How to build a DevOps center of excellence: 4 steps

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CIO digital transformation

For leaders seeking to transition IT teams from traditional, waterfall-style development to a DevOps approach, culture shock danger looms large. How do you make such a deeply transformative change without causing severe disruption? One answer is to create a center of excellence within your organization, where a DevOps approach has the chance to start small, and then grow and flourish as the approach proves itself, says Kevin Baril, technology strategy & management principal at advisory firm Grant Thornton.

“Your business needs to run day-to-day into the future, so you have to find a separate area where you can create things in new ways,” Baril says. “An innovation hub, center of excellence, tiger team – whatever you want to call it. Create an environment where you can break from the traditional waterfall approach and leverage agile capabilities.”

[Is your team further down the road with DevOps and looking for ways to optimize? See our related article, DevOps success: A new team model emerges.]

If this approach intrigues you, consider Baril’s advice on how to create a successful center of excellence.

1. Choose the right use cases.

The DevOps concept will succeed or fail in your organization depending on the starting set of business functions you target. So choose wisely, Baril says. “This is part of the transformational leadership concept. You have to have a leader who’s done a good job of aligning corporate business strategy with IT strategy and the architecture you’re using to enable it.”

If that’s the case, you should already be well aware of which functions need to be “me-too and cost-effective,” as Baril puts it, as opposed to those which should be differentiated and more responsive. That will give you a starting point for figuring out where a DevOps approach can have the most impact. Don’t rush this step. “It takes a while to build that understanding of which use case should be first,” he says.

2. Learn all you can about the business process.

Once you’ve determined your first use case or cases, establish specific goals for your first DevOps projects. Whether you’re seeking increased flexibility or cost savings, “Have a clear understanding of the outcome you’re trying to achieve and organize your team to accomplish that,” Baril says. “Your core team, introducing this new, transformative concept, needs to be fluent in the business on those concepts. Because using agility to create improvement depends a lot on the process you’re trying to improve.”

3. Expect the business to be deeply involved.

Functional business leaders may be as eager to switch to a DevOps approach as you are, Baril says. “Over the last 10 to 20 years, requirements were gathered in a structured way and by the time you built the system, a lot of the requirements had changed,” he notes. It’s been frustrating for IT, but it's just as frustrating for business leaders who haven’t wound up with quite the technology they need.

And, he says, functional departments have been blending for a long time. “Increasingly, effective IT leaders and effective members of IT departments have a solid understanding of the business application of whatever they’re looking to accomplish.”

At the same time, “A lot of platforms have been built that allow tech-savvy people in functional departments to play a role in building and deploying a new model. So digital natives may be working with the rollout of new applications, and it wouldn’t be strange to have those people come from a business area instead of IT.”

4. Don't assume you need a huge team.

Lining up the talent for the center of excellence can be the most challenging part of your transition You’ll need a team of people with the right tech and business skills, but where will you get them? Some companies can free up IT staff for this work via automation or systems consolidation, but that takes time. The faster approach is to hire new people to create the new center of excellence. “In many companies, it’s affordable to do that,” he says. “You have turnover, and the CIO has wide discretion about hiring. If you make the decision that this is a priority for us, then you can bring on a core group of people with the mindset to create a DevOps center of excellence.”

You don’t need many people to get your new center of excellence up and running, he adds, especially if they use third-party as-a-service tools to get going quickly. “Even half a dozen people who have that new mindset can be enough.”

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.