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Systems strategy chief Jason Cox details Disney's devops journey

Tamlin Magee | July 7, 2016
Disney now delivers big projects in as little as two weeks, something the business' strategy director attributes to devops.

goofy disney flickr creative commons
Image: Flickr Creative Commons/JD Hancock via Computerworld UK

Devops can loosely be defined as getting features into production quickly by bringing siloed departments together in a horizontal, non-hierarchical setup, using technology like automation along the way.

When Cox first joined the business "we had a lot of invisible operations going on", he says. "We had no idea what was going on in the other groups - as an operator I didn't find out the developers wrote code until a year later!"

There was a sizeable separation between quality assurance and development, and things weren't being tested via the same processes they were being produced.

"We were in a constant chronic mode of trying to get stuff to work," Cox says - getting websites live or software into production. "We got into this really bad behaviour of recognising, as a badge of achievement, the amount of hours you can go without needing to sleep - there was something really wrong about that, but it was a badge of honour."

But when the operators changed their team's name to systems engineers, something curious happened - suddenly other teams didn't see them as just operators, but as fellow engineers, and more approachable too.

"The profound impact was how we viewed ourselves," Cox said. "As systems engineers, we were no longer those who were operating the train, we were builders: building the track, the bridges, the locomotive, becoming part of the factory itself, along with the development teams."

This approach was so successful that it closed a lot of gaps between existing groups and eventually spread across the enterprise: systems engineers became embedded in the online and business groups, and each of the areas throughout the Walt Disney Company. See also: Devops explained: Why culture is key to devops success

The journey was not without its problems, but the results now speak for themselves - and Cox asserts that it was pushing for an integrated approach across the business that helped to deliver them.

The company's three key supporting pillars of creativity, global market expansion, and embracing technology to do it all led to more digitisation and, in turn, more servers, more applications, more infrastructure - scale was skyrocketing.

"If you name each server, it begins to form its own personality," Cox said. "We had dopey, we had all sorts of latency problems with sleepy. Grumpy was terrible, and Bashful would disappear off the network for hours. We had to get away from that - that's how enterprise was striking back at us."

But people can be stubborn to change. Cox cited Newton - that objects resist change in motion or direction, unless acted on by an external force: "We found that applies to people too. The force that we found was important for us was leadership."


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