Continuous Deployment and Basketball

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love basketball and I love documentaries, so basketball documentaries are the best. Today, I watched one from ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series, “The Guru of Go,” produced by Oscar-winning director Bill Couturié. Here’s the synopsis:

By the mid-1980s Paul Westhead had worn out his welcome in the NBA. The best offer he could find came from an obscure small college with little history of basketball. In the same city where he had won an NBA championship with Magic and Kareem, Westhead was determined to perfect his non-stop run-and-gun offensive system at Loyola Marymount. His shoot-first offense appeared doomed to fail until Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, two talented players from Westhead’s hometown of Philadelphia, arrived gift-wrapped at his doorstep. With Gathers and Kimble leading a record scoring charge, Westhead’s system suddenly dazzled the world of college basketball and turned conventional thinking on its head. . . .

Wessthead (who was also a Shakespeare scholar in addition to a basketball head coach) built a system that he called simply “The System.” It’s a beautifully-told story (with deep tragedy), and highly recommended (you can buy it on iTunes). What struck me about “The System” that Westhead created was how similar the language could be to how we at Etsy and others talk about our own system of continuous deployment and “The Etsy Way.” In one segment (starting at 17:47 in the iTunes video), the coach and his players talk about how their seemingly chaotic run-and-gun system (disparagingly called “roller derby in shorts” by ESPN announcer Dick Vitale) was actually quite well-thought-out:

A lot of people say, well, that wasn’t basketball, that was like street ball. Well, it might be street ball to you, but to us, it was orchestrated. (Paul Westhead, coach)

It looked like absolute chaos (Tom Peabody, player)

. . . but it’s very much a structured way to play. (Bo Kimball, player)

The “some people think it’s crazy but this is actually carefully thought out” attitude resonated with me, and reminded of discussions I’ve had about the structured chaos of Etsy’s deployment process, which I detailed in my Optimizing for Developer Happiness talk from Railsconf last year (see the bit about the “push train” starting at 17:58 in this video).

Like I’ve learned at Etsy, talent and culture mattered most in “The System,” too. Without that a great system doesn’t work — see this from the director’s personal statement about the film:
Paul’s system was magic (and big fun to watch) – if you had the right players. Without them, the system looked like crap.

Since Westhead is also a Shakespeare scholar, Shakespeare quotes are sprinkled throughout the film. At one point, Westhead says, “People ask me my favorite Shakespeare quote. It’s a simple one-liner about basketball and maybe your life, from Hamlet: ‘The Readiness is All.'” In Westhead’s system, players were expected to push the ball down the court and be ready to shoot quickly. Readiness is a key aspect of continuous deployment, too. In slide 43 of my talk at SXSW about Continuous Deployment at Etsy, I quote Etsy engineer Lacy Rhoades: “Not being in a state to deploy is a matter of liability. It’s like having the only fire exit blocked. You ignore it at everyone’s peril.” Yes, readiness is all.

When I see connections between basketball, leadership, technology, and Shakespeare, I just can’t resist writing them down. Thanks for indulging me.

Here’s a clip from the film: