Agile & Lean

Seven critical activities you should consider in your DevOps talent strategy

QA's DevOps Practice Director, Mark Solomon, gives his thoughts on the key characteristics of winning DevOps talent strategies.

In my previous blog I emphasised the fact that the front line of modern business competition is the battle for acquiring and maintaining DevOps talent and, therefore, your DevOps talent strategy is the sine qua non of your DevOps transformation. But how do you build a DevOps talent strategy? In this blog, I’d like to give you my thoughts on the key characteristics of winning DevOps talent strategies.

To start, I recommend the establishment of a central talent engine. By this, I mean a central, internal “agency” that works closely with the architectural leadership of the DevOps transformation to ensure the talent strategy evolves with the pace of technology and organisational change.

A central talent engine understands the current talent profile of the organisation and selects multiple activities for changing that profile. It then reprioritises those activities based on feedback on their success or shifts in the transformational goals. The set of selected activities that constitute the DevOps talent strategy and the central talent engine is a team of talent experts that own, maintain, and drive that talent strategy. The DevOps talent engine is different from existing organisational teams that only have one activity they can leverage (i.e. Recruiting can hire new talent, Learning can set up courses) – it is a governing body that is ultimately responsible for achieving and maintaining the required DevOps talent profile.

Once you have your talent engine established, it must be doing everything it can to achieve the ever-changing talent needs of the organisation both in the short term and the long term. While different combinations of activities (i.e. different DevOps talent strategies) work for different organisations, here are seven critical activities that I believe should be considered in all DevOps talent strategies:

1. Location-independent recruiting to find invisible talent

In Gartner’s Top Strategic Technology Trends for 2021, Tony Harvey suggested that “through 2023, 40% of organisations will blend virtual and physical experiences leading to increased workforce productivity and customer reach.”

Without a doubt, this has been accelerated with Covid. Talent engines must, therefore, expand basic recruiting to find DevOps candidates outside of their normal geographic scope and traditional search locations. There is untold, untapped invisible talent throughout the world that can bolster and differentiate your talent profile. These are people who cannot be found via LinkedIn or typical CV searches, instead they will stand out by how they engage with their communities. Make your presence known in communities of practice, forums, or source code communities across the globe so these invisible gurus can find you.

2. Unlock existing underutilised talent within your organisation with AI

Speaking of invisible talent, some of it may already be working for you. Many organisations benefit from “grassroots” DevOps initiatives fuelled by DevOps enthusiasts already on the payroll. Like external invisible talent, it is impossible to find this internal talent simply by looking for big, standout projects. Instead, you will need to mine behavioural data gathered during BAU that reveals how individuals work and engage with others to find the hidden gems. Look for AI tools that can track project input, knowledge repositories, collaboration tools, and other enterprise systems to existing DevOps talent that may be currently locked in a different part of the organisation.

3. Build a robust re-skilling programme

This critical activity is near and dear to my heart. Far too often DevOps transformations result in the loss of top performers whose skills are outdated - thus damaging the morale and the knowledgebase of the organisation. This is a lose-lose situation which doesn’t need to happen. Central to your DevOps talent strategy must be a skills transformation programme that can take top performers with priceless, organisational knowledge and help them replace yesterday’s skills with tomorrow’s. I believe this approach will result in a more cost-effective talent transformation as well as a more effective team in BAU.

Digital bootcamps are worth considering here. They're intensive, multi-week courses that deliver a huge uplift in skills and knowledge. Your team can join other individuals looking to transform their DevOps skills or, alternatively, if you have a cohort of 16 to 20 people from across the organisation you want to reskill, you can consider a dedicated programme.

4. Adopt an agile up-skilling capability

Organisations undergoing DevOps transformations are full of busy, busy people with DevOps talent gaps. Furthermore, as the transformation progresses and the underlying technology and organisational architectures evolve, new talent gaps can emerge that were previously impossible to anticipate. In order to manage critical emergent needs, I recommend taking an agile upskilling approach.

An agile upskilling approach is one that supports bite-sized consumption of training materials delivered contextually to the learner as they work. Agile upskilling can also include flexible individual pathways that can be altered as individual needs change. To adopt agile upskilling, seek out learning platforms that provide your teams with both the self-paced flexibility as well as central pathway guidance that allow them (and you) to know where they are on their journey. These platforms should be complemented by a rich and ever-growing library of materials, which cover the latest topics and concepts in a way that can be quickly applied to your team’s daily work.

5. Build a pipeline of junior talent with apprenticeships and bootcamps

Leveraging apprenticeships to build a sustainable, longer-term pipeline of DevOps talent in your business is an excellent approach well worth considering. As well as bringing in new talent, DevOps apprenticeships can be used to reskill existing members of your team. Government-sponsored apprenticeships, like the new UK DevOps apprenticeship, afford you with an excellent opportunity to develop DevOps talent within your own teams gradually and without directly incurring the training fees! This is an excellent steady-state solution for ensuring your teams understand your own organisation’s specific DevOps practices and culture because they spend 20% of their time each week learning the latest DevOps practices and technologies, and then 80% of their time applying them to your organisation. 

Another opportunity to maintain your junior pipeline is to have your talent engine run an entry-level bootcamp programme, wherein candidates front-load all of the learning before joining your BAU teams.

Whether you pick the gradual approach of the apprenticeships, or the upfront approach of a bootcamp, your strategy must provide the much-needed continuity of future DevOps talent.

6. Focus on soft skills

In a world where DevOps technologies come and go like movie stars, it’s risky to put too much focus on a specific technology skill set. Instead, your talent strategy must include finding the soft skills that are most important to your organisation and your teams. Informed by the ideals of Matthew Skelton’s and Manuel Pais’ TeamTopologies, I recommend considering the following key soft skills: collaboration, ability to learn, ability to take chances and fail, and the ability to facilitate and teach. Also, as remote working becomes the norm you need DevOps talent with the soft skills to work effectively and not be “on mute”. Key soft skills for remote-working are time management, self-discipline, and effective communication. 

7. Keep the talent you have

The final activities that need to be part of your DevOps talent strategy are those that allow you to minimise attrition and maintain the talent you already have. Remember that the competition for DevOps talent is the front line of modern business competition so your best talent will have a lot of options besides working for you. Your strategy will therefore need to include activities that make working in your team their best choice.

First, you’ll want to be able to baseline the DevOps team’s morale by collecting data and feedback. You can use techniques like NPS surveys and also the establishment of an open-door policy for all individuals to directly discuss concerns and ideas.  As you collect more data, you can even use AI to help predict trouble areas so you can respond proactively.

Next, you’ll need the ability to drive engagement improvement initiatives to foster a better DevOps working environment. For ideas on what kind of initiatives work best, look to the tenants of DevOps culture itself. These tenants are supported by sound psychological theory and suggest people are most motivated when they feel autonomous, competent, and part of a caring team. Therefore, your talent engine must promote initiatives that give your DevOps team members time and support to experiment, innovate, contribute, and grow. Two examples of such initiatives are ringfencing innovation time (e.g. Atlassian 20% time) and implementing a blameless culture (e.g. Google’s Post-Mortems).

Of course, establishing a DevOps talent strategy, driven by a central talent engine with all of these capabilities, may be a formidable undertaking for organisations where talent management isn’t a core competency. Getting it right may require you to invest a lot of time and to extend your partner ecosystem. If it sounds interesting, or you would like to discuss how you can refine your DevOps talent strategies, get in touch. I would be delighted to talk through your specific DevOps talent challenges in more detail.

Find out more about QA’s Level 4 DevOps apprenticeship

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