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Alessandro Diaferia
Alessandro Diaferia

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The Mythical DevOps Engineer

I'm always a little suspicious of job specs looking for the so-called DevOps Engineer role. Most of the times, they mention a variety of duties and responsibilities that make you wonder: "Are they hiring for a single role or a whole team?".

If you look around, it's easy to see that roles containing the term DevOps don't share the same meaning across different companies. Often, though, they stress the importance of being able to cover for what traditionally would have been the specialization of different people.

Don't get me wrong: cross-functional expertise is definitely important. But I don't think DevOps means replacing a multitude of specialization with a single role. Different specializations like Operations, Security, Testing, Development, Product Management and so on, are vast and require specific knowledge.

This is why I think the key differentiator of successful DevOps-enabled companies is that they enable them to collaborate effectively, having clear in mind that the goal is to deliver value to the end user.

Overall, I don't think we should be talking about a DevOps Engineer, but rather about DevOps culture in organizations.

But let's take a step back first.

What does DevOps mean, really?

My personal take on the term is as follows.

What I mean by this is that in a DevOps organization the different specialities are incentivised to collaborate. The intrinsic existing tension between Dev making changes to the system and Ops wanting to keep the system stable dissolves in favour of a greater good: the value stream.

A stable system that delivers nothing is of no use to the company the same way an unstable system that keeps offering new functionality is of no use to the user.

The greater good, in this case, becomes the flow of value between the organization and its users. Dev and Ops are incentivised to work together to maximise this flow, understanding which bets worked out and which ones didn't. Being able to easily activate and deactivate functionality, resolve issues and, more generally, adapt and evolve, is what really makes adopting a DevOps mindset worth it.

Overall, I think there shouldn't be a single DevOps role but, rather, a set of specific specialities collaborating effectively.

This ideal view of the terminology might sometimes clash with the reality of the job market. Companies willing to attract the best talent with the most current skills may end up advertising for roles that are counterproductive in the context of DevOps principles.

But let's have a look at a few interesting job specs.

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Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

What are companies looking for?

Let's read through a few excerpts from job specs I found out there in the wild.

The flexible problem solver

[...] Devops Engineers are IT professionals who collaborate with software developers, system operators and other IT staff members to manage code releases. They cross and merge the barriers that exist between software development, testing and operations teams and keep existing networks in mind as they design, plan and test. Responsible for multitasking and dealing with multiple urgent situations at a time, Devops Engineers must be extremely flexible. [...]

A job spec on the internet

This is one of those classic examples where the organization believes that the DevOps principles should be delegated to a single team.

The spec mentions the myriad of duties that are responsibily of the Devops Engineers in the company. A Devops Engineer is expected to "multi-task and deal with multiple urgent situations at a time". Therefore, they "must be extremely flexible".

Multitasking and dealing with multiple urgent situations at a time is, for sure, likely to happen anywhere: I don't think this should be a peculiarity of a role in an organization. I think the aspiration should be that every engineer in the team is enabled to handle urgent situations and learn from them so that the organization can improve and mitigate possibilities of service disruption.

Urgent situations shouldn't be the norm but, rather, the organization should empower its people to be able to adapt to and learn from such situations so that they can be kept an exception.

The way this role is advertised leads me to think that there is no effort to really adopt DevOps practices: teams are not really incentivised to collaborate and improve but rather the expectation is that there is a dedicated team to throw issues and urgent situations at. This job spec would be a big red flag for me.

The productivity booster

A DevOps Engineer combines an understanding of both engineering and coding. A DevOps Engineer works with various departments to create and develop systems within a company. From creating and implementing software systems to analysing data to improve existing ones, a DevOps Engineer increases productivity in the workplace.

Another job spec on the internet

In a DevOps-_enabled organization engineers _do work with various departments. But what's the point then of having a dedicated DevOps Engineer role? Do the other type of engineers not work with the various departments of the organization? Do non-DevOps Engineers not analyse data and improve existing systems? Additionally, the job spec claims that a DevOps Engineer increases productivity in the workplace. How? Does it radiate productivity?

Alt Text

The Release Manager... but DevOps!

A DevOps Engineer works with developers and the IT staff to oversee the code releases. [...] Ultimately, you will execute and automate operational processes fast, accurately and securely.

My favourite so far

This is quite a condensed one but what strikes me as interesting is the release aspect mentioned in it.

It is quite a complex aspect of the DevOps culture in my opinion. I tend to separate the concept of deployment from the one of release. Product updates as experienced by the user are governed by a release policy that may or may not be the same as the deployment policy. This really depends on the strategy of the organization.

Regardless of this distinction, though, I believe that constraining the capability of delivering value to the end user to a specific role undermines the agility of an organization.

The teams should be able to continuously release code into production. The release of functionality should be controlled through mechanisms such as feature flags so that the code that reaches production does not necessarily activate. This makes it possible for the organization to control when the functionality actually reaches the user.

In general, a deployment should be a non-event: nothing special, just another merge into the main branch that causes code to end up in production. Moreover, releasing the actual functionality to the user should not require a dedicated engineer to be performed: the relevant stakeholders in the company, usually departments other than engineering, should be able to enable the functionality to the user, perform experiments and autonomously decide when it is appropriate to release new functionality.

