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The DevOps career path: Muddy, murky and potentially confusing

What does it mean for DevOps to be a culture and a career? We talked to three experts to unpack why DevOps engineer positions are in demand and lucrative, yet hard to fill.

DevOps engineer is one of most in-demand tech positions, and it's the second hardest position to fill, according to Indeed. Over the past few years -- according to Puppet Inc.'s 2015 and 2016 DevOps Salary Reports -- the percentage of DevOps engineers making over $100,000 jumped from 55% to 64%.

But before those pursuing a DevOps career path start sending out resumes, they might want to think hard about the job specifics. Same goes for companies hiring DevOps engineers. DevOps is a nebulous term, with no clear-cut set of skills or hard hiring guidelines.

"I think there tends to be a corporate corruption of good ideas," said Chuck D'Antonio, advisory platform architect at Pivotal Software Inc. "Well, if everyone says they do something (DevOps) and only a few really do it, that's a problem. [If] you combine people who are saying they're doing something they don't really understand, because they think it'll get them more money, with people hiring for something they don't really understand, because it'll get them more value, you're gonna have a really muddy job market."

We asked a few experts -- Derek E. Weeks, co-founder of All Day DevOps, Paul Grewal, CEO and founder of Sage Human Capital, and D'Antonio -- to clear some of the mud off the DevOps career path and DevOps job market.

From your data at Sage Human Capital, what backgrounds are DevOps engineers coming from?

Paul Grewal: Typically, a DevOps engineer was someone not very motivated to write large amounts of code. They like and deserve the respect similar to sophisticated coders. Typically, they're going to be someone who prefers working independently and may have come from a strong IT background. Companies place a high -- sometimes, the most -- importance in their senior engineering talent, and DevOps has become equally as important in recent years. In many cases, DevOps folks like to be at the center of code releases so that they can focus on a skill that doesn't require years of experience in developing algorithms, complex code, etc.

Why do you think DevOps positions are hard to fill?

Chuck D'Antonio: I think the original idea that the dev and the ops teams should not be separate entities or should be collaborating a lot more is awesome. But then everybody wants some of that without necessarily making the hard changes of creating the collaboration, of understanding the way the other team works, of changing your processes. So, you have situations where you take the operations team and call it the 'DevOps team.'

And you say, 'Great, we've changed.' So, I think it's just how a really good idea -- when it gets put into practice -- gets watered down. I think the reason there's a lot of demand, and it's hard to fill, is because that weakening has made it hard to understand what [DevOps] really is. … And it's not that I don't believe in DevOps as it was or what it's supposed to be. I just don't believe in it as a term anymore, because there's a certain loss of meaning as it's had value attached to it.

If you've been in IT long enough, in a 20-year career, you've already reskilled yourself four or five times, because there've been that many transformations.
Derek E. Weeksco-founder, All Day DevOps

Do we have enough potential DevOps developers to fill the growing number of positions?

Derek E. Weeks: If you've been in IT long enough, in a 20-year career, you've already reskilled yourself four or five times, because there've been that many transformations. I don't think there's anything new here in the reskilling market. I do think people need to think about reskilling themselves in a different way.

Can I take the work I've done before and automate that, and how much new work -- the kind of stuff I'm really good at -- can I get done? I can make myself five or 10 times as productive by using these new tools I'm learning and automating my job. So, [DevOps] takes a different mindset of that person, but I think these are the people we have: the people who know how to learn new skill sets or new tool sets. I think that's an inherent part of the technical industry, the IT industry, the software industry. People are used to learning new things, so throwing something at them and saying, 'You have to learn a new thing,' shouldn't be anything new to them if they've been around for a while.

Do you think we're reaching a DevOps bubble?

Grewal: We're still early [in DevOps]. We're nowhere close to a bubble yet. There're still a lot of companies that are not doing continuous integration that don't even have DevOps. Maybe they have an IT guy filling the DevOps role and it's working for now. There are still a ton of companies that are not even focused on DevOps yet.

For people building new products, yes, they all have a DevOps focus and engineers can take part of that job duty, so smaller companies don't even need a dedicated person to that. But the massive, massive teams are the slowest to go, because they're the biggest ships and they take the longest to turn.

IT skills shortage checks DevOps growth

Establishing DevOps competency -- and retaining the talent to get there -- has become increasingly difficult.

"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.

Finding external and even internal candidates with the right mix of tool savvy and corporate charisma is making DevOps transformations even harder.

What would your advice be to an experienced developer looking to pursue a DevOps career path? 

Weeks: Find a DevOps native tool that's best associated with your function that you have today and become really familiar with that, and learn how to apply that native DevOps technology to your current role. And if you can do that, because your organization is making a transformation, all the better.

If your organization is one of these laggards in the market, I think you should use your spare time to learn those tools, become familiar with them, and then use that experience to go out and say, 'I've got these years of experience to know what I'm doing and I have a new familiarity with the tool sets that are coming out. I've taken the time to invest in my career, to ease myself into the more DevOps-centric roles for organizations.'

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