Convincing the Cautious: How to Sell Chaos Engineering to Conservative Leaders

Introduction: Setting the Stage

Shifting from pre-allocated capacity to cloud’s pay-per-use model has revolutionized infrastructure management, but it brings new complexities. Traditional setups, where capacity was static, gave way to dynamic scaling, introducing fluctuating costs and variable performance. This modern approach necessitates a redefined focus on system resilience, demanding strategies that can adapt to and absorb the cloud's elasticity and potential points of failure. Back in the Data Center days, if card on a switch failed you would just call (its this thing where you talk to another person using a phone) cisco for an RMA and swap it out that night. The hot and cold aisles are abstracted for most and you are now greeted with that nice AWS health aware message that says we have service event and will let you know when its back up :D.

Enter Chaos Engineering: a methodology that proactively probes for these weaknesses, ensuring systems don't just survive but thrive under stress. However, its proactive nature is often at odds with conservative mindsets that favor predictability over experimentation. The challenge for tech professionals is to communicate the long-term stability and efficiency gains Chaos Engineering brings, convincing leadership that the upfront investment in controlled disruption leads to robust and fault-tolerant systems. This is difficult and something that I have struggled with in the past. This articles aims to help you with these situations.

Principles of Chaos Engineering

Chaos Engineering, a concept pioneered by Netflix to bolster system resilience, is methodically detailed on It involves defining a system's 'steady state' as a quantifiable norm for operational health. Practitioners craft hypotheses based on this steady state, then introduce variables—or 'chaos'—in a controlled manner to validate the system's robustness. This disciplined disruption is not about triggering failures but about revealing latent faults, allowing teams to proactively strengthen their systems. By adopting these principles, organizations prepare their infrastructures to withstand the inherent unpredictability of cloud environments.

The Art of Persuasion: Tailoring the Message

Understanding the conservative leader’s mindset is crucial when introducing concepts like Chaos Engineering. This audience prioritizes stability, predictability, and risk mitigation. To persuade them, one must frame Chaos Engineering not as a disruptive force, but as a means to enhance the very stability they value. The message should pivot from technical jargon to clear business outcomes: system uptime, customer satisfaction, and ultimately, the bottom line.

Crafting this message requires a balance of technical insight with tangible business impact. It's about connecting the dots between the proactive identification of potential issues and the avoidance of costly downtime. Presentations should be fortified with data-driven evidence, showcasing how simulated disruptions lead to stronger, more resilient systems that can save the organization time and money. By demonstrating that Chaos Engineering aligns with their core business objectives, you align a forward-thinking practice with a conservative approach to business growth and continuity.

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It's also important to discuss the concept of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and its relevance to Chaos Engineering, especially in conversations with conservative leaders. TCO encompasses not only the direct costs of running a system but also the indirect costs, such as system downtime and the impact on your engineers and developers mental health/quality of life. When systems fail, the repercussions go beyond immediate financial losses; they include long-term damage to customer trust and employee morale.

Engineers burdened with firefighting duties often face burnout, leading to decreased productivity and potentially increased turnover.

In advocating for Chaos Engineering, emphasize how it proactively reduces these hidden costs. By identifying and fixing issues before they escalate, it not only prevents expensive outages but also fosters a more sustainable, less stressful work environment for engineers. This approach aligns with the conservative emphasis on long-term stability and efficiency, showcasing Chaos Engineering as an investment in both the technical robustness of systems and the well-being of the people who maintain them.

Overcoming Common Hurdles in Communication

The two hardest things to ask for from leadership are money and downtime which in turn costs money so its all about the money. Focus on the money 💸💸💸

Addressing risk aversion and the fear of failure is a primary challenge when communicating the value of Chaos Engineering to conservative leaders. Their instinct may lean towards maintaining the status quo rather than experimenting with systems that, on the surface, are functioning well. It's essential to reframe Chaos Engineering not as a risky endeavor, but as a controlled and systematic approach to prevent future failures. Highlighting case studies where Chaos Engineering has preemptively identified and mitigated potential disasters can be particularly persuasive. These examples demonstrate that the real risk lies in not proactively testing and preparing for inevitable system disturbances.

Debunking myths and misconceptions is another crucial step. One common misconception is that Chaos Engineering is about recklessly breaking things in production. In reality, it’s a measured, scientific method conducted in a controlled environment, often starting in staging environments before progressing to production. It's important to clarify that the ultimate goal is not to cause disruption, but to learn and improve system resilience. Educating leaders about the gradual and thoughtful approach of Chaos Engineering helps alleviate fears and misconceptions, paving the way for more informed and open discussions about its implementation.

Demonstrating Value: The Business Case for Chaos Engineering

Constructing a cost-benefit analysis is key to illustrating the long-term value of Chaos Engineering against short-term investments. This analysis should clearly outline how initial expenditures on Chaos Engineering experiments lead to significant savings by preventing costly outages and inefficiencies. Emphasize that while the upfront costs may seem substantial, the return on investment comes in the form of enhanced system reliability, reduced downtime, and improved customer trust, all of which contribute to the organization's financial health and competitive edge.

Case Study- SplunkCloud Graviton migrations of 2018

In 2018, I was one of the lead SRE’s on a graviton cloud instance migration project at Splunk. We basically were tasked with migrating 15000+ instances from D to I series and upgrade our c3s to c4s. The migration called for 2 separate maintenance windows as we were dealing with big data platforms plus physics and time. MW 1 would start to kick the migration off by replicating indexes and MW2 was flipping the switch.

