“I have passion around making all work visible. We started tracking our crash reports. We started looking at our app reviews. There was power in that, because even though the numbers were not where we wanted them to be, it created this platform for people to have the conversation.”
Courtney Kissler considers communication, information sharing and a passion for project measurement visibility as critical to any DevOps transformation. Her path to DevOps began on a whim, when she switched degrees from accounting to computer science while at Eastern Washington University.
After working at a few startups in Seattle, Courtney began working at Nordstroms, staying for 14 years, holding multiple roles in the retail technology division. Early in 2016, she moved on to Starbucks, where she is now the Vice President of Retail Technology.
In this Innovator’s Journey to DevOps, I talk with Courtney about the beginnings of her career in technology, her introduction to the transformative processes of DevOps, and how working with the DevOps community has allowed her to implement those ideas at enterprise scale.
Mark: Were you into technology as a child?
Courtney: No. I was not. I ended up getting into technology through where I went to college. I went to Eastern Washington University and I was going to be an accounting major. As part of the honors program they placed you with a job on campus. They tried to place you in the college where you were getting your degree, so I would've been in the business school but they had so many people in the business school that they placed me in the computer science department.
My job was basically filing and answering phones. One day, the Dean came to me and he said, "What would it take for you to change your major?" I said, "I don't think I'd be very good at computer science."
Mark: What did he see? Why would he ask?
Courtney: Later he told me he asked because he was trying to get more diversity into the computer science program, but at the time I think he was just being curious. He was like, "What would it take for you to change your major?" And I said, "I don't really want to. I kind of like accounting. I feel like that's my path."
He said, "Well, let me propose something. You'll take a basic programming class and we'll pay you to go. It'll be part of your job, you'll just have to grade papers. If you get better than a 3.0, I want you to consider it. I got a 3.3 and he circled back.
"I saw you got better than a 3.0, will you change majors?" I said, again, "I don't know, I mean the class was fine. I don't think this is for me." He had already went and did research and figured out how to move all of my credits so that I didn't skip a beat and get a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems with a minor in Computer Science and I switched.
Mark: The transition from college, from arbitrarily being moved into a Computer Science program. Did you go immediately into the workforce?
Courtney: Yes. One of the great things about that degree is your senior year you did an internship within your field, so I actually had a job before I graduated. I had a full time job as a tech, which was amazing. Then the startup craziness was happening, like dot-com.
Mark: Where were we, in time-wise?
Courtney: I was in Spokane, that was like 1996.
Mark: … when the Internet was just first starting to become recognized as “this is going to happen”.
Courtney: Yes, and so I packed up and moved to the other side of the mountains to Seattle. Got a job at a startup where I was a security software kind of engineer. I was there for two years and then I went to another startup. It started out as Talk Radio on the Internet and then it became streaming. Companies would use, basically, our network and stream live meetings.
I was there for a couple years and then both of those startups actually went under. I was part of the skeleton crew.
Mark: That was in 2002 when everything started to fade.
Courtney: I ended up getting a job at Nordstrom. I started there as a security engineer and navigated through ops, holding a variety of leadership positions. My very first one was the website operations team.
We wanted to get closer to the customer, so I ended up taking on some dev roles and then eventually ended up in a role where I had full-stack, the customer facing engineering teams: digital, in store, payments, loyalty, personalization.
What got me into DevOps was in 2011 we, as an organization, decided that we needed to be more relevant in the digital space. We had a ton of stores. Our stores were our biggest component of growth and we realized that we needed to be investing more in the website and our mobile apps. Up until that point, we were optimized for cost. It was all about efficiencies, lots of shared services.
Mark: When you look back at that period, were developers talking to ops yet or was it throwing it over the wall period?
Courtney: Throwing it over the wall, so lots of silos. I felt like I had this really unique perspective because I had sat in both seats. I was trying to help bridge the silos in helping both sides practice empathy. It's like, "Well, if you spent some time with the ops team, and you understand what they were going through, then maybe you'd be able to relate." And vice versa, right? It's like on the ops side, "Come see the pressure that these dev teams are under. Let's figure out how maybe we can work together."
