Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Riding the DevOps Revolution

Eight best practices for hiring DevOps engineers

The success of DevOps creates intense competition for talent among companies. Here's how to find and attract people in a high-demand market.

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Image: iStock/tupungato

Technavio, a market research firm, predicts that the worldwide DevOps market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent through 2020. Companies in financial services, healthcare, manufacturing and services are all adopting DevOps methodologies to speed new applications to market, as is the public sector.

What is attracting firms to DevOps?

The word itself, which originated as a combined expression of 'software DEVelopment' and 'information technology OPerationS', describes a methodology and supporting tools that invite active and continuous collaboration between software developers and all of the supporting cast of IT operations professionals such as DBAs, network administrators, security specialists and system programmers. Because DevOps methodology gets all of these functions interacting during the development of a single application or system, it attacks one of the most change-resistant areas of IT: the tendency for individual departments and centers of expertise to remain in their own technological silos.

Given these challenges, does DevOps really work?

Nationwide, a major U.S. insurance company, reduced its system downtime by 70 percent and improved the quality of its application code by 50 percent by using DevOps. In Holland, Rabobank cut its application deployment time by 60 percent by using DevOps tools and methodology. This cut the overall cost of developing software and accelerated application time to market.

However, the success of methodologies like DevOps also creates intense competition among companies for DevOps talent. In a high-demand market, what strategies and best practices can managers use to attract DevOps professionals?

1. Be able to articulate your own DevOps vision

Like virtualization and the cloud, DevOps can mean different things to different people. This is why it's essential for you to know what the vision for DevOps is within your own company and how you want to utilize it before you do any hiring. In some cases, DevOps is primarily a cultural change in IT that gets people from diverse IT disciplines working more collaboratively, and provides them with DevOps tools so they can do so. In other cases, the DevOps goal is to automate IT processes such as system provisioning deployment in order to speed the application development process. Only after you can clearly articulate how you want to apply DevOps at your own company should you go looking for a DevOps engineer. Why? Because DevOps engineers, like other IT professionals, have personal and professional goals of their own. If their interests and goals don't align well with your company's, chances are that their employment with you will be short-lived.

2. Look for the right skills

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Joe Sanchez, an IT infrastructure and operations manager at VMWare, talks about 10 key skills that DevOps engineers should have. Sanchez also says that the skills a best-of-class DevOps engineer should have are so diverse that it's hard to find all of these qualities rolled up into a single individual. Among the technical DevOps skills Sanchez mentions are system build and administration know-how, experience with virtualization, a broad IT background that gives the person a working understanding of all the IT disciplines, and an ability to code automated and repeatable processes and applications. On the 'soft skills' side, a DevOps engineer should be able to communicate and interact well with others, be service-oriented, and care about the ultimate end value of the project.

3. Seek out the right attitudes

DevOps is a significant culture change away from the traditional and often hallowed knowledge silos within IT, so when a CIO makes the decision to move DevOps into his or her shop, there's likely to be staff resistance. A colleague of mine who is a CIO at a large Midwestern bank found this out. Within six months, he lost four of his top performers. They opted to go to other companies so they could continue to do what they had been doing the past 20 years, and wouldn't have to adjust to the collaborative environment of DevOps. This was a very dark period for my colleague. He had to bring in consultants to handle some of the daily work that these experts had been doing, and to recruit for the open positions. Despite this, he got through this situation and made the conversion to DevOps. Since then, he has seen dramatic improvements in end-user satisfaction and in his application times to market.

4. Find the DevOps watering holes

DevOps professionals, like other ITers, often join forums and groups where they share ideas and develop networks. LinkedIn is one social media outlet where you are likely to find pockets of DevOps engineers, as are local DevOps chapters and even DevOps conferences. When you are faced with competitive hiring pressures, there's nothing better than a well-developed network of DevOps engineers that you can tap for hires. Some of these networks can be nurtured by working with your own IT staff, who probably know where DevOps engineers hang out. In other cases, DevOps groups, conferences and social media outlets can be searched.

5. Grow your own engineers

In 2016, Indeed looked at the IT job market and stated that the job of DevOps engineer was the position that was most difficult to fill. This isn't likely to change in 2017. One approach CIOs should take is to not only hire DevOps engineers from the outside, but to also team with local colleges and universities that have DevOps programs. By getting to know top junior talent and then hiring it into your organization, you can further develop these individuals into full DevOps engineers. Another approach is to take a hard look at the IT staffers you already have on board. There are likely some who have the ability and the initiative to develop the technical and people skills that are needed for DevOps.

6. Consider using a professional IT employment agency, but keep your options open

DevOps engineers are hard to find, so it might be worthwhile to use a professional IT employment company to help you find one. However, if you ink an agreement for a specific period of time with an IT employment company, do not make this agreement an exclusive one. As time goes by, you're also likely to discover your own channels into the DevOps engineer market. You don't want to rely solely on your employment agency because this constrains your opportunities.

7. Don't limit yourself geographically

Larger companies resort to nationwide (and even international) talent searches when they look to fill key positions, so extra costs like relocation for new hires are taken in stride. Unfortunately, relocation (and its costs) are often discouraged in more budget-conscious mid-sized and small companies. Nevertheless, if your company makes a strategic decision to hire a very expensive DevOps engineer, you should prepare yourself to cast a wide net geographically so you can optimize your chances. This means funding relocation costs if these become necessary.

8. Hire your DevOps consultant

Independent DevOps consultants command big dollars, but there are also many who would prefer a steady IT gig with a company instead of constantly having to market their wares. In more than one case, CIOs have offered senior-level IT positions to independent DevOps developers who joined the IT staff on a permanent basis.

There is nothing easy about finding a DevOps engineer when so many other companies are looking for the same person. You will have to pay top dollar for top talent in the process -- and consider the possibility that it might take several months to bring the right person on board.

At the same time, however, companies can also take steps to ensure that the net that they cast for these valuable positions are as broad as possible. Few companies end up hiring a DevOps engineer who is ideal in every way. For this reason, companies should look inwardly (and at colleges and universities around them) to check out whether there is talent that can be developed for these positions, in addition to hiring experienced DevOps engineers.

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