Faced with the need to migrate critical systems, I proposed an ambitious plan to our VP/Chief Cloud Officer: a $5 million investment to conduct exhaustive testing on our most important customer's systems. This was no small feat. It involved replicating 4 petabytes of data via some nifty automation and Rsync and dedicating three months to rigorous testing. The stakes were high; a successful migration promised to flip our margins significantly due to the efficiency of graviton processors, potentially saving us $100 million.

Pressing the button to delete the old stack is still one of the favorite moments of my career and ill never forget the dinner at FANG afterwords

The decision to invest in these experiments was rooted in a deep understanding of the long-term financial implications. It was a calculated risk, one that paid off handsomely. The testing ensured a seamless migration, retaining our largest customer and enhancing our profit margins. This case study serves as a prime example of how strategic investment in Chaos Engineering can lead to substantial financial benefits, justifying the initial expenditure and demonstrating the methodology’s value in clear, quantifiable terms.

Strategies for Gaining Executive Buy-In

Influencing upwards and engaging with senior leadership is a crucial step in gaining buy-in for Chaos Engineering. To achieve this, it’s important to speak the language of the C-suite: focus on strategic outcomes, risk management, and long-term organizational goals. Senior leaders are primarily concerned with how decisions impact the overall health and profitability of the company. Therefore, when presenting Chaos Engineering, emphasize its role in safeguarding the company's digital assets, improving customer experience, and ultimately contributing to the bottom line. Tailor your communication to reflect how this approach aligns with the company's strategic vision and risk tolerance levels.

The role of data and evidence in persuasion cannot be overstated. Decision-makers are swayed by concrete data rather than abstract concepts. Presenting clear metrics on how Chaos Engineering reduces downtime, improves system reliability, and leads to cost savings is compelling. For instance, use data from case studies like the Splunk cloud migration to demonstrate real-world impact. Show how the initial investment resulted in significant savings and customer retention. Data-driven narratives help leaders visualize the tangible benefits and provide a strong foundation for your argument.

Implementing Chaos Engineering in a Conservative Culture

Implementing Chaos Engineering in a conservative culture requires a tactful approach, emphasizing gradual progression and controlled experimentation. The key is to start small with pilot programs. These initial experiments should target less critical systems or be confined to staging environments. The goal is to demonstrate the process and its benefits without causing significant disruption or risk. This approach allows skeptical stakeholders to observe the value of Chaos Engineering firsthand, without the anxiety of a large-scale implementation. Small successes in these pilots can be leveraged to build the case for more extensive experiments, showing how even minor adjustments can lead to improvements in system resilience. Move small rocks before trying to move the big ones.

Building credibility and trust is essential and is achieved through incremental success. Each successful experiment should be documented and presented to leadership and team members, highlighting the lessons learned and potential issues averted. It's important to communicate these successes in terms of business outcomes — reduced downtime, enhanced customer experience, and potential cost savings. Over time, these small wins accumulate, gradually shifting the organizational mindset towards a more open acceptance of Chaos Engineering principles. This steady, evidence-backed approach helps in dismantling resistance and fosters a culture of trust and innovation, where proactive system improvement is valued.

Tools and Resources for Advocates

For advocates of Chaos Engineering, having a toolkit of resources is vital for both implementing the practice and convincing others of its value. There are a variety of tools available, ranging from open-source options to more sophisticated paid platforms. Open-source tools like Chaos Monkey, originally developed by Netflix, offer a great starting point for organizations looking to experiment with Chaos Engineering without a significant initial investment. These tools allow teams to simulate failures in various ways, helping to understand and improve system responses.

On the other hand, paid platforms like Gremlin or Harness offer more comprehensive features and support, which can be beneficial for larger or more complex environments. These tools often provide advanced capabilities for creating, managing, and analyzing chaos experiments, making them well-suited for organizations looking to integrate Chaos Engineering deeply into their operational practices.

Links to tools:



Preparing for objections is also a critical part of advocating for Chaos Engineering. Common questions might include concerns about the potential for disruption, the cost of implementing such a practice, or the time required to see tangible results. It's important to have well-thought-out responses to these FAQs. For instance, when addressing concerns about disruption, emphasize the controlled nature of chaos experiments and the ultimate goal of preventing more significant, uncontrolled outages. Regarding cost and time, highlight the long-term savings and efficiency gains, supported by case studies and data from successful implementations.

Conclusion: Moving Forward with Confidence

In conclusion, successfully integrating Chaos Engineering in a conservative culture hinges on effective communication, strategic implementation, and the right set of tools. By starting with small-scale experiments, advocates can gradually build trust and demonstrate the value of proactive failure testing. Utilizing both open-source and paid tools, tailored to the organization's specific needs, enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of these initiatives. As you move forward, remember the importance of ongoing education and dialogue. Keep sharing insights, successes, and lessons learned from each experiment. This continuous exchange fosters an environment where resilience is not just an operational goal, but a fundamental aspect of the organizational culture. With patience, persistence, and data-driven arguments, Chaos Engineering can become an integral part of your organization's approach to technology, paving the way for more robust, reliable systems.

For more insights and a deeper dive into implementing Chaos Engineering in risk-averse settings, join me at the upcoming Chaos Carnival.

Together, we can explore innovative strategies to ensure our systems are not just functional, but truly resilient.

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