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DevOps competency growth hindered by IT skills shortage

As a widespread labor shortage grips the U.S., IT organizations get creative to fill DevOps jobs and avoid overtaxing the employees they have.

Enterprises must rethink how to staff IT departments in a labor market with many more job vacancies than candidates.

There are numerous causes of the skills shortage in the U.S.: long-term trends, such as declining birth rates in the developed world; and recent ones, such as a federal crackdown on foreign workers with H-1B visas. Combine those factors with the rapid proliferation of new ideas, such as Linux containers, heightened demand for new software and explosive growth of data in the tech sector, and a lack of DevOps competency -- and shortage in IT labor generally -- becomes pronounced.

"We're on the edge of the biggest skills shortage in U.S. history," said Don Rheem, CEO at E3 Solutions, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., that works with corporate clients on HR practices and employee engagement. The country is at 4.4% unemployment -- which Rheem said he considers full employment -- and still has 5.9 million unfilled jobs. "Companies can't afford to lose people with the competency to do high-tech work," he said.

Enterprises look within for DevOps competency

Companies must first build an IT staff to foster DevOps competency. This means they must find both skilled programmers and IT ops specialists able to deploy the latest software development and infrastructure automation techniques. In coastal markets, such as the San Francisco Bay Area and New York, this is challenging; in markets outside those areas, it can seem impossible.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., for example, the unemployment rate for workers in information technology was 1.6% in June 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The dearth of good candidates is painfully clear for Andy Domeier, director of technology operations at SPS Commerce, a communications network for supply chain and logistics businesses based in the Twin Cities.

With the shortage of available skilled workers outside its walls, SPS has begun internal training programs to grow its own DevOps competency. It has established an internal technology community, with a knowledge-sharing website, conference debriefs and updates on new projects, and regular presentations from outside speakers.

The company has also created its own technology conference and worked to simplify and standardize what's expected of engineers in the first month of work, so employees new to DevOps have consistent expectations, Domeier said.

It's a similar story for Rosetta Stone, which has mostly avoided hiring outside DevOps experts, said Kevin Burnett, DevOps lead for the global education software company in Arlington, Va.

"We do have two DevOps people -- me and a colleague -- but we moved into these roles from elsewhere in the company; we were both developers in the product organization," he said. To build the rest of the DevOps team, the company turned to long-tenured employees.

"If you find people with lots of general and company experience, their colleagues will be more likely to listen to them," Burnett said. "If people don't listen to your DevOps people, your change initiatives will not get anywhere."

The best candidates have an interest in software deployment and experience with command-line and automation tools, but the most important trait in DevOps competency is problem-solving ability and inclination.

"If you have people who already love playing with AWS [Amazon Web Services], or who love building internal tools to make their colleagues more productive, or who wrote a script that can set up a local development environment, these are the people to talk to first," he said.

What are people in the DevOps sector saying?

You don't need a degree for DevOps, according to developer Bob Reselman. He said he believes DevOps goes hand-in-hand with a desire to learn. And, according to Uplevel Security's CEO Liz Maida, that includes saying, "I don't know."

New practices spring from DevOps competency shortage

Once you establish DevOps competency, employee retention is an even bigger challenge in a highly competitive seller's market for technical skills.

"High tech has a lot to learn about culture from the manufacturing business," E3's Rheem said. Companies eager to retain employees often find themselves in a "perk race," but perks quickly become entitlements, Rheem said.

High tech has a lot to learn about culture from the manufacturing business.
Don RheemCEO, E3 Solutions

"Most companies don't have a great sense of what makes people want to come to work, which is predictability, consistency and the ability to rely on social resources," he said.

Each human brain has a metabolic limit on the amount of work it can do, but the brain can also take into account the "social resources" of other human brains around it and view them as interchangeable with its own physical resources, Rheem said.

In the absence of a strong group, a good substitute is a deep connection with the mission and vision of the organization -- a sense of ownership, he added.

These ideas have been part of successful employee-retention efforts for SPS's Domeier.

Ownership is important, but it must have defined limits, Domeier said. Employers must break down the environment into smaller areas of accountability, so one engineer isn't responsible for the maintenance of hundreds of systems or microservices.

"The whole system is a big burden to carry; you have to make sure expectations are realistic," Domeier said. In some areas, engineers are accountable for a particular internal service or a single customer-facing product. Common-sense approaches to time off and on-call rotations are also essential; many DevOps organizations ensure employees aren't on call for more than a week at a time.

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.

Next Steps

As DevOps competency improves, IT burnout can be avoided through technical, as well as cultural, means. Find out more about how automation, standardization and even artificial intelligence can improve IT pros' quality of life in part two.

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