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.