Pragmatism: The Keys to the Promises of LEAN & DevOps

Posted on June 11, 2015

In my last post I shared my journey leading me back to the epistemological foundation of the LEAN, and therefore DevOps, movements: conceptual pragmatism.  While I’m tempted to give you a total recap of the subject, there are entire university courses on the subject, and I’m fairly certain no one will care to read a blog entry sized recap of something so large.  Therefore, I shall instead focus on what it means to the world in which we live today and what you should do with this knowledge.

Let me begin by making something abundantly clear: just because you are pragmatic (practical) does not inherently mean you are a pragmatist!  Ask anyone if they are pragmatic, they will only answer in the negative if they are trying to be funny or odd.  Remember that we’re focusing on epistemology, how we know what know, and it is from knowledge that we act.  Most of us act in ways we believe to be practical at the time but that doesn’t mean we tease out the ideas behind the act and evaluate them for truth!

Some of the central tenants of the pragmatist include:

  1. Knowledge is based on personal experience and personal interpretation.  Although you and I may both know something, our personal interpretations will differ.  Therefore I have my version of the concept, you have your version of the concept, and collectively we have shared version of the concept.
  2. Truth doesn’t have to be universal!  What is true here may not be true there, and even if it is, who cares.  This flies boldly in the face of idealism and rationalism: that knowledge is derived from observation (“the given”) and then deductive reasoning creates new truths (“a priori knowledge”) which are then asserted to be true universally because logic dictates it so.  The pragmatist doesn’t care about whether a thing is true on Mars, she only cares about truth in her context for her purpose.
  3. Truth isn’t immutable!  What is true now, may not always be true.  Things change, thats ok.

Lets stop there and make it more real.  Etsy does 10/50/100/whatever deploys per day.  Does that mean you can?  No.  Does that mean you should?  No.  It is true for Etsy, but it should not be considered a universal truth.  What it does do is demonstrate that with current technology it can be done, but it tells us no more than that.  The idea of “we can perform multiple production deploys per day” is true for Etsy but may not be true for you.

When we contrast idealism with pragmatism we see that the idealist starts with a universal truth, then evaluates our ability to adhere to the truth and adjusts.  By contrast the pragmatist accepts what he finds as truth and asks “Is this the truth I desire?”, and then changes things to fit.

Sounds a bit like a “cargo culting” discussion doesn’t it?

I believe in these ideas we are seeing the genesis of the Kaizen process, in “current state” and “future state”.   We also see the foundations for a rigid “metrics driven” approach, because metrics are observations, and good metrics are those which lend themselves to a singular and shared interpretation.

And so, in some sense I’m tell you what you already know and likely already use.  But I think digging into the roots has its own value and allows each of us to refine and improve ourselves.

Disclaimer:  I do not wish to confuse any reader into believing that ones entirely life be governed by pragmatism alone and reject idealism.  Indeed, idealism has its place and can live within the framework of pragmatism, it is the way in which we get what we call tolerance (“John is a Muslim, Bob is an Buddhist, thats not a problem, each is true for themselves.”)  I myself am an idealist at heart… it is that idealist drive which drove me to seek out these ideas in the first place.