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DevOps training concerns stymie IT transformations

Thought leaders debate what needs to be done to foster DevOps training, as forward-thinking IT pros with DevOps skills are still scarce in the available pool of enterprise talent.

Finding the right people to build a DevOps team is a difficult proposition for enterprise IT managers, as DevOps training and certification programs remain nascent.

IT pros trying to cultivate DevOps transformations at their companies say they often find it difficult to staff a DevOps team with the right talent, and DevOps training and certification programs are still a jumble of conferences, vendor-specific programs, and efforts to evolve higher education curricula to better reflect the market's needs.

"There is a shortage of people power out there in the market," said Alex Witherspoon, vice president of platform engineering at FlightStats Inc., a global data service company in the aviation space based in Portland, Ore., owned by FlightGlobal, of the availability of DevOps talent in the industry.

This is particularly true when it comes to IT operations.

"As ops people, we're at this fork in the road where on one path if you don't have the right skills your salary could end up going down by half ... but with the right skill sets your salary doubles," said Gene Kim, an author, public speaker and researcher with IT Revolution, who co-authored the recently published The DevOps Handbook. "That shows how needed those skills are, and that's more for operations than development."

From government and intelligence to healthcare and finance, the cultural transition to DevOps has been a rocky road so far, and IT ops pros accustomed to manual methods are being asked to learn complex new concepts quickly.

"Right now a lot of the folks we're working with and trying to educate lack an understanding of DevOps technologies and it's a new field for them," said Michael Kristan, senior software systems engineer at The MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit organization that operates research and development centers sponsored by the federal government. "We're trying to show them the value of things like AWS, cloud, elasticity, and DevOps, so that they will become more popular and widely accepted."

The gaps in DevOps training aren't usually due to a lack of desire to hire and train more people, but organizational inertia can be a big factor.

This isn't always on the employers' side, either.

Kim recalled an anecdote from a friend who works at a large bank, which laid off about 500 IT people, most of them in operations who were used to doing things manually, but still had 600 open job postings for anything related to IT automation.

"I asked if they offered training opportunities to the 500 people and he said, 'yes, and only 10% took us up on the offer.'"

When asked why, Kim's friend said the primary response from the laid-off IT people was, "I only need one more job. I can find one more in my area."

"I've heard this same pattern over and over again, whether it's COBOL mainframe programmers or people doing ops the old way," Kim said. "Researchers call this the fixed versus growth mindset. ... Often people identify with what they're doing right now as opposed to seeing themselves as continual learners."

Meanwhile, in the financial sector especially, organizational friction can work against DevOps training when executive compensation incentives are diametrically opposed between development and operations groups.

"You have executives that have individual goals that are counter to other people's goals," said Zubin Irani, CEO at cPrime Inc., an Agile software development consulting firm in San Francisco. "It starts at the top -- it means trying to promote a culture of Dev and Ops working together ... to agree on what the common organizational goals are."

DevOps training and certification needs abound

Another problem facing IT as it tries to move forward with DevOps is that college curricula haven't always kept pace with what the industry is seeking from its next generation of workers.

Top-flight schools may offer advanced programs in IT automation and the like, but "it's the ones that generally don't have a vast research capability where the majority of learners go," Kim said.

Still, IT employers are combing the ranks of recent college graduates to find malleable mindsets and to inject new energy into DevOps culture.

"I tend to create pressure around me to go find some hot shots that are coming out of school that are motivated, that have today's skill set, that could really immerse themselves in this space -- rather than the legacy guys that have been in the business for 30 years and this app development thing is kind of a side job," said Chris Mossengren, program manager at the Mobility Center of Excellence for BJC HealthCare in St. Louis. "We need to apply much more focus and specific cost-center funding to this environment."

Internships are a way to bridge this gap at some forward-thinking companies such as CloudHealth Technologies, a cloud service management platform maker in Boston.

"There's only so much you can learn by listening," said Vikram Pillai, chief architect and director of engineering at CloudHealth, speaking in a panel discussion at DevOps Days Boston in August. "We very much believe in learning by doing."

A freshly minted DevOps training internship program at CloudHealth offered all of its engineers some form of access to production, though almost nobody had privileges to delete anything.

"It makes it easy to go deploy things, manage things, and be not afraid of bringing production down," Pillai said. "People shouldn't be afraid of production -- the moment you [become] afraid of production it becomes a danger to doing things."

Internships can work well for people early in their careers, but as older workers need to retrain, certification programs could be another place to start, Kim said.

Panelists in August pooh-poohed the idea of a DevOps certification, saying it's too early in the evolution of the movement to codify skills and that certifications are little more than a piece of paper -- but Kim disagrees.

"Who am I to assert which is the channel where learners will learn?" Kim said. "It bothers me for people to dismiss certification because for many of us ... certification is as valid of a learning path as anything else."

Ways to get started with DevOps training

The DevOps training picture can be discouraging in some ways, but a good number of forward-thinking firms can connect with the right people to move DevOps forward, showing that despite the relative scarcity of DevOps skills, they are not nonexistent.

Even in industries that aren't on the bleeding edge of IT transformation, workers are being retrained to deliver on DevOps principles.

"I'm finding that our engineers configuring these components of our service management are the likely innovators in DevOps because they are already focused on service automation," said Scott Richert, vice president for enterprise infrastructure services at Mercy Hospital, a nonprofit Catholic healthcare provider in St. Louis. "Developing a DevOps platform for user self-service and automated provisioning is now extremely important to us, [and] we're taking our developers currently working in the service management space and pivoting them into the DevOps effort."

DevOps training gaps can be difficult to overcome, but so-called "unicorn" companies weren't just born that way, Kim added. He estimates that at least 15% of the world's eight million or so IT ops professionals "are out on the frontiers doing this sort of experimentation, and probably already know automation."

Any manager who's trying to find IT pros for DevOps teams "should know who that 15% are, and if they don't know who they are, they should go find them," Kim said. "Because pure probability on the distribution curve says that they're out there."

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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