Mark: It's interesting because 2011 is when the transition to developers talking to ops really started to happen. I think that we've reached that inflection point now, and now we're trying to get security into that.
Mark: Are you dealing with that?
Courtney: Yes. Absolutely. We've had a lot of conversations about how do we embed security best practices and engineering into the teams. It's one of the bigger challenges.
Mark: The red-headed step-child.
Courtney: Yes, but it's so important. When you're protecting a brand, and you've got a lot of transactions and things going through the system, it's critical. Figuring out how can you do that in the most effective way? We used to joke at Nordstrom. We're like, "We could just lock all the stores. Never let anybody in. That'd be really secure." But we're not going to do that. How do you have a balance
I actually had an opportunity at Nordstrom to lead an effort that we called “Be Secure”. We were held to PCI compliance, because every retailer is, and we were like, "We just keep chasing it. Why don't we be more proactive?" So we invested in tokenization. We invested in a bunch of different mechanisms for protecting data, both at rest and in transit. It shifted the whole audit conversation because we were protecting all the data or, if we didn't need it, we just got rid of it. It was a really a good way to go about it.
Mark: Do you remember the first time you heard about DevOps? Did it make an impression on you?
Courtney: Absolutely. There were two engineers in the organization that were pretty embedded in the DevOps community already. They knew Gene (Kim) and John Allspaw. One of them came to me and said, "I need to introduce you to John. He's really great. He's a thought leader in this space. We're trying to do some of this DevOps type stuff and I think you could learn a lot from him." So I got introduced to John.
He really helped me with how do you create the burning platform? We already knew that we needed to be relevant in digital, but people were still stuck in the old way of doing work. It was, "Well, yeah. We'll dump more money on it," but we didn't change how we got work done. He really helped me with what tactics can I use to get people on board.
That's when I really started to get involved in value stream mapping because we had so much emotion in the discussion. How do we make it visible so that people can see that there's a lot of waste in the value stream? I got really lucky because there was a senior director on my team who had come into the organization eight years prior and was really trying to implement lean techniques. The organization just wasn't ready for it.
He had taken a role in our innovation lab and led that for a few years. They were doing design thinking and all of these things that were really relevant in the DevOps community. He came over and led the customer mobile team and, essentially, just went and asked a bunch of questions, then turned around and showed the team their value stream map.
Basically, what he uncovered is we were releasing twice a year in the digital space. That was not going to get us where we needed to go. It helped everybody rally around it and see it and say, "Oh my gosh. We got to fix that." It took all the emotion out. We started organizing differently. Investing differently. Gene came on site and did one of those reality trees with us. Everybody read The Phoenix Project. We passed that out and a lot of people read it.
Mark: It is a foundation for this community. I remember reading The Goal when it first came out. It changed my mind-shift so I understand what's happened in community through that book. Why did that message resonate? Did people recognize themselves as a character in the book? How did it resonate?
Courtney: Yeah. People recognized themselves. They recognized others. It gave us this common way to talk about it.
Mark: So you can talk about Brent instead of the geek over in the corner.
Courtney: Yeah, exactly. I'm so excited about the DevOps Handbook coming out because I think the one thing that The Phoenix Project left people with a case of “Now, how do I fix it? I understand Eric's role and I understand kind of how they got to a better place”, but it still felt, I think, for most people, almost unachievable. "Where do I start and how do I even start to think about it?"
We had done the… "We're going to do Agile. We're going to stop being a Waterfall shop. We're going to do Agile." But people didn't really know what that meant and so we had a lot of people just checking the box.
We took the value stream mapping exercise to a couple more teams, and picked teams that were practicing Waterfall and Agile so we could show that Lean applies to everything.
We had this skepticism in the organization that, "Well, Lean is just another variation of Agile." We had to figure out how to help people see that it applied to any methodology and any technical stack, too. We had, "Oh, that only works for digital." No, it works for our mainframe application. It works for our restaurant POS.
