Paths Into DevOps


Today, Carol asked me about how a current sysadmin can pivot into a junior “devops” role. 10 tweets into the reply, it became obvious that my thoughts on that type of transition won’t fit well into 140-character blocks.

My goal with this post is to catalog what I’ve done to reach my current level of success in the field, and outline the steps that a reader could take to mimic me.

Facets of DevOps

In my opinion, 3 distinct areas of focus have made me the kind of person from whom others solicit DevOps advice:

  • Cultural background
  • Technical skills
  • Self-promotion

I place “cultural background” first because many people with all the skills to succeed at “DevOps” roles choose or get stuck with other job titles, and everyone touches a slightly different point on the metaphorical elephant of what “DevOps” even means.

Cultural Background

What does “DevOps” mean to you?

  • Sysadmins who aren’t afraid of automation?
  • 2 sets of job requirements for the price of 1 engineer?
  • Developers who understand what the servers are actually doing?
  • Reducing the traditional divide between “development” and “operations” silos?
  • A buzzword that increases your number of weekly recruiter emails?
  • People who use configuration management, aka “infrastructure as code”?

From my experiences starting Oregon State University’s DevOps Bootcamp training program, speaking on DevOps related topics at a variety of industry conferences, and generally being a professional in the field, I’ve seen the term defined all of those ways and more.

Someone switching from “sysadmin” to “devops” should clearly define how they want their day-to-day job duties to change, and how their skills will need to change as a result.

Technical Skills

The best way to figure out the technical skills required for your dream job will always be to talk to people in the field, and read a lot of job postings to see what you’ll need on your resume and LinkedIn to catch a recruiter’s eye.

In my opinion, the bare minimum of technical skills that an established sysadmin would need in order to apply for DevOps roles are:

  • Use a configuration management tool – Chef, Puppet, Salt, or Ansible – to set up a web server in a VM.
  • Write a script in Python to do something more than Hello World – an IRC bot or tool to gather data from an API is fine.
  • Know enough about Git and GitHub to submit a pull request to fix something about an open source tool that other sysadmins use, even if it’s just a typo in the docs.
  • Understand enough about continuous integration testing to use it on a personal project, such as TravisCI on a GitHub repo, and appreciate the value of unit and integration tests for software.
  • Be able to tell a story about successfully troubleshooting a problem on a Linux or BSD server, and what you did to prevent it from happening again.

Keep in mind that your job in an interview is to represent what you know and how well you can learn new things. If you’re missing one of the above skills, go ask for help on how to build it.

Once you have all the experiences that I listed, you are no longer allowed to skip applying for an interesting role because you don’t feel you know enough. It’s the employer’s job to decide whether they want to grow you into the candiate of their dreams, and your job to give them a chance. Remember that a job posting describes the person leaving a role, and if you started with every skill listed, you’d probably be bored and not challenged to your full potential.

Self Promotion

“DevOps” is a label that engineers apply to themselves, then justify with various experiences and qualifications.

The path to becoming a community leader begins at engaging with the community. Look up DevOps-related conferences – find video recordings of talks from recent DevOps Days events, and see what names are on the schedules of upcoming DevOps conferences.

Look at which technologies the recent conferences have discussed, then look up talks about them from other events. Get into the IRC or Slack channels of the tools you want to become more expert at, listen until you know the answers to common questions, then start helping beginners newer than yourself.

Reach out to speakers whose talks you’ve enjoyed, and don’t be afraid to ask them for advice. Remember that they’re often extremely busy, so a short message with a compliment on their talk and a specific request for a suggestion is more likely to get a reply than overly vague requests. This type of networking will make your name familiar when their companies ask them to help recruit DevOps engineers, and can build valuable professional friendships that provide job leads and other assistance.

Contribute to the DevOps-related projects that you identify as having healthy communities. For configuration management, I’ve found that SaltStack is a particularly welcoming group. Find the source code on GitHub, examine the issue tracker, pick something easy, and submit a pull request fixing the bug. As you graduate to working on more challenging or larger issues, remember to advertise your involvment with the project on your LinkedIn profile!

Additionally, help others out by blogging what you learn during these adventures. If you ever find that Google doesn’t have useful results for an error message that you searched, write a blog post with the message and how you fixed it. If you’re tempted to bikeshed over which blogging platform to use, default to GitHub Pages, as a static site hosted there is easy to move to your own hosting later if you so desire.

Examine job postings for roles like you want, and make sure the key buzzwords appear on your LinkedIn profile wherever appropriate. A complete LinkedIn profile for even a relatively new DevOps engineer draws a surprising number of recruiters for DevOps-related roles. If you’re just starting out in the field, I’d recommend expressing interest in every opportunity that you’re contacted about, progressing to at least a phone interview if possible, and getting all the feedback you can about your performance afterwards. It’s especially important to interview at companies that you can’t see yourself enjoying a job at, because you can practice asking probing questions that tell you whether an employer will be a good fit for you. (check out this post for ideas).

Another trick for getting to an interview is to start something with DevOps in the name. It could be anything from a curated blog to a meetup to an online “book club” for DevOps-related papers, but leading something with a cool name seems to be highly attractive to recruiters. Another way to increase your visibility in the field is to give a talk at any local conference, especially LinuxFest and DevOpsDays events. Putting together an introductory talk on a useful technology only requires intermediate proficiency, and is a great way to build your personal brand.

To summarize, there are really 4 tricks to getting DevOps interviews, and you should interview as much as you can to get a feeling for what DevOps means to different parts of the industry:

  • Contribute back to the open source tools that you use
  • Network with established professionals
  • Optimize your LinkedIn and other professional profiles to draw recruiters
  • Be the founder of something.


I collect interesting job search and interview advice links at the bottom of my resume repo readme.

I bolded each paragraph’s key points in the hopes of making them easier to read.

You’re welcome to reach out to me at blog @ or @qedunham on Twitter if you have other questions. If I made a dumb typo or omitted some information in this post, either tell me about it or just throw a pull request at the repo to fix it and give yourself credit.