The DevOps Team: Putting the Right People in the Right Places

Arthur Cole


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Enterprises transitioning toward a DevOps model of application development and support are quickly finding that the most crucial asset at their disposal is not tools or technology, but people.

Unfortunately, you cannot just buy people and the skills they need to succeed. They must be nurtured, cultivated even, toward what will be a radically new form of knowledge work.

This means the enterprise must create an environment in which DevOps skillsets are placed in somewhat the same continuous integration/continuous development (CI/CD) as the applications and services being created. Not only will organizations need to create and define the team-oriented positions that will characterize a DevOps environment, but establish new career paths and incentives to help recruit and retain the necessary talent.

Complementary Skills

According to Dr. Janice Presser, co-founder and CEO of The Gabriel Institute and architect of the Teamability program that guides organizations toward greater cooperative cultures, one of the most crucial aspects of building teams is to find people with skills that complement one another. Not everybody can be a team leader, and not every coder has the social or organizational skills to move projects along.

“What you want are people who team in a highly coherent fashion,” she said. “If you want someone to do creative code, then give them a partner to keep them organized. Once you have defined what you are looking for in coherence and teaming characteristics, you can write job specs that will attract people who can contribute in meaningful ways and turn away people who can’t.”

While every DevOps team will be different, Presser says that in general, they will consist of a combination of the following traits:

  • A ground leader focused on completing tasks but not necessarily the larger strategic vision, which is reserved for higher-level managers overseeing the team
  • A project manager to keep track of what has been done and what remains
  • An information gatherer adept at incorporating data from multiple sources, including other teams
  • A problem solver, good at debugging, delving into the nuts and bolts of a project
  • A protector of the collective wisdom who knows why things are the way they are and how they can be positively and negatively disrupted
  • A community builder who can maintain contact with others both horizontally and laterally in the hierarchy

With a team-based approach to skills development, organizations gain the insight to foster unique talents among individuals that, collectively, produce a more streamlined process and more successful outcomes.

“Respect people in the way they make the best contribution,” Presser said.

Cooperation, not Specialization

This isn’t to say that there cannot be some crossover within team members’ skillsets. Conor Delanbanque, associate director and head of DevOps USA at digital recruiting firm Salt, says a certain amount of responsibility-sharing can help move projects along.

“It would be a mistake to say “you are quality control, you are DevOps, you are networks and administration,” he said. “Yes, they may have backgrounds in those areas, but they should all be moving to the idea of becoming engineers who solve problems and create new scenarios that solve problems.”

Along the way, expect traditional roles to diminish in importance, or merge into other roles, even as entirely new roles are created.

“There will definitely be some changes on the infrastructure side of things that are merging into DevOps,” he said. “The truth is, some of them are already a bit archaic. With automation and management tools that scale up, it’s doubtful more organizations will need an enterprise systems engineer in the next five years. People in those roles should look at upskilling.”

That means today’s IT tech might want to look into software engineering and development so they can program and read code, even if they don’t necessarily require the heavy skills of a full-time coder. At the same time, however, it is up to the enterprise to make sure each team member can perform as advertised.

“A lot of people just put DevOps in their job description and expect enterprises to come running to them,” Delanbanque said. “But behind the smoke and mirrors, a system administrator may understand scripting with Python, Jenkins and Puppet, but when talking to them you might realize that their skill levels are not as high as you thought they were.”

“There are a large number of people doing DevOps these days, but DevOps is so broad that the hit rate for successful candidates will likely be very low. You should make sure your interview process is clear, precise and you know exactly what you are looking for.”

One Process Produces the Best Outcome

For the IT and business manager trying to foster a DevOps culture, concocting the magic formula that produces both agility and high performance will not be easy. Ian Buchanan, developer advocate at collaborative software firm Atlassian, notes that enterprises reporting the highest degrees of DevOps success tend to avoid the rigid segmentation that has characterized business processes in the past.

“A lot of DevOps takes its cue from lean thinking,” he said. “Rather than divide processes into functional separations with separate metrics, it’s more about making everyone responsible for the outcomes they want. Everyone takes responsibility as a team rather than making sure every function is being measured.”

Naturally, this stands to upend many long-held business management practices, particularly when it comes to holding people responsible for their own performance.

“Instead of finding out who the weak link is and putting the blame on them, it is more about finding the constraints in a system and figuring out how to remove them,” Buchanan said. “This draws on the concept of self-organizing teams, where managers are not carefully prescribing the roles that everyone plays but allowing people to adapt as the work comes in.”

And how do we get management to buy into this new way of working? Buchanan recommends keeping the focus on results, such as the gains in efficiency, improved product quality, fewer callbacks and the like.

“The first rule about DevOps is, don’t talk about DevOps. It is merely a means to an end. Instead, talk about the outcomes the business wants and then say you have a better way of doing things.”

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata and Carpathia. Follow Art on Twitter @acole602.

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