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What to do when devops teams are downsized

What to do when devops teams are downsized

Five tips to help you manage the emotional and practical repercussions when colleagues are let go.

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Sadly, there’s a chance that your organisation might have to downsize because of an economic downturn or other financial conditions — if it hasn’t happened already. This time, the economy is impacting technology companies and departments. More than 900 tech companies had layoffs in 2022, affecting over 145,000 professionals, according to one source.

If you are an agile delivery manager, data science team lead, or manager of an IT ops function, you need a response plan in case your teams are impacted or might be in the near future.

A recent Comic Agilé comic strip depicts our fears of being held accountable for the same deliverables and timeline after a downsizing or budget cut. That’s one of several concerns devops team members feel after layoffs. Others worry about service-level expectations and skill coverage.

I’ve been through more than my fair share of downsizing and layoffs due to economic downturns, acquisitions, or when business plans don’t materialise as planned. It’s not fun, but there are steps you can take to help you and your teams rebound.

Help teammates feel safe

If you lead teams or manage people, your first thought must be how they feel or how they are personally impacted by the layoffs.

Some will be angry if they’ve seen friends and confidants let go; others may be fearful they’re next. Even when leadership does a reasonable job at communication (which is all too often not the case), chances are your teams and colleagues will have unanswered questions.

Your first task after layoffs are announced is to open a dialogue, ask people how they feel, and dial up your active listening skills. Other steps to help teammates feel safe include building empathy for personal situations, energising everyone around a mission, and thanking team members for the smallest wins.

Use your listening skills to identify the people who have greater concerns and fears or who may be flight risks. You’ll want to talk to them individually and find ways to help them through their anxieties or recognise when they need professional help.

You should also give people and teams time to reflect and adjust. Asking everyone to get back to their sprint commitments and IT tickets is insensitive and unrealistic, especially if the company laid off many people.

Evaluate your career goals

Once you’ve taken steps to communicate, listen, and reflect with your teams, you should consider your situation and how the layoffs impact you. Have your responsibilities changed, or has the company assigned you unrealistic objectives? Do you still feel aligned with your company’s mission and your teams’ goals, or are you second-guessing them?

These are natural feelings. You should listen to your inner voice and consider your instincts. Three good books on this subject are Chatter by Ethan Kross, Think Again by Adam Grant, and The Power of Regret by Daniel H. Pink.

One step to consider is re-examining your career goals. I recently developed a career checklist with sections for aspiring devops, data, and product leaders.

Review the product manager’s road maps

Agile organisations and teams impacted by layoffs should take steps to review the road map, near-term priorities, expectations for minimally viable capabilities, and user story requirements.

The level of scrutiny should be proportionate to the magnitude of the layoffs or when a critical skill set has become understaffed. An organisation with a 10 per cent impact may only need to review the upcoming sprints and release commitments, whereas the road map may need rebuilding if the layoffs impacted more than 30 per cent.

More importantly, larger layoffs should trigger a discussion around digital transformation strategies, customer needs, and product visions. Do the original assumptions still hold, or do circumstances require strategic discussions around new goals and objectives?

You may not have a role in the product or company strategy, but aspiring transformation leaders find opportunities to ask questions, especially if going back to whatever everyone was doing before the layoffs seems to be the plan.

Evaluate technical priorities

Every IT department has its lists of “must do,” “really should do,” and “could do” technical priorities and technical debt backlogs. Just like you may have to ask the product managers to revisit their visions and road maps, the IT strategy likely also requires reassessing.

Here are some areas to review:

  • Propose shutting down under-utilised legacy systems: Once an organisation is in cost-cutting mode, leaders may be more open to shutting down systems that are less strategic or that serve fewer business needs.
  • Consider automation and AIops: These can bring greater efficiencies, especially for mission-critical areas where staffing levels may impact service delivery. Opportunities include continuous integration and continuous delivery, infrastructure as code, continuous testing, and IT service automation.
  • Reconsider service-level objectives for teams: Follow site reliability engineering best practices and service-level agreements. For example, if the IT service desk staffing was cut in half, chances are their incident response times and request fulfillment targets will need adjustments.
  • Seek opportunities to reduce cloud costs: In times of growth, it’s easy for devops teams and IT to buy more cloud services and leave them turned on more often than necessary.
  • Consolidate tools and platforms with similar capabilities: This is especially important to review inside IT where having a common stack and toolset often yields productivity improvements and can drive a culture change.
  • Look for partner and outsourcing opportunities: Evaluate understaffed areas where technical expertise is a growing need. In the past, there may have been resistance to considering managed service providers for cloud, security, network management, end-user computing, etc., but this could be an important step forward after a reorganisation.

You may not be a driver of these transformations, but you can ask questions and insert yourself into the discussion of what the going-forward IT organisation needs that’s different from the past.

Increase learning, documenting, and experimenting

One area deeply impacted by layoffs is knowledge loss, especially subject matter expertise around a business process or specialised technology platforms. Significant risks can be in tribal knowledge areas, undocumented technologies, or support for manual or complex technical processes.

DevOps teams may experience a significant drop in the knowledge of the code, and data teams often find that undocumented data models and dataops become much harder to support.

Although you can’t turn back the clock and address the gaps, this is the right time to look to the future and double down on learning capabilities and documenting systems. I didn’t predict a downturn when I wrote Digital Trailblazer, but I knew that investing in lifelong learners is key to driving transformation, especially when resources and budgets are impacted.

Continuous experimentation is also important. As one IT leader recently told me, when things are tough, seek creativity and keep the team challenged. One way to do this is to continue innovating and experimenting.

It’s important to note that downturns, downsizing, reorganisations, and acquisitions are all normal parts of running businesses. How leaders and teams respond and reassess their objectives can turn around a bad situation, avoid team culture degradations, and help people look forward to a more promising future.


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