4 essential soft skills every DevOps team needs

Jayne Groll CEO, DevOps Institute

You might be hearing a lot about "upskilling" for DevOps roles lately, particularly in light of the technical talent gap. Enterprises are actively pursuing "full-stack engineers" while also investing in skills transformation programs for existing staff.

The day of the T-shaped, multi-domain professional is dawning. Everyone in IT has to upskill—but which skills to learn? 

As it turns out, hiring managers care as much about soft skills as they do about technical capabilities. Here's what you need to know.

Surprising results

The DevOps Institute has released its 2019 "Upskilling: Enterprise DevOps Skills" report (registration required to view report), based on a global community research project. Our goal was to identify which IT skills are trending as must-have, nice-to-have, or not important. 

The resulting data is quite deep and serves as a benchmark to trend year-over-year patterns. (We recently launched the survey for the 2020 Upskilling: Enterprise DevOps Skills report; you can complete it here.)

While we expected some of the responses, there was one surprise across the various roles and regions: Soft skills are considered as important as technical and process skills, particularly to the managers who are the most likely to influence hiring and upskilling.


Figure 1: In the DevOps Institute's most recent survey, soft skills scored ahead of knowledge of both process and automation tools. Source: The DevOps Institute.

Learning or improving personal soft skills can be different because the vocabulary, tools and ways of working may be different across the Dev, Ops and Security domains and therefore may require an openness to cross-learning. On the other hand, there are many options for learning new technical or process skills, since technologies and processes tend to be very precise. 

However, excelling at soft skills can be quite difficult. Human interaction is complex because each person is unique in the way he or she thinks, feels, interacts, and behaves. While there's a wide range of skills that you could define as "soft," four of these are important for every DevOps team to improve performance and expedited software delivery. 

1. Collaboration and communication

Collaboration and communication are not the same. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of "collaboration" is "the action of working with someone to produce or create something." "Communication" is defined by the same source as "the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings."

Notice that the action words for each differ: Collaboration is "working," and communication is "sharing." Same spirit, different activities.

For DevOps teams, sharing ideas, feelings, and information (communication) is critical for working together to produce or create something (collaboration). In collaboration, we ask for each other's opinions, expertise, and input. Communication can be more passive, with multiple channels.

In both instances, a safety culture, where individuals are comfortable asking for help as well as sharing their feelings and knowledge, is critical. Collaboration and communication must be inclusive and respectful.

2. Empathy

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in the minds and feelings of colleagues and customers, is one of the most important human soft skills. It requires more listening than talking—something that's difficult for many people.

Perhaps that's why humans have two ears and just one mouth, as the saying goes. Active listening helps us to internalize the other person's perspective to be able to ask better questions and to be more thoughtful and respectful.  

Developing good empathy skills supports better collaboration, helps to overcome unconscious bias and, in general, makes team members better listeners, colleagues, and friends.

While there are techniques for developing active listening and empathy skills, people must take intentional steps to practice. Empathy is not natural or conscious for many people.

3. Customer experience

Outside-in thinking has long been advocated as a way of looking at your product or services through the lens of the customer. The customer journey must be well understood to deliver value—a key objective of DevOps.

It is much easier to evaluate internal processes, resources, and effort than to manage around the experience of the end consumer. Essentially, customer experience skills take empathy to an external level, where the technical and business teams put themselves in an outside-in role to identify where and when value is created for the end consumer.

It takes practice to internalize the concept that the value is not in the supply chain, but in the entire experience.

4. Problem solving

Good problem-solving capabilities help individuals, teams, and organizations identify underlying issues and focus on solutions, not situations. You can apply these skills universally—whether it's a business, process, collaboration, or technical issue.

Problem solving requires the individual to be part detective, part scientist to identify the root cause and then mitigate or remove the problem. There are several well-known techniques that test hypotheses until you find the root cause or solution, including the scientific method and Kepner-Tregoe. (You can find more information about each of these, as well as other techniques, by searching online.)

Are your soft skills up to snuff?

Hiring managers consider soft skills to be as important as technical and process skills when assessing candidates because good problem solvers, collaborators, and communicators who exhibit empathy for colleagues and customers make the best employees.

Soft skills equate to human skills and affect how we think, feel, interact, engage, and respect other people. It is essential for your career and personal growth to groom and improve your soft skills, so you need to learn them—and practice them—every day.

The DevOps Institute Upskilling: Enterprise DevOps Skills research project is ongoing. You can help by taking a few minutes to participate in this year's Upskilling Survey.  

Want to learn more about upskilling DevOps? Come to my presentation at the All Day DevOps online conference on November 6, 2019, at 9:30 am Eastern. Register here for free

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