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To succeed in DevOps careers, level up these soft skills

Mike Vanbuskirk
Mike Vanbuskirk

In this post, we explore the soft skills needed to succeed in DevOps careers — and how engineers both current and aspiring can work to develop them.

Employers want people with DevOps skills, and people want to pick up DevOps skills. (“DevOps” is one the topics people searched for most on ACG in 2021.) But current engineers and aspiring entrants to the field should know that DevOps isn’t just about the latest and greatest in technical knowledge and ability.

DevOps job role requires strong communication skills, adaptability, and a willingness to participate in activities like hiring. So what does it really mean to be a DevOps engineer, and how can someone acquire the soft skills needed to succeed in DevOps careers? Let’s dig in.

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What is DevOps?

DevOps, at its core, has one critical goal: enable faster, more efficient, and more secure software delivery and iteration. It does this via the marriage of “Development” and “Operations”. (Note: DevOps is not the same as agile.)

Legacy methods of software development involved long cycles of work before release, with software developers working in isolation from the system administrators and operations staff that would need to deploy and run it. Releases were often error prone, and feedback about application performance and compatibility took a slow and meandering path back to development teams.

Want to learn more? Check out ACG’s DevOps Learning Path to get started with DevOps basics or to level up your existing DevOps IQ.

What is a DevOps Engineer?

DevOps engineers bring a unique combination of skills and experience to the table, often combining system administration, operations, and software development into a potent array of capabilities.

DevOps engineers typically work closely with development teams throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC) of a given application or service. Automating build systems, deploying and running CI/CD infrastructure, and monitoring critical production applications are just some of the jobs they are tasked with.

While technical skills are important to DevOps, they don’t tell the whole story. In an environment where release cycles are compressed and new features involve multiple teams working together, a strong culture — built around people — is critical.

Is DevOps a good career in 2022?

The answer is a resounding “yes!”

DevOps work can demand top-notch problem-solving and communication skills, but it remains one of the most fulfilling and rewarding jobs in modern software engineering.

Glassdoor reports that DevOps is one of the top 10 top-paying jobs in IT — and they also call it one of the “best jobs in America” based on salary, job satisfaction, and number of job openings.

Are DevOps skills in demand?

This one also lands firmly in the “yes” column.

Putting the debate about using “DevOps” as a job title aside, it’s clear that the demand for engineers with this skill set has increased at a blistering pace. Marc Andreessen famously said “software is eating the world,” so it’s no surprise that a skill set aimed at driving faster adoption and release of software products and services garners a lot of attention.

  • Indeed reports the average salary of a DevOps Engineer to be around $118,000 USD as of January 2022.

The opportunity to work with cutting-edge software technology, as well as the allure of “top-of-market” compensation provides an equally strong draw for job-seekers.

Why are soft skills important in DevOps?

Soft skills are important in DevOps because DevOps is about people. A common expression regarding DevOps is: “People > Process > Tools”.

People are the most important resource in a high-functioning DevOps organization. The latest infrastructure-as-code tool, or state-of-the-art containerization platform isn’t going to move the needle much if there isn’t a solid culture built around the engineering teams.

That’s why skills like communication, collaboration, hiring, and customer empathy are all essential to succeeding in DevOps careers.

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3 ways to develop the soft skills needed to succeed in DevOps careers

Here are three soft skill areas essential to success in DevOps careers and how existing and aspiring engineers can work to improve them.

1. Improve your communication and collaboration

For DevOps to succeed, an engineering organization needs to have a strong culture of communication and collaboration. Ideally, this culture is top-down, with engineering leaders driving efforts to provide teams a fertile ground of collaboration. However, this culture starts at the individual-contributor level: engineers should be prolific communicators, and in an age of remote work, it’s never been more important.

For current engineers

  • Existing engineers should look for projects or initiatives that span multiple teams or organizations. Working cross-team necessitates strong communication and collaboration capabilities. In particular, working with outside stakeholders who may be coming from a non-technical background demands engineers who can seamlessly translate between “soft” abstract business problems and “hard” quantifiable technical problems.

Foraspiring engineers

  • Aspiring engineers who may not yet work in industry or have the experience of a larger org can still find opportunities to grow. Open-source projects provide ample opportunity to communicate and collaborate with a large number of individuals with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. Pull requests for features, tests, or even updated documentation is a great way to help open source and build a history of relevant experience.

2. Participate in hiring

If people are the most important component of DevOps, then investing effort and resources into hiring should be top priority.

A bad hire can be incredibly costly for an engineering team, wasting valuable time and potentially setting back planned technical initiatives. Getting hiring right is an org-wide responsibility, but engineers should take advantage of any opportunity to gain experience in hiring and interviewing.

For current engineers

  • Active engineers should look for opportunities to be involved in hiring loops with their current team. Working with other participants to understand the role and expectations will help provide the necessary context to craft an effective set of interview questions and discussion points.
  • If the hiring process seems disjointed and uncoordinated, then an opportunity exists for someone to take initiative and develop a stronger process around hiring. (Possibly you!) Loops should involve pre and post sync-up meetings, and all participants should be subject matter experts (SME) for their given domain or area.
  • Going beyond hiring for the immediate team, participating in hiring for other engineering teams offers a chance to pick up new interviewing techniques, as well as to understand the particular issues and long-term engineering roadmap of different groups.

Foraspiring engineers

  • For aspiring engineers, the situation is a bit more difficult. They are far more likely to be on the other side of the table in hiring. But all is not lost! There are online communities that allow members to participate in mock hiring/interview scenarios such as they might experience with a live opportunity.
  • Even as a potential candidate, taking the opportunity to go through the interview process as often as possible will help build confidence, as well as provide crucial experience for that first role when they are asked to perform interviews themselves.

3. Understand customer pain

For current engineers

  • Existing engineers who want to transition to a DevOps role, or at least drive an initiative towards a more DevOps-like culture, should look for opportunities within their organization to grow and develop the ability to understand customer pain. Engaging with product managers and customer success engineers offers an excellent opportunity to flex that muscle. These roles typically work very closely with current and potential customers, and have a wealth of understanding around customer pain points, desired features, and long term product vision. That being said, they may not always share the same language and terminology that a pure engineer might. Developing a shared language and a collaborative relationship not only accomplishes the goal of leveling up, it also can provide beneficial outcomes for the product and customers as well.

Foraspiring engineers

  • Engineers who are not yet in a professional role with a live-market product to support are at somewhat of a disadvantage, but not to worry. Open source can again provide a potential platform to build experience on. Several open-source projects are fairly feature rich, and have an active community of users that post issues and feature requests to places like GitHub and GitLab. Taking some time to identify a project with a meaningful feature request or obvious pain point and crafting a fix is not unlike the workflow a professional DevOps engineer might undertake in support of their company’s product.

DevOps skills are about driving improvement

One of the central themes of DevOps is continuous improvement. Continually improving application performance, deployment count and speed, and overall customer experience are all part of the larger culture. But continuous improvement extends to the contributor level as well; continuously improving and developing soft skills help drive high performance DevOps across an entire organization.

Engineers who want to succeed in DevOps careers should be flexible and willing to learn and seek out skills and opportunities that align with the mantra of continuous improvement.

In the next post in this series, we’ll continue to explore the skills theme, looking at the best technical skills and tools to learn for engineers to succeed in modern DevOps environments and beyond.

About the Author

Mike Vanbuskirk is a Lead DevOps engineer and technical content creator. He’s worked with some of the largest cloud, e-commerce, and CDN platforms in the world. His current focus is cloud-first architecture and serverless infrastructure.

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