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Terraform: Up & Running 2nd edition is out

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Yevgeniy Brikman

OCT 3, 2019 | 11 min read
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Terraform: Up & Running, 2nd edition, has been published and is now available in all book stores! The 2nd edition is nearly double the length of the 1st edition (~160 more pages), including two completely new chapters (Production-grade Terraform Code and How to Test Terraform Code), and major changes to all the original chapters and code examples (see this blog post to learn about all the changes).In this blog post, I want to share with you an excerpt from the book about how to adopt an Infrastructure as Code (IaC) tool like Terraform at your company, including how to convince your boss.

I’ve seen this story play out many times at many companies: a developer discovers Terraform, becomes inspired by what it can do, shows up to work full of enthusiasm and excitement, shows Terraform to everyone… and the boss says “no.” The developer, of course, becomes frustrated and discouraged. Why doesn’t everyone else see the benefits of this? We could automate everything! We could avoid so many bugs! How else can we pay down all this tech debt? How can you all be so blind??The problem is that although this developer sees all the benefits of adopting an IaC tool such as Terraform, they aren’t seeing all the costs. Here are are just a few of the costs of adopting IaC:
  • 1.Skills gap: The move to IaC means that your Ops team will need to spend most of its time writing large amounts of code: Terraform modules, Go tests, Chef recipes, and so on. Whereas some Ops engineers are comfortable with coding all day and will love the change, others will find this a tough transition. Many Ops engineers and sysadmins are used to making changes manually, with perhaps an occasional short script here or there, and the move to doing software engineering nearly full time might require learning a number of new skills or hiring new people.
  • 2.New tools: Software developers can become attached to the tools they use; some are nearly religious about it. Every time you introduce a new tool, some developers will be thrilled at the opportunity to learn something new, but others will prefer to stick to what they know, and resist having to invest lots of time and energy learning new languages and techniques.
  • 3.Change in mindset: If your team members are used to managing infrastructure manually, they are used to making all of their changes directly; for example, by SSHing to a server and executing a few commands. The move to IaC requires a shift in mindset where you make all of your changes indirectly, first by editing code, then checking it in, and then letting some automated process apply the changes. This layer of indirection can be frustrating; for simple tasks, it’ll feel slower than the direct option, especially when you’re still learning a new IaC tool and are not efficient with it.
  • 4.Opportunity cost: If you choose to invest your time in resources in one project, you are implicitly choosing not to invest that time and resources in other projects. What projects will have to be put on hold so that you can migrate to IaC? How important are those projects?
Some developers on your team will look at this list and become excited. But many others will groan — including your boss. Learning new skills, mastering new tools, and adopting new mindsets may or may not be beneficial, but one thing is certain: it is not free. Adopting IaC is a significant investment, and as with any investment, you need to consider not only the potential upside, but also the potential downsides.Your boss in particular will be sensitive to the opportunity cost. One of the key responsibilities of any manager is to make sure the team is working on the highest- priority projects. When you show up and excitedly start talking about Terraform, what your boss might really be hearing is, “oh no, this sounds like a massive undertaking, how much time is it going to take?” It’s not that your boss is blind to what Terraform can do, but if you are spending time on that, you might not have time to deploy the new app the search team has been asking about for months, or to prepare for the Payment Card Industry (PCI) audit, or to dig into the outage from last week. So, if you want to convince your boss that your team should adopt IaC, your goal is not to prove that it has value, but that it will bring more value to your team than anything else you could work on during that time.

One of the least effective ways to do this is to just list the features of your favorite IaC tool; for example, Terraform is declarative; it’s multicloud; it’s open source. This is one of many areas where developers would do well to learn from salespeople. Most salespeople know that focusing on features is typically an ineffective way to sell products. A slightly better technique is to focus on benefits: that is, instead of talking about what a product can do (“product X can do Y!”), you should talk about what the customer can do by using that product (“you can do Y by using product X!”). In other words, show the customer what new superpowers your product can give them.For example, instead of telling your boss that Terraform is declarative, talk about how your team will be able to get projects done faster. Instead of talking about the fact that Terraform is multicloud, talk about the peace of mind your boss can have knowing that if you migrate clouds some day, you won’t need to change all of your tooling. And instead of explaining to your boss that Terraform is open source, help your boss see how much easier it will be to hire new developers for the team from a large, active open source community.

Focusing on benefits is a great start, but the best salespeople know an even more effective strategy: focus on the problems. If you watch a great salesperson talking to a customer, you’ll notice that it’s actually the customer that does most of the talking. The salesperson spends most of their time listening, and looking for one specific thing: what is the key problem that customer is trying to solve? What’s the biggest pain point? Instead of trying to sell some sort of features or benefits, the best sales people try to solve their customer’s problems. If that solution happens to include the product they are selling, all the better, but the real focus is on problem solving, not selling.Talk to your boss and try to understand the most important problems they are working on that quarter or that year. You might find that those problems would not be solved by IaC. And that’s OK! It might be slightly heretical for the author of a book on Terraform to say this, but not every team needs IaC. Adopting IaC has a relatively high cost, and although it will pay off in the long term for some scenarios, it won’t for others; for example, if you’re at a tiny startup with just one Ops person, or you’re working on a prototype that might be thrown away in a few months, or you’re just working on a side project for fun, managing infrastructure by hand is often the right choice. Sometimes, even if IaC would be a great fit for your team, it won’t be the highest priority, and given limited resources, working on other projects might still be the right choice.If you do find that one of the key problems your boss is focused on can be solved with IaC, then your goal is to show your boss what that world looks like. For example, perhaps the biggest issue your boss is focused on this quarter is improving uptime. You’ve had numerous outages the last few months, many hours of downtime, customers are complaining, and the CEO is breathing down your manager’s neck, checking in daily to see how things are going. You dig in and find out that more than half of these outages were caused by a manual error during deployment: e.g., someone accidentally skipped an important step during the rollout process, or a server was misconfigured, or the infrastructure in staging didn’t match what you had in production.Now, when you talk to your boss, instead of talking about Terraform features or benefits, lead with the following:

