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Is faster actually safer? How software physics beats human psychology

Bruce Johnston
Published April 28, 2021 in features
clock icon 4 min read

Sometimes doom-scrolling through Twitter has its rewards. A few weeks ago, in between the Ever Given🚢 memes (how we miss the big boat!) and the usual screams😱 into the void, I came across this tweet from Charity Majors (@mipsytipsy), CTO at @honeycombio

That’s it. That’s the Tweet.

charity majors tweet snippet

These are such great analogies. Unless we’re running away from imminent danger🦁, humans have a really hard time processing that faster is safer. Usually, when we feel threatened or uncertain, we slow down, take our time and look at our options. 🤔

Even in relatively comfortable situations we sense that increasing our speed will also increase our risk. And in the world of software these “deep seated biological impulses” create human barriers to automation.

y tho meme

Yeah, why is that?

There are several reasons why tech leads and managers cling to these deep seated notions of predictability, safety and routine. Continuous delivery scares them because…..

  • They don’t trust their teams to push desirable changes to PROD every 20 minutes ❌
  • They think batching changes means more oversight (also great for spreading any potential blame around 👍)
  • They think slower deploys 🐌 make for higher quality and fewer bugs

DevOps people know none of this is true. Low frequency deploys and batched changes aren’t good for productivity, but they do give managers the illusion of control. And because the idea that “faster is safer” doesn’t feel right, people will make all kinds of trade-offs to hold on to that illusion.

Wizadora, nothing’s surer.

As ever, DORA❤️ has findings that back up what we see in the field. In the 2018 report they found that “misguided performers suffer from a cautious approach.” It’s worth quoting at length:

“We often hear from organizations that prefer to take a cautious approach to software development and delivery. They assure us—and their stakeholders—that releasing code infrequently can be an effective strategy as they use the extra time between deployments for testing and quality checks to minimize the likelihood of failure. For the most part, they achieve that goal.”

Notice the positive reinforcement. They believe slow is safe and they’re even seeing results that confirm those beliefs. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye though. The report continues:

“Developing software in increasingly complex systems is difficult and failure is inevitable. Making large-batch and infrequent changes introduces risk to the deployment process. When failures occur, it can be difficult to understand what caused the problem and then restore service. Worse, deployments can cause cascading failures throughout the system. Those failures take a remarkably long time to fully recover from.” 😬

How long exactly⏰? DORA found that anywhere between 1 and 6 months was a reasonable ball park for full recovery. And it was all going so well! We were on the ice and inching along. Suddenly, we’re flat on our faces with no easy way of getting back up. Turns out slow wasn’t that safe after all.

Plus ca change!

We found something similar in a previous post on the FCA’s report on Implementing Technology Change.

Asked to grade their own homework ✅, managers thought that their costly and time-consuming change management processes were effective precisely because they were costly and time-consuming!

If it costs money and takes time it must be doing something, right? Managers were buying into that illusion even as they reported that change failure rates were the single biggest cause of incidents. Cognitive dissonance to the moon! 🚀 🌝

Charity’s tweet inspired me (thank you🙏!) because the idea that “speed is safety” applies to change management as well as continuous delivery. They’re part of the same value stream. If you can automate🤖 your change and release controls as part of your DevOps pipelines, there’s no reason to delay release candidates because some guy👨🏻‍💼 with a clipboard needs to eyeball 👀 them first.

Managers still see their job as a high wire act where a pinky toe either side of the rope means disaster. We need to encourage them to go faster by thinking more like ice skaters and less like tightrope walkers, and adopt DevOps Change Management.


Published April 28, 2021, in features


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