The DevOps engineer is quickly becoming a critical role for leading-edge businesses. Without a clear path of advancement to the position, IT departments must identify the right combination of DevOps engineer skills in hires or experienced employees.
A career as a DevOps engineer might appeal to you if you have technical hard skills in various platforms as well as soft skills, such as effective and timely communication.
A DevOps environment needs someone with specific skills -- including a holistic knowledge of collaboration and business practices -- to erase traditional silos, maintain and advance best practices in fast-moving software projects, and achieve the best business outcomes for the organization's products. This has led to the emergence of DevOps engineers.
The DevOps engineer role today
Current DevOps engineer job listings cover a diverse set of responsibilities in the skills categories of development, infrastructure, project management and business.
Development skills include understanding project requirements; writing, reviewing and validating code; fixing bugs; managing CI/CD tools and pipelines; performing root cause analysis, troubleshooting and incident management. Infrastructure skills include implementing tools and infrastructure; building automated processes; and developing security measures through vulnerability assessment and risk management practices.
Making the journey
There is currently no formal path for a DevOps engineer. Specific education is sometimes required in DevOps engineer job postings, but it's practical knowledge and hands-on experience that is always key. For example, one job posting might ask for more than nine years of overall experience with five to six years of relevant job experience, while another posting may look for a bachelor's degree in any technical discipline plus three years of professional work experience.
Given the significant demands of a DevOps engineer role, it makes sense that applied knowledge and relevant experience is more of a deciding factor than formal education. Consequently, DevOps engineers often grow into the role with hands-on experience. They usually start out as IT pros with a strong interest in coding, or as developers invested in code testing and deployment.
Project management skills include planning team structures and activities; defining processes; monitoring user experience metrics and KPIs; overseeing project lifecycles. Business skills include managing internal and external stakeholders; handling communication with the team and customers; mentoring team members; managing progress reports.
10 DevOps engineer skills to boost your resume
The list of requisite DevOps engineer skills is lengthy, and even more are necessary to master the role. While specific requirements vary between organizations, here are 10 common skill areas -- ranging from highly technical abilities to soft people skills -- that employers look for in a DevOps engineer.
1. Platform familiarity
IT is typically built around the idea of a stack -- the combination of prevailing OSes, services and associated tool sets to develop, deploy and support applications. There is often overlap or cross-training between stacks. Successful DevOps engineers have deep expertise in administering the stack that the business currently uses or plans to use. The three principal stacks are Microsoft Windows Server, Linux server distributions and a cloud structure.
The Microsoft stack typically includes OSes such as Windows Server 2019 and Windows Server 2022; management platforms such as System Center and its various iterations, including Operations Manager for system- and service-level monitoring and notifications; and supporting applications such as MySQL, PostgreSQL or Mongo for a database or SharePoint and Teams for collaboration. There are also tools to develop, test and deploy code as well as configure and manage existing infrastructure that hosts deployments.
A Linux stack is based on the open source OS kernel and may involve several common Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu, Debian and Fedora. It also includes many other open source tools such as Ansible, Chef and Puppet as well as open source frameworks -- OpenStack, OpenNebula and Apache CloudStack -- that support private cloud creation. Strong knowledge of VM platforms, such as VMware's vSphere or Linux KVM, as well as container platforms such as Docker, OpenVZ and Cloud Foundry, are also vital. Open source stacks have gained attention in recent years as the number of VMs and containers proliferate.
Public cloud options include Microsoft Azure -- which can complement Microsoft stacks -- as well as Google Compute Platform and AWS, which can complement Linux stacks. Going with public or hybrid cloud infrastructure requires knowledge of the chosen cloud services, management options and cost structure.
2. Programming and scripting languages
DevOps practices involve getting code through development and into production quickly. While writing low-level code is usually left to development teams, DevOps engineers need to understand the source code; develop scripts; and tackle integrations, such as getting the code version to talk to the MySQL database, to run deployments on the operations side. DevOps engineer skills should include knowledge of PHP, Python, Perl, Ruby and other programming languages such as Java and C++. DevOps engineers also benefit from a background in continuous integration management tools such as Jenkins, Apache Maven and Apache Ant.
3. Configuration management, version management and infrastructure as code
Speed and fluidity are the hallmarks of DevOps. Code is always changing. It takes sound collaboration and version management skills to assess ever-changing user requirements; assemble the correct components; and craft a software release that runs properly on the desired infrastructure, whether local or cloud.
DevOps engineers work with tools such as Git, GitHub, Perforce and Apache Subversion for repository control. To better deploy ever-changing code, many DevOps engineers embrace configuration management, which is almost always automated to accelerate the pace of version releases. Tools such as Puppet, Chef and Vagrant provide these capabilities, as do cloud providers' native tools, such as AWS CodePipeline or CodeDeploy. They also use infrastructure as code (IaC) to programmatically create infrastructure from code such as scripts. Typical tools for IaC include AWS CloudFormation, Ansible, Chef Software, Puppet, SaltStack and Terraform.