Job specs like this one feel like they're trying to repurpose the role of the Release Manager to keep up with the latest trends by just changing a few words.

I don't think release management goes away in a DevOps-enabled organization. What changes is that the concept of deployment gets decoupled from the one of release. This is done to enhance the agility of the engineering organization and reduce the risk that's intrinsic of the changes reaching production environments.

At the same time, the relevant technological changes are implemented so that releasing new functionality to the users can become a non-event, in the hands of the strategic initiatives of the organizations.

A Platform Engineer. But cooler!

The DevOps Engineer will be a key leader in shaping processes and tools that enable cross-functional collaboration and drive CI/CD transformation. The DevOps Engineer will work closely with product owners, developers, and external development teams to build and configure a high performing, scalable, cloud-based platform that can be leveraged by other product teams.

This job spec is one of those that I consider the least bad. It describes a set of responsibilities that usually pertain to a Platform or Infrastructure Team. Most of these teams often get renamed to DevOps Team and their members become DevOps Engineers for fashion reasons.

The Platform Engineering team becomes the key enabler for organizations that want to embrace the DevOps principles. But thinking that such principles will only be embraced by that team will hardly result in a successful journey.

The Platform Engineering team will surely be responsible to build the relevant infrastructure that enables the other teams to build on top but they can't be left alone in the understanding and application of those principles.

Developer teams will need to become autonomous in adopting and making changes to those systems; they will need to understand the implications of their code running in production; understand how to recognize if the system is not behaving as expected and be able to react to it.

At the same time, even the product team should spend time understanding what new important capabilities derive from successfully adopting DevOps practices. Code continuously flowing into production behind feature flags, containerization technologies, improved monitoring and alerting, and so on, open endless opportunities of improved user experience and experimentation that should be leveraged to maximise the company competitiveness.

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Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

What should companies be looking for?

We've just gone through a few job specs that look for variations of a DevOps Engineer role and I've outlined what aspects I think are flawed in those roles. But what should companies look for, then?

Before blindly starting to hire for roles driven by industry fashion trends, organizations should rather invest in understanding what's holding them back from being DevOps.

In the Unicorn Project, Gene Kim mentions the Five Ideals of successful DevOps organizations. I think they're an effective set of principles to take the temperature of your organization in terms of DevOps practices. Those ideals are as follows:

  • Locality and Simplicity
  • Focus, Flow and Joy
  • Improvement of Daily Work
  • Psychological Safety
  • Customer Focus

Locality and Simplicity

Making changes to the system, in order to deliver greater value to the end user, should be easy: easy in terms of team's autonomy to make changes to an area of the product as well as being easy in terms of friction that the technology in use imposes on the changes.

Focus, Flow and Joy

Developers should be able to focus on their work and be able to make software with minimum impediments. This is facilitated by making sure that the software development lifecycle infrastructure is working for the benefit of the engineering organization.

Improvement of Daily Work

Continuously learning and improving the conditions in which the work gets done is the key to maximise the flow of value and the happiness of the people doing the work. Successful organizations facilitate a continuously improving environment by enabling engineers to build tools and practices that improve their daily operations.

Psychological Safety

An organization will hardly be able to improve if the people that are part of it are not incentivised to raise issues and discuss them. This is not something you solve for by hiring a specific role. It the organization's responsibility to facilitate an environment where constructive feedback is the norm.

Customer Focus

Last but not least, the engineering organization, just like any other department in the company, should be sharply focused on the customer. All the efforts should be balanced against what's best for the customer and, ultimately, for the company.

What should companies be looking for then? I think the priority should be on understanding what's blocking the organization from fully embracing a DevOps mindset. Once that's established, the expertise needed to get there is probably going to be easier to identify.

The most important aspect for me, though, is understanding the importance of specialities. Every role will have incredible value to add to the journey towards DevOps. What's fundamental is understanding the importance of collaboration between the different roles. The organization will have to put the relevant practice changes in place to facilitate collaboration. Specific DevOps knowledge in terms of technology, tools and best practices, will be required, for sure, but it won't be something a single role should be responsible of.

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Photo by Roi Dimor on Unsplash

A mythical role

It feels like the DevOps Engineer is a mythical figure that certain organizations pursue in the hope of finding the holy grail of a Software Engineer capable of doing anything.

This, of course, will hardly be the case. Recognizing the importance of the single specializations is what makes organization successful and capable of maximising the expertise of the people that they are made of.

What happens in a DevOps organization is that responsibilities are redistributed: developers are empowered to make changes to production environments because organizations recognize the importance of moving fast. This means opportunities for success increase together with the opportunities of failure.

Eliminating barriers and creating a safe space for collaboration helps Devs and Ops work together to resolve issues when they occur. This is what ultimately leads to high performing teams that are incentivised to follow the North Star of the continuous value stream to the end user.

Instead of pursuing a mythical role then, let's go after the much more plausible alternative of creating a well oiled machine where all the people are incentivised to work together in harmony with the clear goal of maximising the value to the end user.

Thanks for getting to the end of this article. I sincerely hope you've enjoyed it. Follow me on Twitter if you want to stay up-to-date with all my articles and the software I work on.

Cover photo by Rhii Photography on Unsplash

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