Naming and Framing

Or, why did Accelerate matter for DevOps?

Assumed audience: People interested in software engineering effectiveness, developer productivity, and the like.

Epistemic status: Lots of unknowns in the big picture, but pretty comfortable with this little corner of the idea.

In response to my post A Gap in (My Knowledge of) the Developer Productivity Literature, one reader responded:

I’m not sure, but I don’t think we really have a movement for [engineering effectiveness/developer productivity] because it’s just what we’ve always been doing - getting better at our craft. We have words for the programs we run, but the movement is just part of being a software engineer who cares about their craft.

On the one hand, I think there’s a way that this is true. We certainly have been working at improving our engineering effectiveness” for many decades, including (as that reader also pointed out) investments in IDEs and languages and test tooling and so on. On the other hand, I think it’s just what we’ve always been doing” equally accurately sums up how the DevOps slice of developer productivity looked before Accelerate came along and changed things up.

So why did Accelerate matter?

I suggest it’s for two reasons:

  1. Putting a name on an idea and framing it clearly and distinctly gives people tools to think about it. That is (or at least can be) extremely powerful in terms of broader industry thinking and norms and in terms of the levers engineers have to advocate for their own work.

  2. The inverse of which is: where there are a lot of ideas floating around, but (a) they’re not really synthesized into something coherent and (b) they’re too soft” — meaning harder to put any numerical value on, still less a meaningful one — it’s much harder work for teams to make the case for their existence/growth/etc. than it is with the DevOps bucket.

The reasons I’m so interested in this, then, is that having a good name and a clear frame for the work helps — and not having them hurts. Thus: my spending an increasing amount of time consciously mulling on the problem, and also going out of my way to let my subconscious work on it. If we can make actual progress on better frames and a catchy name, the kind of job I do gets easier — and hopefully, and more importantly, so do the jobs of the people my job is designed to serve!