4. Provisioning and deployment
DevOps engineers don't just shepherd code through development. They also provide the bridge needed to facilitate those releases on the operations side. This means they require skills in the realm of IT hardware and infrastructure, from servers and storage to networks and OSes.
Because DevOps engineers know the entire IT stack, they can guide the provisioning and deployment of each release in the local data center or the public cloud. This know-how usually extends to creating and maintaining reliable and highly available services, such as resilient cloud infrastructures.
The need for operations-side skills is increasing. In DevOps, project teams have autonomy over the development and deployment of business applications. As deployment targets evolve and proliferate to things like hybrid and multi-cloud environments, DevOps capabilities must fold these additional environments into their deployment portfolio. Since DevOps is responsible for deploying a large portion of applications, there is also a bigger need to monitor and manage those applications over time.
DevOps engineers play an increasingly important role in enterprise security, both in development and operations. On the development side, DevOps teams must create secure code, keep in mind potential security risks in open source software, perform vulnerability testing in the CI/CD pipeline and more. On the operations side, a DevOps engineer must implement security practices like encryption for data that can be both at rest or in flight. This responsibility increasingly overlaps with more formal security tasks, such as managing antimalware and intrusion protection platforms.
6. Tracking and assessing release performance
A DevOps engineer is the ultimate consultant -- someone who can objectively evaluate the performance of releases, make required adjustments to provisioned resources and platforms, and use various tools to measure workload performance. In addition, DevOps engineers must analyze log results, derive relevant key performance indicators and then share that content with the entire staff and project stakeholders to enhance future software iterations. Tools such as Nagios, Zabbix, Sensu, Amazon CloudWatch, Splunk and New Relic can monitor application performance locally and on public cloud platforms. Other tools and platforms include Datadog, AppDynamics, Stackify, SolarWinds and Dynatrace.
Performance management may also extend to issue tracking and help desk support to prioritize tickets and investigate complex problems. With the growth in big data analytics and AI, performance management might increasingly employ analytics and AI tools to identify complex application problems, perform predictive analytics and look for future trends in application behavior. DevOps teams may opt to work with data science and analytical teams to support such efforts rather than attempt to master those additional big data skills as a DevOps function.
7. Network optimization
Modern enterprise workloads rely on network resources and security. Almost all enterprise workloads employ a network-focused client/server architecture. But even web portals and other applications are accessed through a network. This makes networks a central part of any DevOps workload deployment and management process.
Consequently, DevOps engineer skills should include extensive knowledge of network architectures and interfaces as well as an understanding of workload bandwidth and latency requirements. Network knowledge also involves a strong emphasis on security, including the deployment and management of VPNs and the use of software-defined networking for container-centric tasks, such as microsegmentation to implement logical subnets and network organization.
DevOps engineers are routinely involved in everyday operations. It's common to expect such high-level professionals to offer substantial problem-solving support for help desk and other staff, especially related to specific DevOps workloads in the deployment pipeline. This can include remote deployment and support tasks, such as deploying, managing and troubleshooting workloads that run at remote or hosted locations. Troubleshooting can also extend to more traditional parts of business infrastructure, such as the remediations of server, storage and network issues.
Building modern software platforms is sometimes more about integrating varied platforms and services than writing low-level code. For example, nobody creates messaging or database functionality today. The code integrates with existing platforms such as Microsoft Exchange, Redis, database systems, or countless other third-party or open source business applications that use common APIs.
These platforms are usually part of the business stack, but DevOps engineers should know how to use them. For example, if the business ties a software product to an SQL back end, a DevOps engineer should have the skills to set up the database and make complex SQL queries. The goal for DevOps engineers is to establish a holistic view of resources and services and get those assets to interoperate successfully. This can be a particularly difficult goal in complex modern enterprise environments.
10. Communication and team management
DevOps engineer skills are not just technical. Someone in this role must be an expert communicator and capable manager -- one who can bring different professionals together in a productive manner to ensure rapid continuous development that will achieve the best business results.
With so many people and competing interests involved in the DevOps process, there are countless technical and professional problems that will inevitably arise over time. Those include interpersonal conflicts, changing roles and responsibilities within the organization and broken business processes. A DevOps engineer must assess these situations and seek constructive solutions that will achieve goals while keeping constituents happy. For example, if a release cycle is delayed by inefficient manual steps, a DevOps engineer can make a technical and business case to invest in automation.
Editor's Note: This article was originally written by Steve Bigelow in 2020. He revised and expanded it in 2023.