How Storytelling Can Shape Your Cloud Cost Management Strategy
NOTE: This content originally posted on the Duckbill Group Blog.
Your AWS bill tells a story — about the decisions your business has made and the cost management strategy you’ve implemented.
Whether the decisions and strategy were intentional is another matter entirely.
When organizations don’t communicate across teams, share their business context, and work toward common goals, their AWS bill shows it. Third-party tools can further complicate cost management recommendations by missing critical context, like suggesting shutting down a cluster with low resource utilization … that’s also your disaster recovery site.
Fortunately, you can change the narrative of cloud cost management through storytelling. Yes, storytelling.
At The Duckbill Group, we’ve found that implementing these four elements of storytelling can help you effectively share the context for your business initiatives and engineering goals. This kind of audience-driven communication can put your organization back on the path toward an intentional cloud cost management strategy.
1. Understand your audience
Before you can tell a good story, you have to know who’s going to be listening to it. Do you share a common vocabulary with them? Are they familiar with the same concepts you are? What will you need to explain to create shared understanding?
You might already be doing this without realizing it; communicating across different teams in your organization requires understanding your audience. Leadership presents high-level organizational ideas to individual contributors at company all-hands. Engineers describe technical architecture to product owners who’ve never touched a line of code. Engineering teams with minimal knowledge of each other’s architecture discuss how their workloads can work better together.
But is everyone on the same page in those conversations?
We each operate with a mental model of the way our world works, but we rarely communicate those mental models to others. John Allspaw, founder at Adaptive Capacity Labs, describes the work that happens in our coworkers’ heads as above-the-line versus below-the-line thinking. Tom Limoncelli, SRE manager at StackOverflow, talks about the tendency to hoard information as a high-context versus low-context culture. For cloud cost management to work, every team needs to assume a low-context culture and establish a shared mental model of how its actions affect other parts of the organization.
For example, Finance might want better visibility into Engineering’s AWS spend to manage the company budget more effectively. But Engineering might want Finance to understand that AWS is a completely different billing model than data centers, requires different processes, and needs atypical ways of thinking about cost. Here, both sides need to communicate their respective knowledge of financial requirements and AWS billing to reach a shared understanding of how best to manage and forecast AWS spend.
As the storyteller, it’s your job to illuminate your mental model, ensure a common vocabulary, and facilitate your audience’s ability to share their mental model with you. Only then can you tell a story about your business context that will resonate with your audience.
2. Determine your characters’ goals
In every story, each character wants something. Sometimes two characters want the same thing, and we end up with a protagonist and sidekick moving through the world side-by-side. Sometimes two characters want different things, and we end up with a protagonist and antagonist at odds with each other.
Other teams in your organization may not just be your audience; they may also be your characters. It’s up to you to find out what motivates them and how their goals align with yours.
So what do the characters in your organization want? Ask them! Finance might want to measure AWS spend to better forecast its cost to the company. Leadership might want to keep costs lower than revenue to keep the company profitable. Management might want to make sure its teams are meeting their OKRs. Developers might want to solve problems with code. These goals are vastly different but ultimately create a shared purpose: driving the company to succeed.
Make sure everyone in your organization knows they’re working together for a shared purpose. Different departments’ wants may seem disjointed on the surface, so frame them as part of the overarching objective. When Finance, Engineering, Leadership, and Product all understand how to support one another in this larger goal, they’re more likely to help one another and perform well in their own work.
Sometimes one character withholds information from another, ultimately causing unnecessary problems for both characters. Poor communication is a common trope in fiction writing — and I’ve seen this play out in nearly every organization I’ve worked with. Make sure you and your company implement policies that encourage clear and regular communication of goals, collaboration to meet every department’s needs, and alignment to ultimately move the organization forward together.
3. Let them be the hero of their own story
During the pandemic, I decided to write a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing campaign. (Yes, I’m that kind of nerd.) As I started thinking about my campaign, I got really hung up on making sure players moved through each major plot point.
And then it hit me — I was micromanaging. Rather than metaphorically narrowing the players’ paths, I could give them an obvious goal and let them decide the best way to achieve that goal.
In a lot of cloud cost management work, The Duckbill Group sees Leadership present a solution and expect Engineering to implement it, even though Engineering didn’t have a say in the original cloud cost problem statement or solution selection. This works sometimes but can diminish autonomy, which is a critical component for productive teams.
Instead, The Duckbill Group recommends giving Engineering teams a clear problem statement and letting them find the solution themselves. For example, during a client engagement, we discovered two teams who wanted better standards and best practices for shared resources. We brought those teams together to collaborate on a solution, giving both teams agency to create the change they wanted. This collaboration led to better adoption of those standards and best practices long-term since both teams were invested in the solution they had created.
Some guardrails will still be required to make sure security and legal constraints are met, but engineers are more committed to a solution if they have a hand in finding it and the path forward is clear.
4. Convey your story through non-verbal signals as well as words
Clear communication is key to good storytelling, but great storytellers go beyond the words they say to how they say them.
In December 1999, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aired an episode called “Hush” that’s almost entirely devoid of dialogue. When the characters in the episode lose the ability to speak, they’re forced to rely on non-verbal communication like body movements, facial cues, drawings, and written language. In some cases, they actually communicate better through non-verbal communication.
Now think about the last time you presented cloud cost information to others. How did you present yourself? Did you make eye contact with the camera over Zoom? What was your body language and posture like? What did you use to convey your meaning? What was your tone?
Your audience will pick up on non-verbal cues and tune in or tune out accordingly, so make sure you engage the audience with both verbal and non-verbal communication. There are lots of best practices out there for non-verbal cues, but Ain Aissa’s blog Seek to Speak has some of my favorite tips (with handy visual guides):
Emote during your presentation. If you’re excited about the story you’re telling, make sure that excitement shows on your face. Creating an emotional connection with your audience increases their attention to the topic.
Emphasize interesting points with vocal variety. Varying the tone and pitch of your story helps the audience understand the highs and lows of your story. It can also indicate which points are key takeaways.
Use body language to signal that you’re relatable yet authoritative. Crossing your arms or putting your hands on your hips signals you don’t want to have a conversation, which means your audience is less likely to engage in the story you’re telling. Instead, try standing up straight with your arms at your side — this signals you’re comfortable and open to discussion.
Your AWS bill is the sum of your business decisions
We at The Duckbill Group like to say “your AWS bill is the sum of all your business decisions.” If those business decisions were made without shared business context and common goals, they may have led to the architecture problems you face today. The way to get your AWS bill and cost management strategy back on track is to clearly communicate the business context from different departments like Finance, Engineering, Leadership, and Product.
Storytelling tools can help you shape the narrative of business context in a way that lets teams understand everyone’s part in your company’s cloud cost management journey. The more frequently teams clearly communicate their cloud cost management knowledge and goals in ways that speak to their audience, the more resilient their solutions become, and the faster cloud cost management best practices scale to the entire organization. Not sure where to begin on your cloud cost management journey? Check out our cost allocation series or contact us for actionable recommendations you can start implementing today.