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Don't be ageist: In the DevOps era, experience matters

When it comes to attitudes toward age, DevOps is a lot like IT in general, but possibly more so. Defenders of an IT workforce that skews young have always noted that technology changes quickly, skills must be updated rapidly, business demands evolve fast, and long workdays just don’t appeal to professionals who have families to go home to. All of that may ratchet up even higher in DevOps culture.

We need to acknowledge the fact that DevOps work frequently means long hours, odious work tasks, and a lot of frustration, says Lucas Vogel, founder of Endpoint Systems. “Your more seasoned professionals already know that it’s going to take some time for management to get it right, and until then it’s going to mean being under a lot of pressure that exists primarily because management does not yet know what it’s doing with the new group.”

Intensifying a bias toward younger workers—or at least the perception that DevOps is welcoming only to the young—is the fact that DevOps and the continuous improvement/continuous delivery (CI/CD) movement are, in many ways, “a manifestation of the ethos of the millennial generation,” says Charles Araujo, principal analyst at Intellyx. “When given the opportunity, millennials are inclined toward short-form, rapid-fire communication, multitasking, and highly iterative interactions."

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Barriers to entry

It’s not that DevOps has barred the door to older workers, but that older workers who are comfortable working a particular way don't always want to learn the new methods that DevOps employs, Araujo says. To function in DevOps environments, he says, older IT professionals must pivot from longer-term planning and methodical evaluations to adopt principles that tend to be the opposite of the core way they believe work should be done.

But although both Vogel and Araujo insist that DevOps is not exclusively for the young, there is no question that many older IT pros feel left out, as a June Slashdot thread on this topic made clear. Many commenters said that older workers are victims of a stereotype that misses the key benefit that older workers bring: experience. As “Anonymous Coward” wrote: “It is a lot easier to teach an old dog new development environments than to teach the business and tricks of the trade to hot-shot college graduates.”

As another poster noted in that thread, the benefits of experience are often invisible to the inexperienced. Chris Ciborowski, CEO and principal consultant at Nebulaworks, says DevOps is prevalent in startups, so if the leaders of a company are young, as is often the case with startups, they may have difficulty seeing the benefits that come with age, for example.

Ageism’s angles

Many times, the choice between hiring the newbie or the seasoned pro comes down to economics. “Most of the time, more work experience measured by time (regardless of how pertinent that experience is) will cost the organization more, but not provide an immediate return to the business,” says Ciborowski.

That perception may be enhanced when older workers cling to dying technologies and stubbornly resist the new. “Many older professionals have extensive training and expertise in older development technologies and have not updated their skills to be effective in the new environments,” says Intellyx’s Araujo. But training those workers in an entirely new set of skills can be a challenge, too. For example, says Carmen DeArdo, a DevOps technology leader at a large insurance provider, some companies might find it daunting to think about investing in retraining a manual tester who is at the top of his skillset but who now wants to master automated scripts and testing as a development practice. “There is a learning curve to get them effective and a whole maturity model associated with it,” he says.

Hiring managers may say it’s not ageist to want to avoid those costs. And in any case, it does stand to reason that an industry marked by constant change is going to attract workers who aren’t intimidated by that. As poster “peragrin” noted on Slashdot, “Tech is all about the next new shiny toy. If you stopped caring about the next new shiny toy then you are out of touch with the industry.” 

On the other hand, IT and development veterans have been around long enough to see technologies and entire dogmas rise briefly and then sink from sight. “I do think that there is a bit of an issue with older professionals thinking that DevOps and this whole movement is just the latest fad and therefore being unwilling to invest in it. I think with DevOps’ rising prominence, that’s probably fading,” says Araujo. Vogel adds that he knows of many older IT professionals “who have managed to overcome and thrive in the face of change.”

Avoid a monoculture

Araujo thinks that organizations that tilt toward hiring young workers who already have DevOps skills over training older staff will suffer when it comes time to scale their DevOps and CI/CD efforts.

“There are really two big risks of having a DevOps team that is made up almost exclusively of people of the same age,” Araujo says. The first is that a team that has limited institutional knowledge is lacking in the people who know how to avoid “the land mines that litter the political fields of large enterprise organizations.”

The second, he says, is that research shows “that more diverse teams simply perform better. Diverse teams bring varied experiences and perspectives and result in better outcomes. That diversity must come in all forms: gender, race, and age.”

There are even more practical reasons to avoid a monoculture of twentysomethings, according to Nebulaworks’ Ciborowski. For example, the perspective and wisdom that experienced workers bring to DevOps groups can keep teams from pursuing an anti-pattern. “Also, more tactically, years of experience in areas such as troubleshooting methodologies are an absolute requirement for teams,” he says. “It is hard to teach this to folks with less experience. Skills like this are like wine—in general, better with age.”

Down with ageism

Everyone can play a role in combating ageism in the DevOps field. At the individual level, for example, older professionals must recognize that the IT field is one of near-constant change and no one is immune to keeping up, says Vogel. While it’s fair for experienced workers to expect managers to do a better job of implementing and managing balanced teams, he says, it’s also fair for leaders to expect older pros to adapt to changing requirements.  

“For a DevOps team in particular, you have to have a balance of experience measured against the willingness to learn and implement new things,” he says. “This is absolutely critical [since] a big part of your overall group strategy is to help streamline operations and implement organizational change.”

At the organizational level, Araujo suggests focusing on ensuring broad diversity within teams—although he thinks that establishing quotas or artificial criteria can create dysfunction by allowing less-qualified people to join teams. Once teams have been diversified, he adds, you should continually monitor the diversity overall and measure teams’ relative performance.

DeArdo’s company emphasizes a culture of DevOps engagement, in the belief that a single actively disengaged party can have an adverse effect on an entire team’s productivity. He has used that spirit to demolish any air of exclusivity around DevOps. Rather than just pitching DevOps practices and tools as things for the “cool kids” to be used with the newest systems of engagement, for example, he creates opportunities to let longtime workers, who tend to be responsible for legacy systems, to leverage the same concepts.

“We don’t have a two-speed IT, where you’re in or you’re out,” he says. “I still think there is a sense at many other companies that, for the most part, you do continuous delivery only on one set of apps and you are not going to try to apply that across the board. And that hits at the underlying issue of leaving out a section of the population.” Applying DevOps practices to packaged and mainframe apps and distributed systems of engagement are practices that matter, DeArdo says, because everyone needs to deliver everything more quickly and because a sense of inclusion builds a workforce of people better primed to move as needed, no matter what their age.

DeArdo also tries to keep everyone engaged in a DevOps-centric environment by holding internal tech conferences where employees teach each other about various tracks and by pairing experienced IT workers with less experienced ones, who can share their respective knowledge about legacy systems, on the one hand, and new integrated development environment and dev skills on the other.

Fair and balanced

As with many things, the question of ageism in IT and DevOps generates some extreme opinions, but the truth is somewhere in the middle. Not all twentysomething developers are coding robots and lack any interest in having a home life, and not all experienced developers are averse to adding new skills to their repertoire. And the fact is that today’s young IT workers are tomorrow’s old hands, and eventually they must realize that hiring decisions that benefit them today could haunt them later.

“People are very aware, as we go through changes, of the implications that may have to their organizations and their jobs, and if they feel the company provides some options, they are more accepting and open to change,” DeArdo says. Otherwise, people, including IT leaders, could get caught up in playing the short game to retirement, protecting their current processes and investments rather than ensuring that others in their organizations get a chance to build toward their own futures. 

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Topics: IT Ops