I have an idea for how to reduce our outages in half.

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I guarantee this will get your boss’s attention. Use this opportunity to paint a picture for your boss of a world in which your deployment process is fully automated, reliable, and repeatable, so that the manual errors that caused half of your previous outages are no longer possible. Not only that, but if deployment is automated, you can also add automated tests, reducing outages further, and allowing the whole company to deploy twice as often. Let your boss dream of being the one to tell the CEO that they’ve managed to cut outages in half and doubled deployments. And then mention that, based on your research, you believe you can deliver this future world using Terraform.There’s no guarantee that your boss will say yes, but your odds are quite a bit higher with this approach. And your odds get even better if you work incrementally.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career is that most large software projects fail . Whereas roughly three out of four of small IT projects (less than $1 million) are completed successfully, only one out of ten large projects (greater than $10 million) are completed on time and on budget, and more than one third of large projects are never completed at all (data from The Standish Group, “CHAOS Manifesto 2013: Think Big, Act Small”).This is why I always get worried when I see a team try to not only adopt IaC, but to do so all at once, across a huge amount of infrastructure, across every team, and often as part of an even bigger initiative. I can’t help but shake my head when I see the CEO or CTO of a large company give marching orders that everything must be migrated to the cloud, the old datacenters must be shut down, and that everyone will “do DevOps” (whatever that means), all within six months. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve seen this pattern several dozen times, and without exception, every single one of these initiatives has failed. Inevitably, two to three years later, every one of these companies is still working on the migration, the old datacenter is still running, and no one can tell whether they are really doing DevOps.If you want to successfully adopt IaC, or if you want to succeed at any other type of migration project, the only sane way to do it is incrementally. The key to incrementalism is not just splitting up the work into a series of small steps, but to split up the work in such a way that every step brings its own value—even if the later steps never happen.

To understand why this is so important, consider the opposite, false incrementalism. Suppose that you do a huge migration project, broken up into several small steps, but the project doesn’t offer any real value until the very final step is completed. For example, the first step is to rewrite the frontend, but you don’t launch it, because it relies on a new backend. Then, you rewrite the backend, but you don’t launch that either, because it doesn’t work until data is migrated to a new data store. And then, finally, the last step is to do the data migration. Only after this last step do you finally launch everything and begin realizing any value from doing all this work. Waiting until the very end of a project to get any value is a big risk. If that project is canceled or put on hold or significantly changed part way through, you might get zero value out of it, despite a lot of investment.In fact, this is exactly what happens with many large migration projects. The project is big to begin with, and like most software projects, it takes much longer than expected. During that time, market conditions change, or the original stakeholders lose patience (e.g., the CEO was OK with spending three months to clean up tech debt, but after 12 months, it’s time to begin shipping new products), and the project ends up getting canceled before completion. With false incrementalism, this gives you the worst possible outcome: you’ve paid a huge cost and received absolutely nothing in return.

Therefore, incrementalism is essential. You want each part of the project to deliver some value so that even if the project doesn’t finish, no matter what step you got to, it was still worth doing. The best way to accomplish this is to focus on solving one, small, concrete problem at a time. For example, instead of trying to do a “big bang” migration to the cloud, try to identify one, small, specific app or team that is struggling, and work to migrate just them. Or instead of trying to do a “big bang” move to “DevOps,” try to identify a single, small, concrete problem (e.g., outages during deployment) and put in place a solution for that specific problem (e.g., automate the most problematic deployment with Terraform).If you can get a quick win by fixing one real, concrete problem right away, and making one team successful, you’ll begin to build momentum. That team can become your cheerleader and help convince other teams to migrate, too. Fixing the specific deployment issue can make the CEO happy and get you support to use IaC for more projects. This will allow you to go for another quick win, and another one after that. And if you can keep repeating this process — delivering value early and often — you’ll be far more likely to succeed at the larger migration effort. But even if the larger migration doesn’t work out, at least one team is more successful now, and one deployment process works better, so it was still worth the investment.

I hope that, at this point, it’s clear that adopting IaC can be a significant investment. It’s not something that will happen overnight. It’s not something that will happen magically, just because the manager gives you a nod. It will happen only through a deliberate effort of getting everyone on board, providing dedicated time for team members to ramp up, and making learning resources available.If you found this learning resource helpful, grab a copy of Terraform: Up & Running, 2nd edition to learn more, including how to configure CI / CD workflows for Terraform, how to test your Terraform code, and much more.
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