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The Paradox of Alerts

The Paradox of Alerts

Why deleting 90% of your paging alerts can make your systems better, and how to craft an on call rotation that engineers are happy to join.

Charity Majors

June 22, 2022

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  1. @mipsytipsy The Paradox of Alerts Why deleting 90% of your

    paging alerts can make your systems better, and how to craft an on call rotation that engineers are happy to join.
  2. “I dread being on call.” “I became a software engineer

    with the expectation that other people would be getting paged, not me.” “I didn’t sign up for this.”
  3. “If you make everybody be on call, we’ll have even

    fewer mothers (and other marginalized folks) in engineering.” “On call duty is what burned me out of tech.” “My time is too valuable to be on call. You want me writing features and delivering user value, not firefighting.”
  4. “Sometimes you just have to buy the happiness of your

    users with the lifeblood of your engineers.” “I sacrificed MY health and sleep for 10 years of on call duty; now it’s YOUR turn.” “You aren’t a REAL engineer until you’ve debugged this live at 3 am.”
  5. (posturing, sunk cost fallacies, disrespect for sleep and personal lives,

    surface fixes, evading responsibility, flappy alerts, over-alerting, lack of training or support, snobbery…) But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are loads of toxic patterns around on call We can do so much better. 🥰
  6. I am here to convince you that on call can

    be: • Compatible with full adult lives & responsibilities • Rarely sleep-disturbing or life-impacting • The sharpest tool in your toolbox for creating alignment • Something engineers actually enjoy • Even … ✨volunteer-only✨
  7. A social contract between engineers and managers An essential part

    of software ownership A proxy metric for how well your team is performing, how functional your system is, and how happy your users are On call is a lot of things: A set of expert practices and techniques in its own right A miserable, torturous hazing ritual inflicted on those too junior to opt out ? 😬 😬 😬
  8. sociotechnical (n) Software is a sociotechnical system powered by at

    least two really big feedback loops Software Ownership Deploys (CI/CD) and
  9. If you care about high-performing teams, these are the most

    powerful levers you have. Software Ownership Deploys (CI/CD) and
  10. sociotechnical (n) is how you close the feedback loop Software

    Ownership Putting engineers on call for their own code in production
  11. Software Ownership is becoming mandatory as complexity has skyrocketed Complexity🔥

    ephemeral and dynamic, far-flung and loosely coupled, partitioned, sharded, distributed and replicated, containers, schedulers, service registries, polyglot persistence strategies, autoscaled, redundant failovers, emergent behaviors, etc etc etc
  12. Who should be on call for their code? Ops teams

    Any engineers who have code in production. Is this payback?? 🤔 No!! Yes, ops has always had a streak of masochism. But this isn’t about making software engineers miserable too. Software ownership is the only way to make things better. For everyone.
  13. It is possible to have… an unhealthy system with an

    easy on call rotation or a healthy system with a rough on call rotation What you WANT is to align engineering pain with user pain. and then you want to track that pain and pay it down.
  14. On call responsibility is a social contract between engineers and

    managers. Managers, your job is to make sure owning it doesn’t suck. Engineers, your job is to own your code.
  15. The goal is not, “never get paged.” Disruptions are part

    of the job definition. We can’t get rid of all the outages and false alarms, and that isn’t the right goal. It’s way more stressful to get a false alarm for a component you have no idea how to operate, than to comfortably handle a real alarm for something you’re skilled at. Our targets should be about things we can do because they improve our operational health. @mononcqc — https://www.honeycomb.io/blog/tracking-on-call-health/
  16. Any engineer who works on a highly-available service should be

    willing to be woken up a few times/year for their code. If you’re on an 8 person rotation, that’s one week every two months If you get woken up one time every other on call shift, that’s 3x/year and only once every 4 months This is achievable. By just about everyone. It’s not even that hard. You just have to care, and do the work.
  17. Objections: “My time is too valuable” “I don’t know how

    to navigate production” “I have a new baby” “We have a follow-the-sun rotation” “I need my sleep / it’s stressful.” Learn! (It’s good for you!) Whose isn’t? (It will take you the least time) Ok fine. Nobody should have two alarms. Lucky you! (ownership still matters) Yeah, it is. (This is how we fix it.) “I just don’t want to.” There are lots of other kinds of software. Go work on one. not-so-thinly veiled engineering classism 🙄
  18. Let’s make on call fun again! 1. Align engineering pain

    with user pain, by adopting alerting best practices 3. Profit!!! 2. Track that pain and pay it down
  19. No Alerting on Symptoms Give up the dream of “predictive

    alerting.” Alert only when users are in pain. Code should fail fast and hard; architecture should support partial, graceful degradation. Delete any paging alerts for symptoms (like “high CPU” or “disk fail”). Replace them with SLOs.
  20. Service-Level Objectives Alert only on SLO violations and end-to-end checks

