Reviewing “Team Topologies”

Recently I finished “Team Topologies: Organizing Business and Technology Teams for Fast Flow” written by Matthrew Skelton and Manuel Pais – Amazon:

I really enjoyed this book because it took a different tactic to talking about DevOps, one that is very often overlooked by organizations: Team Structure and Team Communication. A lot of organizations that I have worked with misunderstand DevOps as simply being automation or the use of a product like GitHub Actions, CircleCI, Azure DevOps, etc. But the truth is, DevOps is about so much more than this and the book really goes deep into this explore team topologies and emphasizing the need to organize communication.

In particular the book calls out four core team types:

  • Stream aligned – in the simplest sense these are feature teams but, really they are so much more. If you read The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim you start to understand that IT and engineering are not really its own “thing” but rather, a feature of a specific department, entity, or collab. Thus, what stream-aligned actually means is a set of individuals, working together to handle changes for that part of the organization
  • Enabling – this one I was aware of though, I had never given it a formal name. This team is designed to assist steam aligned teams enable something. A lot of orgs make the mistake of creating a DevOps team, which is a known anti-pattern. DevOps (or automation as it usually is) is something you enable teams with, with things like self-service and self-management. The goal of the enabling team is to improve the autonomy of the team.
  • Platform – platform teams can be stream-aligned teams but, their purpose is less about directly handling the changes for a part of the org than it is support other stream aligned teams. Where enabling teams may introduce new functionality, platform teams support various constructs to enable more streamlined operation. Examples might include a wiki with documentation for certain techniques to even a custom solution enabling the deployment of infrastructure to the cloud.
  • Complicated Sub-system – the author views this a specialized team that is aligned to a single, highly complex, part of a system or the organization (can even be a team managing regulatory compliance). The author uses the example of a trading platform, where individuals on the team manage a highly complex system performing market trades, where speed and accuracy must be perfect.

The essence of this grouping is to align teams to purpose and enable fast flow, what Gene Kim (in The DevOps Handbook) calls The First Way. Speed is crucial for an organization using DevOps, as speed to deploy also means speed to recover. And to enable that speed teams need focus (and to reduce change sizes). Too often organizations get into sticky situations and respond with still more process. While the general thought is it makes things better, really it is security theater (link) – in fact I observed this often leads to what I term TPS (Traumatic Process Syndrome) where processes become so bad, that teams do every thing they can to avoid the trauma of going through with them.

Team Topologies goes even deeper than just talking about these four team types, going even into office layouts and referencing the Spotify idea of squads. But, in the end, as the author indicates, this is all really a snapshot in time and it is important to constantly be evaluating your topology and make the appropriate shifts as priorities or realities shift – nothing should remain static.

To further make this point, the book introduces the three core communication types:

  • Collaboration – this is a short lived effort so two teams can perform discovery of new features, capabilities, and techniques in an effort to be better. The author stresses this MUST be short lived, since collaborating inherently brings about inefficiencies and blurs boundaries of responsibilities, and increased cognitive load for both teams.
  • X-as-a-Sevice – this is the natural evolution from collaboration, where one team provides functionality “as a service” to one or more teams. This is not necessarily a platform model but, instead, enforces the idea of separation of responsibilities. Contrasting with collaboration, cognitive load is minimal here as each knows their responsibilities
  • Facilitating – this is where one team is guiding another. Similar, in my view, to collaboration, it is likewise short-lived and designed to enable new capabilities. Therefore, this is the typical type of communication a stream-aligned and enabling team will experience.

One core essence of this is avoid anti-patterns like Architectural Review Boards, or another other ivory-tower planning committee. Trying to do this sort of planning up front is at best, asking for continuous stream of proposals as architectures morph, and at worst a blocking process that delays projects and diminishes trust and autonomy.

It made me recall an interaction I had with a client many years ago. I had asked “how do you ensure quality in your software?” to which they replied “we require a senior developer approve all PRs”. I looked at the person and then asked “about how many meetings per day is that person involved in?” I asked. They conferred for a moment and came back and said “8”. I then looked at them and said, “how much attention would you say he is actually exercising against the code?” It began to dawn on them. It came to light much later that that Senior Developer had not been actively in the code in months and was just approving what he was asked to approve. It was the Junior developers approving and validating their work with each other – further showing that “developers will do what it takes to get things done, even in the face of a bad process”.

And this brings me to the final point I was to discuss from this book, cognitive load. Being in the industry for 20yrs now I have come to understand that we must constantly monitor how much cognitive load an action takes, people have limits. For example, even if its straightforwad, opening a class file with 1000 lines will immediately overload cognitive load for most people. Taking a more complex approach, or trying to be fancy when it is not needed also affects cognitive load. And this makes it progressively harder for the team to operate efficiently.

In fact, Team Topologies talks about monitoring cognitive load as a way to determine when a system might need to be broken apart. And yes, that means giving time for the reduction of technical debt, even in the face of delaying features. If LinkedIn can do it ( your organization can do it, and in doing so shift the culture to “team-first” and improve its overall health.

I highly recommend this book for all levels and roles, technologists will benefit as much as managers. Organizing teams is the key to actually getting value from DevOps. Anyone can write pipelines and automate things but, if such a shift is done without actually addressing organizational inefficiencies in operations and culture, you may do more harm than good.

Team Topologies on Amazon –


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