DevOps Institute

[EP38] Applying Martial Arts in a DevOps Environment


On this episode of the Humans of DevOps, Jason Baum is joined by Avinash Rao, VP of Products at Digite, Inc and DevOps Institute Ambassador. Avinash is a thought leader who speaks frequently in industry forums, and he has a deep experience and expertise in DevOps and Lean-Agile Transformations. They discuss Avinash’s wide array of hobbies, his extensive international experience, and applying martial arts in a DevOps environment.

He also provides an update on the COVID-19 situation in Bangalore, India.

The lightly edited transcript can be found below.

Narrator 00:02
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.

Avinash Rao 00:17
I must share another story with. And this is a story that I feel almost guilty to inflict on every acquaintance of mine because I just think it’s so powerful for me. And I hope it makes sense to the listeners here.

Jason Baum 00:34
Hey, everyone, it’s Jason Baum, Director of membership at DevOps Institute. Welcome back to another episode of the humans of DevOps podcast. It’s great to have you back for another episode as a listener. And I’m really excited today to have on Avinash Rao, VP of Products at Digite, inc as of one month ago, so congratulations to you, Avinash, on your new position. I mean, Josh, welcome to the podcast. Avinash is a black belt, certified master product management professional with deep expertise in DevOps and lean Agile transformation. He is a DOI ambassador, thought leader, speaks all over industry forums with deep expertise in achieving enterprise agility. And your career has taken you around the globe to the UK, the United States, Japan, and you currently reside in Bangalore, India. So Avinash, with all that said, Welcome to our podcast.

Avinash Rao 01:42
Thank you very much, I have got a chance to listen to the first two podcasts, and I thought they were brilliant. Thank you, very pleased to be and very excited to be here.

Jason Baum 01:51
Thank you so much, and I’m a big fan of yours, I had some opportunity to check out your, your LinkedIn and also learn a bit about you. And your as you know, then from listening, we’re gonna get personal, we’re gonna get into it. And it’s all about the human. We want to know all about you and why, or how you’ve made some decisions and career that led you to where you are today. And so why don’t we just kick it off by maybe you could give us like a brief overview of kind of your background?

Avinash Rao 02:26
Sure. So I’ve been in the industry for about 22 years now. And I started out from college with one of the large multinational software services companies, I thought at that time, that technology was the coolest thing that was that I could ever do. And I thought that the world’s problems could be solved with technology. And so about two years of being a Java developer, the organization that I was working with, they were going extremely rapid. When I joined, they were about 2000 people, I think, five years later than 7000 people. So there was this huge work going on on the services supply chain area, how do you match the number of people coming in versus the demand? And how do you not maintain a huge bench? How do you not have clients wait endlessly for getting the right people? And I thought was a fairly straightforward problem, right? I mean, how hard could it be, and you write the right kind of code, use the right algorithms, and we can fix it. So I went up to the lady who used to run business operations are for the company in India. And I told her, she had such a terrible pity, if only she had someone like me on her team out to fix that in about three months. So she looked at me for a long time. And then she said, I’m not sure what, leave technology come work for me, I’ll give you six months. Let’s see if you can help me solve this problem. So I moved out of doing programming to a business analyst role, where I was looking at a large amount of essential data matching, saying how do you do optimization across multiple variables. And I did that for a bit. And then I realized, or I started realizing that not everything is a finite determinant problem, and can be solved with code. As my wife found out much to her eternal regret, I suspect the first time she said, Avinash, you’re not spending enough time with me. And I said, Wait, what is enough time? How do we define enough stuff? What’s the benchmark? Oh, god.

Jason Baum 04:38
Did she slap you after that? Because I don’t know if that would go over very well. No, I

Avinash Rao 04:42
don’t try that. You know, the warning that they gave on fun for stunts, and this is one stunt you should not try. I definitely don’t recommend it. But I started out being a very, very determinate sort of a person but I thought that You could solve every problem with logic and with reason. And what I’ve realized over time is that a lot of the problems that we are faced within the IT industry that we work in are multivariate, you just can’t hold one little, one little string and then say, I want to keep pulling until I solve the whole problem.

Jason Baum 05:24
Yeah, there’s a great saying common sense isn’t very common. And sometimes, you know, like, can I think I can apply that with luck, you know, when you take logic, and you’re like, Well, that makes sense. But what makes sense typically isn’t what people do, right? And we’re all flawed. And I think that’s what makes us human. And I think that’s what’s so great about DevOps and learning is, you know, you take something technically perfect, but it’s not because you have to apply it to imperfect people.

