DevOps Institute

[EP36] Getting to know Jamal Walsh, Technical Product Owner at The Very Group



On this episode of the Humans of DevOps, Jason Baum is joined by DevOps Institute Ambassador Jamal Walsh, Technical Product Owner at The Very Group.

They discuss passions, applying DevOps practices to legacy platforms, airplane hangars, mountain biking and more!

The lightly edited transcript can be found below.

Narrator 00:03
You’re listening to the humans of DevOps podcast, a podcast focused on advancing the humans of DevOps through skills, knowledge, ideas and learning, or the SKIL framework.

Jason Baum 00:18
Hey, everyone, it’s Jason Baum, Director of membership for DevOps Institute, and your host of the humans of DevOps podcast. Thanks so much for coming back for another listen. And I’m really excited today because I’m chatting with Jamal Walsh, DevOps Institute ambassador and Senior Solutions Architect at the very group, which I am told is the UK is the largest integrated retail and financial services provider. That’s very impressive. Jamal, how are you? Thanks for coming to the podcast.

Jamal Walsh 00:47
I’m good. It’s a big achievement. It’s a great company to work in a couple of years now. So yeah, I’m excited. I’m excited to have a chat with you on the podcast as well. Thanks for having me along.

Jason Baum 00:58
It definitely. And I’m excited to talk about retail too because that’s something I know a little bit about. Prior to coming to DevOps Institute, I’d actually worked for about a decade in a an association that was all focused on retail. So very excited to get into a little bit of your background, and a little bit on what you know, the very group is doing, especially right now, with the digital landscape and COVID. And I’m sure we could probably talk about that for an entire podcast. But more important to get it more important for me is to get to the human side, find out a little bit about you and what makes you tick. So tell me some of your backstory. And how did you get here?

Jamal Walsh 01:39
Yes, so I’ve been in it for nearly 20 years now. I started working on support desk. So I’ve worked on the support desk for a few years learning a lot about ITSM, which is kind of an interesting thing when it comes to DevOps as well, which is something we can maybe touch on a bit later. But yeah, I did, I did a stint on support IT support supporting IT systems. And then I kind of taught myself web development did some web development courses got really into web development. So building a lot of websites, I built the first intranet, the company I worked for at the time. And then from there, I started to work in SAP and doing a lot of SAP web development. And their, their, their platform. This was about 15 years ago. And they were using some kind of DevOps techniques way back then, you know, some 15 years ago, some of the tools they had in their system that allows you to build and deploy their software, we’re very kind of DevOps. And then, after a stint doing all the enterprise SAP stuff, became a Solution Architect, helping teams design, our new systems and new platforms that we wanted to build over time. And then after that, that’s where we kind of, we kind of stumbled into DevOps. And there was a, there was a big push from the once a business understand the concept and what it brought to the business, there was a big push to kind of embed the culture of DevOps and the practices of DevOps into the business. So I was made a DevOps product owner, which is a really interesting title. So what does that mean? Yeah, so it was basically engaging with the teams. And teaching them about DevOps in the concepts, excuse me, and actually talking to him about the tools and automation and how we would embed DevOps practices into the business, and really pushing that along and kind of evolving over time. And then I did that for around about 12 months, made some really great progress with that. And then I left the company I was working with to become a Senior Solutions Architect at the very group, which is where I am now, which is a huge, purely online retail business that offers different ways to pay basically. So they offer kind of, you can pay by credit, you can pay by, you know, three installments and things like that. So they offer flexible ways to pay through the website, as well as just being you know, kind of standard cash website.

Jason Baum 04:31
So let’s talk about that. You know, I would assume that right now that that’s pretty in demand, different ways to pay, especially when people don’t want to like touch. You know, no more cash. Don’t give me cash. Don’t get it. Don’t let me touch anything paper.

