Career paths for devops engineers and SREs


It may be difficult to focus on your career when you spend your work days meeting very challenging deployment timelines or resolving the latest priority incidents. But focusing too much on today’s challenges or using job-hopping as a proxy for career planning may lead you down a path you’re less enthusiastic about over time.

Although everyone should have some midrange and longer-term career goals, my experience is that people working in IT struggle to define them. “Are you on a technical or leadership track?” HR asked me when I was younger, and they followed this up with courses to develop technical skills. Once HR identified me as a “high potential,” they made generic leadership programs available that were not specific to technology, data, or transformation responsibilities.

Marcus Merrell, vice president of technology strategy at Sauce Labs, says, “It’s no secret that career growth varies from company to company and person to person, but this is especially true for developers and SREs [site reliability engineers] whose career growth goals often aren’t as clearly defined or standardized as other industries.”

I advise taking control of your career path, especially if you’re interested in leadership roles. I have a career checklist for people working in product management, devsecops, and data roles. For this article, I asked several devops experts to offer recommendations for developers and site reliability engineers who want to develop their career goals and identify a career path.

A commitment to lifelong learning

Engineers know they must learn new technologies and develop their skills, but that’s just the start of a commitment to lifelong learning. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What types of problems and technologies do you like working on?
  • What industries pique your interest?
  • Do you prefer working with small teams, or do you enjoy the challenges of large-scale innovations?
  • What leadership roles do you enjoy and want to invest in to develop your confidence?

Engineers must also stay informed about industry trends, especially the long-term impacts of machine learning and automation. AIops platforms help resolve incidents faster and enable SREs to perform more accurate root cause analyses, while DeepMind AlphaCode outperformed 47.5% of programmers in coding competitions. Does that mean developers and SREs will become obsolete over the next decade?

“While impressive, AI is not going to replace humans. Rather, it will aid them by automating repetitive chores and analyzing vast amounts of data in real time,” says Marko Anastasov, co-founder of Semaphore CI/CD and RenderedText. “AIops will make devops practices mature, and engineers and SREs must be ready to embrace and take advantage of these new technologies that push the boundaries forward.”

A commitment to lifelong learning requires investing time to develop skills, study trends, and step out of your comfort zone into different experiences. Over time, you’ll learn where growing opportunities match your longer-term interests.

You may wonder how to dedicate yourself to lifelong learning without it becoming a second job. To progress on your desired career path, Merrell recommends finding synergies with your employer’s objectives:

  • Understand and address organizational needs and risks
  • Dedicate time to innovation and thinking about the journey your business is undertaking
  • Participate in training programs
  • Identify experience and mentoring opportunities

What follows is a list of potential career paths for devops engineers and SREs.

If you love tech, become a well-rounded expert

I define expert in two ways: first, engineers who develop a deep understanding of selected technologies and aim to be masters at them; second, engineers who develop the skills for building technical acumen across many domains, platforms, tools, and methodologies. Technology acumen means running efficient proofs of concept, gaining objectivity on how to apply different technologies, and shedding biases toward technologies that worked well previously.

So, where should you focus on developing your expertise when there are so many technology domains? Here are two suggestions.

If you are a developer, Dave Thompson, head of engineering at Blameless, suggests, “Ongoing advances in product engineering practices and tooling present the opportunity for employers to realize competitive advantages in terms of productivity, reduced time to market, and operational reliability. Employees who understand these practices and develop expertise in the tools to support them will be highly sought after and well compensated.”

For infrastructure and cloud engineers, David Ben Shabat, vice president of R&D at Quali, says provisioning remains challenging. “With the innovation around infrastructure provisioning and management driven by highly skilled practitioners, there is a complexity that is not accessible to all skill levels. This opens the doors for devops engineers to amass a broad base of knowledge that they can apply to different roles as technologies, methodologies, and practices evolve.”

If you love problem-solving, shift left and right of your current role

Solving business challenges today requires multidisciplinary teams and integrated solutions. If you enjoy problem-solving, shift to other organizational roles and develop broader perspectives on what’s required to deliver end-to-end solutions.

One opportunity for developers is to shift to data science and machine learning roles. Tiago Cardoso, a product manager at Hyland, says, “Career paths for developers have become much more flexible and individualized, and I’m seeing a lot of new developer roles appearing, such as data engineers, ML engineers, ML architects, and MLops engineers.

He adds, “Common career paths for those in devops and SREs include positions such as systems administrator, infrastructure engineer, and cloud architect.” I also recommend shifting outside traditional infrastructure and operations responsibilities to consider roles in information security, enterprise service management, and capacity planning.

Technical experts who influence agile teams become architects

Architect roles and responsibilities vary considerably from one organization to another, but successful architects are more than just technical experts. Architects scale their expertise by helping agile teams learn, apply, and create self-organizing standards around using technology to deliver business solutions.

Anastasov says that scaling tech organizations must address tool and stack sprawl. “As tech companies grow, they must juggle dozens of different stacks, and each team has its preferred tools and frameworks. At some point, complexity slows down development,” he says.

Cody De Arkland, director of developer relations at LaunchDarkly, says, “As technologies have matured and implementations have grown, senior individuals in devops and SRE roles have the opportunity to grow into architecture roles or even internal consultative roles, helping ensure platforms are built and delivered at high quality.”

Therein lies the opportunity for devops engineers and SREs to become architects and evolve platform engineering practices. De Arkland continues, “Individuals can become domain experts and be responsible for helping guide organizations to implement these technologies successfully.”

Partner with HR and IT leaders

You don’t have to figure out your career path on your own. Human resources and IT leaders should be included in your discovery efforts. Partnering with your organization’s leaders will enable them to present opportunities to you, including mentoring, special projects, and outside-in learning opportunities.

Dayna Perry, chief people officer at Conga, shares an HR leader’s perspective on helping employees develop their career paths. “Amid a tumultuous labor market and unprecedented economic change, HR leaders must remember it’s all about engaging talent and people,” she says. “This means dedicating the time and resources to establish a well-defined foundation for company culture, distinct learning opportunities, and a clear career trajectory for employees.”

Perry continues, “These tactics will allow digital trailblazers, like devops engineers and SREs, to continue investing in their foundational skill-building growth and prepare for when their companies or customers are ready to expand into adopting the key technologies they oversee.”

In other words, architects focus on implementing today’s technologies in standard ways, while digital trailblazers think steps ahead about transforming their organizations.

You invested money in your education and now you invest your energy with your employers. It’s time to think about taking ownership of your career path.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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