Avinash Rao 05:55
Absolutely. I’ll give you a story as you can, as you probably realize, by now that I’m fond of stories. I’ve, by the way, just as an aside, I have written a few plays, which have been performed on various stages in Bangalore. So I’m the first story person

Jason Baum 06:13
you’re applying, right?

Avinash Rao 06:14
Yes. Oh, very cool. Yeah. For performed place.

Jason Baum 06:19
Oh, very good. That’s awesome. It’s, it’s

Avinash Rao 06:21
something that, you know, keeps me keeps me fresh in the weekends. And you come back on Monday morning, and it’s a whole new perspective to things because you’ve been thinking about completing something else. Absolutely. On the weekends. That’s great. One of the formative incidents that I think has stayed with me over time is, and that showed me the limitations of some of the approaches that we often take is, it’s my first project in as a lead consultant. And I was in the middle of the cornfields in Peoria, Illinois. And I was working for a major manufacturing group there consulting with them. And I had written this bit of code that cut down cycle time by 70%, et cetera, et cetera, all that cool stuff. And I was feeling really proud of myself. And so my boss set up a meeting with the VP, the client, VP, and I spent 15 minutes showing him a lot of graphs. You know, there’s all the cool work that we’ve done. And the gentleman a rather serious gentleman turns to his finance person who was also in the meeting. And he says, Jim, data profits go up because of everything that Avinash has done. And Jim says, No. And then he says, the VP says, Jim, quick costs come down, or my revenue score. Because of what Avinash has done. Jim again, says, No. So then, the VP turned to me and said something that I’ll never forget. He said, Look, you can do all this great work. But at the end of the day, if it doesn’t show end to end, and my revenues don’t go up, and my profits don’t go up, or my costs don’t come down, and what have you really done, you’ve created this little local optima, and I’m not knocking what you’ve done with lunch, that’s fine. But you’ve created this local optima that really isn’t giving the kind of business value, that that would really make a difference. And that I can hear the guy’s voice in my head after I think this, this was about 15 1518 years ago. And that’s just something that, that I think about the Lord saying, what results are the improvements that we are making? What does it really mean, in terms of improving it from an end-to-end perspective?

Jason Baum 08:45
So how do you apply that 18 years post? Now you know, what to have? What is what have you taken from that?

Avinash Rao 08:55
So it’s been an interesting journey. I don’t think we’ll ever get a destination. Interesting, but because we iterate and improve, almost on an ongoing basis. So agile, like thought for a long time was the answer to a lot of thought a lot of the prayers that we have in the industry because you would look at that and say, inspect and adapt, and then empower teams and people. And I’ve now been used. I’ve now been used saying, I’ve been using Agile about 14 years now. And in those 14 years, I’ve seen all the good that it has done. But we’ve also taken a lot of that good for granted. We want better. Nobody now benchmarks against the projects, which used to run for years, and then nothing is to come out and get scrapped and all that be so used to a continuous delivery of software that we’re now saying, you know, what’s the value? How can we improve it? So I think we’re getting better on the art as well as the science of creating software. And for me, that’s the most fascinating, fascinating thing that there is, I must share another story with you. And this is a story that I feel almost a duty to inflict on every, every acquaintance of mine because I just think it is so powerful for me. And I hope it makes sense to the listeners here.

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Avinash Rao 11:02
So as to live in London, where I was program managing agile program. And there was this neighborhood class, which was teaching taekwondo. And I wanted my daughter to learn my daughter was about four and a half at that time. And so when daughter goes there, she looks around and says, Yeah, seems okay. And she says, I’ll go, I’ll join if daddy joins. So Daddy decides that he’s going to be a good dad, and signs up as well. And there are just two people in a class of about 20 Odd folks who are above the age of 30. There’s me. And there is this gentleman who’s about 3536. He works with motorcycles, he’s got a blonde ponytail, he’s got skull tattoos on his bulging biceps, and he has hardly parked outside. The instructor, of course, says you too old days in sales, he was very nice. But he said you told these people to pay you because everyone else is in school or college. And this gentleman is going to grab Avinash by the throat. And in five minutes, Avinash is going to throw his opponent on the floor. Five, extremely painful minutes later, the guy who moves the I forget, release myself and throw him on the floor. The instructor comes by and says, Avinash, this is not a hard work prop. Even if you pump Thai and took steroids and worked out for a year, you’re going to probably still would be stronger than you. Right? This is a technique drop. There are spots on the arm where there are no muscles. So it doesn’t matter how strong your opponent is, you need to pinch Western trip. And by the end of the first class, if my opponent did grab me by the neck, I was able to see myself and throw him down on the floor. So that is a metaphor that I think I apply to almost everything when I look at people working very hard to solve problems to improve. And I think this is a hard work product, do you want a 5% improvement or 10% improvement, then hardware could probably do it. But if you want an A transformation, an order of magnitude improvement in how things are and you want new capabilities, then I think it can’t be a hardware problem anymore, you must look for the right techniques that you must master and then apply to the problem. Otherwise, there’s no way you’re going to get 30% better just by working.

