Devops, Johan Cruyff, Total football – and Total IT?

DevOps - having a multi-talented team that can step in for other players is key to success in football and in IT

DevOps and Football – where is the connection?

In 2016 we lost Johan Cruyff, one of the few true greats of modern football (read soccer if you hail from west of the Atlantic). Looking back on how Cruyff, and coach Rinus Michels’s innovation changed football and how that then evolved into the modern playing style made me think on how Devops might transform IT in a similar way.

First some quick background – if you understand already, feel free to skip. For those who follow that other kind of football in North America, realise that soccer has relatively few rules and, apart from the goalkeeper, all players are equal under those rules. For example, unlike North American football anyone can score. Of course each player has their own skills, preferences, abilities and experience – and the team will sensibly make best use they can of those.

Total involvement

The idea behind Cruyff’s total football was that any player could move anywhere, and when out of position another player would fluidly move into cover their role. This meant defenders could also attack, and attackers should also defend. The idea worked with a team of talented stars, producing football that won games, and won them in style, delighting spectators and – so it seemed – the players too.

Now 40 years later I am reminded of all this when taking devops seriously and learning about the ideas behind it. And if the analogy holds then I think it shows how the devops attitudes might grow and benefit a wide range of organisations.

In the 1970s the Ajax club and the Netherlands national team played total football in exciting and effective style. They had a wide range of massively talented players and a genius superstar – in Cruyff – around whom the team revolved. But despite his starring role, they worked as a team: there were massive egos and personal pride for sure, but also support and commitment to winning (or sometimes losing) as a team. Others tried it of course but it seemed too hard for ordinary mortals to deliver it fully to the extent originally conceived.

But we did get from that extreme idea a new way of playing that pervades all top class football today. Not everyone delivers every role equally well, but all attackers are expected to be able to defend when necessary. Defenders go forward and score goals. And all midfield players must support the forwards and come back and defend. We see the whole team working together in attack and defence. Of course we still have those with special skills – but everyone on the team is good enough at all the different sets of skill. That is: good enough to deliver value for the team.

Total IT too?

So – how does that evolution map onto the devops situation? We need to build teams who see that they will all sink or swim together. The ‘simple’ picture and underlying innovation is that all team members will work together to build, test and the support services. Just like the initial total football idea this has some practical issues for wide application:

Total flexibility requires a team full of versatile stars and most times that isn’t what you have

Not using and individual most of the time where there major skill set lies, reduces the overall effectiveness. It’s like having a large car, an economical car and fast comfortable car, but using them at random rather than trying to take the most appropriate one for different kinds of journey. But it really helps that all can do each kind of trip when you have clashes or one is off the road.

Not everyone on the team does every role equally well, but the extra power that comes from being able to contribute across a range of roles is immense. When I played football at school, mature defensive play meant not getting pulled out of position – “don’t follow the ball” I was told. Now full backs are expected to have a wider range of skills. And teams get goals – and match saving tackles – from everyone nowadays.

We can’t all be good at everything but we can all:

  • See we are all one team, with one set of success measures
  • Ensure our roles overlap with other team members so we can deliver real support and cover when they are busy doing other things
  • Trust each other, and have cause to do so. Not keep one eye over our shoulder when someone is helping us to be sure they have done it how we would.

If we see a DevOps team like the total football ideal of multi-talented individuals all capable of everything equally well, then it won’t deliver all it could. Instead if we model those teams on how modern football has evolved, we will have groups of people who recognise individual strengths but put them in context. We need a wide range of skills there too – not just development and operations but also the business voice and many other voices too. There are, after all, more than IT skills needed to make and support IT services and those skills need to be included not just applied afterwards.

Breadth of skill matters as much as depth

So, in summary, whether or not you care about football (or soccer if you must) – you can see that aiming for team building and practical mutual support across that team is a good way forward, matched with recognising the range of skills you need – and also the range you actually have – and then making best use of them.

Bill Powell taught me the term ‘mushroom shaped people’ to describe the kind of person we need – with a stalk of deeper skill in their own specialism. But with good, practical awareness over the wider area, able to turn their hand – in a genuinely useful but not masterful way – to the roles neighbouring their own. I see devops as the ideal way to build those kind of teams, not least having folks who can take pride in all their skills, not just what they are very best at.

It may not be all that fashionable to see it, but often it is our breadth of skills, and the ability to be good at more than what we are best at, that is the most valuable talent in a good team member.

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In 23 years working for the UK government, Ivor Macfarlane moved from forestry to ITSM via prison, stores and training. He has worked as a Service Management trainer, consultant and writer since going freelance in 1999 and then after a 7 year spell with IBM he is now independent again working through MacfPartners to deliver training and consultancy to customers. He was an author for ITIL (versions 1,2 & 3), ISO20000 and ITSM library and an ITIL examiner since 1991. He is well known at ITSM events having presented at many around the world (39 countries so far) and is an active contributor to social media.