DevOpsDays Chicago 2020 Wrapup

DevOpsDays Chicago 2020 was held online on September 1. This is our wrap-up of DevOpsDays Chicago

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By Rich Burroughs on 9/3/2020

DevOpsDays Chicago 2020 was held on September 1, online. It was the first time the conference was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. I was excited to attend for a couple of reasons. First, DevOpsDays Chicago is one of the better known and respected DevOpsDays held in the US. I’d never been able to attend it before, so it was great to get the opportunity. Also, I’d been missing the DevOpsDays community. I’m one of the organizers of DevOpsDays Portland, and we canceled our 2020 event. Many of the other DevOpsDays in the US have canceled as well. I was looking forward to a day interacting with that great community.

The organizers chose to stream the main conference track live on YouTube. There was a Discord server for the conference as well, for chatting and for video breakout sessions. I liked the choice of tools. Discord is pretty flexible and holding the breakout sessions there worked well. This was pretty cool too:

Having an explicit acceptance of the Code of Conduct is very important, so there’s no question about whether a given participant has agreed to the terms. It’s also a great reminder.

Sherlaender (Lani) Phillips - Inclusive Leadership: Authentic Conversations

The first talk of the day was from Lani Phillips, a VP at Microsoft. Lani spoke about how leaders can help people have authentic conversations.

She did this by letting people see that she had her own struggles and that it was okay to talk about it. She spoke about having these conversations in a larger team meeting, and also in one-on-one meetings.

I appreciated that she was willing to open up with folks she works with about her problems, as well as listening to theirs. We talk about the importance of psychological safety a lot in DevOps, and it’s great for leaders to model that for their teams.

The conference format included pre-recorded talks, followed by a live fireside chat (with an actual fireplace). In Lani’s fireside chat, she was asked what leaders can do to support people in this time we’re in.

Emily Freeman - Building a DevOps Culture in a Remote World

Up next was Emily Freeman, the author of DevOps for Dummies. Much of her presentation was about the story of Knight Capital, a sort of DevOps horror story that Emily has studied. It’s a story that I hadn’t heard before.

If you’ve ever been anxious about a deploy, this is pretty much the nightmare scenario, a series of events that basically put the company out of business. Really scary.

I loved that these first two presentations embraced the fact that a virtual conference’s primary medium is video. I don’t think Lani had any slides in her presentation, and the slides in Emily’s talk were brought in occasionally to emphasize a point. Most of the time, it was just Emily talking to the cameras.

Emily also made some other points that I loved.


Next I helped moderate one of the breakout sessions. The breakouts ran at the same time as the fireside chats with the speakers. I liked this scheduling. It gave the participants some choices about how to spend their time.

People could suggest topic ideas for the breakouts, and then the participants could join whichever sessions they were interested in. There was a video chat channel per session in Discord and also a corresponding text chat for folks who didn’t want to turn on their cameras.

One of the biggest things missing from virtual events is the contact with other participants that you get at a physical event. It’s impossible to duplicate. But I think this conference came the closest I’ve seen yet.

Ignites Round 1

If you’re not familiar with Ignite talks, they’re a staple of DevOpsDays conferences. Each speaker has five minutes to deliver their talk, and their slides auto-advance every fifteen seconds. Usually, a lot of the fun is watching people keep their talk and slides in sync, which is a lot more challenging than it may sound. Since these talks were pre-recorded, I think we lost that part of what makes Ignites so much fun. But there were some great talks, and I appreciated having this variety in the talk formats.

This first round of Ignites included Laura Santamaria talking about dealing with a production incident at a new job. I liked her suggestion to find ways to get involved.

Next was Henry Quinn, who gave a hysterical talk about leading a government agency’s digital transformation. In his example, the transformation happened because he took some initiative that he didn’t have to.

The third Ignite came from Jeff Smith, who is someone that I love to see speaking. I met Jeff when he gave a talk at DevOpsDays Portland, and it’s always great to see him. His Ignite was about reducing cloud spend during the pandemic, and he pointed out some great ways to manage costs, like using Reserved Instances, Spot Instances, and making sure resources are tagged.

Jeff’s talk made me think back to Holly Cummins’s keynote at KubeCon about the impact of Kubernetes on the environment. I was pleased to see that Holly also caught Jeff’s talk.

Reducing costs and helping the environment is a big win/win.

Last up was Jeremy Meiss, who gave another super funny talk about a difficult situation early in his career, where he had to figure out where some network cables connected.

I really enjoyed this first set of Ignites.

The lunch break was next. I took advantage of it to get away from my laptop and take a walk. By the time I got back, the screen featured the dancing DevOpsDays Chicago mascot, who made appearances during the breaks.