Jamal Walsh 04:45
Yeah, absolutely. I think I think really interestingly, I think what happened, you know, sure, after COVID and everyone went into lockdown, and people were really conscious about how they were spending their money. And I think one of the things as an organization, we noticed is that people actually started paying back the credit that they were taking out quite a lot. But I think, yeah, I think people are looking for those flexible ways to pay, being able to know, I think, you know, having the bigger, you know, the bigger pieces of you know, furniture and things like that, that you know, consented cost quite a bit of money, you know, that they often don’t want to save up and they can, they can just buy it and pay it over a period of time. So I think the interesting thing about the very group is you’re actually working in a company that has two different verticals, what’s so it’s in two different markets. So you’ve got the side of the financial services, and we’re a financially regulated business because we offer credit products, but then you’ve also got the retail side as well. So it’s, it was a really, it’s kind of one of the reasons to join the company, because you get exposure to those two different parts of the business, basically.

Jason Baum 05:56
So what were some of the let’s back up again, and kind of go back into your, your history and learn more about you, you know, what are some of the challenges that you kind of ran into maybe early in your career? Did you ever have that moment? Where like, what am I doing? What am I doing with my life?

Jamal Walsh 06:15
Yeah, I guess. I just followed my passions at the end of the day, and kind of, I think I’ve been really lucky to be honest with you in that, you know, the things that I’ve always been passionate about, and the things I’ve enjoyed, like development, like software development, and things like that. And, you know, I spent many, many hours you know, learning how to build websites and things like that. And it was just a passion. And because of that, and because I followed that just, you know, opportunities arise. And I just, I just kept following it and the things, you know, the things that kind of, I was curious about, I kept kind of exploring and finding new things. And I’ve just always been had kind of an inquisitive mind, and it’s kind of just, it’s just come from there. Really, I mean, you know, I’ve never really been, I’ve never yet, I was at, brother, where I worked previously to where I am now for 17 years. So, you know, I wasn’t, I wasn’t out looking in the market for you know, how I can move on, I just, I just kind of moved up through the company to a point where actually, I want to try something else now. And the things I want to do, I can’t do it at the company I was at. So that kind of forced my hand, basically. But yeah, I mean, it’s just pure, you know, going out exploring, looking into different things.

Jason Baum 07:33
So you’re pretty self-taught then with a lot of this, it sounds like did you go to school for you know, computer engineering, or any of that

Jamal Walsh 07:43
Nelson, no university, I went to secondary school in the UK, which is about 16 years old. And then from there, straight into work. And yeah, it’s just one of those things that just, it’s just having, having that passion and exploring it. And I think sometimes it’s great to have a great education. But it’s kind of I just, I just went straight into work, and then just kind of move from there. I did, I did try a college course in computer science, but never really got into it. And it wasn’t for you. Yeah, it wasn’t for me. And then, when I started, when I started really getting a passion for this kind of thing. I thought back and I thought, you know, maybe it should have stuck with that course, a little bit more. But, you know, it’s still it still stands me in good stead.

Jason Baum 08:32
I guess I didn’t hold you back in your career. So absolutely not. No, no. I mean, we I think that’s awesome that you had a passion, you knew what you wanted, and you just went for it. I think that’s not, at least to me, maybe that’s not the norm. I mean, for myself, I, I thought I was going to school to do television and broadcasting. And here, you know, here I am, as an association executive for 15 years.

Jamal Walsh 08:57
Yeah, I think I think I think, you know, quite a few years back, I think one of the things that really kind of changed, my mindset was I read, I read quite a lot. Like, I don’t like to read fiction. So I, I read quite a lot about you know, tech and stuff like that, and psychology and all of that kind of stuff, and business psychology, and I was reading about fixed mindset versus growth mindset. And that really kind of rang true to me. And it’s kind of a concept that I think you need to have when it comes to DevOps and things like that, you need to have a growth mindset. And I think, you know when I started to read a bit more about that, and understanding the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, and you know, how life can be and your career can be so much different with a growth mindset that kind of spurred me on even further.

Jason Baum 09:48
So what is the difference between a growth mindset

Jamal Walsh 09:51
and so yeah, so a fixed mindset is kind of someone who’s kind of stuck in their ways that they believe that, you know, this is how It’s always been in, therefore, this is how it always will be. Whereas a growth mindset is kind of someone who’s constantly learning constantly wants to improve their knowledge about whatever it is, they’re passionate about, basically, continuous learning, continuous improvement, all of that good stuff. And I think, with the rate of change that’s happening in technology, now, a fixed mindset just doesn’t fit anymore. If you go back, if you go back, say, 1520 years, where there were huge long projects and things were done a very rigid way, then a fixed mindset would probably suit you. Whereas now in the new world now, where things change, sometimes overnight, you just can’t have a fixed mindset, you need to have that growth mindset, you need to have a passion for learning and trying out new things and changing the way you do things.

