NextLink Labs CEO Jordan Saunders brings on special guest Will Sweeney from Cybersecurity Compliance firm Zaviant to discuss our changing security and privacy landscape.


Interviewer (Jonathan Kersting): Yeah, absolutely 100%, it is true, we are hanging out with Jordan Saunders from NextLink Labs’, part of our digital transformation series here, having some really fun conversations, all things with digital transformation, and we talked about cybersecurity in our last podcast. And now, the idea of DevOps, like, I hear the name DevOps all the time Jordan, and I am like, I think I know what that means, but I wasn’t actually… I went and Googled it, I am like, actually it means a lot more than I ever knew that it meant, so I am glad that we can spend some time, to stretch our legs and talk about DevOps. And even more exciting is, DevOps versus Agile, it is like a night fight, they are actually very complimentary.

Interviewee (Jordan Saunders): Yeah, sure.

Jonathan Kersting: I am trying to create some hype here Jordan, you know what I am saying?

Jordan Saunders: I appreciate that.

Jonathan Kersting: As always, before we kick off this conversation, just tell us quickly about yourself, and really what I want our listeners to know the most about is the unique proposition that NextLink Labs bring, you are developing a really cool company that I believe is entering the market place where no other company is.

Jordan Saunders: Sure. So, NextLink Labs is a digital transformation consultancy, so we do both consulting and technology execution works with the focus on Cloud and DevOps, as well as some other software development principles. So, we are located here in Pittsburgh, we just got a new office based down in Serendipity Labs, in the strip district…

Jonathan Kersting: Are you liking the new space?

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, we are love the new space, it is a great space and a great location, and our team members are happy to be down there too.

Jonathan Kersting: Super cool. And you just launched your site at, I really encourage people to go there, because it gives you a nice type of overview about all your core capabilities as far as it is, and I tell people, don’t be shy, reach out to Jordan, like he is one of the most smartest dudes I know, if you got a problem when it comes to the computing work, he can help you out.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly. And if we don’t know the answer, we have lots of partnerships to get you the right person.

Jonathan Kersting: And a perfect example is [inaudible 02:05] who we talked to in cybersecurity, you have the leading edge of cybersecurity at your fingertips as you are solving problems for your customers. So, anyhow, enough of that… DevOps. So, really I don’t think we know what DevOps means, what does DevOps really mean Jordan?

Jordan Saunders: So, DevOps really is combining the development teams and the IT operations teams to create one unified DevOps team and you know, that team is able to operate at high velocity because of all the parties involved.

Jonathan Kersting: Very cool, I mean that’s what it’s all about, right?

Jordan Saunders: Exactly. Getting things done and getting things done in a cost-efficient, secure manner.

Jonathan Kersting: So, in order to do that, there are some basic principles that are behind that, can we kind of go over some of that? I mean there are… collaboration, tools and scaling and affinity, these are all the pieces that kind of go in making that sound so simple.

Jordan Saunders: Sure. So, I think the big thing that people… when they first think about DevOps or they are first introduced to DevOps, the first thing they think of is tooling, it is this piece of information software that enables you to automate your software deployments. So, I think for a lot of companies, especially that don’t maybe practice DevOps, they just kind of brought it into the organization… and the only thing they think of sometimes is tooling, but that’s really only one part of the puzzle. So, there is also collaboration and that’s making sure that all parties involved are… when I say all parties, I mean the development teams as well as the operation teams, the product owners, they UX designers, they are all part of the process when it comes to the new DevOps culture.

Jonathan Kersting: A lot of personalities coming together.

Jordan Saunders: There are, so there can definitely be some growing pains there, but really what happens is, if you don’t involve all these people, then you move forward with a half-baked solution, and that other group of people you didn’t include in the decision making process and the planning process, gets their eyes on things and realize, oh man, we can’t move forward with this, because this part of the team wasn’t included.

