The Only Metric That Matters

I’ve been a software engineer for a while. When I had the opportunity several years ago to help uncover the core practices needed for continuous delivery, one of the things we needed to know was how to measure the outcomes. There are a bunch of things you CAN measure and some of them are even useful, but I want to propose just one metric to rule them all.

I’m a photographer. I’m also a major fan of fighter aircraft. The engineering required to balance controllability, survivability, maneuverability, etc. Plus, they are just pretty. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Nellis AFB in Las Vegas with a friend who’s a retired Lt. Colonel. We were there to visit the Thunderbirds museum and tour some other cool things. I highly recommend the “Petting Zoo” where they keep captured Eastern Bloc hardware. It’s fun sitting in a Constant Peg MiG.

This wasn’t an airshow that was open to the public. This was a Tuesday. Our group of five and a grandfather and his grandson were the only people there not working.

If you’ve not seen the Thunderbirds before, you should. They clearly demonstrate the outcomes of teams focused on missions they believe in.

This is the ground crew. These are the people who get it done. Each of these planes is owned by small teams and all of the teams are here. The airman on the right in a standard uniform is being evaluated. He joined the team to see how it works so he and they can see if he’s a fit. What you’re seeing here is the ground crew cheering the two pilots coming out for a practice mission, the same way they do at airshows. You see, they don’t go to an airshow and do airshow things and then do something else at home. They are always practicing for the mission. They perform the same tasks the same way every day so they can identify and resolve the unexpected quickly and also always know what the rest of the team will do.

This is the Thunderbirds’ commanding officer. Notice the names of the ground crew on the aircraft. That is the team that owns that aircraft. They let him use it.

…and it broke.

When they attempted to deploy TB1, there was an error. They had impressive MTTR. After about 10 minutes of triage, they decided that the required fix would delay things too long, so they spun up the standby aircraft. They know things will break. Failure is a promise. They practice for it. No one was blamed for the failure because failure is a consequence of trying to excel. Because they practice for it instead of trying to prevent it, it took 10 minutes to deploy a fix instead of hours or days of intensive checks to make sure nothing can break. The outcome?

They deployed him in Thunderbird 6.

So what was my takeaway? How does this relate to measuring high performing software development teams? That ground crew knew the mission. They believed in the mission. They had each others’ backs to perform the mission. The “new guy” was part of the team, not sidelined. They aren’t measured by the number of bolts turned. They are measured by mission readiness. The leading indicator for me of mission readiness is ownership of the mission. Ownership means they have the tools and skills they need to accomplish the mission, the ability to make things better, and responsibility for the outcomes.

For me, there is exactly one measurement that I can look at to get insights into the health of the product and the product team.


If you want to lead or be part of a team like this, check out my other articles in the “5 Minute DevOps” series. Together we can make every team the team we want to be part of.

Written on October 22, 2020 by Bryan Finster.

Originally published on Medium