Jason Baum 10:52
Yeah, I mean, we’re being fed content every second of every day and on multiple things, you see it on your computer then you get on your watch then you get on your phone. And there’s so many things to read and understand. I think that’s really interesting. You know, what’s really interesting to me is multiple people who I’ve talked to, on this podcast, have an interest in psychology or did some type of reading with psychology, which makes so much sense since DevOps really is all about culture. It’s all about implementation, right of practices that need to fit or change a culture. So I would imagine that that comes with a lot of difficulty, it’s not easy. Something that you mentioned, you know, to me, prior to the podcast that I wanted to make sure that we talked about was about applying DevOps practices to legacy platforms. So something that’s been around forever.

Jamal Walsh 11:52
Yes, that and that really, you know, that really goes well into what we’ve just been talking about. Because what it when I, when I started work at the very group, there were very two distinct streams of work. One was on a brand new platform, which was about building stuff in serverless, and microservices, and automating all of the build and deployment processes, and all of that good stuff. And everyone was really focused and really, you know, exploring these new tools and new ways of working, and really, you know, charging ahead. And while we were doing that, there was this old legacy commerce platform that served the business for many years, I mean, even to this day, you know, it still generates, you know, 2 billion pounds in revenue per year. And, you know, that platform just had no love at all. And I think it was partly because, you know, we’re going to move to this new platform, we shouldn’t be investing in this old platform. But we quickly came, to the conclusion that actually, even though it’s an old platform, it’s still providing a service to us. And we should still think about investing in how we can improve the processes in that platform. And just to give you an example, we could, we were using strangulation patterns to move away from this old legacy platform, this whole commerce monolith. And we would, we would embed parts of a new micro front end into that platform just to strangulate a bit of the functionality away from it. But what we found was we could release a change to the front end is the React front end, we were building in a matter of minutes. However, if we didn’t have the stuff in our legacy platform, to accept that change, to integrate that change, then we would have to wait a month for the release. So even though we were going, you know, super fast in our microservice world, we still had the weight of the legacy platform. And you know, wait, we had to wait around for the legacy platform to deploy the chains to make it all work. So it’s kind of, you know, just kind of thinking that, you know, although a lot of these old platforms are you know, that they’re and they’ve been around for a long time, a lot of the practices and a lot of the things you do around DevOps can be applied to old systems mainframes, whatever, you know, just certain technologies you may not be able to use but certainly loads of other stuff you can adopt.

Jason Baum 14:20
Here’s a retail story that that kind of goes along with what you’re so so my one of my jobs in in high school my first ever job was working in retail. And at we had Kmart I don’t know if you’ve heard about it yet. Okay. So Kmart was a pretty big retailer back and, you know, a while ago and that now they’re notorious for going out of business and not doing well. But back when I worked there they were still pretty big. And they had a point of sale. You know that that seemed like even back then. It was kind of old, but it was a decent point of sale. I swear To you, like three years ago, I walked into one of the last remaining Kmart that I’ve been in, it was the exact same point of sale that they used when I was in, like in high school, and it blew my mind. And like, this is why they’re going out of business. And it’s yes, there’s a million other things, but like, they don’t even care about their point of sale of how are they going to stay in business? So just think about some of these legacy systems. And if you’re, if you’re turning like a cruise ship in some areas, but going really fast, and others, yeah, you’re gonna have failure? Yeah,

Jamal Walsh 15:33
exactly. I think I think it’s, you know, I think I think it’s really important when, when you’ve got a legacy system, and you’ve got a new way of working and you’re trying to manage both of them. You know, the important thing is that you’re getting stuff out to your customers at the end of the day, right? That’s, that’s the key differentiator, how quickly can you get your new features new capabilities out to your customers before your competitors. And if 80% at a point in time, if you start a migration project or anything like that, from an old platform to a new platform, in the beginning, your new platform is still going to be needed to deliver stuff to the end customer. And that’s why it’s really important to invest in those legacy platforms. I’m not saying you do it, you know, it’s about finding the right balance between okay, we know it’s going to go away, but what can we do to it? What practices and what processes and what technology can we add to it? That will make it quicker, right and more secure, etc?