Jonathan Kersting: Absolutely. Very cool stuff. So, Agile… Everybody talks about Agile methodology as a way of breaking borders down and getting over and rowing the boat the same way, it is like a lot of overlap or similarities between the two. Can you kind of break that down for us a little bit? And then maybe talk about why one makes more sense over another in certain situations.

Jordan Saunders: Yeah. So, it is not really an either/or like, I think Agile kind of sprung up from a similar need and that’s where… before Agile, it was all Waterfall, so basically you had your product owners, your senior leadership, they would make a decision that we need to implement, X, Y and Z, and they would essentially through it over the fence… You know, through it over the Waterfall…

Jonathan Kersting: It is not my problem now…

Jordan Saunders: Exactly. They would kind of throw it over the fence and then, the development team would be left to fend for themselves and try to move it forward in the best ways they thought possible and would get to the end of the process there and they would realize, wait we haven’t. thought we spent two months implementing this thing, we weren’t in sync with our product owners and now you realize they ran really fast in the wrong direction. And so that kind of was why Agile came out and said, hey, we are going to actually, beside scrambling and doing things, small two or three weeks sprints, they also decided, hey we need to get the product owners and the developers and the UI and the UX teams, they need to be altogether, during the full time they are working on software.

Jonathan Kersting: It makes much more perfect sense… Wish I could think of this much more earlier.

Jordan Saunders: It takes time to come to the right solution.

Jonathan Kersting: You find out you don’t have to screwing up this way.

Jordan Saunders: Yeah. So, I mean, DevOps is really just an extension of Agile. So, even with Agile, you have kind of the same sort of problems where they would… even if they are doing Agile at the end, when the software was ready to be deployed to the servers and then maintained on the servers, they throw it over the fence, to the IT operations team. And so, like you kind of mentioned, there was a big problem where, once an issue happened, both teams would be like, not my problem, the developers didn’t write it right, the operations didn’t seem to play it right. So, DevOps is kind of joining those two teams, and like we said with affinity and collaboration, making sure they are aligned in their goals and they are both part of the process from the start. So, even before software needs to be deployed to servers, the teams that would support are very much aware that, what the requirements are for that. And so, just getting everybody to work together with some synergy really enable teams to save some cost, and produce software that has less bugs and less problems.

Jonathan Kersting: That’s the name of the game right there, less bugs, better software.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly…

Jonathan Kersting: Created a lot more inexpensively, as far as that goes, it is solving all these things, if you get it working and running properly.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly. With how much software drives business today, I mean, software development cost for companies can be very significant, and so, enabling those teams to operate smoother and produce software with higher velocity really can save companies a lot of money, which from my perspective is kind of the best place to be, I mean, I am a software developer at heart, that’s my background, I mean, I am not a pure sales guy or anything, but the one thing that I am able to stand up here and do is feel really good about our product knowing how much value we can bring to our clients and how much is implied value there is, just by making all these teams operating smoothly.

Jonathan Kersting: Yeah, I mean, tell us more about how NextLink Labs does this. Because you guys are all things DevOps at the end of the day, right?

Jordan Saunders: Yeah. So, I mean, we kind of approach all of our projects the same way, I mean, we kind of assess where a company or where a team is at, we develop a plan to move forward, we implement that plan and then we continue to maintain and support the finished product. And so, with DevOps, it is really taking a look at how their existing teams work, how they can combine their previously separate development and operations team, finding out where there are some gaps in the skill set, because one of the things we mentioned about DevOps is the tooling, and DevOps tooling is one of the quickest moving places in technology these days, and so, it is really tough to find expertise out there that’s really worked with these things in a large company or in a production environment. So, we are able to come in and provide expertise and guidance, both around tooling, but especially around how the tooling and DevOps really is going to affect the culture and how that team or company does business.

Jonathan Kersting: I think the culture is the biggest thing that sticks out to me, because, I mean, obviously the tools are so important, but at the end of the day, it is the people that are using the tools, and people are in kind of like a blameless environment where it has become this way, lobed over the waterfall so it is your problem now, but no, that’s always going to be something… it’s the team’s problem, at all times.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly.

