DevOps Stories – Interview with Anne Steiner


Anne Steiner is the Vice President of Product Agility for cPrime. In her role, Anne sets up cross-team discovery cadences, scales product thinking in large organizations, and teaches and mentors stakeholders in leadership and product roles. Anne and her team have helped companies of all shapes and sizes to transform from traditional, project-thinking to become product-driven organizations that emphasize continuous learning. She also actively promotes building communities of practitioners in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and frequently speaks at national and regional events. She served in the United States Marine Corps as a logistics/embarkation non-commissioned officer in the early 2000’s.

Note – these and other interviews and case studies will form the backbone of our upcoming book “Achieving DevOps” from Apress, due out in late 2018. Please contact me if you’d like an advance copy!



You know, people think of the military as hierarchical, rigid – but in my experience the military is incredibly flexible and dynamic. It has to be to survive in war, and war is becoming more dynamic. Decision making keeps getting pushed down to lower and lower levels.

Just for example, look how we start with boot camp. It starts with dehumanization – with the goal of teaching people that we are all the same; nobody’s special. We take away your clothes, if you’re a guy we shave off your hair. Then we teach the lesson – you do everything as a team. The USMC sets up tasks that are impossible to complete in the time allowed alone. For example, the beds are so close together that if you’re asked to make a bed – your rack mate has to help you with one side of the lower bunk, and then you help her with your side of her bunk. The lesson is, nobody succeeds alone – in boot camp, you can be perfectly right and still get screamed at. I remember once, I made my bed perfectly; the corners were good, and I still got screamed at because I had known what needed to be done and I didn’t help my teammate. The whole process is to drill into your head – this is your family now – you must succeed as a team.

The military’s approach to requirements: Besides shared values, the concept of how orders are delivered in the military has some application to DevOps. In the military, there’s a separation of concerns between the officers who give orders and the enlisted people who carry them out – similar to the division between team members and management. These two groups have very different points of view and misunderstandings or conflicts could hamper an operation or cost lives. To address this – nothing significant happens without a written order describing the commander’s intent. It’s a standard 5 paragraph order that follows the SMEAC format – Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration, and Communication.

Now, the military doesn’t expect its people to document every possible scenario or to follow the words in the order blindly – because we need our people to make independent decisions autonomously as the situation ultimately changes mid-operation. So we don’t fill in all the details but provide the high level intent. The order describes what the commander wants to accomplish, the overall goals and the time frame – you are following orders as long as you’re following the intent and haven’t violated some other direction provided. At cPrime we do the same thing, where we teach product teams something called collaborative framing. That describes what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and who we are doing it for. That’s pretty similar to the way orders are used in the Marines – the orders provide the high-level strategy and context, and people are allowed to fill in the implementation details later.

I wish this happened more often in the development world. We shouldn’t feel like we have to spoon feed everything to dev teams with detailed requirements – what if we just gave them the intent? We could define the operating requirements, the business goals, and allow them to figure out how to solve the problem.

You want to be told why. A lot of times we aren’t told “why”, just “what” as developers. That’s what surprised me about the military – there was never a leader that I worked with that I couldn’t ask why, in a respectful manner, and be given context. That helps you understand the mission. It always surprised me how open leadership was to questions about orders.

Now I should say – orders aren’t open to question or debate all the time. Sometimes in a crunch we need orders to be followed without question; but that’s actually not the norm, contrary to what most people think.


Keys to Success: What separates out the successful orgs? I find three traits winning organizations have in common:

  • Bold leadership that’s willing to take risks
  • A culture of agility and learning
  • Starting with a small success story

DevOps culture changes obviously come easier with smaller companies; in larger orgs you have to find a pocket where it’s okay to experiment or where a bold leader can nurture and shelter an effort. Once you get to that point where you can start telling stories – we hit this obstacle, and here we hit some snags, but look at these results – that’s where you start to see culture change. You can’t just come in the door and say “We’re going to take risks and become a learning org!”, because you haven’t proven yourself yet. I’m always looking for that right kind of leadership protection, a willingness to experiment, and a group that wants to learn and try something different. That’s your beachhead!

A Single Mission: One of the key factors I see in many successful organizations with their DevOps transformations is to have a legitimate set of shared measures, a shared mission. In the USMC, we have a standard mission – to make Marines, and to win battles. That’s the single mission, and if something in the orders doesn’t relate to that directly – we throw it out. In the software world, it’s not that simple. Every product has a vision, every company has a mission statement. But how many can articulate that simply? Netflix does a great job with a shared mission for example – their shared goals are to retain subscriptions and to increase subscriptions. Whatever you do needs to be aligned against one of these. Can you prove that your project aligns against that? Otherwise you’ll see antipatterns like IT teams saying we have 100% uptime – yeah, that’s great, but you’ve got a crappy product and your customers are unhappy. That’s not product thinking, a clear common goal that everyone can rally around. 


Flexibility and Innovation: There’s a lot of people out there writing books on Agile, and quite a few are well written. But if you slam it on the table, it’s not going to work like it says in the book. Then what are you going to do? The teams that are successful are the ones that can implement this or better yet the parts of it that they think will add value, fail, modify it to their situation, and win anyway. That’s one of the things I love about the way the Agile Manifesto was written, because it is principle based.  We see a lot of organizations struggle because they bring in some “expert” who comes in with a checklist and says, no, you’re not doing scrum unless you’re doing these things. Well, who cares, as long as you’re delivering awesome products?  

As a culture, the USMC takes as a point of pride that it is always asked to do more with less – to us, that “Adapt, Improvise and Overcome” mantra is a real point of pride. I think it comes in part from how we were founded. The Marine Corps has the smallest budget of the branches. There’s not a lot of money flowing through the organization. So that helps us – we realize, no matter what happens, it’s probably not going to work the first time – we’ll adapt and change. Traditionally, we think in the software world that change is bad, we have to limit it, a risk. Well change is inevitable, we should expect it – and win even if we have to come up with a new solution on the fly. 


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