Jason Baum 16:33
Yeah, that’s what everybody wants us to be more efficient, quick. All that. Yeah. So moving on, you know, are you so I think, are you working from home these days?

Jamal Walsh 16:44
Yep. Working from home every day in my little office in East Manchester in the UK? Yeah, fine. And it’s not too bad. To be honest with you. My commute to work was an 80-mile round trip. So kind of works out well for me,

Jason Baum 17:02
so it’s not terrible work. And you guys just had another lockdown lifted? Just recently? Yeah, that’s right. So how’s life been, in Manchester, UK, with the pandemic?

Jamal Walsh 17:16
Um, for me, personally, it’s been, it’s been okay, I’ve actually, I’ve actually had time to think about myself, my own health, and things like that. So, I mean, I know, I know, some people have suffered quite a bit through this. But personally, I’ve really just tried to focus on myself and make sure keep myself fit and healthy. So I think I’ve come out of the other side of it a lot better than what I went in which, you know, is a bonus.

Jason Baum 17:43
That’s good. If you can say that. That’s a really good thing. I think, yeah, it’s important. It’s important. I think I went to the doctor recently, I think I got the COVID 15 pounds. So I’m, I’m really ready to shed that. And I would imagine that for the very group, it’s different right now with COVID. Was that impacted? You know, the business? And where do you see it going in next?

Jamal Walsh 18:10
So it was really interesting. I mean, it completely. It completely shows how quickly a business can change under certain circumstances. I think some of the stuff that we achieved in the first couple of months of, you know, the serious lockdown when there’s just no, no one’s going home. I think. I think if you think about, our business, there’s a huge technology team that does a lot of the software development, they’re all, you know, digital savvy, they understand how computers work, and all the rest of it. And then you have another part of the business, which is our merchandisers and retailers, and they have to be with the clothes, they have to, you know, they have to have hands-on and, you know, they’re not there to be engineers, they don’t understand technology as much. And the thing, you know, we managed to get, you know, I think it’s around 4000 People are working from home in the space of about a month and a half, which is an amazing feat. And you know, we’re talking about purchasing laptops, because obviously a lot of people are desktop PCs. So, you know, the effort was unreal. And there were a lot of challenges on the way networking and things like that. But you know, you know, shortly into the first lockdown we had, we had pretty much everyone working from home and actually doing some good work as well. And it’s like I say, I think I think some people find it a lot harder than others. Obviously, you have people with kids at home, you have people who have jobs that require them really to be in a different environment than being at home. So from a tech point of view, I don’t think it impacted us too much. But I think if you look at the different roles in the organization, maybe a bit harder for other people in other roles.

Jason Baum 19:56
Yeah, I think and we’re getting used to it now. It’s been a long time now that people have been home. So I think once it gets once it gets back to you like using air quotes for everyone listening, but normal, human, what is that? And what’s that going to look like for you guys? Are you going back to a hybrid are you

Jamal Walsh 20:15
so so it’s really, really interesting because they come our office is in a, an old aircraft hangar, a huge aircraft hangar, that’s pretty cool. Yeah, during lockdown, they’ve completely refurbed the entire building and made it a much more collaborative space. That’s obviously reduced the kind of desk space and the ability for people to go into the office. So it will definitely be a hybrid approach where, you know, the majority of the time you’re working from home, and then you’re going into the office for the more, you know, the bigger collaborative, you know, events and things like that. But yeah, the job they’ve done refurb in the offices is unbelievable, the way they’ve, they’ve set up the spaces and you know, completely changed the entire dynamics of the ways of working. I mean, if you were to go in there, you know, prior to COVID, you would have just seen rows of desks, everywhere. And now it’s much more open, much more collaborative. Yeah, it’s, it looks, it looks like he’s I think, I think everyone wants to go back. But I don’t think everyone I think, you know, a small majority want to go back full time, but I think the majority will be quite happy just going in at some when needed.

