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7 keys to finding phenomenal DevOps talent

Tony Bradley Editor-in-Chief, TechSpective.net

It's fairly well established that DevOps is first and foremost about a change in IT culture. When seeking DevOps talent—or even just hiring for general roles in the company but with a DevOps culture in mind—what are the specific skills and traits you look for? What are the common attributes among IT professionals who excel at DevOps?

DevOps is a new way of thinking. Just as agile development was a response to address the shortcomings of the Waterfall method, DevOps is part of a larger realization that there is a better, more efficient way to work together. That culture does require some unique traits, and it might not be a good fit for every potential employee.

To understand why this is the case, I asked experts at two leading organizations, Chef and New Context, to define some of the key traits of DevOps-compatible employees.

1. Prioritize around essential DevOps behaviors

Chef, a leading platform for DevOps, defines DevOps as a cultural and professional movement, focused on how it builds and operates high-velocity organizations, born from the experiences of its practitioners. Nathen Harvey, vice president of community development at Chef, says, “DevOps will look different inside every organization and the traits and skills needed to thrive on a DevOps team will differ. However, there are a few common themes and patterns that we see in successful IT professionals who excel at DevOps."

Chef even has a checklist of key behaviors it uses as a guide for identifying the right talent. It includes:

  • Build features iteratively
  • Collect metrics
  • Manage risk
  • Solve theory arguments with execution
  • Choose tools that fit the job
  • Integrate and deliver continuously
  • Write tests
  • Focus on availability
  • Plan for capacity
  • Practice incident response
  • Use scalable systems design
  • Be unique
  • Empower teams
  • Build consensus on important decisions
  • Put application and infrastructure through the same workflow

That list is semi-comprehensive, but it also both too vague and too specific, depending on which principle you look at. I agree that it’s a good laundry list of qualities that would be nice on a DevOps team, but in terms of identifying and hiring the best DevOps talent, I think we need to boil it down to a few basic practices, which I describe below. 

2. Be selective and look internally

It’s important that the people on the front lines of this movement inside your organization are up for the task. They will need to be a conduit between IT and the business and be able to evangelize and promote DevOps across their organization. They should already interface with multiple departments and regularly converse with members outside of IT on their own.

Harvey suggests, “Often the best people are inside your organization as they will be familiar with the company infrastructure, systems, demands and what projects can be tackled first. Internal folks will also understand the politics that come with any business, important contextual information to successfully navigate projects forward.”

3. Hire the right attitude

“First and foremost when seeking talent to hire is attitude,” explains Andrew Storms, vice president of security services at New Context. “Candidates need to reflect the thinking that DevOps is about cohesion and less about pointing fingers. We've talked about this so many times in every part of DevOps tool chain and process.

"Take for example ChatOps or blameless post-mortems. Being successful in these collaborative environments requires staff who want to be in these environments.”

4. Find people who take responsibility

Look for candidates who take responsibility and those who are capable of self-improvement along the way. For a successful DevOps team, it’s critical that the culture embody personal empowerment as well as accountability for continuous improvement. Developers should be empowered to ship code to production on their first day and to regularly exercise their judgment. Chef’s Harvey says, “Look for attributes of uniqueness, people who are willing to think outside the box of how to collaborate more effectively to solve a problem.”

5. Focus on data-driven decision-making

Metrics and feedback are the fuel that drives DevOps. Seek out people who understand that it’s important to collect metrics and make decisions based on data, not emotional arguments. Theory arguments are best solved with execution. Data-driven teams rely on performance metrics to make decisions about what project to tackle and how to scale.

Arguments should be about things that are measured and able to be tweaked according to observable outcomes. The people you choose for your DevOps team need to be comfortable with that environment.

6. Be honest when it’s not a good match

“We also have to be respectful of varying personalities. Some people just aren't comfortable in a DevOps working environment,” stresses Storms. “To some degree, I feel like when I come across these candidates that its part of my job to nicely let them know they just aren't going to be happy in a DevOps world. Just like how not everyone is cut out to be a manager, not everyone is cut out to be in DevOps. There are plenty of companies that aren't doing DevOps and these candidates will probably do just fine in their career without DevOps.”

One of the other challenges organizations face in hiring DevOps talent is that DevOps is a broad concept that is in the early stages of mainstream adoption. There aren’t a lot of people out there who are DevOps experts, and those who claim to be should be viewed with a grain of salt — or three. It isn’t so much that you’re seeking a DevOps guru with years of DevOps experience; who can honestly claim they have years of DevOps experience? What you need is the right sort of individual to fit into your DevOps culture.

7. Focus on culture, not tools

You can’t just ask potential employees if they do DevOps. You have to get a feel for the type of role the individual is used to and the role they envision. Then you can decide whether or not that person fits into your culture in the larger context of the business. The value of DevOps is in creating and maintaining at a certain cadence or tempo, and you want to make sure that all of the members of your DevOps team work well together to deliver that value.

The list of key principles from Chef would be a worthwhile barometer to use once you have hired someone, but not a great approach for deciding whom to hire, in my opinion. They are valuable principles and weighing employees against them can help identify weaknesses and areas to provide more training and education. When it comes to actually hiring someone, though, focus on finding people with the right attitude, who will mesh well with your existing team and DevOps culture.

Image credit: JD Hancock

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