Three lessons your business can learn from Nationwide's DevOps journey

In its incremental experimentation with DevOps tools and agile methodology, Nationwide Insurance has learned how to leverage DevOps for the biggest impact.
Written by Conner Forrest, Contributor
Image: iStockphoto/buchachon

Over the past seven years or so, Nationwide Insurance has been on a journey to implement agile and lean methodologies in its IT department. According to Guru Vasudeva, CIO for program and application services at Nationwide, the company spends close to $500 million a year on software development and relies heavily on IT and digital initiatives to achieve its goals.

Because of the monetary investment they were making, and the tools they were using, Vasudeva said the company wanted to be "world-class" in their software efforts, and the implementation of agile was one of the steps towards that goal. However, agile only got them so far.

"Our agile journey was really improving the speed of coding," Vasudeva said. "However, it was not improving our ability to deploy a concept, an idea, into production fast enough."

SEE: IT leader's guide to making DevOps work (Tech Pro Research)

This is what prompted the company to begin experimenting with DevOps. Vasudeva said that it started on the front end of the lifecycle, taking ideas for certain project requests and bundling them into specific releases, experimenting with continuous deployment strategies. Then, Nationwide began to implement new tools for development and deployment.

So far, Vasudeva said the implementation of DevOps has helped the company be more efficient in the way it was structuring software releases, and improved collaboration between developers, testers, and others. DevOps has also allowed the Nationwide team to be more thoughtful about the way it's creating branches for their code base and assigning teams to projects.

While Nationwide's DevOps deployment is still an evolving project, and the company is still working with legacy systems, it has learned three key lessons from which companies considering the DevOps route can glean some wisdom.

1. You can't change everything at once

"For large companies like us, with significant legacy applications as well as new ones, when you have a hybrid mixed environment, the biggest advice or lesson learned is, you cannot change everything at once," Vasudeva said.

Instead, Vasudeva recommends trying to find one or two application suites and doing an end-to-end experiment in that area. With that kind of incremental, contained experimentation, a company can learn from the effort, identify any issues, better define the methodology, and build excitement around the implementation. The idea of experimentation in smaller pockets is a strategy Nationwide has used for a while, and it has proven successful not only in DevOps but also other areas, Vasudeva said.

2. Developer and operations mindsets are different

In Nationwide's DevOps journey, one fact Vasudeva realized early on was that the mindset of developers and operations professionals are still quite different in large companies.

"Developers want to develop code and put it into production as fast as possible," Vasudeva said. "Operations people want to make sure things are highly available, and so on, and they have built a number of processes that have tried to safeguard that."

The cultural barrier is big, and it must be addressed. Vasudeva recommends building a joint steering committee with members from each side to help speak to both of their goals. A good DevOps strategy should help boost the speed of delivering value, while also protecting the production environment, he said.

3. DevOps won't affect every aspect of your business equally

There's a lot of hype around DevOps in the industry, said Vasudeva, especially regarding how many big tech companies are implementing new technologies so quickly. However, he added, it's important to remember that many of them made architectural choices years ago, or originally built their systems to allow for that kind of speed.

A company like Nationwide cannot afford to implement an inclusive strategy for all of the thousands of applications it's running day-to-day, argued Vasudeva. So, the big questions that an organization must ask are: Where do you really benefit from the capabilities and speed that are offered by DevOps, and can you target those areas of the business in your deployment?

As an insurance company, Vasudeva said, Nationwide can't just create a product and put it into production. It has to go through various regulators' checks and balances, which will limit their speed. As such, the company can't expect all of the capabilities of DevOps to affect all aspects of the organization equally. For other companies, too, Vasudeva said, it's important to be pragmatic about where they can gain and effectively utilize the speed and additional capabilities afforded by DevOps.

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