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How to recruit for your key DevOps roles

Esther Shein Freelance writer

Around the time that Alex Bonassera decided to move on to another DevOps position, he saw a job posting to run a systems engineering team at CarGurus, a research and shopping website for new and used cars.

Bonassera applied, and felt the onsite interviews went well. But it was his last conversation with CarGurus' vice president of platform and foundations that "flipped the script," when the conversation turned to reliability—another area of interest to him.

It turned out CarGurus has a team focused on platform reliability engineering, and the company was also looking for a manager for that group. "That showed me that the leaders here are not just hiring to meet a quota, or fill a position, but [are] interested in finding the best fit," Bonassera said. "[It] gave me a sense of the humanity that extended into how the business was run."

After two onsite interviews over a six-week period, Bonassera was hired a few months ago as senior manager of reliability engineering.

CarGurus had found the secret sauce for recruiting Bonassera: Stay flexible, listen to job applicants, and try to be a good matchmaker. But not all organizations are as fortunate.

Here's how you can put lessons from the front lines to work in recruiting for your DevOps roles.

Pain points for DevOps hiring

A few factors are conspiring to make finding DevOps pros a complicated business. Hiring managers face off-the-charts competition for anyone with relevant experience. Then there's the general lack of agreement over what responsibilities specific DevOps roles include, or should include, which makes filling jobs anything but straightforward.

DevOps engineer is one of the top 10 notable tech roles in demand for 2019, according to recruiting site Glassdoor. The median base salary is $106,000, and DevOps engineers are the sixth most wanted professionals. Tech recruiting site Robert Half listed DevOps engineer as the seventh most popular job on its site, with a median salary of $110,000, according to the firm’s 2019 Salary Guide.

Overall, demand for DevOps professionals is strong. Today, 43% of respondent organizations are applying DevOps for one or multiple projects, 19% are applying DevOps across their enterprise, and 15% plan to incorporate DevOps within the next year or are in the initial stages now, according to the DevOps Institute's 2019 Upskilling: Enterprise DevOps Skills Report, a survey of 1,600 people.

The same report found that 37% of respondents are currently hiring, and an additional 14% indicated they are planning to recruit DevOps professionals in the next 12 months.

[ Also see: Smart answers for your next DevOps interview: How to prepare ]

Job-role confusion

At the same time, DevOps has become an umbrella term that can mean many things —technology transformation manager, Linux administrator, reliability engineer, etc. It's akin to other general terms such as data science, said Chad Hixon, director of talent acquisition at CarGurus. 

Eveline Oehrlich, research director of the DevOps Institute, said the role's definition is a moving target.

“The definition of DevOps engineer or a DevOps human is a moving matter, as it depends on a company’s maturity and journey."
Eveline Oehrlich

Gareth Dwyer, DevOps developer at Codementor, has been on both sides of DevOps hiring, and agrees that there is a lack of clarity around what organizations mean when they say they are looking for DevOps professionals.

"DevOps started as a useful concept to help technical teams be more efficient, but due to its popularity, it has now been surrounded by hype, [similar] to Scrum before it."
Gareth Dwyer

Both the organization and the candidate have to be sure that they are talking about the same concepts when using generic terminology like DevOps, or it can lead to confusion, which can significantly delay hiring or lead to bad hires, Dwyer said.

Underwhelming qualifications

Adding to the chaos is the fact that some individuals market themselves as DevOps engineers, but many don’t have the skills and capabilities that hiring organizations need, said the DevOps Institute's Oehrlich.

The DevOps Institute survey asked respondents whether a skills matrix existed within their organizations. Some 32% said that they don’t have a good list of DevOps skills—or have no list at all. Another 27% said they continually update their existing DevOps skills matrix, and 21% have a documented list of key skills when hiring.

The DevOps title is also fairly new, so people may not have a specific title on their résumé, but may have the right skills, said David Armendariz, general manager of the IT practice division of executive search firm Lucas Group.

"You won't have someone with seven-plus years of experience with DevOps in their title."
David Armendariz

What to look for

The top DevOps roles, according to mainstream job sites and recruiters, include DevOps engineer, cloud DevOps analyst, DevOps administrator, DevOps lead, and software engineer. Those titles will be more commonly found among younger professionals who may have gotten their start in a DevOps job, but people who have been in the market longer may very well be doing similar jobs, Lucas Group's Armendariz said.

Codementor's Dwyer maintains that the hardest position to fill is the traditional DevOps role—someone who can bridge the gap between IT/systems administration and development/engineering, and who can help create and maintain a smooth process and set of tooling from developing to releasing code.

The push toward digital transformation also requires people with an "expandable" mindset who are able to adapt and learn continuously, Oehrlich said.

Craft a winning job description

More often than not, startups and other firms don’t have formal plans or the ability to clearly communicate the DevOps roles for which they want to hire, industry observers say. "That has made it hard for them to develop a job description and communicate it to the marketplace," Armendariz said.

One of the most important things candidates want to know is what the job will be like if they take it. "And that's something most companies can’t answer."