Jason Baum 21:27
Yeah, I and I, that has been said so many times. So me, I feel like that is definitely the consensus without doing a poll, I can probably tell you, it’s probably 70% want to keep some type of hybrid environment,

Jamal Walsh 21:40
I think I think one of the things I’ve missed is that human contact, I think, you know, having that kind of just walking past someone, and just having a conversation, and you know, it’s, I miss that kind of stuff and being able to you know, just go and grab someone and go for a coffee or something like that. It’s just, you can do it on teams and things like that. But it’s just not the same as it’s just not as natural, as you know, being in the office. And, you know, having side of the desk charts and things like that. That’s what I miss. It’s very

Jason Baum 22:10
inhuman. Yes. Yeah. And we have to get back to that. Well, yeah. And that’s, that’ll be interesting. What happens when we do get back to normal? What do you think is the biggest challenge that you see right now with the DevOps space? You know, other than COVID? And getting back to normalcy? You know, what is that next? big hurdle coming our way?

Jamal Walsh 22:33
Um, I think, I think it’s a couple of things. Really, I think, I think I think we’ve, I think we struggle with two things. And that’s culture and technology. And I think that the, you know, I’ve been doing kind of practicing DevOps for a number of years now. And for me, the technology market is just growing and growing and growing. I mean, if you look at the tools you can use when it comes to DevOps, it’s absolutely mind-blowing, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of different tools out there. And I think, I think the markets been flooded quite a bit. And there are some players out there, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are some players out there like Git lab, and as your DevOps and things like that. They’re trying to kind of amalgamate the toolchain that you use in DevOps. So if you look at as your DevOps, you’ve got everything from your kind of Kanban board all the way through your version control system to, you know, build, and deploy, testing, and all of that stuff all in one package. And the thing? Yeah, I think that the biggest challenge is getting your tools, right, and picking the right tools. And, you know, if you end up on the wrong tools, you can end up quite far behind, you know, if you pick the wrong tool, and it’s not moving as fast as some of the other tools in the market, you could end up quite behind. And then the other thing is, is culture, I think, there’s so many anti-patterns and misconceptions out there around DevOps, I think, I think the concept is, is in danger of kind of being completely misunderstood by a lot of businesses, a lot of organizations, see kind of, I see a lot of will get some DevOps engineers, I mean, that completely goes against the concept of DevOps in my view, you know, we’re not, you don’t hire DevOps engineers, you practice DevOps as an organization and a thing. You know, there’s a lot of these I see a lot of these anti-patterns happening across different businesses. And yeah, I think if we don’t, you know, if we don’t get it right, then, you know, the whole thing could be lost, which worries me quite a lot.

Jason Baum 24:48
Man. I was about to cheat to go on to another subject, but that’s, that’s really interesting. So how do you combat that?

Jamal Walsh 24:55
I guess through training and sharing, I think, I think I think a lot of the time, I think when once an organization has a, has a has an understanding of how they think something is. And it’s been kind of understood that way. But a lot of people in the organization, it’s really hard to unravel that and go, right. That’s not actually what it is. And I think to, to do that you need to kind of build trust in the organization. I, you know, make people aware that you actually, you know, you have a vested interest in this, you understand this, you know, you, you understand how all this works, and kind of prove that out, and then try and educate people who are potentially going down the wrong path. But, you know, if you’re, if you’re setting up DevOps teams, and you’re hiring DevOps engineers, then nine times out of 10, you’re probably not practicing DevOps. That’s my view anyway. Yeah. And again, it’s about getting the right people in, it’s about getting a team doing DevOps properly, you know, kind of like a, an Alpha team, or, you know, you know, the best of the best and then showing other teams, what good looks like, is another way, sharing. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, sharing is hugely important. I mean, yeah, I mean, at the very group, we, we, I would say, We overshare, but I’d rather overshare than under share. But yeah, you know, sharing experiences. We have, we have a tribe and squad model in the very group. And there’s lots of different forums where we can get together and share our different experiences, maybe that’s around infrastructures trolled AWS, the different tools we’re using for testing and things like that, and we kind of cross-pollinate all the teams with information as much as possible.

