Tuesday, August 22, 2017

DevOps as a critical investigation of our fucked up business culture

I was having dinner with a friend the other night, and we were talking about a bunch of things, including the state of the current culture of the Technology Industry, which is where we all work... me, my friend, my spouse, most of my social circle, etc. And we were talking about definitions and the corporate tendency to take interesting philosophies and turn them into undifferentiated pablum designed to keep labour fighting amongst themselves. Take, for instance, "Agile". It started, I understand, as a philosophy to help developers work together better as teams instead of a mass of individuals, as the modern codebase has for the most part moved beyond the idea of the artisanal coder, carefully banging away at his (almost always his) codeforge to craft the perfect piece of individual bespoke software for the discerning, carefully chosen consumer-slash-patron. As software development turned into a team sport, and the experience of coding became an assembly line function, the question was "how do we convince rabid individualists to work better together at a fundamentally creative process?" So the idea was to use this concept of Agile: light, nimble, heavily-communicated, careful processes that encouraged folks to work as teams and keep each other in the loop about what was working, what wasn't, and what they could do about it to get stuff out the door. There are a ton of tools that can be used to facilitate Agile methodologies, but the actual tools aren't nearly as important as everyone understanding the philosophy.

Of course, as is usual, the people who make the money and the people that have MBAs and the people who run the companies as a profit center for shareholders often don't understand (or can't be bothered to understand) this philosophy; it doesn't have anything to do with them (they think) and also their bottom line is "what shipped, when, and how much can we charge for it", not "are the people who do the work cooperating with each other to be creative in a way that minimizes difficulties and maximizes creative opportunities". Which often leads to the teams that are utilizing Agile methodologies to try and sum up the concepts in a 5 minute recap as part of a 30 minute meeting, and one-sheet recap emails, and "executive summaries" and then we end up with people who use "Agile" as a verb, and now Agile doesn't actually mean anything, it's just another buzzword to be tossed around during sales pitches and recruiting calls. And there are lots of people making moderate amounts of money by writing books and giving seminars and doing corporate training gigs on "how do to Agile" which is fine, I guess, if you can't be bothered to take it to heart and build the tools that help your team work best, because the philosophy and methodology is more important than the specific tools. "Agile: where the stories are made up and the points don't matter" isn't just a funny line; it's both a disappointment AND a core tenet of the methodology (and yes, both can be true, because the point of view on that core tenet is what matters). Context matters.

And that brings us to the Next Big Thing in labor cost reduction productivity: DevOps. This is a great one, because it sounds sexy and it's a portmanteau (and IT loves portmanteaus) and from the corporate perspective it means whatever they want it to mean, especially if it means "we don't have to hire those pesky Ops people because they're expensive and annoying and notoriously difficult when it comes to releasing the Big Feature Rollout". You are already paying for the developer's time, and a hefty amount too, so now you can just add them to the pager rotation and have them do support functionality, because labor costs are fixed and work hours are infinite. The thing is, that's not what DevOps is about.

My understanding (having worked in IT for a couple of decades) is that DevOps, like Agile, is a philosophy, rather than a concrete item. DevOps doesn't mean that all your coders should be sysadmins and all your sysadmins should be coders, and if you think that you're going to be perpetually disappointed in both. DevOps means that everyone in your organization has an understanding: that software must be developed in a way that is easy to support and maintain (especially in a degraded or failed state), and that deployment of software is a key step in the lifecycle of the success of a company. DevOps means a breakdown of the mythical wall between departments, and an understanding that that wall was always imaginary anyway -- that the teams working together are stronger and better off than the teams working against each other. It's not actually a new concept; the operational and development team being colocated in the same physical space (and sometimes the same physical body) goes back to the invention of mechanical computing and the work that Admiral Hopper did with the original thinking machines. The "tiger team" concept at NASA in the 60s was a definitive example of the DevOps concept. Not everyone has to know the same things or work the same way, but they do have to work together and they must have an understanding of the concepts and capabilities of the team as a whole.

Any organization's first principle after instantiation by default becomes 'secure the continued existence of this organization', or the organization itself fails. And so, sixty years later, we have the cultural mythos of the 10x software engineer deftly whipping up the perfect solutions to any given software problem and then dumping those brilliant lines of code onto the surly, recalcitrant systems administrator who either refuses to make the change, or does the change and somehow fucks it up. (And note, please, that the "creative" work is done by an 'engineer' while the "maintenance" work is done by an 'administrator', and let's not talk about salaries and job titles right now or this will turn into an even longer screed and I'll get distracted by the whole "full stack" thing and we'll be here all night.) But that's almost never how it works, on either end; it's a myth from soup to nuts. In my entire career, I may have known exactly one engineer who would be considered "10x", and he was always, always cognizant of the difficulties of deployment in a live environment. Conversely, I've only ever known one surly sysadmin, and he was so disruptive to the team morale that he didn't make it to his 90-day review.

DevOps, like Agile, is a philosophy. It's not something you can enter on a spreadsheet or write a purchase order for, no matter what the C-level executives would like to believe. It's an understanding that your managers have with their team members and your team has with each other and with the organization as a whole. It's not something that goes on an audit list and gets checked off during the rundown. And the failure of organizations to understand that is both costly and pointless in the long run.

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 22

Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

At this point, I can run FAE in my sleep. I can run a Savage Worlds game with 10 minutes' warning. I could probably run a 4E game with an hour or so to spare. The question isn't what I can run, it's what my players can and want to play; I'll run anything if I can find a table of players who want me to run it. Well, not anything, but pretty much whatever fits my idea (and my players' idea) of fun.

