Category Archives: DevOps

As a software engineer, how do I change my career to DevOps?

At Bazaarvoice, we’re big fans of cloud. Real big. We’re also fans of DevOps. There’s been a lot of discussion over the past several years about “What is DevOps?” Usually, this term is used to describe Systems Engineers and Site Reliability Engineers (sometimes called Infrastructure Engineers, Systems Engineers, Operations Engineers or, in the most unfortunate case, Systems Administrators, which is an entirely different job!). This is not what DevOps means, but in the context of career development, it carries the connotation of a “modern” Systems or Site Reliability Engineer.

There’s a lot of great literature about what a DevOps engineer is. I encourage you to read this interview of Google’s VP of Engineering, as well as Hixson and Beyer’s excellent paper on Systems Engineering and its distinction among Software, Systems and Site Reliability engineers. Although DevOps engineering goes beyond these technical descriptions, I’ll save that exegesis for another time. (Write me if you want to hear it, though!)

Many companies claim to hire or employ DevOps engineers. Few actually do. Bazaarvoice does. Google does, too, although they’re very hipster about it (they called it Site Reliability Engineering before the term DevOps landed on the scene, so they don’t call it DevOps because they had it before it was cool, or something). I don’t know about other companies because I haven’t worked at them (well, I haven’t worked at Google either, but they are pretty vocal about their engineering philosophies, so I’ll take them at their word). But there’s a lot of industry buzzwordium with little substance. This isn’t a jab at other companies (but really, Bazaarvoice is way cooler), it’s just a side-effect of assigning job titles based on pop culture. If you’re really a DevOps engineer, then you already know all of this, and you probably filter out a lot of this nonsense on a daily basis.

But we’re here to answer a specific question: If I’m already a software engineer, how do I become a DevOps engineer?

So, you’re a developer and you want to get in on the ops action. Boy, are you in for a surprise! This isn’t about installing Arch Linux and learning to write Perl. There’s a place for that kind of thing (a very small, dark place in a very distant corner of the universe), but that isn’t inherently what DevOps means.

Let’s consider a few of the properties and responsibilities of DevOps engineering.

A DevOps engineer:

  • Writes code / software. In fact, he is a proper software engineer.
  • Builds tools.
  • Does the painful things, as often and frequently as possible.
  • Participates in the on-call rotation (yes, for 2 a.m. production outages).
  • Infrastructure design.
  • Scaling systems (any system or subsystem — networking, applications, load balancers).
  • Maintenance. Like rebooting that frail vhost with a memory leak that no one’s bothered to fix or take ownership of.
  • Monitoring.
  • Virtualization.
  • Agile/kanban/whatever development methodology. It’s not so much that agile is “right.” It’s just the most efficient way to complete a work queue (taking into account interruptions and blockers). A good DevOps engineer has strong opinions about this!
  • Software release cycles and management. In fact, you might even see “development methodology” and software release cycles as the same thing.
  • Automation. Automation. Automation.
  • Designing a branch/release strategy for the provided SCM (git, Mercurial, svn, etc). Which you do have.
  • Metrics / reporting. Goes hand-in-hand with monitoring, although they are different.
  • Optimization / tuning. Of applications, tools, services, hardware…anything.
  • Load and performance testing and benchmarking, including performance testing of highly complex systems. And you know the difference between load testing and performance testing.
  • Cloud. Okay, you don’t really have to have cloud experience, but it can fundamentally change the way you think about complex systems. No one in a colo facility devised the notion of “immutable infrastructure.”
  • Configuration management. Or not. You have an opinion about it. (You’ve surely heard of Puppet, Chef, Ansible, etc. Yes?)
  • Security. At every layer.
  • Load balancing / proxying / replicating. (Of services, systems, components and processes.)
  • Command-line fu. A DevOps engineer is familiar with tools at his disposal for debugging, diagnosing and fixing issues on one or many servers, quickly. You know how pipes work, and you can count how many records contained some phrase in a log file with ease, for example.
  • Package management.
  • CI/CIT/CD — continuous integration, continuous integration testing, and continuous deployment. This is the closest thing to the real meaning of “DevOps” that a Systems Engineer will do.
  • Databases. All of them. SQL, NoSQL, whatever. Distributed ones, too!
  • Solid systems expertise. We’re talking about the networking stack, how hard disks work, how filesystems work, how system memory works, how CPU’s work, and how all these things come together. This is the traditional “operations” expertise you’ve heard about.