Jonathan Kersting: So, there is no one particular person to blame… You could, but the idea is everyone comes together to solve the problems, which increase that culture, where it seems like everyone has everybody’s back, right?

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, everyone has everybody’s back, there is a blameless culture, increased communication, I mean, most of the challenges we really face, both internally and as a consulting company is… there are ‘people problems’, it is communication issues, the tech is difficult, you need deep subject matter expertise but the really hard problems are the people in process problems, and a lot of that comes back down to communication, so that’s why culture of DevOps and before that, Agile development came are becoming very popular things, because they help deal with those ‘people’ and ‘process’ issues that focusing on tech alone doesn’t.

Jonathan Kersting: Very cool. So, tell us about, what are some of the common mistakes that people make when they are starting to put DevOps into their environment? I am sure some few things people step on, and they got to scrape it off their shoes at some point, right?

Jordan Saunders: Yeah. So, a big thing, you know we mentioned it before, but it really is around the tooling, so there’s so many different ways to do DevOps tooling when it comes to continuous integration and continuous deployment tooling, whether you move to a container-based infrastructure, you are staying in a more traditional infrastructure, when they are operating in multi-cloud environments, picking kind of the best ways to do that. And so, one big thing is picking the wrong tools for that specific organization.

Jonathan Kersting: And you can help people pick the right tools, right? At the end of the day when you do an analysis, you see what they are trying to do and you can recommend a suite over another suite based on their desire.

Jordan Saunders: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things that becomes something we really labor over and it is not like, hey, for us, we don’t just pick the tooling that we are most comfortable with, I think selection of tooling is one of the most key factors to success, for DevOps projects and it comes back to picking the right tooling, not just for… again what we are comfortable with, but what are the people… for our clients, what are they comfortable with? And we love to work on [inaudible 11:24] and containers, you know that’s bleeding edge technology to a lot of companies, but for some companies, it is just not the right fit.

Jonathan Kersting: Exactly.

Jordan Saunders: And so…

Jonathan Kersting: And you know that from your experience doing this, we can pick that pretty much immediately as far as that goes. And what about the idea… I think a lot of times, people are very singly focused on one project, so they are missing the bigger picture sometimes, as they are starting to deploy DevOps, is that something that you see quite often?

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, I mean definitely, I think it is good for when companies start to adopt DevOps principles to kind of pick kind of a flagship project to roll out on and then scale it across your organization, but at the same time, it should be something that is eventually scaled across the organization, once you kind of learn from those mistakes from that first project or two.

Jonathan Kersting: Very cool. So, what if we talked about ‘Now’. That’s an important topic here, the ‘Now’ for DevOps, what’s going on with that?

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, so there’s all kind of exciting stuff in this space, we kind of touched on a little bit in our security podcast, but just there is an increased need for more visibility and to the infrastructure of a company, there’s all kinds of regulations and compliance that are becoming increasingly important to do business in 2019, and so there is a lot of focus on the tooling around creating that kind of audit-log, that history, that snapshot into what things look like right now in the field, so I think a lot of the tooling out there for DevOps is around supporting that.

Jonathan Kersting: Interesting.

Jordan Saunders: And then also I kind of mentioned, there is a giant push for containers [inaudible 13:13] which are words that you are going to increasingly hear, they just seem to be building up the software industry, so we are obviously in that space also.

Jonathan Kersting: Interesting. Very cool stuff. So, are there like really life examples about these things? Can you walk us through a scenario or two that you have worked with your customer, obviously you don’t have to mention names and you know, highlighting as far as that goes, but let us know, how have you integrated with some of your customers along these lines?

