DevOps Days Rockies Recap

I was fortunate enough to attend the first ever DevOps Days Rockies event this past week at Denver’s FORTRUST Data Center. It was an amazing two days packed full of insightful talks, open spaces, professional networking, and fun. I wanted to write up a recap of the event from my perspective. This is going to be a long post, so I’ll just hit the highlights that really stood out to me.

Major thanks to Photobucket for sponsoring me, a fellow sysadmin, and one of our DBA’s! I’m the nerd on the right in this photo.

What is DevOps Days anyway?

DevOps Days is a conference series that sprang up in 2009 in Belgium. It has since spread all over the world. And I do mean “all over”. There have been events from Tel Aviv to Bangalore to Chicago to Melbourne and, finally, in my own backyard in Denver! The goal is to spread the love of DevOps and help anyone interested in that topic hone their craft. What DevOps means to me could and probably will be a whole separate post. But for now, let’s just call it breaking down barriers between a company’s development and operations teams, and using learning from one side of the house (whether that be CI/CD, source control, config management, cloud/virtualization/containers, etc) to benefit the other.

DevOps Days are organized by local volunteers. Here, this was mostly members of the Denver DevOps Meetup Group, which I can testify is an awesome bunch of folks. The events span two days, with standard conference presentations each morning. After lunch, there’s a series of “lightning talks” which are quick-hitting 5 minute affairs great for introducing the audience to a new topic or helping a new speaker get their feet wet for the first time. Finally, the afternoon is devoted to “open spaces”, which are the real soul of DevOps Days. Anyone in the audience can submit a topic, and then everyone votes on what they’d like to discuss. Groups break off and form around each topic, and you’ll move through 3-4 of these face-to-face sessions for the rest of the day. Based on a show of hands, this was the first time using this style for 90% of attendees, myself included. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but any worries were quickly put to rest. It’s just you and other like-minded folks sitting down and having a discussion about something you’re all passionate about. Usually with several conference presenters sitting next to you. So it’s an outstanding opportunity to pick their brains and ask questions you might not be able to during their main talk. And to throw out ideas of your own.

Photobucket attendees

(The DevOps Days Rockies 2015 Organizers!)

Day 1

Thursday kicked off with a keynote by the Sober Build Engineer himself, J. Paul Reed. It was a good discussion of how you can’t simply copy the culture or practices of another organization wholesale, but have to select and adjust them to work in your own environment. I also learned that Paul grew up in Fort Collins where I currently live, which was some neat trivia. This was followed up by Matt Stratton from Chef talking about ways to manage your mental stack. This one really struck a chord with me since I love to drink from the learning fire hose, absorbing as many blogs, Twitter feeds, and podcasts as I can. It’s easy to burn so much time learning that you never actually get work done, and Matt had some suggestions for dealing with that problem. Now if only I can shut off Twitter long enough to implement them…

After lunch, we got our first taste of lightning talks. A couple that jumped out from Day 1 were Elizabeth Mintzas discussing DevOps Recruiting, and Joshua Timberman‘s “Stop Demonizing curl|bash”.

Finally, we selected and broke out for open spaces. I sat in on a discussion of post-mortems involving Etsy’s Ryan Frantz, Joshua Timberman from Chef and Josh Nichols of GitHub, among others. Lots of really awesome and immediately actionable advice. I moved on to several interesting sessions, including a good conversation about Best Practices in Config Management. The conference’s other token SaltStack user was there, too! High-five, buddy.

The day was capped off by a happy hour–perhaps more like happy 8 hours, based on the Twitter pics coming in until midnight 🙂 As an introvert, I was wiped and skipped this. But that’s easily my biggest regret of the event, and I will suck it up and deal next time. Too much fun and networking to be had.

DevOps Days Rockies Foosball tournament at Wynkoop Brewery
(If the crowd looks thin, consider it was pushing midnight local time!)

