Software Engineering STL

How Playing Volleyball Helped John Weilbacher Manage DevOps Teams

John Weilbacher

When John Weilbacher first joined Team Daugherty, he helped organize a company sand volleyball league. As a new transplant from Carbondale, Ill., John had connected with some people who were playing it near his St. Louis apartment and became really interested in the sport.

A volleyball team, it turns out, is not all that different from a DevOps team.

DevOps, at a very high level, is a set of practices that combines software development with IT operations. It focuses on people, process and tools. On the development side, it’s about best practices to plan, code, build and test. On the IT operations, it’s about best practices to release, deploy, operate and monitor.

To manage a team through a DevOps process requires experience in multiple phases of the Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC) without resorting to specialized roles. Anybody on a DevOps team should, hypothetically, be able to own both the development and operations sides of a deliverable.

The same can be said for a volleyball team. Volleyball can be played as six’s (six people on the court) or four’s (four people). John prefers six’s because it’s more laid back, but he occasionally plays four’s.

The entire team is responsible as a unit for delivering the ball over the net. They need to coordinate who will receive the ball to ‘bump’ it high in the air, so other teammates can execute smoothly to get it over the net.

While each player can perform any role on the court, the team must coordinate. There is still some specialization of roles. Typically, with four’s, two players act as primary hitters, one specializes in setting the ball, and the fourth is specialized for defense – they dig to get the ball to the setter so one of the hitters can get it to the opponent’s court.

In addition, some more complex formations specialize within rotations. For example, when the attacker would normally be in the middle, they might move to the left or right. If they remained in the middle, they wouldn’t be able to spike the ball very well.

Ideally, while a DevOps team strives for no role specialization, most delivery teams have loosely defined ones: a business analyst, a project manager and some developers, for example. Some delivery teams even offload tasks to others to perform into a server or production environment.

What’s most important is that the entire team is responsible for building an environment and sending it into production. Instead of assigning a person a responsibility, the team is assigned the responsibility, and the individuals choose which responsibilities they’ll take on. It’s all about self-organization.

This is true in both volleyball and software engineering.

John saw an opportunity to employ these skills with his first sand volleyball team. He started playing casually, then took over running and scheduling and volunteering and subbing — in essence, helping to manage the sport.

The management is different from the sport. It involves working with logistics and communicating them to the team. Every season is the same, so John even took a line from the DevOps playbook — automate as much as possible — and built a tool to automate the scheduling.

Automating manual processes ensures higher quality results, less margin for error and speedier time-to-delivery – all things that can improve team morale.

By managing the team, John identified a need where he could provide value, and it led to him working with different aspects of the sport. As a consultant, John works similarly, learning the lay of the land at a client site, then working to deliver more value in new areas.

Ultimately, John loves volleyball for the long rallies – the back and forth between two opponents. This can only be achieved with a high-performing team.

When John is on the court, he tries not to think too much about bad plays. His goal is to make sure the team as a whole is having fun. He wants players to come back and not get frustrated. Sticking with it is how the team ends up being high functioning. Experience counts for a lot.

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