Jason Baum 13:39
Yeah, I love the taekwondo analogy and I, something you said resonated a little bit with me about we never know where we’re going on our journey. And we’ve never really completed it, because until you have completed it. But also with your career. I mean, I actually had early in my career, I was lucky enough to have someone very bluntly tell me how it was where I mean, I had been given a lot of responsibility. And I was exhausted. And I literally said to my boss, it feels like I never have a down day. And he said, Well if you did, you wouldn’t be employed. So you know that really hit home and I carry that because you know, he’s bright. So I’ve never complained about being too busy. Because if you’re busy, then you’re employed. So there you go. And then something else you said with the taekwondo. So I want to learn more about taekwondo. I want to know, you know, so how long have you been practicing now?

Avinash Rao 14:42
So, I did practice for four years actively. So I did win a silver medal at one of the events as well, but that wasn’t in combat. It was a forms demonstration of how you do taekwondo forms. But I think Have always continued to do some martial art I’ve now switched in, in recent years to Tai Chi, which is a less, less high impact, more meditative form, really. But as my instructor tells me that that is really the foundation for other schools of martial arts. But it’s something that I there’s something in that art that really calls to me in terms of the not just the discipline. But in also, there’s almost a beauty in its regular practice. And then just like many, many other things in life, you start reading from a cookbook. And you throw in this particular amount of spices from this rice. I don’t know if you’ve been to India often, but we are very, very particular about food here. So everything has to be just so when you start cooking from a recipe book, it never is the way that it should be. Because you’re following instructions. But you do that over time. And then if you think of me, I

Jason Baum 16:14
know the wax on wax off

Avinash Rao 16:17
the microphone. Exactly what. Excellent mics off and then you’re putting the same, the same spices, the same rice, the same floor, etc. But over time, you get to magic. I think a lot of things, even DevOps, there’s just so many people who look at DevOps and say, yep, we bought Jenkins, where DevOps is reading over a recipe book, right? And then you keep doing it over time, going in the right direction. And that’s where the magic

Jason Baum 16:47
Yeah, as a kid of the early 80s, coming to age, and then in the 90s, you’re speaking to me, my language martial arts, I think everything back then right, the Karate Kid. And, you know, I was a huge fan of the Ninja Turtles. And I had a ninja turtle in, in my apartment complex, this guy who lived upstairs from us, used to come downstairs and he had a real samurai sword, and he would take it into the, into the atrium, and he would practice every Saturday morning and my brother and I would just sit out there and all of the movements that this guy was and everything was flowing, so smooth and very particular. And I mean, it’s it’s a true art form. And, of course, we are so into it. Because I mean, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael were like, the coolest in the world to us. So

Avinash Rao 17:39
I’m still a sucker for all the martial arts movies that come out. In recent years, though, I’ve done a fair amount of long-distance high altitude tracking. So exactly. Everest base camp. Wow. Before the whole lockdown and Pandemic hit.

Jason Baum 17:57
Wow, that’s amazing. So I mean that I’ve gone to some higher areas, but nothing like I mean, I think I was at the highest was like 12,000 feet, and that was high. That was enough. That was like you get a nosebleed or your cell phone dies. But base camp of average. What is that? That’s 18,000 18,000? Yes, yeah, that’s high. That’s very high. Was it hard to breathe up there?

Avinash Rao 18:27
Not particularly, I think we made sure that we acclimatized as we went in, but I think the constant cold just sucks the energy out with you. So it’s, it’s not only the breathing, but it’s also your muscles need rest every what seemed like after every few steps, but

Jason Baum 18:47
how hard is it to get to Basecamp? Because I know, I’ve seen the movies. You know, I read the book, you know, the books about, you know, the what happened on the mountain in the 90s, and stuff like that. I mean, it was really booming. But how hard is it?

Avinash Rao 19:03
Basecamp is okay, because that’s where trekking or hiking stops, and then it becomes mountaineering. So you need to actually know how to use the pickaxe and use ropes and things like that. You don’t need that for this. Okay, so you can actually get there. If you’re determined to walk 120 kilometers with a 10 kg bag, then you can go in and come up.