Day 2

Friday picked right back up with four excellent presentations. Royce Haynes discussed self-managed and self-organized teams. What that means, why you’d try it, what works, and what doesn’t. Ryan Frantz followed that up with my favorite and most immediately useful talk: The Value of Alert Context. He highlighted Etsy’s open-source nagios-herald tool which does all sorts of cool stuff to embed context and information directly into the alert email. So you can make a snap decision about whether that 3AM page can really wait til morning (spoiler: it usually can). I’m itching to implement something similar for our Zabbix monitoring system. Ryan also demonstrated his out-of-control harmonica skills, playing Mary Had a Little Lamb and Oh Susanna to wild applause. There was also a neat deep dive from Twitter’s Matt Getty on a bare metal provisioning system they wrote. It has a lot of similarities to a system we created here at Photobucket. Twitter’s is certainly slicker but it was fun to see that we encountered the same problems and worked toward a similar solution.

We then broke for lunch, which was provided by three food trucks outside the venue. Very fun, and very delicious. Pictured: @medieval1 and his rad utilikilt leaning on the counter. Not pictured: Biker Jim’s goddam amazing hot dog cart. Want to eat wild boar, or reindeer, or (horror of horrors) a vegan dog? No worries, Jim’s got your back!

DevOps Days Rockies food trucks including Biker Jim's

My highlight of day 2 was the “ChatOps” panel. I thought this was going to be lame, since my past experience with chat bots has been something that sits in IRC and takes requests for Yo Mama jokes. But these guys blew that out of the water. Tons of ideas on how to put a chat bot to work as a self-service interface, with the added benefit of automatic public broadcast of what’s being done and historical records. I can’t wait to get to work implementing this in our company.

DevOps Days Rockies ChatOps panel including GitHub Hubot, Google Errbot and Lita

The conference closed out with a second round of open spaces. I proposed one around using CI/CD for your infrastructure and config management, since I really want to improve that aspect of my own work. This lead to a great discussion and lots of useful takeaways. Including that almost no one is doing this as heavily as they’d like, which is either reassuring or slightly terrifying when you consider the brands making this confession 😉 There was also a roundtable on burnout in the DevOps community. What it looks like, and how to reduce it, both from the receiving end and as a manager. This is a hot and very important topic in the community right now, and I was really glad to see it addressed here. Paul Reed took the lead on this one, and guided the conversation in a way that directly addressed issues the session members brought up. Bravo.

Summary

All in all, it was easily the best professional conference I’ve attended. Almost all of the talks–full-length and lightning– were excellent, and the open spaces really brought it to a higher level. It’s so cool to be able to sit down and talk with people you admire personally and professionally and have a friendly discussion about stuff you both care about deeply. And “discussion” is definitely the word; I never felt like anyone was preaching or talking at me. They wanted to hear my thoughts, too.

There were a couple moments where I did feel like things went off the rails. One talk was technical in the extreme, to the point of large portions literally being code read aloud off GitHub. The high level ideas were very interesting, but the presentation got a bit too far down in the weeds. And another was very obviously “here is my company’s product and why you should use it”, which really stood out since it was the only such talk of the whole conference. This was in stark contrast to my experience at the Juno OpenStack Summit, which was much, much more commercial. So kudos to the organizers for vetting the speakers so well. If I could make one suggestion for next year, it would be to have fewer, longer open spaces. Almost every single time, the “5 minutes left!” call came just as we were starting to gel as a group and make serious headway.

What a DevOps Days Open Space looks like. Many were much more intimate than this
(What a popular Open Space looks like. Many were much more intimate than this.)

All in all, it was an awesome event from top to bottom. The organizers did an outstanding job, the presentations were interesting, I learned to stop worrying and love the Open Space, and FORTRUST was a gracious host (even if the scowling guards in fatigues made more than a few people wonder if they were entering the right place–thankfully by day 2 they seemed to have gotten the OK to cut loose and have fun with us!). The organizers also did a great job including women and minority speakers, which was awesome to see.

I’d recommend the DevOps Days events to anyone, and DevOps Days Rockies in particular. I can’t wait to come back next year. Maybe I’ll even dip my toe in with a lightning talk?

J. Paul Reed getting taken down by a FORTRUST security guard

(Pic is all in good fun from @soberbuildeng… “First #DevOpsDays I’ve seen w/ an armed presence; they subdue shady characters… (Thanks, @FORTRUST, for hosting!)”)

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