How to be good at Operations

in 40 minutes

Created by Adam Jacob / @adamhjk

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noun, sərˈvā/

1. a general view, examination, or description of someone or something. "the author provides a survey of the relevant literature"
survey manhole

What is Operations?

By which we mean technical operations

The work of building and maintaining computer systems, networks, and applications.
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How to be good at Operations

Design to improve the safety, contentment, knowledge and freedom of your colleagues and users.

Focus on improving availability through reducing MTTD and MTTR.

Improve the organizations efficiency through improvements in People, Process, and Technology.

Done well, Operations enhances the safety, contentment, knowledge and freedom of both the authors and users of the system.


  • Human safety
  • Information safety
  • Availability of the system as a possible link to both
  • The ability for individuals to act without fear of unintended consequences

Safety is a slider – different systems have different thresholds

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Contentment is about being satisfied with what you have.

The state of our systems is often a source of deep discontent :)

It may not make you happier – but it won’t hurt

Happiness is not a goal – it’s a by-product of a life well lived
- Eleanor Roosevelt
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Access to knowledge is a leading indicator of social progress.

We should be making it easier to understand what the system is for, why we need it, and what good outcomes are.

The goal isn’t to minimize needed knowledge – its to provide access to the wealth of it, when we need it.

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The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
– The Internet

We should be empowering ourselves and others to act, speak, and think as they need to with less hindrance.

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Being good at Operations

Means being good at two things



Focus on Availability

Efficiency Follows


$$Availability = \frac{Uptime}{(Uptime + Downtime)}$$ Much thanks to Theo Schlossnagle, John Allspaw, Patrick Debois, and others for informing much of this section. Mistakes are mine.

Availability is everybody's problem

The 9's

Availability Downtime per month
90% (one nine) 72 hours
99% (two nines) 7.2 hours
99.9% (three nines) 43.8 minutes
99.99% (four nines) 4.32 minutes
99.999% (five nines) 25.9 seconds
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The M's

  • Mean Time To Failure (MTTF) ↑
    The average time there is correct behavior
  • Mean Time To Diagnose (MTTD) ↓
    The average time it takes to diagnose the problem
  • Mean Time To Repair (MTTR) ↓
    The average time it takes to fix a problem
  • Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) ↑
    The average time between failures
The M*s

Focus your efforts

On reducing Mean Time to Diagnose and Mean Time to Repair.

Failure is inevitable - it's how you detect and react that matter most to availability.

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Slow and ponderous

Fast and nimble


Metrics Collection

Collect metrics from the operating system, network, and applications.

High resolution matters!

As few systems as possible.

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Two Critical Metrics

  1. Is it up - from a users perspective
  2. Is it making money

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Graphing, Trends and Analysis

Use graphs to understand normal behavior.

boring trend

Graphs taken from Theo Schlossnagle and OmniTI


Graphing, Trends and Analysis

Use graphs to understand abnormal behavior.

spikes dissected

Graphs taken from Theo Schlossnagle and OmniTI

Auto-Scaling Will Not Save You

Capacity Planning

  1. Identify key metrics
  2. Put them on a graph
  3. Set a limit
  4. Plot a trend line
  5. Expand your time horizon

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Capacity Planning

linear regression



Get the attention of the right humans.

  • As few alerts as possible
  • Routed to the people who can take action
  • Start with the is it up alert
  • Never create an alert that isn't actionable!


Incident Response


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Orient is the step we often fail at.

Thinking is the best tool we have in incident response.

Understanding more about the system, and how each piece behaves, is what separates the good from the great.

What Rob Pike learned from Ken Thompson


Incident Command

The First Responder is the default Incident Commander

  1. Decides what to do next
  2. Coordinates resources
  3. Can hand off command
  4. Communicates status
  5. Not about rank

There is only ONE Incident Commander.

This isn't always true in real Incident Command, but go with it.


Post Mortem

Incident Commander schedules a post mortem within 24 hours of incident resolution.

