What is a DevOps engineer?
A DevOps engineer is an IT generalist who should have a wide-ranging knowledge of both development and operations, including coding, infrastructure management, system administration, and DevOps toolchains. DevOps engineers should also possess interpersonal skills since they work across company silos to create a more collaborative environment.
DevOps engineers need to have a strong understanding of common system architecture, provisioning, and administration, but must also have experience with the traditional developer toolset and practices such as using source control, giving and receiving code reviews, writing unit tests, and familiarity with agile principles.
Roles and responsibilities
The role of a DevOps engineer will vary from one organization to another, but invariably entails some combination of release engineering, infrastructure provisioning and management, system administration, security, and DevOps advocacy.
Release engineering includes the work required to build and deploy application code. The exact tools and processes vary widely depending on many variables, such as what language the code is written in, how much of the pipeline has been automated, and whether the production infrastructure is on-premise or in the cloud. Release engineering might entail selecting, provisioning, and maintaining CI/CD tooling or writing and maintaining bespoke build/deploy scripts.
Infrastructure provisioning and system administration include deploying and maintaining the servers, storage, and networking resources required to host applications. For organizations with on-premise resources this might include managing physical servers, storage devices, switches, and virtualization software in a data center. For a hybrid or entirely cloud-based organization this will usually include provisioning and managing virtual instances of the same components.
DevOps advocacy is often undervalued or overlooked entirely, but is arguably the most important role of a DevOps engineer. The shift to a DevOps culture can be disruptive and confusing to the engineering team members. As the DevOps subject matter expert, it falls to the DevOps engineer to help evangelize and educate the DevOps way across the organization.
DevOps engineer skills
The technical skills required of a DevOps engineer will vary depending on the team structure, technologies, and toolsets in use. Yet strong communication and collaboration skills are essential. It’s also important for a DevOps engineer to have a solid understanding of all the components of a delivery pipeline, and to know the pros and cons of available tools and services.
Communication and collaboration
It’s important for a DevOps engineer to communicate and collaborate effectively with teams, managers, and customers. These so-called “soft-skills” are often overlooked and undervalued, but the success of DevOps relies heavily on the quality and quantity of feedback across the entire value stream.
Experience with DevOps tools
Since using the right tools are essential to DevOps practices, the DevOps engineer must understand, and be able to use, a variety of tools. These tools span the DevOps lifecycle from infrastructure and building, to monitoring and operating a product or service.
A DevOps engineer will have experience with system administration, such as provisioning and managing servers, deploying databases, security monitoring, system patching, and managing internal and external network connectivity.
DevOps engineers will often be expected to have experience with one or more configuration management tools such as Chef, Puppet, or Ansible. Many organizations have adopted these or similar tools to automate system administration tasks such as deploying new systems or applying security patches to systems already running.
Containers and container orchestration
With containerization, a technology popularized by Docker, the code for the application and its runtime environment are bundled in the same image. This makes traditional configuration management tools less necessary. At the same time managing containers brings its own challenges, and experience with the class of tools known as “container orchestrators” (e.g. Docker Swarm or Kubernetes) becomes a necessary skill for the DevOps engineer.
Continuous integration and continuous deployment
Continuous integration and continuous Delivery (CI/CD) are core practices of a DevOps approach to software development, and enabled by a host of available tools. The most fundamental function of any CI/CD tool or set of tools is to automate the process of building, testing, and deploying software. DevOps engineers will usually need experience with configuring and deploying one or more CI/CD tools, and will usually need to work closely with the rest of the development organization to ensure that these tools are used effectively.
System architecture and provisioning
A DevOps engineer should have the ability to design, provision, and manage computer ecosystems, whether on-premise or in the cloud. It’s important to understand Infrastructure as Code (IaC), an IT management process that applies best practices from DevOps software development to the management of cloud infrastructure resources. A DevOps engineer should understand how to model system infrastructure in the cloud with Amazon Web Services (AWS), AWS CloudFormation, or Terraform.
Familiarity with coding and scripting
Many traditional system administrators have experience writing shell scripts to automate repetitive tasks. A DevOps engineer should go beyond writing automation scripts and understand advanced software development practices and how to implement agile development practices such as code reviews and using source control.