What Makes Aaron Aldrich So Resilient?
Aaron Aldrich is a complex personality. He’s a business evangelist and community organizer, a part-time game streamer and one of the global organizers of devopsdays, a worldwide gathering of DevOps enthusiasts. Oh, and during the day, he works at Red Hat, overseeing the company’s Managed OpenShift product.
Aaron has mobilized his evangelism and community building on several fronts, including DevOps, resilience engineering and mental health. He got excited about DevOps after attending devopsdays in Denver a few years ago. "That’s when I fell in love with the DevOps community,” Aaron says. "I said, ‘This is it. This is what I’ve been talking about.’”
When he went home to Connecticut, Aaron became the de facto organizer of the conference’s local group, helping recruit DevOps pros with an interest in insurance and fintech, the dominant industry in the region. "There were funny moments of trying to get these communities together and trying to figure out what are the universal practices we can share and what can we learn from each other,” Aaron recalls.
The Journey Begins
In his early years, Aaron dreamed about becoming a sound engineer. "When I went to school originally, I was going to go for music,” he says. "I was looking at Berkeley where they have some of the best equipment in the world. This is where I wanted to learn how to do sound engineering and music production.”
But his music ambitions were short-circuited by episodes of depression that he only diagnosed years later. He dropped out of school, but thanks to a timely support line, found his way into a series of jobs in the tech industry, from internet support to system administration. He embraced the "ops" persona and forged a common bond with what he calls "street-educated computer folks.”
For Aaron, DevOps has had a democratizing effect on tech, bringing ops and developers together with the same mission. "Instead of looking at silos of functions,” he says, DevOps was about "getting all the stakeholders together in a room where we can have a conversation and empower everybody to make decisions.” All those actions embody and reinforce the organization’s culture, he says. "The culture and practices you use should inform the tools you use to operate. And those are going to reinforce the culture that you have.”
The pandemic’s arrival changed Aaron’s life yet again, drawing him deeper into the field of resilience engineering and incident response. "I think it's always been an interest,” he says. "Ops stuff has always had this on-call, extra-hours culture where you're always going to be available if something goes wrong.” He saw close-up the pandemic’s emotional toll on tech workers, and it spurred Aaron’s interest in how people and organizations can learn to deal with the mental stress of burnout.
Aaron hopes that one of the silver linings of the pandemic will be the creation of healthier work-at-home and on-call cultures based on understanding the actual costs of long-term overloading. "If all of us are operating at 100% all of the time, that is not sustainable," he says.
This brings the conversation around to mental health, a topic that has touched Aaron’s life in a deeply personal way. He is open about his struggle with ADHD and has gradually learned to navigate the complexities of speaking frankly about his condition with colleagues. He reaches out to more people by holding talks and workshops addressing the importance of mental health and emotional openness among tech workers.
As it turns out, DevOps promotes a lot of the same ideas around vulnerability and openness, Aaron says. "Every DevOps transformation has some kind of group therapy aspect of it,” Aaron says. “The question is always, 'how do we build this high functioning team?'” And time and again, the answer is to build psychological safety for the team and create a common ground of understanding. "You're not going to achieve that unless you can build that vulnerability,” he says. "People need to feel safe and be able to say things like, 'Hey, I can't perform that task today because I'm having a rough mental health day for whatever reason.'"
His Latest Enthusiasm: Red Hat
At his current job as "community enthusiast” for Red Hat’s managed services product, Aaron gets to tap his past skillset as an evangelist and community organizer. "I help people get on board with the concept of operating from a managed service, as opposed to operating their own platforms,” he says. A lot of his sales targets are big strategic accounts, which requires a lot of "enablement,” he says. "So, yes, there is a bit of a community-building aspect and evangelism aspect about my work, but in the back, there is a commercial goal."
Beyond his day job, Aaron remains passionate about DevOps. He’s the host of the Tabletop DevOps show, which streams monthly on Twitch and Twitter. And when it comes resilience engineering—one of Aaron’s abiding interests—he heartily recommends the book Behind Human Error. “It’s really, really good,” Aaron says.
Dig deeper into our conversation with Aaron Aldrich on Episode 100 of DevOps Radio. Connect with him at linkedin.com/in/aaronaldrich and visit his personal website.
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