    which correlate directly to real user pain. Better to spend down an SLO budget than suffer a full outage. Moving from symptom-based alerting to SLOs often drops the number of alerts by over 90%.
  21. No Flaps Delete any flappy alerts, with extreme prejudice. I

    mean it. No flaps. They’re worse for morale than actual incidents.
  22. Lane Two Nearly all alerts should go to a non-paging

    alert queue, for on call to sweep through and resolve first thing in the am, last thing at night. Stuff that needs attention, but not at 2 am. Prune these too! If it’s not actionable, axe it. No more than two lanes. There can be only two. You may need to spend some months investing in moving alerts from Lane 1 to Lane 2 by adding resiliency and chaos experiments.
  23. Out of hours alerts Set a very high bar for

    what you are going to wake people up for. Actively curate a small list of rock solid e2e checks and SLO burn alerts. Take every alert as seriously as a heart attack. Track them, graph them, FIX THEM.
  24. Paging alerts Should all come from a single source. More

    is messy. Each paging alert should have a link to documentation describing the check, how it works, and some starter links to debug it. (And there should only be a few!) Should be tracked and graphed. Especially out-of-hours.
  25. Alerts are *not* all created equal Better to have twenty

    daytime paging alerts than one alert paging at 3 a.m. Better to have fifty or a hundred “lane 2” alerts than one going off at 3 a.m.
  26. Training People Invest in quality onboarding and training for new

    people. (We have each new person draw the infra diagram for the next new person ☺) Let them shadow someone experienced before going it alone. Give them a buddy. It’s way more stressful to get paged for something you don’t know than for something you do. Encourage escalation.
  27. Retro and Resolve If anything alerts out of hours, hold

    a retro. Can this be auto remediated? Can it be diverted to lane two? What needs to be done to fix it for good? Teach everyone how to hold safe retros, and have them sit in on good ones — safety is learned by absorption and imitation, not lectures. Consider using something like jeli.io to get better over time.
  28. Human SLOs Nobody should feel like they have to ask

    permission before sleeping in after a rough on call night Nobody should ever have to be on call the night after a bad on call night. If the rate of change exceeds the team’s human SLOs, calm the fuck down. https://www.honeycomb.io/blog/kafka-migration-lessons-learned/ Link:
  29. Managers Managers are bad in the critical path, but it’s

    very good for them to stay in the technical path. On call is great for this. The ideal solution is for managers to pinch hit and substitute generously.
  30. Track that pain and pay it down Align engineering pain

    with user pain, by adopting alerting best practices
  31. Observability To have observability, your tooling must support high-cardinality, high-dimensionality,

    and explorability. Invest in observability. It’s not the same thing as monitoring, and you probably don’t have it. https://www.honeycomb.io/blog/observability-5-year-retrospective/ https://www.honeycomb.io/blog/observability-101-terminology-and-concepts/ https://www.honeycomb.io/blog/so-you-want-to-build-an-observability-tool/ Links:
  32. Observable Code Get a jump on the next 10 years

    (and evade vendor lock-in) by embracing OpenTelemetry now. Most of us are better at writing debuggable code than observable code, but in a cloud-native world, observability *is* debuggability. https://thenewstack.io/opentelemetry-otel-is-key-to-avoiding-vendor-lock-in/ https://www.honeycomb.io/observability-precarious-grasp-topic/ Links:
  33. Instrumentation Instrument your code for observability, using arbitrarily-wide structured data

    blobs (or “canonical log lines”) and spans. https://charity.wtf/2019/02/05/logs-vs-structured-events/ https://stripe.com/blog/canonical-log-lines Links: Metrics and logs cannot give you observability.
  34. ODD Instrument as you go. Deploy fast. Close the loop

    by inspecting your changes through the lens of your instrumentation, and asking: “is it doing what I expect? does anything else look weird?” Practice not just TDD, but ODD — Observability-Driven Development Check your instrumentation after every deploy. Make it muscle memory.
  35. Shift Debugging Left As your team climbs out of the

    pit of despair, you’ll get paged less and less. Actively inspect and explore production every day. Instrument your code. Look for outliers. Find the bugs before your customers can report them. In order to stay that way, replace firefighting with active engagement. Drowning in a sea of useless metrics
  36. https://deepsource.io/blog/exponential-cost-of-fixing-bugs/ The cost of finding and fixing bugs goes up

    exponentially with time elapsed since development. Shift Debugging Left
  37. Retro & Resolve Get better at quantifying and explaining the

    impact of work that pays down tech debt, increases resiliency, improves dev speed — in retention, velocity, and user & employee happiness alike. If it’s too big to be fixed by on call, get it on the product roadmap. Make sure engineers have enough time to finish retro action items.
  38. Roadmapping Reliability work and technical debt are not secondary to