Using the value stream mapping exercise helped us with telling that story. All along I just continued to get external inspiration. I went down to Velocity, so I could meet John in person. Got more exposure to John Willis and Damon Edwards and Jez (Humble) and Nicole (Forsgren). I went to Velocity, I think it was 2013. Then Gene started this, the DevOps Enterprise Summit, and I got invited to speak. That exposed me to even more people.
The Target folks have started doing a lot of sharing. That relationship has been an ongoing learning opportunity. Also, Jason Cox from Disney. I've spent a lot of time with him.
Mark: Is there an overlap? You've talked about three completely disparate companies, but there's 80% foundation. That's what you guys are together on.
Courtney: Right. You find so many similarities in culture, like right at the fundamental. Everything is about the culture. Grassroots versus having senior leadership support. Both Target and Nordstrom things started more at a grassroots level. When senior leadership support came in, it really opened up the floodgates. Lots of sharing.
I continue to stay connected to John and he helped me all along the way. Every time I'd get stuck, I could give him a call and say, "All right, I need your help."
Mark: When you think back on what you've accomplished, what's the one thing that you say, "I'm really proud of that?"
Courtney: I think I would go back to that customer mobile story. We were able to go from twice a year releasing to, essentially, technology was not the constraint for delivering value. We could do on demand releases. It took a lot of heavy lifting. There were leadership challenges. There were organizational challenges. There were technical challenges because we didn't have a lot of automation yet. But once we got to the place where we could deliver on demand, it was so powerful.
Mark: That comes back to the business objective. What business objective did you align with so that you could provide the financial reasons for doing this?
Courtney: I had a business partner who had project management and UX and Voice of Customer. She and I aligned on, "Okay, what outcomes are we trying to achieve?" We had varying dimensions in that digital space, so it was about driving demand. C-Sat, so we watched customer satisfaction and we were always looking to make sure we had good scores. Our app reviews, how are we doing in the App Store. Reliability, how often is the app crashing.
Mark: I'm not hearing any finance in there, though. I think that's the hard one for people to justify when you say you're going to bring into the company. The bean counter's going to say, "Okay, show me how this is going to help our business."
Courtney: It was one of the first times in my career at Nordstrom where everything was transparent, where we put all the metrics on the table. We had a really high concentration of contractors in the team. It was a pretty efficient organization but we weren't driving the value.
We started tracking. "Okay, how many contractors do we have? How many do-ers?" Because we had a lot more people coordinating the work than actually doing the work, but we made it visible. We started tracking our crash reports. We started looking at our app reviews.
There was power in that, because even though the numbers were not where we wanted them to be, it created this platform for people to have the conversation.
Then we said, "Okay, well, what's our target? We've got 70% contractors and 30% employees. We want to flip that." Then we just kept putting that in front of the leadership team. It's like, "Well, we didn't make as much progress this month. We gotta continue to invest." We ended up doing some really unique things. We actually worked with, Pivotal. We did paired programming accelerated learning, so we could get engineers the time to productivity, basically.
Mark: What stood in your way when you tried to do this? There's always roadblocks.
Courtney: I would say financial, for sure, because we had been so dependent on offshore and using that model. Cost went up for a little while. Then it came back down and quality went up, and value went up. We had to continue to maintain that momentum. Be persistent but also work with those folks that were not totally bought in and just say, "I understand that we haven't gotten to where we need to, but we will." If we don't, we'll have a different conversation but I think the fact that we had all that data, and we just continued to meet and say, "All right, by next month we expect the cost to come down. If it doesn't then we can talk about what we need to do differently."
Mark: So incremental changes on a monthly basis where you reported back?
Courtney: Yes. That helped.
Mark: When you're thinking about the coming year, when I come and talk to you again next year at DevOps Enterprise Summit, what do you hope to have accomplished?
Courtney: That's a great question. We just recently restructured the team. What I'm hoping is I'm going to be able to show results from the changes that we just made. We're taking more of a product/value stream approach to team structure. I anticipate, because it's what I saw in my past, that we will get better outcomes. We're going to measure it.
