The great "DevOps engineer" title debate

"DevOps engineer" is currently the most recruited engineering job. But what does this job title mean exactly – and do we need it at all?
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At the DevOps Enterprise Summit in Las Vegas last month, DevOps author and researcher Gene Kim unveiled his latest definition of DevOps:

The architecture, technical practices, and cultural norms that enable us to: increase our ability to deliver applications and services; quickly and safely, which enables rapid experimentation and innovation, and the fastest delivery of value to our customers; while ensuring world-class security, reliability and stability so that we can win in the marketplace.

By this definition, it’s somewhat difficult to surmise what role a DevOps engineer would fill.

According to the latest LinkedIn report chronicling the most “in demand” jobs of 2018, DevOps engineer was, in fact, the most heavily recruited job specific to the engineering field, followed by front-end engineers and cloud architects.

But, what is a DevOps engineer, exactly? 

I’ve been seeing this newer job description thrown around a lot lately and it’s coming up more frequently in conversations with my peers in the IT community. To unpack the mystery, I reached out to Jayne Groll, CEO of The DevOps Institute, which recently launched a new survey to help companies better understand both the current and future state of DevOps training and cross-training across the global IT community. 

[ Want more advice from your DevOps peers? Read DevOps lessons learned: What I wish I knew sooner. ]

Below, Jayne and I answer some of the top questions that typically arise when discussing the advent of the new DevOps engineer title. Leave your comments below: We would appreciate any feedback and input to these questions as well.

What is the role of a DevOps engineer? Is this term already outliving its usefulness?

Jayne Groll: If you ask five hiring managers to describe a DevOps engineer, you will likely get five different definitions and visions for the role. In truth, a DevOps engineer should be a T-shaped systems engineer who can support the transformation of people, process, and automation in an organization.

If you ask five hiring managers to describe a DevOps engineer, you will likely get five different definitions and visions for the role.

Unfortunately, the title is so generic and without validation that anyone doing any work in any DevOps environment can be declared as a DevOps engineer (either by their organization or by themselves). How useful is the title? If you are a candidate – very useful. If you are a hiring organization, maybe not so much.

Anders Wallgren: By definition alone, a DevOps engineer should be doing just that – engineering DevOps practices within the organization. However, this is a fallacy because DevOps is not something that one person or even a small group of people ‘engineer’ for any organization. It is the culmination of everyone across all roles and responsibilities taking ownership in how systems are architected, what technical implementations occur where (and why), and perhaps most importantly, the cultural models that enable greater productivity and sense of togetherness. 

I’m not sure how useful this job title was in the first place, but it certainly points to the fact that DevOps is now 100 percent in the mainstream.

Why is the DevOps engineer job increasingly in demand?

Groll: With so many organizations trying to compete in a disruptive market by adopting DevOps, the need for experienced DevOps talent is essential, but often hard to find. The name DevOps engineer is very sexy, but lacks depth. The problem with this approach is that it implies that a DevOps engineer knows everything about DevOps which in most cases is not true because most DevOps engineers are usually engaged in CI/CD activities. 

Wallgren: DevOps engineers are in demand because the value of DevOps itself is in high demand. Companies are actively seeking talent to help them along their DevOps transformation journeys and anyone with a solid technical background and years of experience from within the throes of a complex transformation effort would be highly valuable to a company that maybe is just beginning their journey.

Should DevOps be in job titles at all? Why or why not?

Groll: In some cases, yes and in some cases no. We have to be careful about commoditizing DevOps to the point of fatigue. Roles such as DevOps leaders, DevOps test engineers, and DevSecOps engineers make good sense and describe a set of competencies that are uniquely DevOps. Other roles such as site reliability engineers (SRE), continuous delivery architects, release engineers, etc. should not have DevOps in their titles. They are part of the DevOps ecosystem, but their skillset is broader than generic DevOps and fit into a specific set of practices. The hiring market should be educated on the difference and talent should be able to showcase their skills without resorting to a search term.

You can’t hire DevOps, just like you can’t purchase it off the shelf out of a box.

Wallgren: In my experience, the answer is no. You can’t hire DevOps, just like you can’t purchase it off the shelf out of a box. DevOps methods should be a focus for individuals, guidebooks for teams, and measuring sticks for executives (not to mention a practice for all to embrace). What hiring managers should really be putting in job titles is the key outcomes they are hiring people to achieve. Site reliability engineer and release manager are great examples of what this job title does and how it fits into a DevOps transformation effort. 

Furthermore, if you are not building a learning organization, you are losing to one that is. I would love to see learning become a broader focus for all new job descriptions and roles.

Anders Wallgren is chief technology officer at Electric Cloud. Anders brings with him over 25 years of in-depth experience designing and building commercial software. Prior to joining Electric Cloud, Anders held executive positions at Aceva, Archistra, and Impresse.