Jason Baum 19:26
Wow. So you don’t need like a guide a Sherpa for basically,

Avinash Rao 19:31
we did, we did have a guide to take us in. But I think people do go in by themselves to decide that it would help because they would know the right places to stay in the villages along the way. And it was just a little bit easier that

Jason Baum 19:47
way. Is that something you’re looking to do? Like are you trying to go to other peaks or well not peaks, but trying to or maybe you want to go to peak? I don’t know. Is that something you’re striving for?

Avinash Rao 19:59
So that was I think my fifth High Altitude Long Distance trekking in the Himalayas. So obviously, I’ve been to 17,000 times 15,000 months, things like that. I’m definitely looking forward to it once this whole pandemic is out of the way.

Jason Baum 20:17
Yeah, I think we’re all ready for this pandemic to be out of the way, so we can start doing things. Well, how are things in India right now, speaking of the pandemic, you brought it up. And I know, just from what I hear on the news, but But how’s it going near you.

Avinash Rao 20:33
So I think things are slowly getting better. Things were, I think, fairly terrifying for a lot of us. And in a way that I feel that we in the IT industry are a relatively privileged lot. We are able to work from home pretty much seamlessly, we have our machines, our connectivity, everything is online, you order all our vegetables, fruits online, we then bring it in, and then keep it for four hours or whatever the prescribed timeframe is. And then we wash it with all kinds of soaps and detergents. food-grade, of course, but if you really think about that, that’s an incredibly privileged place to be in India, I have got my first vaccination shot, but that was because I have access to computing, I have access to high-speed internet. And the way to do it to the booking for the vaccinations, for example, is all online. But I think the larger thing that I constantly think about is what happens to the multitude of people in a place like India, that really don’t have access to high-speed networks of computing. What happens then, and those are also people in jobs, which can’t be done remotely. So that’s, that’s where I think things are, are very, very tough.

Jason Baum 22:02
Yeah, I hope it hope it starts turning around. Obviously, in the United States, within the past couple of months, really the past month, it’s gotten drastically better was not doing well here, you know, for a while there. But luckily, things have gotten better. I hope that India is gonna have a quick turnaround. The vaccination certainly helps. I know, you. You said you guys are on lockdown. Right. Is That’s across India, right now.

Avinash Rao 22:30
Not across India, Bangalore. And Karnataka, the state in the southern part of India that Bangalore is in is under full lockdown.

Jason Baum 22:39
Okay. Well, I hope that helps, and how has it impacted business?

Avinash Rao 22:47
Again, I think if you look at it purely from an IT industry perspective, there’s been a relatively lower impact. Because I think what we’ve done is that we’ve figured out a way to connect, get work done remotely, in a sense, but I see a huge difference between the first wave and the second wave, right, because the first wave, I, there were just so many conferences that I went to, and people said, remote working is here to stay because productivity is going up. Because the number of cases wasn’t that many are, at least from an India perspective, or a Bangalore perspective. But the second wave, I think, is just something where literally, all of us have had friends, relatives who’ve fallen ill and struggled a little bit in this part of the pandemic. And that’s just bringing the whole energy of the social ecosystem down. So I doubt if I’ll be going to a conference and hearing the second wave of the pandemic productivity is actually up. I’d be very surprised.

Jason Baum 23:58
Yeah. Yeah. I think it was. I think when a hit in India, as hard as it hit, I think everybody felt that across the world, in a sense of, you know, here we are, we think we’re hopefully on the tail end. And then it just got so much worse so fast. I think we’re everybody’s trying to keep positive, you know, here in the United States, but cautiously. I think I read in the New York Times, they were like, when do you know you’re out of a pandemic? And they’re like, Well, you don’t, it just kind of gradually happens. And, you know, here we’ve had, I think 60% vaccinated at this point, which is tremendous, you know, tremendous New Jersey where I am in is one of the better states for it. We were one of the last to list lift our mask mandates. And you still see everybody wearing a mask because everybody’s hesitating. You know, there’s so much hesitation because they just don’t want to relive it. But at the same time, I think everybody’s excited to start getting back and you’re slowly starting to see more Yeah, changes with, with how people behave and getting together with family again because I mean, it’s hard to put your life on hold for so long, it just, it’s just unnatural.

Avinash Rao 25:12
have friends in the US, and some of them were even planning outings for Memorial Day. And it’s been a while since people have done that with a high degree of confidence.

Jason Baum 25:24
Yeah, for sure. So for the future, I know, it’s hard to look at the future when you’re, you know, kind of in the position where you know where you’re in. But, um, what do you see the future of DevOps? What do you see are some of the challenges and what excites you?