Jason Baum 26:49
In my head, I see Mad Libs, it’s like when you don’t share, you have a bunch of sentences with left-out words. And it’s like, you’re just gonna fill in whatever word you want. But when you share, at least you fill it in for everyone. And then we all follow the same directions, it’s much easier in this world.

Jamal Walsh 27:04
Yeah, we have some cool sessions. So we have some quite formal sessions. And then we have some informal sessions. So we have something called a tech forum, we used to run every, every, every couple of weeks, we now run it monthly, just because of the demands of things that are going on at the moment. But that’s kind of a really informal session where anyone can come along and put their name down. And they can talk about anything to do with any tech that they’re working on. It could be, you know, raspberry pies, it could be, you know, some pet project, they’ve got a home to something they’ve done in work. And you know, that, interestingly, when we did it in the office, we used to, we used to set up screens, and we had people come up and sit down, and we’d probably get around 3040 people attend, maybe a bit more. And then obviously, when COVID happened, we started doing the same thing online. And we’re starting to see upwards of 80, nearly 100 people attending all sessions. So I think doing it remotely has definitely helped that sharing culture made it more available. The other thing is we started using teams and we record the sessions as well. And we have a stream channel so people can actually go back and watch stuff back as well.

Jason Baum 28:20
Yeah, the complaint, right for everything is I don’t have time now people are home, you can download the people still don’t have time, but at least you can watch it when you do have time or listen to it on your walk or whatever. Yeah.

Jamal Walsh 28:30
And I think that’s been that’s been a really helpful, helpful tool for us from a remote kind of point of view.

Jason Baum 28:37
Great. Alright, let’s get back to you again. So what’s one tell me one unique hobby or thing that you’re into that you know, people might not know about you?

Jamal Walsh 28:53
Yeah, I used to do mountain biking quite a lot. And downhill mountain biking. But yeah, I went over my handlebars a couple of times. So yeah, I didn’t injure myself. But I thought yeah, this is getting a little bit too close. So yeah, I’m 41 now so I don’t think I’d fix as quickly as I would in my younger years. So I’ve decided to give that up a bit. But yeah, I’m a huge I mean, huge cryptocurrency fan as well.

Jason Baum 29:20
I really did you invest early. Not like

Jamal Walsh 29:23
not early enough.

Jason Baum 29:24
I was gonna say we’re going to a multimillionaire right now.

Jamal Walsh 29:28
Yeah, not be I’d love to be on my desert island somewhere.

Jason Baum 29:33
What was the last thing that you listen to on your Apple music or whatever?

Jamal Walsh 29:39
I’m into dance music. Oh, I used to DJ as well. So DJ in nightclubs in Manchester and around the Northwest. So yeah, I’ve been thinking about doing that again. You know, getting some DJ equipment in I used to have the old technics 1210s. Loads of vinyl. I got really have it all. Yeah, I think you know, getting back into that kind of stuff. But yeah, I just love it. I love it. I love all kinds of music and podcasts as well. I’ve been really getting into podcasts lately. Jinkins podcast is really, really good. Really good stuff on there.

Jason Baum 30:17
Yeah. Gene comes up every single week on this

Jamal Walsh 30:21
podcast. Yeah, I’m sure he does.

Jason Baum 30:24
Well, great. It was really nice chatting with you, Jamal, and getting to know you. Thanks so much for being on the podcast. Really appreciate it

Jamal Walsh 30:30
now. It’s great. Thanks a lot, Jason. I really enjoyed the chat.

Jason Baum 30:33
Hope you get back into DJing. That’d be fun. Yeah, maybe

Jamal Walsh 30:37
could spend some change next time that that’d be great.

Jason Baum 30:41
And thanks so much for listening to this episode of the humans of DevOps Podcast. I’m going to end this podcast the same way I always do encourage you to become a premium member of DevOps Institute. Get access to even more great resources just like this one. And remember, you’re part of something bigger than yourself, you belong. Until next time, stay safe, stay healthy. Stay tuned, live long and prosper.

Narrator 31:05
Thanks for listening to this episode of the humans of DevOps podcast. Don’t forget to join our global community to get access to even more great resources like this. Until next time, remember, you are part of something bigger than yourself. You belong

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