No modern organization is immune to downtime. From small and medium-sized businesses to large enterprises, every organization suffers from outage issues from time to time. However, the sooner an issue is acknowledged, the faster it is acted upon, and the lower is the business impact.

What is on-call management?

On-call management is the practice of designating specific people to be available at particular times to respond to an urgent service issue, even though they are not formally on duty.

On-call is a critical responsibility inside many IT, developer, support, and operations teams who run services where customers expect 24/7 availability. Team members take turns staffing an on-call rotation, either providing coverage around the clock or only outside of regular business hours. Along with automated monitoring and alerting solutions, the on-call engineer responds immediately to any interruptions to service availability. On-call management helps streamline incident resolution on a unified platform that supports collaboration between IT and DevOps teams.

Why do you need on-call management?

With an effective on-call plan, you can ensure your team can scale to match expanding services, providing consistent coverage for critical IT functions and prompt incident response. There are more benefits to an excellent on-call management plan than just getting through downtime. With each failure, teams get the opportunity to learn new skills, like understanding a critical service a little better, seeing how it responds to failure, and knowing how to design for fewer failures or improve the incident response plan.

And having a good on-call program built on a culture of shared responsibility can also lead to improved professional relationships and less burnout, which can mean higher employee retention.

Pros and cons of being on-call

In organizations that practice DevOps, software teams take a lot of responsibility for the reliability and availability of the services they build. This job used to be the exclusive domain of operations teams. Being most familiar with the code, developers are often the ones who can best troubleshoot issues in the shortest amount of time.

And through this process, developers build better software that is less likely to fail. With this shift in responsibility, they test their code more rigorously since they may be the ones brought in during off-hours if the service has issues.

The result is more resilient systems and fewer burned-out workers with more people available and capable of taking on incidents.

Without a robust on-call program, organizations will fail to realize all the cultural benefits of DevOps—or meet the demands of a scaling infrastructure. If one team bears the burden of responding to incidents more than another, they won’t have the capacity to do their day jobs well. Developers won’t get to implement the feedback that comes from incidents, and incident responders won’t have the ability to fortify their systems.

If the responsibilities are lopsided, those people slated for the on-call schedule are never really able to detach from work and can easily succumb to burnout.

But a plan that considers the organization’s actual coverage requirements balances the time burden across the developer and IT ops teams. It also captures data for continuous improvement that can lead to benefits all around. It will not only lead to a better service for customers, but it can also help employees improve their skills and their product and look forward to putting in on-call hours.

On-call management best practices

For IT support and IT service teams, around-the-clock support is critical to helping the business function. These teams face challenges like stress, burnout, unclear roles and responsibilities, access to tooling.

IT teams often have the added stress of being in the same building as their customers, who can slow things down with a flood of interruptions (email, Slack, even in-person) about the incident.

Here are a few tactics to help keep IT incidents manageable:

Clearly define the on-call responsibilities

Setting clear roles and responsibilities during on-call can help prevent burnout, confusion, and frustration. We suggest documenting your incident response process and expectations for what it means to be on call.

Assign alerts to the right person/team

Getting your alerting tooling dialed in effectively shouldn’t be overlooked. Having a clear altering flow with the proper notifications and overrides can avoid headaches.

Have primary and secondary responders

Just like an unexpected personal emergency can take a developer offline during the workday, the same can happen when they’re on call. Putting a backup in place limits the potential damage from this kind of interruption.

Fine-tune your schedules

Teams are not static things; neither should be your on-call schedule. We recommend a culture of continuously reviewing, adjusting, and improving your on-call practices.

Access to diagnostics tools

Every team varies in the tools they use to track operational health, application performance, resource utilization, etc. Ensure your on-call engineers are familiar with the tools used and have proper access to them.