"Not all DevOps journeys are the same and so don't require the same skills. So working with the team [that] already exists, HR, and business leaders is a critical step in defining the job description."
—David Armendariz

You should continually update DevOps job descriptions, since DevOps teams are constantly maturing, and terms such as "problem solving" and "automation" are must-haves in any job description, Oehrlich added.

How techie to get with the job description

Instead of listing a set of skills and requirements, your job descriptions should communicate to someone why they should take job, what's in it for them, and what their life is going to be like once they do, said Codementor's Dwyer.

A job description should tell a potential employee:

  • Basic requirements
  • The types of projects they will be working on
  • What they will learn
  • How they'll interact with other employees
  • The level of exposure they will have to clients

Some may be specific technical requirements, but the more technical jargon you throw into a job description, the more you will limit the number of people applying, Dwyer added.

Avoid the temptation to use buzzwords such as "rock star," "not just a job," "innovative," and "fast-paced," generic fillers that are a major turn-off. Your job descriptions should add specifics. The terms that CarGurus uses include "ownership," "autonomy," and "modernization," said Hixon.

Avoid the temptation to use buzzwords such as "rock star," "not just a job," "innovative," and "fast-paced," generic fillers that are a major turn-off.

[ Also see: How one year in DevOps changed my life as a developer ]

Set yourself apart

Mobile lottery app Jackpocket likes to incorporate more "human" language into job descriptions to show the organization's personality, said chief technology officer Leo Shemesh. "This allows you to communicate who you are as a brand and set yourself apart from job descriptions that are more formulaic and corporate in nature."

He also recommends evaluating job listings from similar companies in your industry, to determine how you can set your organization apart and what you can offer that others don’t. "When we mix it up, we attract candidates looking for something different, because we know that we’re different," Shemesh said.

Opinions are mixed on listing specific tools a company uses. Mentioning that your team is using or wants to use Kubernetes, Puppet, and Ansible could be too pigeonholing, said Codementor's Dwyer. Because there are so many tools, stating that the candidate has experience in exactly your tool set will vastly limit your options—so don't go there. "Someone who has learned how to successfully implement a DevOps tool chain will easily be able to pick up new tooling." he said.

"We call out the 'why' behind the position and really highlight the mission and values of the company and team and the interesting problems to solve," said CarGurus' Hixon. When it comes to hiring for a DevOps position, it's all about "highlighting the incredible playground they'll get to play in here."

But Jackpocket's Shemesh emphasizes his organization's use of cutting-edge technologies like Kubernetes and Helm, as well as technologies that he wants to get involved with, such as Istio and Terraform.

"At the end of the day, most candidates want to be working on something that excites them and helps them grow their technology skills."
Leo Shemesh

Where to recruit for DevOps positions

The DevOps Institute survey found that companies are looking internally to find candidates because they feel that it's easier to develop and train internal employees for DevOps positions than it is to hire externally, said Oehrlich.

However, many IT professionals have worked in silos for many years, and a shift to DevOps is difficult for them. Suddenly, they must collaborate, share knowledge, expand their skills, learn, be creative, and be open. That's all unnatural for people who come from silos, she added.

Other approaches, of course, are to use tech recruitment firms, scout for potential candidates at conferences and events, and poach from your vendors and competitors. Organizations should also reward employees by offering a bonus if they find a candidate who is hired, said Lucas Group's Armendariz.

There’s power in your network, said Kim Hoffman, director of talent acquisition, products, and technology at Intuit.

"Job seekers certainly know the value of tapping their network, but it's easy to forget that, as a hiring manager, you also have a circle of connections that can lead you to the ideal applicant."
Kim Hoffman

These include former employees, industry peers, and personal ties. This can also streamline the vetting process of prospective employees.

The best bennies

High salaries are still the easiest way to attract talent, but for companies that have all their infrastructure in the cloud, remote and flexible work options are also good for attracting talent, said Codementor's Dwyer.

Many people don't like to sit at a desk in a corporate office eight hours a day, five days a week. And the remote workforce—the only place where supply outpaces demand in technical hiring—is fertile ground for recruiting new hires if you can support telecommuting.

DevOps hiring outlook remains cloudy

As the cloud grows in popularity and more companies migrate from old infrastructure, demand for DevOps will only continue to increase, said Codementor's Dwyer.

Some demand will be filled by system administrators and IT professionals who can make the move into DevOps, he said, as well as developers who learn to think about the bigger picture. But there will not be a large enough supply of DevOps-competent employees to keep up with most organizations' needs, he said.

Expect a strong increase in less useful, but more hyped, positions, similar to what happened with Scrum and agile, Codementor's Dwyer said, such as DevOps coaches and people with other titles "who try to bridge the communication gap between technical and nontechnical people, and many who profit off the confusion by claiming to have more expertise than they actually do."

The upshot: Vet your candidates, but be prepared to take a few risks and consider remote workforce options to raise your chances of finding great fits for your DevOps teams.

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