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Vanessa Ho

Meet the 'Man In the Black Shirt' bringing DevOps to the masses

Donovan Brown was a new technical seller at Microsoft struggling with a demo when he sent the email that changed his life.

“I had completely hosed the VM [virtual machine] I was using,” Brown recalled. He sent a desperate, cold-call email to a technical evangelist for help, which led to an invite for Brown to demo on stage, which led to a meteoric career rise.

Three years later, the once-unknown salesman has become one of Microsoft’s top presenters, with Brown now the senior program manager in charge of the company’s vision for DevOps, an approach to software development that incorporates Agile methodologies. DevOps calls for development and operations teams to step out of their traditional silos and collaborate in a system that emphasizes automation, testing, monitoring and continuous delivery.

Many organizations are interested in DevOps for its potential to deliver products faster in evolving markets, but aren’t sure how to build a supply pipeline or adopt new ways of working. A longtime developer who is also passionate about car-racing and air hockey, Brown has risen as a leader at a critical time for the industry, demystifying DevOps for thousands of IT pros around the world.

Donovan Brown has risen as a leader at a critical time for the industry, demystifying DevOps for thousands of IT pros around the world.

“DevOps is here. It is how you succeed. It is how you beat the competition. Why should you do DevOps? Because your competition already is,” Brown said recently in a demo for developers at Microsoft’s Ignite New Zealand conference. It was one of his many high-profile appearances in 2016, which included keynotes at Microsoft’s enormous Build and Ignite events.

Along the way, Brown has become known for his quirky personal brand as a gifted public speaker who also has killer technical chops. His winking catchphrase, “I’m going to rub a little DevOps on it and make it better,” has spawned the memorable Twitter hashtag #RubDevOpsOnIt. He has become so recognized in dev circles that he’s now known as “The Man in the Black Shirt,” a reference to the polos he wears on stage.

Donovan Brown visits the Channel 9 studio in Redmond, Washington, with fiancée Chelsea Franklin to record a video segment for the network.

Donovan Brown visits the Channel 9 studio in Redmond, Washington with fiancée Chelsea Franklin to record a video segment for the network.

As a developer of 20 years, Brown connects deeply with his audience and has a devoted passion for his products, Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS) and Team Foundation Server (TFS). At the same time, he’s a showman who slays, able to wow an arena of 12,000 people and generate applause with intricate, entertaining demos.

“He's the canonical sales guy on stage who stands out for his preparation, his passion and the fact that he is continuously pushing forward with new ways to awe the audience,” said Clemri Steyn, group product marketing manager for Visual Studio DevOps marketing. Steyn considers Brown to be one of the best presenters at Microsoft.

On stage, Brown is enthusiastic, smart and funny, and sometimes seems to quiver with joy, whether he’s talking about continuous integration in VSTS or the Xamarin Test Cloud for mobile app development. But behind the affable geekiness and smooth demos is an intense work ethic.

His polished, nine-minute keynotes are the result of 40 to 50 rehearsals. His scripts, delivered without notes, are part of a large body of writing that includes a busy technical blog. Brown’s definition of DevOps — “the union of people, process, and products to enable continuous delivery of value to our end users” — took him 30 days of soul-searching to write. His demos are bursting with technical rigor to highlight Brown’s “any language, any platform” motto of VSTS.

Behind the affable geekiness and smooth demos is an intense work ethic.

In New Zealand, Brown brought three computers on stage, including a Mac, for what he excitedly called his “riskiest” demo ever. He asked the audience to vote for the operating system, language and platform for him to build, live on stage, a continuous integration and delivery pipeline to Azure. They picked Linux, ASP.NET Core and Docker. Brown had fun using a Yeoman generator to build and deploy the pipeline in just a few minutes and later open-sourced the code to great appreciation.

At another conference, after Brown read a review from someone disappointed that he didn’t show Desired State Configuration as advertised, he spent the next 25 hours building a demo from scratch on the capability. He then got on stage for a second appearance, after one hour of sleep, to deliver on his promise.

“That's how serious and passionate I am that I get the message out to our users,” he said.

