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7 ways to market yourself as a DevOps pro in the remote era

Ericka Chickowski Freelance writer

Demand for new digital transformation projects is at an all-time high. Some 83% of organizations say that, amid pandemic concerns, they're accelerating efforts to modernize their applications and infrastructure to meet new market needs, a recent survey by IDG Research has found.

"In discussing the Covid-19 pandemic with senior executives, a recurring theme has been how quickly and severely it has affected organizations, forcing them to respond with extraordinary speed and vigor," a team of Deloitte consultants wrote in a recent analysis of the market.  They continued:

"'Slow, but steady' doesn’t work, given the dynamics of a pandemic."

This is potent professional fuel for skilled DevOps professionals in an otherwise declining job market. Before the pandemic took root in the US, Dice released its annual Dice 2020 Tech Salary Report. In it, the firm reported that DevOps engineers average $117,478 in annual pay, well above the general industry tech salary of $94,000.

Now, due to economic uncertainty, analyst firms are reporting broad cuts to general IT spending in the near-term future, which could mean hiring freezes in IT cost-center positions. Gartner, for one, is predicting a 7% decline in IT expenditures this year compared to 2019.

Even so, demand for DevOps skills and capabilities will likely remain high as enterprises work to increase digital velocity for revenue-generating projects. Here's how DevOps engineers and related professionals can take advantage of these dynamics to chart their career paths in what looks to be the first tightened IT spending market in a long time.

1. Make yourself more enterprise-ready

For many years the majority of DevOps adherents and champions were working at tech-savvy unicorns, software providers, startups, and the like. As DevOps practices have become adopted more broadly in the enterprise, DevOps engineers who want to appeal to more potential employers should start thinking about how to flex their technical skills to be more enterprise-ready.

An important skill to focus on, said longtime DevOps pro Caleb Fornari, is to expand your comfort zone beyond Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud environments. As the CTO and founder of The StartOps Group, a DevOps consultancy, Fornari has a good sense of how the hiring managers at many organizations chart their course for team building.

"What we're seeing now from more enterprise DevOps is a transition to the Azure ecosystem. And that includes Windows, which is a skill that a lot of DevOps engineers kind of skip over, because a lot of us come from the Linux world."
Caleb Fornari

That means getting more comfortable with Azure cloud management, but also bolstering your skill set with more fluency in areas such as PowerShell scripting, Fornari explained.

2. Get deeper into Kubernetes

Container skills, and Kubernetes in particular, have become table stakes for DevOps engineers. Those who want to make themselves stand out from the crowd need to understand that many hiring managers are looking for candidates with experience and knowledge that goes beyond the surface level.

"We are already seeing more demand for people that really understand Kubernetes at a deeper level."
—Caleb Fornari

It's not just being able to deploy to Kubernetes, but the skills to troubleshoot a cluster, understand how it works, or perform upgrades on the cluster. "All the kinds of things that come with running it as a system," he said.

3. Always be learning

At a more fundamental level, DevOps engineers seeking to improve their appeal to employers need to be thinking beyond ticking specific technical checkmarks on the application and more about demonstrating a curiosity and drive to always be testing the bounds of their competencies.

Many hiring managers seek out a growth mindset of constant learning from their DevOps engineering candidates. This can be fostered not only by learning technical and soft skills on the job, but also by seeking out wisdom and pointers from the broader community, said Derek Weeks, vice president at Sonatytpe and co-founder of the All Day DevOps online conference.

"My advice to those seeking to make themselves more marketable is to not just focus on improving their DevOps experience from inside the walls of their business, but to explore all of the knowledge and insights available in the community around them. They’ll be better for it in the end—and will make a few more valuable career connections along the way."
Derek Weeks

Tim Mackey, principal security strategist at Synopsys, said one good way engineers can expose themselves to that community-based learning is to get involved in open-source projects.

"It's where some of the coolest new ideas are being generated. Doing so helps develop skills related to distributed project management; communication, when teams have diverse backgrounds or don't all speak the same language; and novel ways of solving problems from recognized domain experts."
Tim Mackey

4. Become a better teacher

Learning skills is crucial for establishing a great resume, but the most valuable DevOps team members are the ones who are ready to turn around and teach those skills to others. Having a DevOps team full of great teachers with different types of expertise is what allows cooperative, cross-domain work to really chug along seamlessly.

Jay Andrew Allen, a DevOps engineer with experience at Microsoft and AWS, where he was an engineering hiring manager, said recruiters and hiring managers are most likely to advise DevOps engineers to broadly work on their communication skills. But he believes to truly differentiate themselves, these professionals should very specifically work on their teaching skills.

