The life and work of: The DevOps Engineer

Jason Man 30th June 2016

As demand increases for DevOps skills, the profile of the DevOps engineer is evolving. In the past year alone, demand has doubled. Today, 4% of all UK permanent jobs, are for DevOps engineers.  

DevOps engineers have a diverse and unique skill set, which makes finding good ones increasingly hard. As this demand grows, the best are earning higher salaries, but they are also being worked harder.

ECS Digital (previously Forest Technologies) are well versed in benefits of DevOps. We often shout about the improved speed, quality and consistency that DevOps brings. One benefit of DevOps that is often mentioned in discussions, but rarely gets focused upon is employee satisfaction: retention, happiness and engagement.

Why, when employees are so important to the successful adoption of DevOps practices, is this side of the playing card often ignored?

Is it because employee satisfaction doesn’t directly result in organisations making money? Is it just lower down on their list of priorities?

Or is there more to the story?

I recently read an article about Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that got me thinking. The premise of the article is that Elon Musk works his employees, hard. He works them so hard that it’s not uncommon to work 100 hours a week under his leadership.

Some say that Elon is killing his employees by placing them under such intense pressure and stress. However, more often than not, his employees are actually happy to do so. They feel part of something bigger, that they’re making an impact. Dolly Singh, former head of acquisition for SpaceX says “Diamonds are created under pressure, and Elon Musk is a master diamond maker”.

This is not all that different to how I’ve seen the role of the DevOps engineer evolve. I’ve been working in DevOps for over 7 years, and from what I’ve seen, DevOps employees are being worked harder than ever. In fact, research shows that more DevOps engineers report working 50+ hours a week than any other IT job role.

You thought DevOps engineers were immune from burnout?

The Puppet State of DevOps 2016 report was recently released. Just as was claimed in 2015, the new report backs up the suggestion that working within DevOps results in lower levels of employee stress and burnout.

In reality, this is an assumption based upon the collaborative culture of DevOps.

The thesis is that DevOps employees should be happier and less pressured because they’re able to work within cross-functional teams, which encourages the sharing of workloads and removes single-points of failure and blame that can result in employee stress.

Whilst I’m completely sold on DevOps as a collaborative culture, and, to an extent, I agree that a blameless culture is beneficial to stress levels, I do not believe that DevOps engineers are invulnerable to burnout.

From what I’ve seen, DevOps engineers are becoming more and more stressed. They’re taking on longer hours and huge workloads. They’re also expected to know a lot more than your average IT employee.

Why is the DevOps engineer role stressful?

DevOps is a way of working. Whilst the foundations of DevOps lie upon many automated processes, DevOps success is hugely reliant upon having great DevOps engineers.

The DevOps engineer is the hard-working, knowledge-packed asset that allows organisations to see radical improvements such as 200x more frequent deployments and 2,555x shorter lead times.

Some might argue that “real DevOps shouldn’t have DevOps engineers” but that’s just the point. The DevOps engineer seems to have become this all-encompassing job title used by recruiters after a specific role, be it cloud migration, container adoption or infrastructure automation. And the role itself isn’t well defined. I challenge you to search and find two job opportunities that fall under the “DevOps engineer” umbrella and specify the same skills and responsibilities.

But, that’s why we’re seeing a decrease in specific skills across the board in IT. Highly skilled and specific IT roles such as SysAdmin have decreased in demand, whilst more generalised IT skill DevOps jobs have increased in demand (IT jobs watch).

The DevOps engineer is today expected to know every role along the pipeline. They’re expected to understand production cycles, in depth, from start to finish. Whilst this allows increased transparency, collaboration and quality when working with other staff, some might say that the knowledge expected from a DevOps engineer, borders on ridiculous.

Whilst this level of knowledge is hugely important for the success of DevOps, it’s also a hugely stressful way to work. No longer can these employees focus on perfecting a specific skill; they have to know everyone’s job.

So, why would anyone want to be a DevOps engineer?

I touched upon this slightly when I mentioned the Elon Musk article that I read. Of course, salary is often a huge driving factor behind career choice, and a skilled DevOps engineer comes with a price tag. For many DevOps engineers, the average DevOps salary – which outweighs the UK average salary by a massive £41,000 – will dwarf any risk of being over-worked. For others, it’s the chance to be part of something bigger. Since IT is now almost universally acknowledged as an enabler for business, the DevOps engineer truly is part of something big.

DevOps as a way of working is not going anywhere. In fact, by my guess, all organisations will be using it in some way or another, within 5 years. Some of the largest organisations in the world – Amazon, Etsy, Netflix – are as successful as they are because of DevOps.

A DevOps engineer gets to be a part of a hugely important organisational-wide transformation, and that’s pretty exciting. It’s rewarding to be a part of the movement that completely reforms and improves the way an organisation works.

Whilst, from my experience, DevOps staff retention can be pretty low (probably because those with the skills are also exceedingly at risk of being poached by other organisations), DevOps engineers in high-performing organisations are content. They’re actually 2.2x more likely to recommend their organisation as a great place to work to a friend or colleague.

The DevOps world is hugely competitive. To become the best, organisations need to hire the best. DevOps engineers have a diverse and unique skill set, which makes finding good ones increasingly hard.  DevOps engineer salaries and vacancies may be on the ever-increasing upward climb, but they are also being worked harder, and are, as a result, highly vulnerable to high stress and burnout levels.

Is the career worth it, what do you think?

You can explore a more in-depth analysis into the business benefits of DevOps in our new Whitepaper. The CIO Guide to DevOps: The value behind the hype explores DevOps from the perspective of the CIO, and how its implementation can help the modern CIO achieve their key priorities. You can download the whitepaper here.

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