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Brown often jokes that he’s a “geek in hiding,” because people sometimes tell him he doesn’t look like someone who codes 24 hours a day. He races a BMW M3 for fun and once ranked as the 11th best air hockey player in the world, through professional, athletic tournaments of the sport.

“This is not your Chuck E. Cheese air hockey,” Brown said of the events, in which his fiancée, Chelsea Franklin, is also a world-ranked competitor. So serious is Brown about the sport that he owns two professional tables, including one that resides in The Commons, Microsoft’s dining and shopping complex in Redmond, Washington. Brown worked in Redmond for a stint before he and Franklin moved back to their home town of Houston.

Both air hockey and car-racing are about anticipating where you want your car or opponent to go, he said, and not where you are now — an approach that shapes his vision of DevOps. The same competitiveness fuels both his hobbies and work, pushing him to go above and beyond, while staying humble.

Donovan Brown applies his competitive drive to everything he does, from promoting DevOps to playing professional air hockey.

Donovan Brown applies his competitive drive to everything he does, from promoting DevOps to playing professional air hockey.

“I’m very competitive, so I feel uncomfortable when I’m not trying to get better at what I do for a living,” he said. “It’s that fear that if I’m not working, someone else is working, and I have got to be the best at what I do.”

Before joining Microsoft, Brown was a process consultant for seven years helping companies install and use TFS. He specialized in Agile and Scrum methodologies — components of a DevOps philosophy — and intimately knows the problem DevOps wants to solve: a traditionally antagonistic system of devs pushing changes, ops needing stability and a process that bogs down with siloed teams.

Agile, Scrum and Kanban methodologies have helped developers produce value quickly, but “producing value and delivering value are not the same thing,” Brown said. “There’s a disconnect built over decades of distrust between operations and developers.”

In contrast, DevOps teams work together with constant feedback to respond nimbly to customers’ needs. Microsoft uses the process internally for continuous delivery, which Brown joked was “Inception-Matrix-y kind of stuff,” with Visual Studio Team Services building, versioning and deploying Visual Studio Team Services.

“How freaky is that?” he said. “Every three weeks it updates itself automatically, having built itself automatically. It’s an amazing time we’re living in. We have to do that, because it increases our velocity.”

Throughout much of his life, Brown has used his love for ones and zeroes to innovate and improve the world around him. In college, when he couldn’t afford the board game Quarto, he taught himself C on an old version of Visual Studio C++ so he could recreate the game on a computer. A biology major at the University of Houston at the time, he soon switched to computer science.

He built and still runs the motorsports event site DLB Racing (named after his initials) to replace the cumbersome registration systems once used by many car clubs. He also wrote an app for air hockey referees to run live streams of tournament scores.

“I like puzzles, and writing software is the biggest puzzle that has ever been,” he said. “I like to play all day long and think, ‘How can I make this computer solve that problem?’”

Donovan Spinning

When Brown sent the email that changed his life, he had become an expert on Release Management, a product that automates deployment and testing in multiple environments. While struggling with a demo, he reached out to Brian Keller, a well-known technical evangelist at Microsoft who created the virtual machine Brown was using. Keller quickly called him back.

“About two minutes into the conversation, I could tell he knew way more about the product than I did,” said Keller, now a group program manager for Visual Studio Team Services. As it turned out, Keller needed a presenter on Release Management for Microsoft’s TechEd North America conference and invited Brown to speak. It was a risk to ask someone with no prior stage experience to speak at a major event, an invitation for which Brown is still grateful. He often refers to his mentors, friends and parents with a lot of gratitude.

“None of this would have happened without their support,” he said. He’s now about to embark on a whirlwind tour to seven countries in Europe, including Belgium, where NATO has asked him to speak about DevOps. His mission: helping people and organizations transform with products he loves.

“Putting Donovan front and center turned out to be one of the best decisions our business has ever made,” Keller said. “He has a great knack for not just presenting the technologies, but showing why DevOps has become an industry trend and helping customers make the transition.”

Originally published on 1/29/2016 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft
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