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This article is part of our Essential Guide: A look inside the DevOps movement

How do you fill DevOps jobs? Hire squirrels

Conventional wisdom says that it’s hard to hire for DevOps. People who have done it say most organizations simply go about it wrong.

IT shops with DevOps jobs to fill talk a lot about skills and tools, but there isn’t much discussion about what kind of people to hire.

One longtime DevOps practitioner has some advice: Instead of IT specialists that possess deep subject-matter expertise, look for IT generalists with a broad range of experience and skills who can adapt to a variety of new and challenging situations.

In other words, hire squirrels, not koalas.

“In ecology, there are specialist species and there are generalist species,” said Dave Zwieback, head of infrastructure at Knewton Inc., an education startup in New York that offers an adaptive learning platform based on Amazon Web Services.

“Koalas eat only leaves of the eucalyptus tree. That’s fine most of the time, but when the eucalyptus leaves go away, they’re in trouble,” he said.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are squirrels, the ultimate generalist species.

“What squirrels are really good at is adapting,” Zwieback said. They can thrive equally well in a New Hampshire forest or in downtown Manhattan.

In IT terms, koalas are IMS and COBOL programmers: richly rewarded for now, but with diminishing job prospects. Squirrels, meanwhile, might be ops people that have some passing knowledge of coding, or devs that can troubleshoot a Linux kernel.

The DevOps magic unicorn

Among recruiters and management consultants, the preferred candidate is a so-called “T-shaped person,” which describes candidates that have expertise in a single field (the vertical bar), as well as a depth of related skills (the horizontal bar).

But such people are hard to find.

If you want to build a DevOps team, don’t fixate on candidates with the perfect mix of development and operations experience, said Mark Imbriaco, vice president of operations at social networking site LivingSocial, in a recent podcast.

“That magic unicorn: You’ll find them once in a while,” Imbriaco said. “But if you try to find that magic unicorn you’re much more likely to fail than if you decide on some reasonable level of what you’re willing to take.”

It’s less about skills and more about mindset, Imbriaco said.

“People that come in with a mindset that the job of ops is to protect the business from those dirty developers – I have no use for those people,” he said.

While a certain amount of experience is necessary, he advised not to get too hung up on the particulars.

“These days you want someone that has experience with automation – so Chef or Puppet. But if they use Puppet and we use Chef, I don’t care. We can teach them Chef,” he said. “Skills, I can teach.”

Imbriaco has begun to open up to the possibility of remote development teams as there are good candidates outside of the U.S.

Cultivate DevOps generalists

The paucity of generalist DevOps folks isn’t anyone’s fault – it’s a factor of time and how IT skills are usually rewarded.

“You can’t become a generalist overnight. To become one, you need to repeatedly see various failures over and over again,” Knewton’s Zwieback said.

Further, IT departments typically reward specialization rather than generalization.

The Knewton systems team deals with this by encouraging staffers to change roles on a frequent basis. Additionally, everyone on the team – developers and operations – takes turns manning one-week production support rotations, where dev-oriented staffers are called upon to patch and troubleshoot, and ops-focused people are forced to look at Java and Python code.

The hope is that by cross-training its staff, the firm will create a staff comprised of “jacks of all trades, masters of most,” Zwieback said.

Magic unicorns, in other words.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, Executive Editor at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter

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This is kinda like when they hire management that approaches hiring like this, or thinks DevOps is a keen idea - They say, "We don't need a leader with experience, we need a monkey in a suit!". And then we get this.

Here's the hard facts; Generalists aren't attractive because they are passable at many things, and not particularly great at anything. What kind of management says, "I know we have some important disciplines here, but I don't want anyone who is particularly great at any of them." It is because they are cheap. Business loves cheap labor.

A specialist is someone who has made conscious decisions to focus their career to become extremely knowledgeable and effective in their discipline. They are, of course, more expensive - but you also get outstanding value for your money. Most experts start as generalists, so many have a solid background. They just happened to find their calling/talent.

DevOps is the most lighthearted approach to running enterprise staffing that I can imagine. Development and Operations have very different goals. Each is its own unique discipline, and the experience of either is a regimen of conditioning geared toward achieving different goals.

Do I know of any good developers who are good ops? A few, and they are expensive. Any expert developers who are incredible operations folk? Not yet. However, I know plenty of hacks who may be good at one and fancy themselves to be great at the other. That is a problem....

Ever hear 'Knowing just enough to be dangerous?'

If your company is in it for the long term, just staff correctly. Get a few senior experts in the disciplines that are critical to you; You can save money by giving them an inexperienced team to mentor, as per the workload. I KNOW this may cost a little more up front, but you will end up with a staff that knows what they are doing. The value of competence cannot be overstated.

You get what you pay for.

Or have another banana and drive up to the IT day-labor shop. Don't be surprised when IT projects go badly.

Earlier this year I blogged a list of 5 questions to ask at interviews for DevOps-minded staff, which seemed useful to quite a few people:

1. How does HTTP work, and specifically how does a web page appear in my browser?
2. How would you prepare for a migration from one [CMS/CRM/database/hosting] platform to another?
3. What different types of testing need to be carried out on a software system, and what tools would you use to achieve this?
4. How would you make the key aspects of a software system traceable?
5. How would you assess how “deployable” a software system is?
This also is perfectly applied to testing generalists.

In addition to the ways suggested by the article, I'd recommend to pay attention to activities like participation in conferences (especially, presenting and leading), blogging, publishing articles, participation in meetups and research projects.

This is where you're more likely to find self-driven and passionate professionals.
Interesting article, but not much most of us did not already have knowledge of. A lot of good posts on suggestions to enhance the hiring of future prospects. I'd rather have a busy squirrel than a sloth as an employee.
To piggy back on agareev's comment, one of the best ways t help find quality people for any discipline is to see what they do outside of their work world. Granted, not everyone speaks at conferences, not everyone blogs, not everyone contributes to open source projects, but a lot of the best people in their industries do, and if they are not available, they can likely recommend several others who may well be. Start digging into some people's  work, and see what they do outside of the office. That may give some great hints as to who will actually cut it as your DevOps hire of choice (and can be used for programmer, business analyst, tester, etc.).
Thanks, Michael :)

I especially love your point that passionate people ignite folks around them.
"The Goat Farm" podcast and the videos from the DevOps Enterprise Summit do an excellent job of highlighting actual companies (not just unicorns) that have gone through the DevOps journey. 

We also had several at Red Hat Summit 2016 that detailed their journey:  

1. Airbus:

2. Produban (Bank Santander):

3. SSB (Swiss Rail):