A Short History
Thu 22 July 2021
I'm allowed one cheat blog post, as a treat.
The twitter thread I posted a while back seems to have gotten some attention. It's reproduced on threadreader but that too shall pass (and I auto-delete my tweets after 90 days), so here's a reproduction.
The SRE book is a history book, not a manual.
SREs, at their fundament, are organisational glue. They are people who are curious and understand how the world works. They turn their hand to things. When things don't go SRE's way, they pick up the pieces and try to fit things back together again.
If you need something well outside the remit of what you'd like your average engineer to do, find the nearest concentration of SREs. Want some business sense? Sure. Need someone to capacity plan? OK. Want some esoteric knowledge about weird systems side-effects? SREs will go learn it, for seemingly no good reason other than because it Must be Known.
If you get a load of these kinds of people together, they can move mountains. If you give them a seemingly hopeless situation, they will pull you out. If you give SREs an innocuous-looking situation, they will tell you which lava flows will liquify, and which will stay solid. SREs will point out the oncoming train, and patiently explain how to turn the train we're on.
This is their common skill: The ability to use the silver bullets of curiosity, pragmatism and bias toward action to grow systems as they need to.
What happens when you get extremely good SREs and expose them to an essentially unlimited pile of money, infrastructure and opportunity? You get a story. The story of the SRE book is the one of what worked for Google SRE early on, in that context. It's a series of parables. There are teachings there, not instructions. It's no surprise that many of the authors of the SRE book were based in Dublin, or Irish -- if you learn by stories, you teach by stories :-)
And so when I say to people that they should take what they read in the SRE book with a grain of salt, I mean that there is truth and wisdom in there, that need skill and wisdom to tease out. The skill you bring as the reader is in deciphering what are the fundaments, the core of wisdom behind the practices described. The ideas you can take away, and reasonably expect to make useful in your own practice.
The circumstances that gave rise to the collation of the SRE book may never be reproduced in our lifetimes. I'll always also maintain that it should be taken as a set of examples of what SREs did when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, and lived to tell the tale.
And, if you're reading the book and the thought process and conclusions based on the problems described speak to you, a pragmatist, a realist, a curious tinkerer, then you're already an SRE. Leave the book aside, and take what you've learned with you on your journey.