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How to break into a DevOps career

Esther Shein Freelance writer

Whether you're an IT professional interested in a career in DevOps or a manager for an organization bent on transitioning to the software development methodology, making the move to DevOps may just be a matter of changing your mindset—assuming you have the requisite DevOps skills, of course. DevOps, experts say, isn't as much of a role as it is a concept. The recipe for success lies in fostering teamwork and collaboration.

"It all comes down to how people work together," says Evan Powell, CEO and cofounder of StackStorm, an open source platform for event-driven automation. People need to work well together within their own teams. But more importantly, cooperation and communication must extend beyond group borders.

"DevOps is really about breaking down silos and accomplishing a culture of shared goals,'' says Jonathan Fletcher, an enterprise architect and DevOps lead at Hiscox, an international specialist insurer. It's not enough to have the techical chops: Soft skills matter.

Why DevOps

There are many benefits to adopting a DevOps culture. Systems get delivered faster and cheaper, and they're often of better quality. Industry observers say DevOps offers a more efficient way of running technology-intensive businesses, which, one could argue, is nearly every business today.

Yet as companies grow, employees can get pigeonholed into a particular technology or role, such as database administrator or systems administrator, says Fletcher. "Once you start creating these individual silos, people tend to do what is right for their particular niche rather than for the common good. Rarely do IT departments have a common set of incentives and goals."

Powell puts it more bluntly: "The life of an IT person in a lot of incredibly complex enterprise environments...sucks." Often, he adds, "the culture tends to be more blame-oriented...where stress levels are high and there is burnout in IT... DevOps is about being transparent," from the code-writing stage to system implementation. That transparency leads to a happier environment and a lower tendency to assign blame.

"The essence is agile operations, and it's really taking agile precepts and applying them to the entire lifecycle of software," says Powell.

DevOps career moves

In order to break into DevOps, you need to develop both technical skills and soft skills, such as the willingness to collaborate with others. Knowing how to administer an Oracle system, for example, is valuable, but learning Python or Ruby on Rails—script-friendly programming—is also important, says Powell. "Those are the two big ones. And figure out, how do you automate the boring stuff you do? Own that, because that's coming. It's reality. Facebook has three people running their operations. Everything else is automated."

According to Powell, there are two classes of individuals who may be stuck in waterfall development: developers in a non-agile, non-DevOps environment and system administrators who don't understand what developers really need to achieve better outcomes for end users. Developers in a non-agile, non-DevOps environment can leave the organization. Why? They're in short supply and high demand. According to Powell, if these developers don't want to leave, they could organize "sprints" as a test project to show value to management.

The systems administrators who are stuck in a traditional siloed organization have a lot of work ahead of them. Besides learning code, systems administrators should spend time at DevOps meet-ups. This can help improve their work quality of life—it helps them learn from others how to spend less time fighting fires reactively and more time building and improving an environment that enables the organization to get important tasks done in a better and faster way. This might mean, though, that many manual tasks will need to be automated. "If your job can be better done via software, you must learn to contribute to that software or risk being perceived as much less valuable," notes Powell.

But Fletcher cautions that people need to be careful about focusing too much on the automation aspect. "Often, people concentrate on automation and see that as DevOps. Automation is great, but unless you fix all the other things," such as people and culture, you're unlikely to benefit as much as you could, he says.

While tools are used to automate systems, says Powell, the most important aspect of the method is fostering a new type of teamwork, "where 'Dev' and 'Ops' are organized differently around the delivery of software, and they jointly own how to be responsive to customers."

A friend of Powell's who runs IT at a regional bank in the San Francisco Bay area is transitioning to DevOps "...in response to what is now perceived to be an existential threat to this and other banks due to new entrants with much better software capabilities." These competitors are better able to offer particular products, such as mortgages and small business loans, Powell says. The bank executive got the initiative started by sending everyone a copy of The Phoenix Project, a book about DevOps.

His next step was to pick individual projects, such as refreshing a piece of the mortgage origination process, that could be addressed with the three underpinning principles of DevOps outlined in The Phoenix Project.

"He is a positive leader who is well suited to helping IT make the difficult shift from tight command and control to the much faster pace of DevOps, in part by explaining how the work is more enjoyable when speaking to his colleagues and team members and by articulating expected outcomes in terms of improved agility" in discussions with his executive management and board.

Making the business transition

The cultural and personal aspects of business are key to DevOps, yet they're often ignored, and companies must address culture, people, process, and technology to really make it work.

On the flip side, however, if you're a CIO at a company that spends $14 billion a year on IT, trying to change your culture can be daunting. In that case, says Powell, "You pick a group, that vanguard starts doing things better, and those changes are shared in the organization." Often, that vanguard becomes the DevOps group, because they're the people who know how to market a new way of doing things.

Individuals who get DevOps are highly sought after because "operational responsiveness or agility in development is now a board-level discussion where you've got enterprises of all types trying to figure out how to respond to all customers,'' says Powell. "That's a strategic motivation for the methodology."

Making the organizational shift

Organizations that want to break into the discipline need to look at jobs and roles as part of the same team and think of them as horizontally tied together, rather than as silos within IT, Powell says. "It's all about collaboration, and we don't care who you technically report to—it's about joint responsibility and how we respond to users as a team."

Fletcher advises organizations to recruit people who are well versed in DevOps, because it's a difficult concept if it hasn't been tried before. "You need a very patient CIO to let you make mistakes if this is your first stab at [DevOps]."

Training is available, but nothing beats experience. For traditional enterprises, the best approach is to spend some money to get advice from specialists, so you can get it right the first time.

Don't fall for the misconception that DevOps means the same thing to all people. Different organizations have different goals. For many companies, DevOps is about increasing the pace of change, while for others it could be about increasing software quality or lowering costs.

"The beating drum of the DevOps concept is the cultural aspects,'' says Fletcher. "Get those right and all the others will fall into place."

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