Prevent Heroism: How to Work Today to Reduce Work Tomorrow

A presentation at DevOpsDays Chicago 2020 by Quintessence Anx

Reactive work is a massive time and value sink, but unfortunately existing gaps in team structure and/or metrics don’t capture “what’s missing”. For example, how do you track calls not placed, outages that never occurred? Traditional structures and metrics don’t necessarily capture this shift, yet everyone benefits from a better user experience - i.e. the unplaced call or outage. In this talk I’m going to discuss:

  • Level set: explain the concept “upstream work”, as defined by Dan Heath in his book Upstream
  • Explain why this focus is important
  • Discuss how teams can start to shift from reactive work to proactive work, * i.e. move upstream; including shifting reward structures away from Heroes Cover how to use metrics to support this shift in practice


The following resources were mentioned during the presentation or are useful additional information.

  • Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow

    Making Work Visible by Dominica DeGrandis, is specifically about how to keep work visible by analyzing 5 common time sinks and how to address them with multiple examples and worksheets. (Amazon link for simplicity, please purchase / borrow from your retailer / library of choice.)

    Relatedly, her talk “Making Connections Visible” at DevOps Days Toronto 2019:

  • Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath

    So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, and doctors treat patients with chronic diseases, and call-center reps address customer complaints. But crime and chronic disease and customer complaints are preventable! So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?

  • Upstream w/ Dan Heath (Part 1) - Developer Tea Podcast

    Part 1 of Developer Tea’s two part interview with Dan Heath about his book Upstream. Each half is ~30 min.

    Link to Part 2:

    (The Developer Tea Podcast available on, Apple’s Podcast app, etc. Most episodes are ~15 min and release on MWF, most interview episodes are ~1 hr and are two episodes.)

  • Sensory Friendly Monitoring: Keeping the Noise Down

    #FIXME - may need to use a different URL? One that shows the slides? Avoiding just linking back here since the resources will propagate with this talk each time I give it and won’t necessarily iterate to the latest version of the presentation / deck.

  • Fight, Flight, or Freeze — Releasing Organizational Trauma by Matt Stratton

    Talk about how our bodies do, or don’t, handle stress and how it can impact an organization.

  • On-call is not a technical problem, it is a people problem

    Ann Harper discusses incident management and how to reduce stress of employees (typically engineers) that need go on call - and why non-engineers should care.

  • Unplanned Work: The Impact on DevOps Teams

    Going on call and being awakened at a moment’s notice to put out fires when reputation and revenue are on the line is incredibly stressful. And with DevOps teams under increasing pressure to simultaneously release new products faster while ensuring reliability and quality, burnout is a rapidly growing problem.

    It’s why #HugOps and empathy are becoming so central to the culture of DevOps. When unplanned work like sudden application failures, slowdowns, or outages take place, they often have a very real impact on responder teams’ productivity, and also—more worryingly—on their health and well-being.

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