DevOps hiring and training: 16 top-rated skills

What skills does an IT team need to do DevOps well? The best DevOps pros have skill sets spanning three crucial areas: automation, process, and soft skills
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As DevOps culture matures and evolves, the fundamental question most organizations are asking has changed from “What is DevOps?” to “How do we do DevOps?”

That’s paraphrasing DevOps Institute CEO Jayne Groll, introducing her firm’s recent report, “Upskilling: Enterprise DevOps Skills Report 2019.” While that might sound like a logical progression in the relatively brief history of DevOps, it speaks to IT leaders still struggling to figure out how to “do” DevOps.

“‘How to’ requires ‘know-how,’” Groll writes. “And ‘know-how’ requires a new set of skills. But which skills?”

Which skills, indeed? DevOps isn’t a traditional technology category that comes with a relatively well-defined skill set. If you need a React developer, you need someone who can develop React apps (and likely someone who has a broader understanding of JavaScript, plus other relevant areas such microservices, APIs, and so forth.) But if you need a DevOps engineer, well, what exactly do you need?

[ Is DevOps engineer a useful title? Read The great “DevOps engineer” title debate. ]

Three crucial skill set areas

The DevOps Institute’s skills report digs into the “must-have” and “nice-to-have” skills for DevOps roles, based on a survey of some 1,600 IT pros, from the C-suite to the junior ranks. One of the overarching takeaways: The best DevOps pros have a skill set that spans three crucial areas: automation, process, and soft skills.

A lack of soft skills will kill your chances of DevOps success.

Note that only one of those – automation – is inherently technical (process might encompass technology knowledge, but it certainly isn’t limited to it.) Yes, this is still IT, and technical and functional know-how still matter a great deal. But a lack of soft skills will kill your chances of DevOps success.

“Functional skills and key technical skills combined complement the soft skills to create the best DevOps engineer,” the report notes.

[ Get our eBook: DevOps Hiring: The Ultimate Guide. ]

We took a deep dive into the 40-plus page report to find out which skills are valued most, plus a few other compelling lessons. Let’s start with the high-level findings: When differentiating “must-have” from “nice-to-have” skill sets, these three top the “must-have” list in the DevOps Institute’s report (with the percentage of respondents indicating such in parentheses):

  • Automation skills (57 percent)
  • Process skills (55 percent)
  • Soft skills (53 percent)

The report notes that functional skills, such as infrastructure and operations experience, application development and design, and security also rate highly (we’ll get back to those below).

Perhaps the most important consideration here isn’t necessarily a specific skill within any of these categories, but the highly interdependent relationship between them. Automation without process expertise, for example, is all but useless, according to the report.

The report also breaks down specific skills across four key categories: Process, functional, technical, and soft. (The full report offers a longer list of specific skills in each area.) We’ll focus on the top four “must-haves” from each category:

Process skills

Something that stands out about the process skills in the DevOps Institute report: The top process skills here are more likely to be “nice-to-haves.” That’s particularly noticeable when stacked against the top soft skills (see below), which were overwhelmingly “must-haves.”

This indicates an underlying truth: Processes tend to be very organization-specific and flexible over time. People, on the other hand, are people: The things that make us human don’t necessarily change just because we move to a different team or company.

Here are the top four process skills:

  • Software development lifecycle (46 percent “must-have” vs. 49 percent “nice-to-have”)
  • Understanding the process flow and analysis (45 percent vs. 50 percent)
  • Experience with source control models and processes (45 percent vs. 47 percent)
  • Agile (e.g., CSM/CSPO/CSD or PSM/PSPO/PSD) (41 percent vs. 50 percent)

Soft skills

The DevOps Institute report is good fodder for anyone who wants to win an argument in favor of the increasing value of soft skills in IT. The high percentages of “must-have” for these skills speaks clearly to that: Soft skills are becoming non-negotiable in the recruiting and hiring process.

[ How do your people skills measure up? Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

Here are the top four soft skills:

  • Collaboration and cooperation (78 percent “must-have” vs. 20 percent “nice-to-have”)
  • Problem-solving (76 percent vs. 22 percent)
  • Interpersonal skills (72 percent vs. 25 percent)
  • Sharing and knowledge transfer (69 percent vs. 29 percent)
Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.