Mark: What are the measured outcomes you're looking for?
Courtney: We know our cycle time and our lead time. We want to continue to bring that down. We have metrics around automation and quality. I want to continue to see those go in the right direction. We have work to do, you mentioned security earlier, so how do we embed that more and then measure that we're actually getting better.
We're getting more telemetry across the board, so that we can see what is the health of the POS. How do we know before a store calls us? I’d like to see progress in that, as well, because we're kind of in the early stages of making that visible.
Mark: A lot of the conversation here with me and you is around visibility. It sounds critical, the way you're talking, but I haven't heard that argument yet.
Courtney: Yes it is. I have passion around making all work visible, so figuring out how to truly understand all the work that's going on within my team.
The way I talk to the team about it, because they often say, "Well, that's going to be really hard." Because their work is mostly invisible. I try to help them see that if we can make it visible, then we can make decisions about are we working on the right things and how much of your capacity is going to, what we might call, non-value add. Lots of manual work. Maybe we can automate that, and then it frees you up to do more innovative work.
This ability of the work, applying WIP limits… there's way too much work going on at any given point in time. We use Kanban and then also attributing the work so that it's tied to strategic outcomes.
Our CTO has been really great about framing up what our strategy is and what we should be focused on. That gets cascaded to the teams. All of our work should either tie to one of those, or to an operational outcome. We should be either driving speed of service, or the availability of POS, but there should always be something that the team can see and know that the work they're doing is driving that outcome.
Mark: Does culture play a part in the role of the transition for what you're trying to do?
Courtney: Absolutely. The good part about Starbucks is the value system is already extremely aligned with the DevOps community. It's all about people. It's about transparency. It's about "Performance driven through the lens of humanity." It is exactly how that company operates.
Mark: Is that coming from the top?
Courtney: Yes. It starts with Howard and then it cascades to the whole leadership team. That makes my life a lot easier, because the value system exists. It's been part of the organization for 30 years.
The challenge is how do you continue to evolve the working model against the value system?
It's the practices, more than anything. Helping the team see how doing work differently will benefit them and it will make us better as an organization. How are leaders not only teaching themselves how to lead in this new context, but also getting their talent ready for that as well. How do you know kind of what's coming next? I have the luxury of having access to John and Gene and all of these folks that kind of helped me see it, but how you do that at scale. I brought one of my frontline managers here, because she's super curious.
Mark: Here at DOES?
Courtney: Yes, to the DevOps Enterprise Summit. She's been driving the value stream mapping exercise. She's recognized that it's going to be different for her in this new context, so she wants to learn as much as she can. She'll help me because she'll be a role model because she's been at the organization a long time. I think sometimes when you come in new, there can be this like, "Okay, well, is this your agenda?" It's like, "No, this is where the industry's going."
If I can get more of my leaders to get excited about it, and then demonstrate those behaviors, then I think the team comes along with it and then the collective organization comes along with it.
Mark: A topic that keeps coming up, because we're moving so quickly into this, I think it's reached the tipping point where we've reached, the point of inflection has happened. The word dinosaurs has started to come up more and more often.
Courtney: Yes. It's challenging. When I was at Nordstrom, I was there 14 years, I was getting labeled as someone who had been at the company a really long time. It's like, "Can you change? Are you too insular?"
Figuring out how to demonstrate that you can stay current, even if you're at an organization a long time. For me, that was really about introducing other folks in the organization to the DevOps community. It's like let's bring Adrian Cockcroft in. Let's have him talk about engineering. Let's get that influence.
We've got these people who are kind of trailblazing but they're very, very open to sharing what they've learned. Let's take advantage of that. At Starbucks. I've started to introduce folks to The Phoenix Project and now the DevOps handbook. John Willis has offered to come in and talk to my team about the industry and where things are going. Nicole Forsgren has been really active with me in trying to help the team transform.
The combination of the value system, the external perspective and then leaders who are already super curious about operating in a new way as a whole ecosystem will help accelerate the adoption.