Jordan Saunders: Sure. So, you know, we have had some longstanding clients, one in particular, they were doing some of the DevOps principles, so they had some automation in place, to automate their deployments, but they didn’t really have much beyond that, and so, kind of like we mentioned, they had some new contracts that were coming up, there are new initiatives they were looking to push into, and they really just needed to improve their readiness, their maturity in these area so that they could adapt to the new security requirements they were getting and scale out the applications they had. That’s a great thing, their business was growing and their products were gaining market traction. But as they were growing, they were starting to fail. So, some of their applications were crashing under load, which is giant cost to a growing company…

Jonathan Kersting: That cannot happen at a certain point…

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, you hurt your credibility a lot right there. So, they were having some issues with that, and also, they were needing to be compliant in a couple different ways and so increase cybersecurity and just with the way they were doing things, they were having a really hard time adapting to these security requirements, they just didn’t have the tools in place to meet them, like they needed to be able to have an audit log, let’s say if anybody that accessed the system and the software they were using didn’t support it. So we were able to put forth a plan, before they could get up to the level of compliance they needed, and worked through that plan and then what was great was once they got in there and started doing this and seeing the value, you know, now, that was kind of phase one and we have been able to take them more and more on that maturity standpoint and now their organization use way more automation, all their infrastructures automated this code and if they were to sign another contract tomorrow with different security requirements, it would be a lot lower level of effort to get that done. And one other great thing too is they have actually… they measure the output of all their development teams and they noticed a sizeable increase in the velocity of those development teams, so they are saving money on development cost now, because of the way they implement it…

Jonathan Kersting: They were seeing the big picture then, they knew they need it for one project but knowing that if they implement this, it is going to come across all projects, you really set them for success.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly. Once they got it in there, they were able to see all the benefits and really take advantage of them.

Jonathan Kersting: See, you are transforming companies, you are helping companies create better software, less bugs, it is making their customers happy, it is making them more money, making them more efficient, more safe, it just seems like such a… it is how you have to do business these days.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly. And like I said before, it is a great thing, DevOps is one of the biggest specialties, we talk a lot about the biggest transformation, and it is an area that I could talk about all day, I get really excited about… it is something that love to be able to offer as a service, because it is something that I can really stand behind and feel great about the value we bring to companies.

Jonathan Kersting: I think like bread and butter in NextLink Labs, I feel like it is just so foundational to everything that you guys do.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly.

Jonathan Kersting: It is a bit down that a little bit. I think it is just like a heck of a lot of fun.

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, absolutely.

Jonathan Kersting: So if you go over to, you can learn more about this, there are even assessment tools over there as well too, just to see how ready you are and what it would take to get you to the next step as far as that it, I think it is just fantastic stuff. And Jordan, I am so glad you started this company.

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, me too.

Jonathan Kersting: It is so cool man. I mean, you are growing and growing, you have got 5 employees now and I guarantee you, it is going to keep growing and growing because you are offering such important vital services.

Jordan Saunders: Yeah.

Jonathan Kersting: Can’t get enough. Any other key takeaways we didn’t cover that our listeners should know when it comes to all things DevOps?

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, just keep in mind, I think just anybody listening, just keep in mind that you don’t have to go at this alone, we…

Jonathan Kersting: That’s the biggest thing to me right there, there’s company like yours out there that can help.

Jordan Saunders: Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly things that you can do on your own, but it never hurts to engage an expert. We work in this stuff every day and we are still learning and just like anything else, it takes time to really become an expert in anything. And so we work with a lot of different companies that are in a lot of different stages of digital transformation journey.

Jonathan Kersting: It is a great point; glad you brought that up. Because it is like you can be anywhere… and you guys can plug in and help out as far as that goes.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly. And we are happy to take whatever you have and kind of give you some guidance and we engage with companies in a lot of different ways so sometimes you might just need a little bit of guidance occasionally, or sometimes you are looking for someone to kind of take over and do all the heavy lifting.

Jonathan Kersting: Exactly.

Jordan Saunders: And we are happy to help with that.

Jonathan Kersting: And anything in-between.

Jordan Saunders: Exactly.

Jonathan Kersting: Super cool stuff., Jordan Saunders, starting that company up doing the good work and this is Jonathan Kersting with the Pittsburgh Tech Council and TechVibe Radio, coming at you from the Huntington Bank podcast studios.