PagerDuty Blog

You’re Building a Mystery

Disclaimer: This is NOT a post on complexity. While it would be easy to poke fun at the crazy complexity of your application (you’re building a “mystery”—har har har), this is not that post. (But how about those microservices, amirite?)

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about mysteries and how they are changing how we work in the world of digital operations. If you haven’t heard his talk “The Future of Humanity”—which is based on a fantastic paper by Gregory Treverton, a former U.S. Intelligence leader—I highly recommend listening to it.

Even if you didn’t just spend the last 30+ min learning about rectal exams (you should really go back and watch that talk!), here are a few items that stand out to me in our context of digital ops:

  1. Being an effective problem-solver means understanding whether you’re solving a puzzle or a mystery. Puzzles require us to gather more information to solve the problem, whereas mysteries require us to make sense of the vast information we already have.
  2. Given the availability of so much information, doing a great job requires us to work more like analysts than problem solvers. The “right” solution isn’t black-and-white; it’s based on evaluating the relative risks on all sides.
  3. As analysts, “experts” (or doctors, in Gladwell’s example) play much more of a social role, actively listening and helping you to work through the best course of action, not dictating “how it shalt be” from the top of the mountain.

Let’s take a more concrete example: You’re a developer building a new service using the platform that your cloud/SRE team has designed. While you may choose to gather more information about APIs, environments, operability, etc., this is not a puzzle. Whether you choose Rails, Scala, or Elixir as your language requires an analyst’s approach to evaluating tradeoffs and risks. You may even decide to consult with your SRE team to get their input on “best practices” for developing and operating new services, but let me be clear: whatever you choose is your decision and your responsibility. They can certainly guide you to understand the risks more viscerally, but ultimately, it’s your call (or your “on call,” har har har).

The Mystery of the Conference

In my 4+ years at PagerDuty, I’ve attended many, many conferences (though maybe not quite as many as those developer avocados I keep hearing about…). I keep all of my lanyards, almost like a badge of honor. There are a couple of reasons that I love going to conferences, but the main reason revolves around the opportunity to speak directly with customers in a non-threatening environment.

When you get customers off of conference calls and out of the “comforts” of their office, you more frequently get the truth of their reality, what they’re struggling with, what’s not working, and what needs to change. In direct contrast, many of the vendor booths and the sessions that you can attend are filled with vendors and speakers who “have it all together.” If you’re looking to solve your puzzle, here’s that information you are missing: They are pretty much at the conference to paint a rosy picture of their organization, how “DevOps” they are, and how they’ve got it all together.

I saw this firsthand a couple of years ago at a forward-looking DevOps conference with a customer speaker from a large retailer. After the conference, I was so intrigued with their success at embracing DevOps in a large-scale organization that I jumped on the opportunity to visit them onsite. To say the least, it was disillusioning to see the amount of spin that went into that talk. And interestingly, that’s exactly what Sarah McLachlan (a Canadian music legend) meant by “Building a Mystery”: “We all have insecurities to hide, and we often do that by putting on a facade … if we just be who we are, that’s usually the more attractive and beautiful thing.”

If I meet you at a conference, that’s what I want from you: authenticity. It’s what I demand from my leaders, too:


This year’s PagerDuty Summit is chock-full of humble learners who I’m excited to engage with:

  • Keynotes from Patrick Lencioni (chief dysfunctional team member), John Allspaw (human factor-er), Jenn Tejada (PagerDuty’s $#!t-disturber), and more.
  • And sessions from incredible customer speakers who won’t be allowed to fake it!

If you’re already signed up for Summit, I challenge you to participate, be social, and make the most of the opportunity to connect with these experts.

And if you’re still considering whether or not to come, let me assure that this is not a puzzle: I’m happy to help you evaluate the risks! But if you need more of a tug on your heart strings, here are some puppies:

Embrace the mystery, and I’ll see you at PagerDuty Summit!