The Universal Language of DevOps: The DevOpsDays Tokyo Experience
A while ago pre-COVID I had the honor and privilege of presenting at DevOpsDays Tokyo, a conference hosting hundreds of Japanese engineers and technology professionals. The venue was incredible, the staff were professional and courteous, and the program hosted many talks from individuals both in Japan and around the world, all focused on sharing their methodologies — and stories — around the concept of DevOps. Tech is important, of course; but to me, it’s the stories that resonate most deeply.
My particular story in how I arrived as an eventual speaker at DevOpsDays Tokyo is a relatively unusual one. Growing up, Japan fascinated me. The fact that a young artist from Kyoto was responsible for many of the amazing characters that were a part of my daily life through video gaming — Mario, Link, Samus Aran, Fox McCloud, Yoshi, and even Pokémon — made me want to understand the culture at a deeper level. The characters and concepts in Nintendo games resonated so well with both me and others of my generation, yet the team who brought them to life existed a world away. Over the years, this curiosity developed into a fascination, culminating in a decision to major in Computer Science and minor in Japanese language at Purdue University with the goal of eventually fusing my interests in technology and Japan at a professional level. While I had a brief flirtation with the gaming industry after graduation through freelance writing and technical internships (in fact, my brief stint at IGN Entertainment several years ago was the first time I was exposed to many tools and techniques around DevOps), I ended up focusing exclusively on software development, eventually leading an API development team at Best Buy in Minneapolis. Now, I spend my time teaching others how to harness the power of Agile, technology, and DevOps practices in order to empower themselves and their projects at Target. To me, sharing our stories is incredibly important.
I’ll never forget my first day of Japanese class in college and the moment my professor, a short, soft-spoken Japanese woman in her early 40s, entered the room. Without saying a word, she bowed to us, smiled, then immediately began writing furiously on the chalkboard.
Looking around the classroom, mouths were agape. I wondered to myself if I was in the wrong class. The symbols looked so difficult to decipher. What I didn’t know at the time, and what my professor eventually showed us when explaining the what-we-thought-was-extremely-complicated Japanese sentence on the board, was that it wasn’t indecipherable at all. In fact, there was quite a bit of understandable language for English speakers in that sentence, if they knew where to look…
マクドナルド = ma-ku-do-na-ru-do = McDonald’s
ハンバーガー = ha-nn-ba-a-ga-a = hamburger
The literal translation of that sentence is: “I McDonald’s at hamburger ate”, which, when appropriately refactored, becomes “I ate a hamburger at McDonald’s”. A significant portion of that sentence — at least the place and the direct object — were in English to begin with; the words were simply converted to a more Japanese sound courtesy of the Katakana loan word alphabet.
There is indeed a point to this story (other than making you hungry for hamburgers). In the technology industry, we may communicate differently, but our goals are often aligned. In other words, we’re heading to the same place; we just have different means of getting there. It’s our job as corporate citizens to share the tools and knowledge to make our industry better for everyone. In this, DevOpsDays Tokyo was a huge turning point for me.
I can’t thank the organizers enough. The conference itself was incredibly well-run, the volunteers were passionate, organized and considerate, the care for speakers and attendees was top-notch, and the program was packed with interesting discussions of DevOps as viewed with a worldly lens. The staff took great care to ensure that both English and Japanese-speaking attendees could learn something from attending the conference, and the simultaneous interpreters couldn’t have been more helpful in ensuring our English presentation was understandable for the core audience of Japanese-speaking professionals. The after-hours networking events provided plenty of opportunities for speakers, attendees, sponsors, and volunteers to share war stories and talk shop. The enthusiasm around the event was infectious.
As one of the few speakers from overseas with some understanding of Japanese language, I was able to sit in for many of the talks given in Japanese and discover first-hand many of the challenges experienced by development teams in Japan attempting to harness DevOps along with the solutions many organizations have come up with in order to meet those challenges head-on. There were two talks in particular that stood out to me as particularly relevant to the work of myself and my team.