    features. Treat them just like product work — scope and plan the projects, don’t dig it out of the couch cushions. Use SLOs (and human SLOs!) to assert the time you need to build a better system. Being on call gives you the moral authority to demand change.
  39. Test in Production If you can’t reliably ascertain what’s happening

    within a few minutes of investigating, you need better observability. This is not normal or acceptable. Run chaos experiments (at 3pm, not 3am) to make sure you’ve fixed it, and consider running them continuously, forever. Stop over-investing in staging and under-investing in prod. Most bugs will only ever be found in prod.
  40. Qualitative Tracking We don’t want people to get burned out

    or have their time abused, but success is not about “not having incidents”. Track things you can do, not things you hope don’t happen. https://www.honeycomb.io/blog/tracking-on-call-health/ Links: It’s about how confident people feel being on call, whether we react in a useful manner, and increasing operational quality and awareness.
  41. Managers Managers’ reviews should note how well the team is

    performing, and (more importantly) what trajectory they are on. Be careful with incentives here, but some data is necessary. Managers who run their teams into the ground should never be promoted.
  42. Profit! Track that pain and pay it down Align engineering

    pain with user pain, by adopting alerting best practices
  43. High-performing teams spend the majority of their time solving interesting,

    novel problems that move the business materially forward. Lower-performing teams spend their time firefighting, waiting on code review, waiting on each other, resolving merge conflicts, reproducing tricky bugs, solving problems they thought were fixed, responding to customer complaints, fixing flaky tests, running deploys by hand, fighting with their infrastructure, fighting with their tools, fighting with each other…endless yak shaving and toil.
  44. Build only what you must. Value good, clean high-level abstractions

    that let you delegate large swaths of operational burden and software surface area to vendors. Money is cheap; engineering cycles are not.
  45. Operations It is easier to keep yourself from falling into

    an operational pit of doom than it is to dig your way out of one. Dedicated ops teams may be going the way of the dodo bird, but operational skills are in more demand than ever. Don’t under-invest — or underpay for them.
  46. Investments Decouple your deploys from releases using feature flags. Get

    your “run tests and deploy” time down to 15 min or less. Invest in autodeploys after every merge. Deploy one engineer’s changeset at a time. Invest in progressive deployment
  47. 🔥1 — How frequently do you deploy? 🔥2 — How

    long does it take for code to go live? 🔥3 — How many of your deploys fail? 🔥4 — How long does it take to recover from an outage? 🔥5 — How often are you paged outside work hours? How high-performing is YOUR team?
  48. Work on these things. Track these things. They matter. Deploy

    frequency Time to deploy Deploy failures Time to recovery Out-of-hours alerts Qualitative polls
  49. Your ability to ship code swiftly and safely has less

    to do with your knowledge of algorithms and data structures, sociotechnical (n) “Technology is the sum of ways in which social groups construct the material objects of their civilizations. The things made are socially constructed just as much as technically constructed. The merging of these two things, construction and insight, is sociotechnology” — wikipedia and much more to do with the sociotechnical system you participate in. Technical leadership should focus intensely on constructing and tightening the feedback loops at the heart of their system.
  50. This is not just for “rockstar teams” The biggest obstacle

    to operational health is rarely technical knowledge, it’s usually poor prioritization due to lack of hope. Occasionally, it’s shitty management. It’s way easier to work on a high-performing team with auto-deployments and observability than it is to work on systems without these things. If your team can write decent tests, you can do this.
  51. Now that we have tamed our alerts, and switched to

    SLOs… Now that we have dramatically fewer unknown-unknowns… Now that we have the instrumentation to swiftly pinpoint any cause… Now that we auto-deploy our changes to production within minutes… Now that night alerts are vanishingly rare, and the team is confident So, now that we’ve done all that… “I’m still not happy. You said I’d be HAPPY to be on call.”
  52. If you are on call, you are not to work

    on features or the roadmap that week. If you were on call this week, you get next Friday off. Automatically. Always. You work on the system. Whatever has been bothering you, whatever you think is broken … you work on that. Use your judgment. Have fun. this is your 20% time!! the goodies
  53. When it comes to work, we all want Autonomy, Mastery,

    Meaning. It helps to clarify and align incentives. It makes users truly, directly happy. It increases bonding and teaminess. I don’t believe you can truly be a senior engineer unless you’re good at on call. The one that we need to work on adding is autonomy…and not abusing people. On-call can help with these.
  54. I’m of mixed mind about paying people for being on

    call. I mostly think engineers are like doctors: it’s part of the job. With one big exception. If you are struggling to get your engineers the time they need for systems work instead of just cranking features, you should start paying people a premium every time they are alerted out of hours. Pay them a LOT. Pay enough for finance to complain. Pay them until management is begging you to work on reliability to save them money. If execs don’t care about your people’s time and lives, convert it into something they do care about. ✨Money✨