How to deal with the DevOps talent crunch

With more changes to the rules governing H-1B visas being proposed, and with the number of those visas granted declining for a second consecutive year, companies will need to rethink how they fill their open DevOps positions. 

However, organizations will still need to rapidly scale in niche areas where H-1B-dependent candidates have been widely utilized in the past, such as in DevOps, big data, and artificial intelligence.

If you're not fully utilizing the potential of the people you already have, you're missing a big opportunity. Now is the time to build your internal pipeline by training and developing your existing staff—and any STEM graduates you hire— rather than just relying on offshoring, outsourcing, and H-1B visas. 

Here are some of the innovative ways businesses are adapting to the ambiguity surrounding future pipelines of DevOps talent.

Forrester Digital Business 2018: Benchmark Your Digital Journey

Outsourcing with a twist

A more traditional option has been moving some jobs to where the talent is—say, by opening an office in India or by using offshoring agreements. But this results in a distributed team, along with time-zone and cultural differences. And while outsourcers often promise seasoned talent, they're increasingly bringing in new college graduates who are then trained on the job.

One firm believes it has an answer to this. MThree Consulting, a UK-based provider of DevOps and other IT services, offers internally trained "DevOps graduates" for project-based work. Clients can hire them as full-time staff members in the long term.

Conor Delanbanque, head of DevOps consulting at MThree, said he uses multiple strategies to find and hire qualified DevOps candidates. First, the most successful hires come from a STEM background. Second, he develops good relationships with top universities' career advisors. 

The "main win," though, is the third leg, extensive training packages. He positions these junior staffers as people who can use DevOps tools while still learning people and process skills. But junior-level people can help while they learn. 

"Sometimes junior people can learn much more quickly than the senior hires."
Conor Delanbanque

Delanbanque also has strategies for retaining talent for the duration of the project. You need to provide new, stimulating work on a cyclical basis—six months to a year, max. Interesting work and solving problems are essential, as is having a team that challenges opinions and allows constant learning so work is continuously engaging. "This really attracts the best candidates. I do believe that senior hires are essential for DevOps," he said.

One of the largest traditional outsourcers, Cognizant, is also changing up how it works with new hires. Cognizant has consistently applied for the largest number of H-1B visasabove Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple. It plans to invest $100 million in STEM education and skills programs across the US. The idea is to close the skills gap and to generate a workforce of US citizens

Change your own hiring and development processes

You can learn from some of these strategies about how to tackle resources, training, and development in a different way from your traditional hiring process. Rather than waiting for the ideal candidate, bring in some STEM graduates who can begin to implement tools, collaborate cross-departmentally without resistance, and become your next generation of experienced professionals who also know your culture.

Here are three ideas to think about when hiring college graduates and nurturing the right culture for them on the DevOps team.

1. Ditch your career fair

Join top universities' recruiter-in-residence programs and interview directly on campus. I recently started working in this regard with Columbia University, and it is a surefire way to meet the next generation of talent before everyone else does. Through this program, you can get one-on-one face time with students and mentor them into your next open DevOps job.

If you haven’t heard of Handshake, check it out. It allows you to register jobs that are offered directly to students on campus and gives you options to book time on campus to interview or mentor students.

And before you groan about hiring kids directly out of college, consider this: Training them on the culture and technology of DevOps is less of a challenge than you might think because they’ve already lived and breathed the concepts in school. They have spent a good portion of their lives already attuned to the DevOps mindset; everything they know is collaborative, and for them silos are already pretty much non-existent.

2. Implement continuous learning

The essential piece of the puzzle is to spend some time creating a new infrastructure to nurture your workforce. Senior talent may have their heads down because they've got some valuable experience under their belt, but graduates require more attention—and formalizing this is a sure bet.

The companies that are winning at this have created DevOps or tech "academies," where students can learn the fundamentals before they're allowed to start poking around at a company’s infrastructure or legacy code. We're all familiar with something "continuous"—but instead of deployments, let's make it about education.

3. Retain talent with future-proofing

Recruiting entry-level hires and training them is one thing, but keeping them is another. It's important to future-proof your engineers. There are plenty of articles out there that discuss paying a good salary and keeping new hires engaged via social media.

However, there is more to this; continuous learning as described above is one strategy. Another is to develop a very clear career development plan and stick to it. I quite often hear of junior talent ready to throw in the towel because their job has never progressed past setting up a Jenkins pipeline. Instead, you should be setting up your new-graduate hires to be part of your senior DevOps team in the next few years.

As with any enterprise-wide DevOps transformation, you can't expect an overnight miracle when it comes to setting the foundation for change in the workforce. But, also similar to any transformation, we know we must change to create a sustainable organization.

Forrester Digital Business 2018: Benchmark Your Digital Journey