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Developer vs. DevOps engineer similarities and differences

What does a DevOps engineer do? What does a developer do? The two roles sound alike, but their roles, skills and tools are quite different and require unique expertise.

There's naturally some confusion around what differentiates development from DevOps. After all, DevOps is a portmanteau of development and operations. Accordingly, there is overlap between what DevOps engineers and developers do and who they are.

While DevOps engineers and developers are integral pieces of a larger development team, these IT professionals have their own roles, skills, responsibilities and preferred tools.

Put simply, developers are skilled at writing application software and developing features for users. DevOps engineers automate processes to build, test and deploy applications, as well as maintain cloud resources.

Let's further explore the differences in developers vs. DevOps engineers and how these roles play a big part in an application development team.

Developer vs. DevOps engineer roles

DevOps engineers are typically more responsible for virtual server and software automation maintenance. Before the widespread adoption of DevOps, development and operations were their own distinct departments.

Operations was a hardware-focused support position, mainly responsible for tasks like server maintenance and incident response. As virtual servers have largely replaced physical servers, IT professionals now perform maintenance on them virtually, through configurations made using web applications like AWS Management Console, Microsoft Azure Portal and Google Cloud Console.

As a result, operations roles became more software-focused through the cloud and virtual servers. Operations engineers were no longer configuring networks and servers physically, but rather virtually.

Along with this major change, software to build, deploy and test applications became much more widely available. In turn, there was a need for specialized roles to support those software automation tools.

Developer vs. DevOps engineer responsibilities

In a typical sprint, developers work on feature development, such as adding new or improving existing application functionality. Also, developers are generally better adapted to write tests and build scripts for applications.

A DevOps engineer's responsibilities are related to the infrastructure of the application, such as the processes around application building, testing and deployment. DevOps engineers are heavily involved in the beginning of any software project, including setting up automation to provide a virtual server or configuring a build pipeline. Essentially, anything necessary to automatically build, test and deploy the application when a team approves new changes falls under a DevOps engineer's umbrella.

DevOps engineers are also responsible for running tests and building scripts with automated tools like Jenkins or CircleCI. These tools produce artifacts that engineers can then use to write automation and deploy the artifacts as fully functioning applications for further testing or a final production product.

Despite their different roles in the process, DevOps engineers and developers need to collaborate. Developers can best inform DevOps engineers of their software's performance requirements. Meanwhile, DevOps engineers can best inform developers of the available virtual resources to run their software.

Generally, there comes a point when DevOps engineers have less work taking place directly in a sprint. That point is when the aforementioned automated processes -- like building, testing and deploying with Jenkins or CircleCI -- are more stable, and when the software project itself becomes more stable. At this stage, DevOps engineers spend less time collaborating with developers on the automation to create a CI/CD pipeline. Instead, they most likely focus on new projects that need automated CI/CD pipelines or on maintenance of existing projects where automation needs to be updated to work with new application changes.

There may not be as much work automating builds, tests and deployments in a more mature software project's lifecycle. However, it's important to still include at least one DevOps engineer in planning or retrospective activities. Doing so ensures that there is always someone participating in those activities with the best knowledge of automation and cloud resources.

Developer vs. DevOps engineer tools

DevOps engineers and developers typically use different tools. Since developers usually write the code for software applications that serve customers, their tools line up with the customer-facing approach. Most developers use an IDE to write their code, and depending on the type of code and application, they may use specialized IDEs. Other popular developer tools include the following:

  • CI/CD systems
  • testing frameworks
  • tools to interact with databases
  • web applications to interact with cloud infrastructure

DevOps engineers may still use an IDE, but since they're generally not writing application software, they often won't need a specialized IDE for a specific programming language. However, there are many IDEs that support multiple languages and assist with writing code, such as Visual Studio Code. Other common tools that DevOps engineers might use include the following:

  • infrastructure-as-code tools
  • version control systems
  • cloud computing services
  • logging tools
  • automation and CI/CD servers

Infrastructure-as-code tools like Terraform enable engineers to maintain cloud resources as a file that, when coupled with a version control system like Git, permits the team to track and share any changes. DevOps engineers also frequently use their cloud provider's web application to configure and monitor cloud resources.

Some logging tools such as Datadog or Nagios consolidate application and server health logs in one place. Like their developer counterparts, DevOps engineers also interact with the CI/CD system, a testing framework and tools for connecting with databases that the applications under development also interface with.

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