Avinash Rao 25:41
So, I think what happened with the whole agile journey is that we transformed the process of the way we developed software. But what didn’t happen is an engineering transformation. That is, there’s really, the process of developing software, and there is the engineering of it, the mechanics of it, I kind of tend to think about it as efficiency problems and effectiveness problems. If you’re going to go to your product owner at the end of every two weeks, and then say, hey, we did this is what we developed, how good is it fit for purpose, things like that, right? So that really gives you feedback on how effective you are in developing the right thing. But it doesn’t tell you anything about how efficient you were in the process of developing it, because you may have really struggled. And, and so many teams that may want to fall inside that two weeks, there was actually this very good friend of mine who was a QA, and he used to take his wife out to dinner and movie, this pre-pandemic, of course, dinner and movie, the Wednesday are the second in the second week of the sprint, because he then told his wife that look Thursday and Friday, everybody’s going to dump their code in as the QA lead, all hell is going to breakthrough. So I’m not going to be speaking much to you for the next two days. So let’s enjoy that stapling together. And I think that’s just terrible. And that’s what DevOps has done such a fantastic job of, of addressing, saying, as soon as you have a reasonable amount of code that can be defined, independently verified, deployed, go ahead and do that. Obviously, the tooling for DevOps, I think, is a relatively solved problem. The practices are getting there. I just know so many teams where people still check-in after a week of them. So there are so many practices that still have to catch up. But the good thing is, there’s recognition that those practices need to catch up. And that’s good enough, we get there, get there in time. I think the only change that I desire, and I think it’s going to happen in the DevOps world, is the ability for us to communicate to the larger world outside the DevOps ecosystem. What’s really happening even DOI I know, many people are involved in the VSM consortium, there’s just this huge amount of interest in value stream management because we all recognize that, like the VP in Peoria, that at the end of the day, we must make improvements that result in clearly defined business. Well, I think in DevOps, we are very good at engineering metrics. But we haven’t got to a stage of maturity, where we are able to apply that in a value stream management manner, and then be able to talk to the business about the value that DevOps is delivering. I think that is going to be the next big thing. I know several executives who are struggling IT executives who are struggling. They know DevOps is cool. They know that teams have done a great job, but how does that translate into the discussions that they’re having with, let’s say, the CFO organization? That’s where I see DevOps going? Does that make any sense at all?

Jason Baum 29:10
It does make sense. I think everybody struggles with the value proposition no matter where you’re at, right? That’s the hardest thing to do is the value proposition I’ve made a personal living on it is how do you deliver value? When you’re in trying to sell a membership, for example, or, you know, a community is really what we’re building here at DOI, how do you what is the value, right? Everybody wants to know, what’s in it for me, right? DevOps makes a lot of sense. What’s in it for me, you know, that’s basically what you’re trying to do. Right? Right. Yeah. So I mean, when you think of

Avinash Rao 29:44
as if you think about it from a people process, tools perspective, my thing from a tools perspective and all sorted practices will get there. People see the value but are still asking the question, what’s in it for me? So We have to be able to answer that. I don’t think there is get any getting away from that at all. In my mind, though, there’s another element, which is the politics of it. And I don’t mean politics in a negative manner at all. politics is the art of the positive, right?

Jason Baum 30:18
This is so bad that politics became a bad word. Yes, I know. It’s really not. Yeah,

Avinash Rao 30:26
to be able to. They used to be a time, I think, about 10 years ago when saying I have excellent political skills would have been seen as a good thing. But now I think it’s just Korea limited. Yeah. So the politics in terms of being able to work with the larger organizational ecosystem, being able to speak with them to be able to negotiate with them. That’s where I think we will see a huge amount.

Jason Baum 30:54
Thank you so much for sharing with us and, and giving us a good sense of who you are as a person. And that’s what we’re all about is learning about the human behind, you know, the great career that you’ve had. So thank you so much for joining us, Avinash.

Avinash Rao 31:09
Absolute pleasure. And I think transformations are always built on personal credibility that you have teams telling teams that that, you know, DevOps works, that’s why another team at ops DevOps, not because the management decides that DevOps works, right. Credibility is always usually at a peer level, at trusted people telling you and I think that’s really the essence of transformation. So absolute fun being on the podcast, I was really excited about it. And I can’t imagine how 45 minutes went by just like

Jason Baum 31:48
that. It goes by so fast, doesn’t it? I feel like we need another. And we’re all on that path of transformation. That’s what’s so exciting about DevOps is constantly transforming. So thank you again. And thank you for listening to this episode of the humans of DevOps Podcast. I’m going to end this episode the same way that I always do encourage you to become a premium member of DevOps Institute to get access to even more great resources just like this one. And until next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and most of all, stay human, live long and prosper.

Narrator 32:19
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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