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How to build a strong DevOps organizational structure

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Key to driving DevOps projects: Build up staff skills and buy talent

DevOps projects are becoming the rule rather than the exception at companies undergoing digital transformation. Here's how CIOs can get a jump on building a DevOps environment.

DevOps has moved beyond hype to become a staple of enterprise IT.

Consider recent statistics: Some 74% of 1,060 responding IT professionals say they've adopted DevOps in their organizations, up from 66% in 2015, according to the 2016 State of the Cloud survey from RightScale.

And 73% of the 200 responding IT decision-makers have adopted some DevOps processes, according to the State of Software Release Efficiency survey from a Vanson Bourne report commissioned by Appvance.

DevOps professionals are earning top-dollar, too: The "2016 DevOps Salary Report" from Puppet found that 58% of responding practitioners earn more than $100,000 annually, up from 47% the prior year, with 43% of managers earning more than $150,000, a significant increase from 26% in 2015.

The spike in enterprise IT shops moving to a DevOps environment has spurred a corresponding rise in demand for DevOps engineers and other tech professionals skilled in this methodology, recruiters and IT leaders said.

James StangerJames Stanger

But IT staffing experts, analysts and experienced IT leaders said the rush to hire DevOps specialists is somewhat misguided. CIOs can't build a DevOps environment simply by buying talent. On the other hand, they can't just retitle existing staffers and expect them to seamlessly undertake DevOps projects. It's not a buy versus build scenario; rather, it's a buy and build operation.

"People who just want that [trained] DevOps person are kind of barking up the wrong tree. What they need are people who are in operations or development who have a willingness to learn about each other," explained James Stanger, senior director of products at CompTIA, a nonprofit trade association.

Finding talent for DevOps projects

Stanger's assessment speaks to the nature of DevOps, a decade-old concept in which the software development and operations teams work together on IT projects near simultaneously to build, test and release software frequently and rapidly. The goal -- increasingly important in a cyber-threatened, super-competitive business environment -- is to deliver highly useable products with higher security and better quality. DevOps is often considered a set of processes as well as a methodology, but it's also reliant on and/or supported by various technologies including automation and cloud services.

As such, an enterprise IT shop that's adopting DevOps needs developers and operations people who can collaborate, as well as technologists skilled in the technologies that underpin a DevOps environment, said Connor Leech, senior technical recruiter at Mondo, a tech-staffing agency.

Connor LeechConnor Leech

In particular, companies moving to DevOps will need technologists who can automate processes, set up systems to automatically handle fluctuations in demand, and work with cloud providers such as AWS, Leech said.

Those tasks require skills in specific areas and with specific technologies, he said. Technologists need to know, for example, automation and configuration management tools such as Puppet or Chef as well as performance management software such as New Relic. They should know popular scripting languages like Python, PHP or Ruby. They should also know hot new technologies such as Docker, an open-source tool that automates the deployment of Linux apps inside software containers.

This is where experience counts and the area where companies generally want to buy, rather than build, the talent to field a DevOps environment, Leech said.

A company moving to DevOps needs both an infusion of new people with fresh skills as well as a retooling of existing staff who contribute an understanding of the organization that no outsider could have in full.
Jay Lymanprincipal analyst, 451 Research

"It's definitely possible to retrain existing engineers in these areas, but because the tools are kind of complex, [CIOs] want people who have used them rather than have to teach people on them," he explained. "It's a common theme with hiring managers: They want someone who has not only played around with these, but have used them in a large production environment."

Leech concurred, saying it's smart for CIOs to buy these skills upfront and then use the new staffers to train existing workers.

"What's really common is bringing in DevOps engineers as contractors. You bring in people on contract for six months, and they come in, help automate and ramp everyone up and then go and do another contract. They're generally pretty expensive, but they're incredibly valuable," he said. "They can turn a company's existing engineers into DevOps engineers."

DevOps candidates: The right mentality

But staffing teams for DevOps projects isn't just about having the right scripting languages or cloud experience, experts said. Beyond those technical skills, companies need people who know how to work in the collaborative DevOps environment where there are supposed to be no real divisions between development and operations.

To that end, Stanger said companies need IT staffers who know about both sides -- operations and development (even if each worker tends to lean heavily one way or the other). These staffers also need to understand project management so they're keeping iterations on track and they should be able to work within the agile and scrum development frameworks common in a DevOps environment.

Although these are very critical skills to have in a DevOps team, Stanger said CIOs often determine that they don't have to go to market to get them. He said many IT professionals are familiar with the various roles in IT, so operations people have some knowledge of development and vice versa even if they're working in traditional positions in fairly siloed organizations. And if they're willing to learn in more depth the responsibilities that other roles have and share those tasks, then CIOs have nearly ready-made candidates for DevOps projects.

"Many of the people who have been working in programming for years, if they have the right mentality, are already DevOps people," Stanger said, noting that many have also had some training or experience in project management as well.

He added: "Anyone could easily be turned into that DevOps person. Most people have the seeds of DevOps in them, but the seeds haven't been nurtured."

CIOs need to understand, sell DevOps

Jay Lyman, a principal analyst in the development, DevOps & IT Ops channel at 451 Research, had a similar take, noting that a company moving to DevOps needs both an infusion of new people with fresh skills as well as a retooling of existing staff who contribute an understanding of the organization that no outsider could have in full.

And, given the growing DevOps movement, Lyman said many IT workers are eager for training and experience in this area. (As he pointed out, IT workers know that having DevOps experience on their resumes makes them more valuable -- that helps IT leadership get more buy-in as they adopt DevOps.)

Jay LymanJay Lyman

Still, he and others acknowledged that not all enterprise tech people are enthusiastic about working in a DevOps environment; CIOs and others on the management team must themselves understand the DevOps processes and mindset and then be able to sell its benefits to their staff and their organizations.

And if they encounter workers who don't want to go along? DevOps projects aren't the only game in town -- at least for now.  Experts said most IT shops are still responsible for work that may be better suited to waterfall development.

But, CIOs can't let resisters slow the transition to DevOps. They may need to buy new talent to replace resisters as their teams move further into the DevOps methodology to gain the speed and efficiency companies need in their IT departments to remain competitive now and in the future.

Go to "Transitioning to a DevOps environment? Don't make these four mistakes" for more advice on how to build a DevOps environment.

About the Author: Mary K. Pratt, an award-winning freelance journalist based in Massachusetts, has covered various subject matters, from community news to fashion to health and fitness. She is the author of nine nonfiction books for middle and high school students. Pratt currently focuses her coverage on business management and information technology topics. She can be reached at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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This was last published in January 2017

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