"I've worked for multiple large tech training organizations, where we always had opportunities for DevOps experts to help develop content that they could turn around and teach students. The problem is that not a lot of DevOps experts think about the best ways to break up information into easily learnable chunks."
Jay Andrew Allen

To hone teaching skills, he recommends that DevOps pros start learning more about the science and craft of instructional design. This could mean seeking out and learning from colleagues in their organization's technical department, if they work in a large organization that has one.

Barring that, engineers can dig up online resources about the subject of instructional design, just as they would to learn a new technical skill. "I highly recommend the works of Ruth Colvin Clark, who's an expert on technical training and instructional design," Allen said.

5. Bolster your personal brand

Career marketability is both about building intrinsic skills and finding a way to put them on display. Getting involved in the highly active DevOps community provides a way to kill two birds with one stone. There's no single way to do this, and it all depends on an individual's skills and interests, said Paul French, managing director at Intrinsic Search, a recruitment firm that specializes in placing tech professionals in software companies.

"Given the cutthroat nature of the tech space, employers want to hire someone who has established a name for themselves in the industry and is known for their proficiency and professionalism. There are plenty of ways to establish your personal brand."
Paul French

French recommends participation in open-source projects, establishing thought leadership through speaking at live and virtual events, attending meetups, and creating a vibrant, professional LinkedIn page.

Of course, there's only so much time in the day, and it is impossible to do everything, still perform well at one's job, and maintain work-life balance. So there will be some calculus needed to figure out what's the best set of extracurricular activities to establish a strong personal brand.

For example, StartOps Group's Fornari said, passion projects such as working on open-source contributions can sometimes be time sinks that don't contribute enough to actually improving a DevOps engineer's professional profile.

"I worry sometimes that people spend more time on some specific projects that they're passionate about; that's great, but it doesn't really increase your visibility in the marketplace."
—Caleb Fornari

6. Brush up on writing skills

Fornari said one of the more undervalued activities for boosting one's personal brand is blogging and writing, especially in a remote world. He suggests having presence you with articles in technical publications, or contrubuting to a blog about your experiences in DevOps.

"That can mean a lot, and that hasn't ever really changed, but I don't see enough people doing it."
—Caleb Fornari

Writing is a core skill that's worth developing not just for self-promotion. It also is crucial for many aspects of daily communication, collaboration, and documentation that grease the wheels of DevOps progress—be it through Slack channels or updating a shared Google Doc, he explained.

7. Make human connections

The whole philosophy of DevOps is built around a spirit of collaboration that requires people to truly connect with their colleagues at a human level so everyone can be working on the same page to improve the big picture. This can be a real challenge for technical savants who are most comfortable when they're focused deeply on technical work in the quiet of their office, said Jim Shilts, founder and president of both the North American DevOps Group and the European DevOps Group.

"A lot of people in this space tend to be introverted, and they like to work alone. But DevOps is all about saying, 'We're all in this together; let's come together as a team to understand how we can best drive value for the company.'"
Jim Shilts

It's OK to relish the deep solo work, but to really stand out among the crowd of everyday IT workers, DevOps engineers need to come up for air and work to make human connections, within both their internal organization and the broader community. This can be a particular challenge in the COVID-19 era, so it requires leveraging all the digital tools available and really making an effort.

Building effective relationships using digital tools is absolutely critical in a completely distributed workforce, said Ingo Fuchs, chief technologist of cloud and DevOps at NetApp.

"Without the ease of walking over to a colleague's desk to ask a question, whiteboarding creative ideas, or chatting with somebody at the soda fridge or during an office happy hour on Friday, the importance of connecting with others to develop creative ideas and maintain healthy working relationships cannot be overstated."
Ingo Fuchs

Shine for managers

This same principle should be in effect when it comes to putting oneself out there in front of management, Fuchs said. "If your employer does not give you the opportunity to show off what value you can bring to the organization, then you need to step up and find your own ways to do this," Fuchs said.

Outside the office walls, DevOps engineers should also keep in mind that the old saw that "It's not what you know, but whom you know" remains true even amid the new normal of quarantines and limited travel, said Edward Wahl, lead engineer and DevOps champion at software development firm Art+Logic.

"Just because you're not physically traveling to live conferences doesn't mean you can't network. It is not hard to find virtual summits and conferences happening every month, and not having to travel makes it easier to attend. Make sure you find and take advantage of the opportunities for interaction and networking these events provide."
Edward Wahl

What are you doing to cultivate a career in DevOps?

Do you see DevOps in your future? Perhaps you are already exploring some of the paths listed above, or maybe you are taking multiple routes to get there. Are you trying a different approach not described here? 

Talk back to us on Twitter. Plus: If you are a DevOps practitioner and interested in contributing posts to TechBeacon, direct message us or tag @TechBeaconCom.

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