The first was Mitsuyuki Shiiba’s presentation on Service Operation Centered Development, which was focused around putting the concept of the service at the center of DevOps methodology and harnessing best practices around elements like logging, testing, and monitoring to facilitate this shift. The most surprising and interesting part of the talk was a call-out to mob programming and pair programming as techniques used by the organization to facilitate learning among team members. I had the chance to ask Shiiba-san a question during the Q&A portion of the presentation about the methodology utilized by his organization for mob programming, but almost had a major “international incident”! Japanese language learners take note: the word for “organization” (soshiki) is almost identical to the word for “funeral” (soushiki). After asking my question I was so nervous I slipped up and chose the wrong one that I didn’t look it up until long after the presentation was over. It was a great learning experience, and I fortunately did not accidentally ask about mobbing at funerals.
As mob programming is not only something that we do regularly at the immersive learning dojo at Target but was also the subject of some research and tool prototyping I performed as part of my Masters program at Georgia Tech, I was glad that I was able to follow up with Shiiba-san at one of the offsite networking events to discuss mob programming in Japan in more detail. We discovered there were many similarities in the drawbacks as to how the methodology is received by both team members (sometimes it’s embarrassing or stressful to take the role of ‘driver’ in front of colleagues) and management (concerns around efficiency of utilizing the entire team’s time to work on one issue together) in both Japan and America. However, the benefits, too, were shared. Defects occur far less often when mob programming happens regularly, and team members learn the code much better when working on it as a group. In fact, one of the biggest benefits Shiiba-san described for mobbing is the exact reason we utilize it regularly in our immersive learning dojo at Target: the power it has to enable a mixed-experience engineering team to learn and work together more effectively.
The second talk that truly surprised me was Ayana Yoshida and Kotaro Ogino’s talk on building out DevOps education through “bulldozer reform”. In the span of only a few years, their organization has built and expanded an incredible suite of offerings designed to help engineers skill up in a variety of DevOps concepts and technologies. Now, their offerings are expanding into concepts like AI and machine learning, as well as building out and hosting an annual conference attended by employees around the world.
This presentation was interesting to me because…our organization has done the exact same thing! Our origin stories may be different, but our paths ended up very similar. We too continue to grow our offerings for our internal and external customers and continue to evolve as the need for propagating software engineering practices and DevOps across the enterprise grows ever greater. Unsurprisingly, we even have a similar number of coaches on our teams (37 versus 40)!
I was so surprised by the similarities in Yoshida-san and Ogino-san’s presentation to our own organization that I immediately messaged my team back home. I was able to take the lessons learned from that organization back to my team of coaches and discuss some of the things other teams around the world are doing in order to train their employees in new ways. It’s also great to see the investment that Yoshida-san and Ogino-san’s organization is putting into their engineers and other employees. I can’t speak for them, but I do know their offerings appear to be really special and something we’re driving towards in our own immersive learning dojo. We may operate differently, but our goals (empowering our team members through technology) are the same. I’m thrilled that a major Japanese company has a coaching team too!
As for my own talk, it was a presentation on design processes around creating React components for an enterprise given by my colleague, David Nguyen, and me. We were both thrilled to learn that many attendees of DevOpsDays Tokyo were picking up React for the first time, and were interested in understanding some of the basics around component creation and error handling. We spent some time after our talk answering questions and executing impromptu pairing sessions to help folks get started. It was an incredible experience. After returning from Tokyo I had been selected to give presentations on technical coaching at multiple major conferences in the Midwest. That led to further opportunities to give talks remotely during COVID-19, not only locally but also for Japanese audiences as well…in Japanese language!
It all comes back to that first day in college. As technological professionals, we have a lot more in common than it initially appears. There’s no doubt that organizations in Japan have different kinds of challenges to solve in regards to implementing best development practices and DevOps initiatives successfully than those in the West, but our goals our identical. While our languages and methods are different, our aims are the same. Through sharing our knowledge through events, whether live in-person or remote through the Internet, we will get there.