The Secret Sauce That Devs Don’t Want IT Pros to Know About

Honesty time: that title is a bit click-baitish, but the dev community is using a tool that most IT pros don’t know much/anything about, and it can be a real game changer, especially if you write scripts or work with deployment solutions such as Azure Resource Manager (ARM) JSON templates.

Shot Time

As soon as I say “DevOps” you’re already reaching for that X on the top right or saying “Oh, he’s lost it … again”. But that’s what I’m going to talk about: DevOps. Or to be more precise, Azure DevOps.

Methodology

For years, when I’ve thought about DevOps, I’ve thought “buggy software with more frequent releases”. And that certainly can be the case. But DevOps is born out of the realisation that how we have engineered software (or planned almost anything, to be honest) for the past few decades has not been ideal. Typically, we have some start-middle-end waterfall approach that assumes we know the end state. If this is a big (budget) or long (time) project, then getting half way to that planned end-state and realising that the preconception was wrong is very expensive – it leads to headlines! DevOps is a way of saying:

  • We don’t know the end-state
  • We’re going to work on smaller scenarios
  • We will evolve what we create based on those scenarios
  • The more we create, the more we’ll learn about what the end state will be
  • There will be larger milestones, which will be our releases

This is where the project management gurus will come out and say “this is Scrum” or some other codswallop that I do not care about; that’s the minutia for the project management nerds to worry about.

Devs started leaning this direction years ago. It’s not something that is always the case – most devs that I encountered in the past didn’t use some of the platform tools for DevOps such as GitHub or Azure DevOps (previously Teams). But here’s an interesting thing: some businesses are adopting the concepts of “DevOps” for building a business, even if IT isn’t involved, because they realised that some business problems are very like tech problems: big, complex, potentially expensive, and with an unknown end-state.

Why I Started

I got curious about Azure DevOps last year when my friend, Damian Flynn, was talking about it at events. Like me, Damian is an Azure MVP/IT Pro but, unlike me, he stayed in touch with development after college. I tried googling and reading Microsoft Docs, but the content was written in that nasty circular way that Technet used to be – there was no entry point for a non-dev that I could find.

And then I changed jobs … to work with Damian as it happens. We’ve been working on a product together for the last 7 months. And on day 1, he introduced me to DevOps. I’ll be honest, I was lost at first, but after a few attempts and then actually working with it, I have gotten to grips with it and it gives me a structured way to work, plan, and collaborate on a product that will never have and end-state.

What I’m Working On

I’m not going to tell you exactly what I’m working on but it is Azure and it is IT Pro with no dev stuff … from me, at least. Everything I’ve written or adjusted is PowerShell or Azure JSON. I can work with Damian (who is 2+ hours away by car) on Teams on the same files:

  • Changes are planned as features or tasks in Azure DevOps Boards.
  • Code is stored in an Azure DevOps repo (repository).
  • Major versions are built as branches (changes) of a master copy.
  • Changes to the master copy are peer reviewed when you try to merge a branch.
  • Repos are synchronized to our PCs using Git.
  • VS Code is our JSON and PowerShell editor.

It might all sound complex … but it really was pretty simple to set up. Now behind the scenes, there is some crazy-mad release “pipelines” stuff that Damian built, and that is far from simple, but not mandatory – don’t tell Damian that I said that!

Confusing Terminology

Azure DevOps inherits terminology from other sources, such as Git. And that is fine for devs in that space, but some of it made me scratch my head because it sounded “the wrong way around”. Here’s some of the terms:

  • Repo: A repository is where you store code.
  • Project: A project might have 1 or more repos. Each repo might be for a different product in that project.
  • Boards: A board is where you do the planning. You can create epics, tasks and issues. Typically, an Epic is a major part of a solution, a task is what you need to do to make that work, and an issue is a bug to be fixed.
  • Sprint: In managed projects, sprints are a predefined period of time that you assign people to. Tasks are pulled into the sprint and assigned to people (or pulled by people to themselves) who have available time and suitable skills.
  • Branch: You always have one branch called the master or trunk. This is the “master copy” of the code. Branches can be made from the master. For example, if I have a task, I might create a branch from the master in VS Code to work on that task. Once I am complete, I will sync/push that branch back up to Azure DevOps.
  • Pull Request: This is the one that wrecked my head for years. A pull request is when you want to take your changes that are stored in a branch and push it back into the parent branch. From Git’s or DevOps’ point of view, this is a pull, not a push. So you create a pull request for (a) identify the tasks you did, get someone to review/approve your changes, merge the branch (changes) back into the parent branch.
  • Nested branch: You can create branches from branches. Master is typically pretty locked down. A number of people might want a more flexible space to work in so they create a branch of master, maybe for a new version – let’s call this the second level branch. Each person then creates their own third level branches of the first branch. Now each person can work away and do pull requests into the more flexible second-level branch. And when they are done with that major piece of work, they can do a pull request to merge the second-level back into the master or trunk.
  • Release: Is what it sounds like – the “code” is ready for production, in the opinion of the creators.

Getting Started

The first two tools that you need are free:

  • Git command line client – you do not need a GitHub account.
  • Visual Studio Code

And then you need Azure DevOps. That’s where the free pretty much stops and you need to acquire either per-user/plan licensing or get it via MSDN/Visual Studio licensing.

Opinion

I came into this pretty open minded. Damian’s a smart guy and I had long conversations with one of our managers about these kinds of methodologies after he attended Scrum master training.

Some of the stuff in DevOps is nasty. The terminology doesn’t help, but I hope the above helps. Pipelines is still a mystery to me. Microsoft shared a doc to show how to integrate a JSON release via Pipelines and it’s a big ol’ mess of things to be done. I’ll be honest … I don’t go near that stuff.

I don’t think that me and Damian could have collaborated the way we have without DevOps. We’ve written many thousands of lines of code, planned tasks, fought bugs. It’s been done without a project manager – we discuss/record ideas, prioritize them, and then pull (assign to ourselves) the tasks when we have time. At times, we have worked in the same spaces and been able to work as one. And importantly, when it comes to pull requests, we peer review. The methodology has allowed other colleagues to participate and we’re already looking at how we can grow that more in the organization to bring in more skills/experience into the product. Without (Azure) DevOps we could not have done that … certainly storing code on some file storage in the cloud would have been a total disaster and lacked the structure that we have had.

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