I’m not sure who was in that suit, but they have some moves.

Richard I. Cook, MD - The Bone Talk: Resilience and Resilience Engineering Explained

One of the highlights of the day was the talk by Dr. Richard Cook, who you may know as the author of the extremely influential paper How Complex Systems Fail. I had already seen his talk at REdeploy Conf 2019, but I was still excited to see it again. In the presentation, Dr. Cook used human bone to illustrate what resilience is.

Dr. Cook is one of the leading figures in the field of Resilience Engineering, and he explained it very well.

He talked a lot about the fact that our bones are continually being destroyed and rebuilt.

And bones heal when they break.

It was great to see this talk for a second time, and I think everyone working in DevOps and SRE should watch it.

I ended up taking a break after Dr. Cook’s talk, so I missed the next one. Stepping away when you need to is something that I encourage people to do during physical and virtual events. You’re not obligated to be in the audience or in front of your laptop every second of an event.

Rafael Gomes - How to Grow a Local DevOps Community Without Funding

If you have ever wondered what it takes to get a DevOpsDays conference off the ground or build other tech communities when you don’t have funding upfront, Rafael’s talk was a great perspective on what’s involved. He’s helped bootstrap a bunch of DevOpsDays conferences and has a lot of insight.

One of the hardest things is getting people to trust you when the conference doesn’t have a track record you can show them. This goes both for sponsors and speakers.

Rafael has helped bootstrap DevOpsDays conferences and DevOps meetups in many smaller places that didn’t have a big tech presence to lean on. Some of his team’s strategies included sharing information between cities.

I especially enjoyed hearing Rafael’s passion for helping people. He mentioned that attending these events had helped people get better jobs, make more money, and improve their lives. It was great to hear. Organizing community events is hard work, but also does have some fantastic payoffs. One of those is seeing the impact the event has on people.

Before the next talk, we were treated to another of the DevOps Deep Thoughts, which popped up a few times in the program. They were one of the great running themes of the day and were created by Joshua Zimmerman. This was my favorite:

Jason Yee - Chaos: Breaking Your Systems to Make Them Unbreakable

I was looking forward to seeing my friend Jason Yee talk about Chaos Engineering. Jason is also one of DevOpsDays Portland organizers, and we overlapped very briefly while I worked at Gremlin, my previous employer.

Jason gave a bit of an overview of Chaos Engineering, but most of his talk focused on the efforts he led at Gremlin to improve their own Chaos Engineering. He said that the experiments they ran took a long time and resulted in lots of tickets that overwhelmed the Engineering team. Jason shifted their focus to doing what he referred to as mini game days, which only required a few people to complete and were limited to thirty minutes. Instead of generating many tickets for improvements for the engineers, they focused on just making one improvement that would add the most reliability to the system.

I like this idea, and I think it’s great to look at processes with fresh eyes. Someone joining your team is an excellent opportunity to find some ways to improve.

Ignites Round 2

The last talks of the day were another set of Ignites. Aaron Aldrich, another one of my favorite people I’ve met in the DevOpsDays community, started things off with a talk about what the band Cake had to say about DevOps. I’m not very familiar with the band at all, and I think I missed some of the jokes, but it was still a lot of fun.

Up next was Amy Arambulo Negrette talking about Serverless monitoring. There are some very interesting challenges.

Amy had a lot of recommendations on how to be more effective monitoring Serverless, and it would be well worth checking out her talk if that’s something you’re dealing with.

The third speaker was Brendan O’Leary, with a talk titled, “All I need to know about DevOps I learned from XKCD.” This was another talk that had me laughing a lot.

And Brendan made a great point about conference talks.

The day’s final speaker was Renata Rocha, talking about how CI/CD is not a pipeline.

I liked her take on this a lot. One of my big complaints about DevOps is how some people think it’s only a CI/CD pipeline, and I can see how someone would want to distinguish between CI/CD as an idea and pipelines as a manifestation of the idea.

And that was a wrap on DevOpsDays Chicago 2020. It was a very entertaining and informative event, and I had a fantastic time. I don’t think I had realized how much I’d been missing the DevOpsDays community, and I’m glad I got to see so many friends, even virtually. Congrats to the organizers, and also the hosts, Sasha RosenbaumMargaret Valtie, and Matt Stratton. They kept the show moving and added a lot of great ideas in the fireside chats.

At the time of this writing, you can still view the entire stream of the event on YouTube. At some point the organizers will be taking that video down and replacing it with videos of the individual talks. If that link is no longer working for you, check their YouTube channel for the individual videos.

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