your systems, to own your failures. It took a while for us to get used to working together as a team to get these issues out of the way as quickly as possible and to find a path for a fix.

In the beginning, it was still too easy to look elsewhere for the cause of the problem. Blame is one side of the story, hindsight bias is the other. It’s too easy to point out that the issue has been brought up in the past, but that doesn’t contribute anything to fixing it.

The more helpful attitude than saying “I’ve been saying this has been broken for months” is to say “Here’s how I’ll fix it.” You own your failures.

The only thing that matters is delivering value to the customer. Putting aside blame and admitting fault while doing everything you can to make sure the issue is under control is, in my opinion, the only way how you can do that, with everyone in your company on board.

Accepting this might just help transform your company’s culture significantly.