Phew! That’s a lot. Turns out, almost all of these skills are directly applicable to software engineering. The only difference is the breadth of domain, but a good software engineer will grow his breadth of domain expertise into operations naturally anyway! A DevOps engineer just starts his growth from a different side of the engineering career map.

Let’s stop and think for a moment about some things DevOps engineer is not. These details are critically important!

A DevOps engineer is not:

  • Easier than being a software engineer. (Ding! It is being a software engineer.)
  • Never writing code. I write tons of code.
  • Installing Linux and never touching your favorite OS again.
  • Working the third shift. (At least, it shouldn’t be; if it is, quit your job and come work with me.)
  • Inherently more “fun” than being a software engineer, although you may prefer it, if you’re into that kind of thing.
  • Greenfield. You’ll deal with old stuff in addition to new stuff. But as a good engineer, you care about business value and pragmatism.
  • An unsuccessful software engineer. Really: if you can’t write code, don’t expect to be a good DevOps engineer until you can.

A career shift

Here are a few things you should do to begin positioning yourself as a DevOps engineer.

  • Realize that you’re already an engineer, so becoming a DevOps engineer means you are just moving yourself to a different domain to grow and learn from a different direction.
  • Interview at a company that’s hiring DevOps. If you get hired, you’ll learn the operations side of things fast. Real fast. Or get fired. (Hint: you should disclose your experience honestly!) If you don’t get hired, you’ll learn what is still missing from your resume / experience that’s preventing you from becoming a full-time DevOps engineer. Incidentally, we’re hiring. 🙂
  • Tell your boss you want to become a DevOps engineer at your company. Your boss should help you to this end. If he/she does not, quit. Then come work at Bazaarvoice with me and a bunch of really awesome, super talented engineers working on some really awesome and challenging problems.
  • Obtain practical experience by using your skills as a software engineer to build tools rather than applications. Look at any of the open source projects Netflix has written for examples / ideas.
  • Learn OpenStack or some equivalent infrastructure-level project. (OpenStack has tremendous breadth, which is why I recommend it.) You can do this on your own time and budget. It’s not important whether OpenStack sucks compared to Rackspace Cloud. What’s important is that you understand all of the various components and why they are important. Have a wad of cash lying around? Learn Amazon Web Services or Google Compute Engine instead.
  • Bonus: learn about Apache Mesos and Kubernetes, and why they’re useful / important. Using them is less important than understanding them.
  • Participate in anything your team does involving operations — deployment, scale, etc. (See list above: “What DevOps is.”) If your team doesn’t do any of that (i.e., they send artifacts over to Operations and the Operations team does deployment), go over to the Operations team and sit in on a few deployments. You may be surprised!

Do I need to have deep operations experience to become a good devops engineer?

I’ve asked myself the same question. I come from a development background myself and only had less than a year of experience dealing with operations (part time) before becoming a DevOps engineer. (Granted, I had a referral vouching for me, which weighed in my favor.) Despite my less-than-stellar CS/algorithm skills (based on my complete lack of formal computer science education), I’ve had enough experience writing software that I could apply these concepts to systems in a similar fashion. That is, in the same way a software engineer needs to understand at what point his application code should be abstracted in support of future changes (i.e., refactored into smaller components), a DevOps engineer needs to understand at what point a component of his infrastructure should be abstracted in support of future changes (i.e., rebuilding all of his servers and rearchitecting infrastructure that’s already in production, despite the potential risk, in order to solve a problem, like allowing the architecture to scale to business needs). At its core, a good engineer is just as good whether he’s writing software or deploying it. Understanding complex systems and their interactions is a critical skill. But all of these are important for software engineers, whether you’re writing application code or not!

I hope this post helps you in your endeavor to become a DevOps engineer, or at least understand what it means to be a DevOps engineer at Bazaarvoice (as I said before, it may mean something totally different at other companies!). You should get your feet wet with some of the things we do. If it gets you tingly and excited, then come work with me at Bazaarvoice: http://www.bazaarvoice.com/careers/research-and-development/.


This article was originally posted as an answer on Quora. Due to surprising popularity, I’ve updated the article and posted it here.