Monday, August 21, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 21

Which RPG does the most with the least words?

I don't do a lot of poking around with the one-page or 200-word games, but How We Find Our Way in the Dark is just about the most amazing game I've ever read. That and The Quiet Year are basically my favourite short games.

That's what I've got.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 20

What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs?

If I'm looking for something that's not currently in-print physically, and there isn't a direct-from-the-creator way to get it, then I generally will try to find it in PDF form via someplace like DriveThruRPG. Failing that, then I've had relatively good luck with my FLGS, which here in Portland, OR is Guardian Games, and sometimes I get lucky with Powell's Book Store here in PDX.

These days, I own more digital versions of gaming books than I do physical copies, for convenience and storage reasons more than anything else. Where do you like to find your games?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 19

Which RPG features the best writing?

This is the third or fourth time I've been tempted to scream "define your terms" at this list; "best" is such a subjective term anyway, but then we get into the "what do you mean, do you mean 'conveys the system' or 'sticks to the tone' or 'reflects the game's priorities' or what?" part, and everything gets really wobbly.

So I'll give you a few, and my take on them.

For sheer readability and enjoyability, CJ Carella's Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes out ahead; it was the first (and one of the few) RPG core rulebooks that I sat down and read from end to end, like a novel. The prose takes the tone of the show perfectly, and the layout and setup of the game parts are very well done. Other RPG rulebooks that are enjoyable to read: The Quiet Year, FVLMINATA, and Flatpack: Fix the Future.

For evocative tone and setting relatability, you can't miss with Maschine Zeit, Dogs in the Vineyard, or There Is No Spoon. Runners up include Psi*Run, Motobushido, and Monsterhearts.

And for possibly the best definition of "what is roleplaying", then you can't go wrong with Apotheosis Drive X. Runners up in this section include Fate Accelerated Edition and Breakfast Cult.

So depending on how you define "best", there are at least 14 answers to this question.

What are (some of) yours?

Friday, August 18, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 18

Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

If you count all the editions of D&D as one RPG, then the answer is D&D. I never was serious about 1st or 2nd Ed., but I was part of a 3E playtest group, and I started a 4E campaign basically as soon as I could.

If you don't count all of the D&D editions as one, then the answer is HERO system, specifically Champions 4th Ed, the Big Blue Book. I was part of a group that played with the BBB for quite a while, through two multi-year campaigns. I have to admit, there is something rather satisfying about chucking great fistfuls of d6s across the battlemat and being able to figure out the body damage basically instantly.

After that, I think it's GURPS, and then after that would be Pathfinder, and then 4E. I've dabbled so much with so many systems that the long-term campaigns basically swamp everything else.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 17

Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played?

Depends on what you mean by "played"; does just the character creation process count? Or does it have to be actually playing in a campaign. This would have been a much more difficult question six months ago, before I cleared out my collection and pared it down to just the bare bones. So now the answer, if we assume character creation doesn't count, is Exalted. I've created several characters, but never managed to be at a table and playing for any length of time.

If character creation counts as playing, then Nobilis is the answer. I didn't own it until a couple of years ago, but I've never played it or even created a character in it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 16

Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?

I actually am less interested in house-ruling stuff these days; I want games that work "out-of-the-box" because I don't feel like doing a lot of work these days. So these days I mostly just stick to using RPGs as-is with generally everything. But my favourites (right now; this may change tomorrow) are Fate, Savage Worlds, and Cortex. Fast, simple, narratively-driven, involving lots of player buy-in and participation, and not a lot of work for the GM.

What about you?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 15

What RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

The most flexible and adaptable RPG that I know of at this point, and my go-to solution for any game where I like the world but don't like the mechanics, is Fate Accelerated Edition. It's fast, simple, narratively-driven, fun to play, engaging for both the players and the GM, and clever in it's use of both dice and "Fate Points" as methods of control.

That's my answer. What about you?

Monday, August 14, 2017

#RPGaDay 2017 -- Day 14

Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

Huh. This is actually kind of a tough one, since nowadays nearly all of my games are set pieces: six-episode miniseries designed to allow players to sit in (or sit out) as they want or need to, without feeling like they're being eliminated from the table. This has the side-effect of letting me try out a bunch of different systems to see what feels good to both myself and to my players.

That said, if you said to me today "OK, you're gonna run a 2-year campaign, what system will you use," my knee-jerk response would be Savage Worlds. Despite the problematic name, SW is a good, solid, abstracted system that fills nearly all of my needs. It's light without being too light for my players, it's got some crunch so folk can dig into the mechanics, it has a good character advancement system, it's got plenty of bells and whistles and levers for both creation and advancement, as well as getting the players involved and invested at the table, and there's plenty of support for various different settings.

"OK," you say, "but you can't use Savage Worlds, what else?" Well, then I'm probably going to get fussy about changing the rules after the question is asked, but if pressed I'd say that I'd probably use Apocalypse World in one of the powered-by-the-Apocalypse games/settings available (depending on my mood). I would also point out that if you're going to keep ruling out my choices after I make them then this exercise will get tedious, because it'll take a while for you to get me to say 'D&D', and even then I'm going to say 4E before I get to any other version. We'll have to get through 'GURPS' and 'Hero System' before we got to D&D, and I'm not sure there's anyone left in the world who runs GURPS.

But you asked, so there's my answer.