Purpose is to learn from the incident, and and identify the work needed to:

  • Prevent recurrence (if necessary)
  • Improve Mean Time To Diagnose
  • Improve Mean Time To Repair

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Progress on safety coincides with learning from failure. This makes punishment and learning two mutually exclusive activities: Organizations can either learn from an accident or punish the individuals involved in it, but hardly do both at the same time. The reason is that punishment of individuals can protect false beliefs about basically safe systems, where humans are the least reliable components. Learning challenges and potentially changes the belief about what creates safety. Moreover, punishment emphasizes that failures are deviant, that they do not naturally belong in the organization...
Sidney W.A. Dekker, Ten Questions about Human Error: A New View of Human Factors and System Safety (Human Factors in Transportation)


How to run a Post Mortem

  1. Invoke the space: we are here to learn, not to blame
  2. Describe the incident
  3. Establish the timeline
  4. Identify contributing factors
  5. Describe customer impact
  6. Describe remediation tasks for the root cause
  7. Describe improvement tasks for response process

Prioritize the outcomes

Availability Roundup

  • Understand your Availability Targets
  • Track and understand your M*'s
  • Reduce time to detect and repair
  • Use capacity planning to avoid obvious incidents
  • Have an incident response and command process
  • Perform and publish post-mortems for every incident
  • Prioritize the outcomes


$$Efficiency = \frac{Output}{Effort}$$

Make the effort required to do work easier.

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Know the people

  • Software Developers
  • Business Decision Makers
  • Systems and Network Administrators
  • Marketing and PR
  • Sales
  • Legal

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Thich Naht Hanh
When they create electronic devices, they can reflect on whether that new product will take people away from themselves, their family and nature. Instead they can create the kind of devices and software that can help them go back to themselves, to take care of their feelings. By doing that, they will feel good because they’re doing something good for society.
- Thich Naht Hanh at Google


Engaged Workers Rule

Engaged Workers Stats in this section come from asking 25 million employees the same 12 questions in Gallup's state of the American Workplace with causality evidence from Causal Impact of Employee Work Perceptions on the Bottom Line of Organizations.

Sources of Engagement

  1. Clear expectations
  2. Opportunity to shine
  3. Praise
  4. Having people care about you
  5. Having your opinions count
  6. A mission that makes you feel important
  7. Commitment to quality

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Know you an Asshole

  1. After encountering them, people feel oppressed, humiliated, or otherwise worse about themselves
  2. They target people less powerful than them
Chronic assholes are the problem. Sections on Assholes taken from The No Asshole Rule.

Assholes are inefficient

Positive interactions must outnumber negative ones 5:1

Bad interactions have stronger, more pervasive, and longer lasting effects

Findings found in How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative group members and dysfunctional groups.

What you can do

  • Don't be an Asshole, and fire or shun those who are
  • Set clear expectations for others
  • Praise people
  • Make friends with, and care about your co-workers
  • Listen to each other
  • Take pride in your work


The way we work is critical to our outcomes

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Change for the better

Continuous Improvement

A few lean/improvement resources: Lean thinking, The Goal - there are so many more.


Small improvements

Evaluate a process, make it better.

Try using the scientific method:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Do research
  3. Construct a hypothesis
  4. Test your hypothesis
  5. Analyze data and draw a conclusion
  6. Communicate your results


Anyone can do it


Radical Change

Recognize when desired results are beyond incremental improvement.

Start fresh, incorporate a new process, then do Kaizen


Systems Design

Understand the requirements

This Org Sucks

Do not mistake existing implementations for hard requirements

Scalable Systems Design

Identify autonomous actors, and have them keep their promises

Rolling Upgrade

Load Balanced Web Service
Load Balanced Web Service

Naive way

  1. Take App1 from Load Balancer Pool
  2. Update Software on App1
  3. Verify update worked
  4. Put App1 back into Load Balancer Pool
What happens if a server is down? What happens to traffic in transit? What if we die in the middle?

Autonomous Actors

Each component responsible for itself


Each Autonomous Actor promises to behave a certain way.

Other Actors can verify those promises.

Load Balanced Web Service

Identify Autonomous Actors

Load Balancers

Promises to route traffic to working app servers

Application Servers

Promises to serve application traffic and publish status

Load Balanced Web Service

Better way

  1. Update software on App1

The better solution has fewer interactions.

But it has more pieces.

Efficiency Roundup

  • Greatest gains are in improving People
  • Continually improve process, be willing to redesign in the face of new challenges
  • Use Scalable Systems Design to improve your technology and automation

How to be good at Operations

Design to improve the safety, contentment, knowledge and freedom of your colleagues and users.

Focus on improving availability through reducing MTTD and MTTR.

Improve the organizations efficiency through improvements in People, Process, and Technology.