December 8, 2021

Day 8 - D&D for SREs

By: Jennifer Davis (@sigje)

In a past life, I was a full-time SRE and a part-time dragonborn paladin named Lorarath. While at work, I supported thousands of systems in collaboration with a team of geeks. Evenings, I tried to survive imaginary disasters and save the world from the sorceress Morgana. I love collaborative games because they plug into some of the real-world emotional responses and social processes critical for successful, meaningful engagement. They provide a place to practice dealing with critical scenarios in a safe place. When you know the stakes are purely imaginary, you're able to look at your efforts from a distance, to gain understanding and enjoy the process of learning and achieving goals together, even when failing. I want to share a couple of insights D&D has given me about my work and how this can help you.

Building your SRE Team … more than just a name.

SRE has many names: Operations, DevOps, Infrastructure engineering, System Admin. It's someone who deploys and runs a highly available, scalable, and secure service that meets business and partner requirements. But what does that mean? Generally, it means someone with a wide-ranging set of skills tackling different challenges at any point in time.

When you first start a campaign in dungeons and dragons, you choose a class to play. This class will then have specializations that you customize based on how you want to play. Next, you build out your character using a character sheet and create a backstory. This character sheet has several abilities and skills. You have several points to allocate to abilities and skills, which grants you additional chances to handle particular events successfully.

In gaming, you collaborate with your team to ensure that you have a well-rounded team often choosing roles to complement the team. You don't want a team of all "magic users" or hack and slashers. Often, we stop at identifying who we are with that single name, whether it's SRE or sysadmin. As an SRE, I depend on a diverse team with varied skills. I am not seeking people with the same expertise or abilities. I'm looking for people with complementary skills who can help accomplish the goals and visions of the team.

Developing your “character sheet”

There is no equivalent to a "character sheet" when it comes to your job. The closest might be equating a resume or LinkedIn profile to a character sheet. Still, these don't align to all of the possible experiences you gain:

  • Submitting git pull requests.
  • Participating in hackathons.
  • Attending training or conferences.
  • The myriad of other day-to-day challenges you face.

Additionally, if you don't practice skills in real life, they languish. For example, I haven't touched Solaris in over a decade, and I no longer document it as a skill.

If SRE did have a character sheet, I think three core abilities would be:

Communication, Collaboration, and Confidence. Let's take a closer look at these specializations and the value of spending energy on these areas.

Specialization: Communication

Communication is a fundamental building block to successful character building. As an SRE, I faced various scenarios that required expert communication.

  • The first specialty in communication is the number of messages. How often should I remind people about upcoming scheduled maintenance? How often should I reach out to my manager about working on the right thing? How often should my team get together to talk about team tasks?
  • The second specialty in communication is the quality of messages. Communication can be visual, written, or oral. Visuals can often convey much more nuanced meaning than repeating the same information in textual format and an underleveraged method.
  • The third specialty in communications is effectiveness. Effectiveness is the degree to which your words lead to the desired results. This specialty is the most advanced because effective communication requires an in-depth understanding of the audience and crafting your message as needed.

Specialization: Collaboration

The second core ability is collaboration. In any product or service, you are working on, work needs to be understood, planned, and executed. It doesn't matter who does the work; it just matters that it gets done.

The role I take today doesn't define who I am. If I say, "I'm an SRE at Company," that is just one characteristic of my story and not my identity. Every day as you go into work and tackle your challenge, recognize your special value and what you bring to the team. Rather than adopting and marrying your identity to a specific role, realize some days you take on a role that may be quite different from what you are used to, and that's part of your character development.

There is a distinction between the members of your team and the roles they play. In gaming, you become comfortable speaking on behalf of your character while having a separate, sometimes meta-conversation with your teammates. Social environments seem to tend towards homeostasis, and you (may) naturally ascribe a simplistic narrative to your co-workers' actions. Adopting this awareness that everyone is filling a role on the team that is not representative of everything about the individuals allows you to approach the work to do the impactful work that needs to get done.

In other words, never say, "well, they are just the ROLENAME and can't do that," or "that's not my job."

Specialization: Confidence

The third core ability for your SRE character sheet is confidence. Confidence is about the innate quality that drives you to take risks (or not).

In gaming, sometimes you take the wrong path, or you put your squishy players out front, and they get severely damaged. Mistakes happen. In the "real world," customers do something unexpected. There are bugs in the software, hardware fails, or someone from the team enters the wrong command on the wrong terminal in the production environment.

Collaborative games teach you to fail as a group and rise again while retaining the group cohesion necessary to succeed. Of course, if a teammate really caused you to be captured by a giant spider, you'd probably flip out. Still, across the game board, one has the emotional wiggle-room to behave in a manner that would be laudable in professional situations.

Playing teaches you about exploring challenges with imagination and a sense of play. You have to piece things together while continuing to take action, both keeping in mind the larger game goals and what's immediately on the board at the same time. In addition to this enormous world to explore, there are complex characters (non-playing characters or NPCs) to talk to, and information gathered within each encounter. Be on the lookout for the helpful non-production engineers (NPEs) in your environment, too; while they may not maintain production, they may have valuable information to support you.

Wrapping Up

So, this article inspired you to add some collaborative gaming to your team building, build out your team with complementary skills, or map out the work of the SRE or system administration to a character sheet. Great, beyond the "character sheet," you need the appropriate visualization. By analyzing the particular work items that an individual completed, there could be an incremented "skill" counter. Additional information like git commits, distribution of package management, and incident management APIs could be gathered and glued together to create a way to look at progress over time. That way, you could make sure to spend time on the skills that will improve you in the direction of your choosing.

If you want to try out D&D, check out your local game stores or related groups. Beginner games often provide preconfigured characters that allow you to practice the gameplay without understanding all of the nuances of playing the game.

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