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IDM DevOps

The Zen of Naming Things Poorly


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Sometime the 1990’s, a music term surfaced to describe a burgeoning style of electronic music. But let’s be clear here, the history of music is thousands of years old, electronic music at all is an infantile genre. But we are humans, and we love to name things, and so “Intelligent Dance Music” came to be.

IDM was taken through very narrow and very broad swaths of definition all at the same time. It grew out of a particular style of “ambient techno” pioneered by groups like The Orb, a more downtempo and atmospheric take on the acid house coming out of Chicago and the breakbeat electro of Europe. In fact, it combined all kinds of styles. The name is supposed to have been inspired by the kinds of music and musicians represented on the Warp Records compilation Artificial Intelligence (1992). This release is simultaneously ambient, careful, edgy, and boundary-pushing. This sort of “discerning” music - i.e. these were lounge chair listenings, not dancefloor anthems - was a wholly different way of approaching electronic music.

Quickly, that style branched out to signify an entire class of musical approaches, confusion exploded about the name. The phrase alone makes no sense, the individual words do not accurately describe anything about the music at all. At least House comes from The Warehouse of its invention… but “intelligent dance music”? What about other music made this music more smarter than other dance music? And why does the word MUSIC need to be there at all? Indeed, IDM does not signify a style of music anymore as much as it signifies an attitude about the music. It’s almost as if one is saying “this music has a heritage in this horrible term IDM but if you like IDM then you’ll like this music.”

The very artists who appear on that compilation dismiss the term as ridiculous. Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a 2014 article on Aphex Twin where she notes the term IDM “is widely reviled but still commonly used”.

But you know what? People still use it. People still hate it. I hate it. But I will tag my music posts with it because the term has grown, as language does, with use. If I tag my music with #idm, I am actually saying: “hey if someone even understands what #idm means then i want a chance at them listening to my music.”

There are pieces of music out there that owe much more to their Dance nature than the internally looking Intelligent sound. The opposite is true, and there are works all the way up and down the spectrum. In terms of the genre, they all belong, and yet cannot be defined by it.

So let’s consider the term DevOps.

Around 2009 the idea was born. And like IDM, it was inspired by a small group of people who were moving away from the mainstream of doing things. A more inclusive way that considers human relationships and cooperation. But let’s be clear here, humans have been cooperating for success in systems for thousands of years. We are mammals, our very definition is that our survival depends on our social nature.

I daresay that DevOps suffers the same ambiguity when we try to nail the definition down. If we say “look at the original sources, there’s no question” then I would point to the Warp compilation, where IDM should only mean a sound represented by those artists.

That’s not what happened. Humans happened. IDM ranges from everything between atmospheric techno and beatless ambience to blocks of noise as basslines and glitchy configurations of sonic design. DevOps ranges from everything between an attitude between teams and toolsets to methods of CI/CD and platform engineering.

Yes, when we talk about “DevOps” we are immediately left with a watery taste in our mouths, like when you eat good ice cream but it has that tinge of freezer burn on it that tastes vaguely like fluorine. Everybody gets what you mean, but when you get into the details of it, things get pretty gross quickly.

The beautiful thing is that the categories each of us come to understand are a product of our metaphor-driven brain. We embody what we understand! A category is something very subjective to us even when it pretends to have an objective definition. A person cannot possibly know every angle of what a category means, even if they can define it and read about it. The category will mean something different to every other person.

So, also like IDM, humans have adapted the term in unexpected proportions away from what it originally meant. I’m not here to argue what this defintion is, but point out that it represents what we actually want: cooperation, collaboration, and coordination. Co co co is what I call it now (just call me Keef Cowboy).

It means we’re doing it together. Dev is being done together with Ops. Put another way, Ops is being done together with Dev. We may as well call it OpsDev. Who cares, it’s the co co co we want!

A final anecdote: at a company where I was SRE (uh oh…) a new VP of TechOps came in and announced, unilaterally, that he would get his way and change our organization name - rich with five separate, large teams - to be called … you guessed it … IDM.

Or wait, was it DevOps?

If we need to use names to help clue people into concepts, we should also understand that language moves. Just like a hotdog is not a sandwich, so is an IDM not a DevOps. Just as much as I believe IDM signifies nothing, so do I believe that DevOps is not an adjective.

At best, the word “DevOps” is a symbol: that we folk at the sharp end, we operators and developers together and in kind, are the best hope for sources of resilience that our organizations can ask for.

I get it. Unfortunately, I still don’t get IDM.

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