IT careers: 10 top DevOps engineer interview questions for 2021

Experts share the DevOps engineer job interview questions you will face in 2021 and advice on how to answer them.
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DevOps engineer interview questions 2021

Love it or leave it, the “DevOps engineer” title - still stirring debate among IT pros - is here to stay in 2021. It was one of the hottest and hardest-to-fill positions in IT in 2020.

[ Why is DevOps engineer a controversial IT title that's here to stay? Eveline Oehrlich explains. ]

Today, job boards show loads of open DevOps engineer positions (and similar titles or roles). That means there will be many DevOps engineer interviews, and they come with considerations for both the interviewers and candidates.

What do DevOps hiring managers seek? "The number-one trait they look for is team fit."

Ravi Lachhman, evangelist at Harness, notes an intrinsic challenge in DevOps interviews for both sides of the table: The DevOps engineer title is inherently broad. Both the hiring manager and the interviewee need to develop questions and answers accordingly, and expand their horizons beyond the traditional technical interview.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate to recently talk to a series of DevOps leaders around their hiring practices,” Lachhman says. “The number-one trait they look for is team fit.”

While job seekers should anticipate technical questions around tools and processes, the people part of the equation is just as important, if not more: How do your individual traits bolster the team you’re looking to join? There is likely less perceived value in ‘I know all the tools!” than in “Here’s how I’ve helped reduce operational complexity” or “Here’s how I’ve helped different teams better work together toward common goals.”

[ Where is your IT career headed? Read also: IT careers: 10 critical skills to master in 2021. ]

“DevOps teams continue to scale, and meeting the demands of the engineering organization and the business side of the house takes grit,” Lachhman says. “No one person can have the entire end-to-end expertise in every system and platform that the team builds and supports. Working as a team and having an open mind is critical, and most of the time there will be more than one hand in the DevOps team delivering functionality or infrastructure.”

10 DevOps engineer interview questions and answers

With that context in mind, we asked Lachhman and other experts to share some of the top interview questions for DevOps engineers positions (and similar roles) in 2021. And, of course, we’ll share advice on developing good answers. You can use these from the standpoint of both the interviewer and the candidate. (Also check out our related story, Top IT interview questions for 2021, for more prep material.)

Let’s dig in:

1. What did you do to exceed expectations in your last role? What opportunities did you have (and take) to improve your outcomes?

Eveline Oehrlich, chief research director at DevOps Institute, says that the first and final questions in an interview are especially important since psychology (serial-position effect by Herman Ebbinghaus) shows they will be the easiest to recall later. As a result, they can have a lasting impact on the perception of the interview for both sides. Oehrlich suggests this one as a lead question, while bearing in mind that 2020 was a trying year for many individuals and organizations alike.

“This will show what abilities a person has, above and beyond mastering a role,” Oehrlich says. “The demand for people who are able to change, be creative, flexible, and driven is one of the top 10 must-have skills from our research at the DevOps Institute.”

DevOps is not about one concentrated skill or platform; this question opens a wide door to learning how someone approaches a role, solves problems, and so forth.

“As things still will be difficult in 2021 given our global situation on jobs, skills, pandemic, and financial situations, it is essential that the person we hire is empathetic and can adjust to different situations,” Oehrlich says, adding that this question is also an invitation to discuss additional skills or experience that might be relevant to the position, beyond the core requirements of the job description.

“The interviewer can follow up with specific questions on what was the person’s favorite part of the previous position and, if suitable, what was a challenge,” Oehrlich says. “Of course, smart interviewees turn this around into a positive, [such as] ‘I am very detail-oriented and because of that take a lot of care when I work on a specific project.’ This will also allow an insight into the employees’ desire to learn.”

[ Want more advice? Read also: How to get a job during COVID-19: 9 smart tips. ]

2. Tell me an initiative you can spearhead that will improve DevOps workflow

No matter the specifics of the role, most DevOps pros are obsessive about continuous improvement throughout the software delivery pipeline and the related infrastructure. Here’s a chance to show how you identify and go about implementing those kinds of improvements. Experienced DevOps pros could obviously share real-world examples; someone trying to break into their first position could use a hypothetical. Regardless, automation is one area to stress.

“A DevOps engineer should be prepared (and eager) to find specific areas where automation can streamline processes in 2021, even if that means suggesting team reorganizations to better align with cloud-native pipeline workflows,” says Glen Kosaka, VP of product at NeuVector. “Many DevOps functions all along the CI/CD pipeline and into production – from security to operations to compliance management – need to be organized more efficiently in order to eliminate manual processes or configurations that are impeding progress or unnecessarily hogging DevOps’ time.”

[ Need to explain key Agile and DevOps terms to others? Get our cheat sheet: DevOps Glossary. ]

This is the kind of question that helps differentiate between someone who’s good at talking tools and processes versus someone who understands how those tools and processes can produce tangible results. They can discuss not just the “what” of DevOps but the “how” and “why,” especially when it comes to automation.

“The gains to be had are big at many enterprises, and DevOps engineers should make the case for being proactive – or at least ready and willing – in 2021 to place every activity and requirement under scrutiny for more automation,” Kosaka says.

3. Describe a time you chose to build out a solution rather than buy, and the factors that went into the decision

Questions that not only reveal someone’s technical chops but also how those skills intersect with critical thinking abilities are key in DevOps interviews. Asking about the build-versus-buy choice IT teams regularly make is a good way to dig into that relationship.

“This question helps shed light into their thought process and decision-making abilities,” says Abby Boyle, director of recruiting at ReliaQuest. “Have they done their due diligence and considered all options or alternatives? Have they weighed out each option to determine which solution is best and the most ROI? Finally, have they given thought to maintainability with the solution they’ve built and how that applies to the team or company in the future?”

4. Describe a deploy pipeline for a three-tier web application

Arjun Narayan, co-founder and CEO of streaming SQL database Materialize, says this is a question his firm asks in any DevOps or SRE interviews. It serves here as an example of how interviewers and candidates should be prepared to dig into skills and experience that apply to the company’s specific technology products or stack.

The prompt is born out of Materialize’s customer-facing web application, which consists of three pieces: a React single-page application, a Ruby on Rails API backend, and a PostgreSQL database.

“The backend and frontend are in different directories of the same repository. Our application developers have already written a test suite with good coverage for both the frontend and backend and would like new changes pushed to the main branch to automatically deploy the new code to production,” Narayan says. “As part of the interview, we’d ask a candidate: How would you host the three components? How would you deploy changes to the code and database schema? How would you scale the application to handle 1,000x the current number of users?”

Again, the wording of this particular prompt or question will vary depending on the product or stack the person will be working with in a given position. But Narayan says it’s a wide-ranging prompt that gives the candidate a chance to show off their skills and knowledge, rather than an interview “gotcha” or a nitty-gritty technical test.

“We’re really trying to allow space for a candidate to focus on their strengths and previous experience rather than trying to suss out their weaknesses,” Narayan says. “By providing a candidate with a broad prompt and attempting to drill in for depth somewhere they are comfortable, we feel that the candidate will have a better experience and the interview will be more substantial than if you try to test simply for subject matter expertise.”

Let’s dig into six more questions, starting with your ability to build consensus:

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.