How to spot a DevOps faker

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The growth of DevOps careers – as illustrated in these eye-opening stats – is certainly good news for IT pros with relevant skills and experience. If you’re a DevOps pro, you’re popular in the job market right now and in a command position at the negotiating table.

That popularity also means that some job hunters are probably getting a little, um, creative with their resumes and LinkedIn profiles in hopes of getting a foot in the door for a DevOps role.

There are certainly legitimate strategies for transitioning to a DevOps career from various IT backgrounds. But exaggerating or outright fabricating DevOps relevant skills and experience isn’t one of them.

Still, it might be tempting for some folks: The high salaries commanded by positions like DevOps engineer, site reliability engineer, and other DevOps-relevant titles further boost the appeal of these roles. And let’s face it: Simply adding the word “DevOps” to your LinkedIn profile or other online personas is probably going to make you show up in recruiters’ search results.

That presents a potential challenge for recruiters and hiring managers looking to fill open positions. How do you sniff out the folks who are faking their way through the screening and hiring process? Perhaps even more likely, how do you tell when someone isn’t necessarily faking it but is exaggerating, or simply has a skewed perception of how their background lines up with your open DevOps job?

We posed these questions to several IT leaders who have been around the block a few times. Here’s their advice on how to weed out the candidates who might look and sound good – but who may be more hype than substance.

And if you’re job hunting and trying to assess whether your potential boss and teammates really know DevOps or just talk a good DevOps game, you should consider these points, too. No one wants to work for a micromanager in agile clothing.

Be mindful of candidates playing keyword bingo

It’s a smart job-hunting practice to tailor your materials to particular positions. But there’s a difference between highlighting legitimate skills and experience relevant to a job and merely peppering a resume and online profiles with keywords – DevOps, automation, CI/CD, Agile, configuration management, orchestration, and so forth – in hopes of getting a hit.

So when that perfect resume crosses your desk, it’s OK, advisable even, to wonder if it’s too perfect. (In fact, we’ll extol the virtues of skepticism a bit later in the post.)

“This one is very hard as they could have changed their resume [or] LinkedIn profile to jive with the job description they are applying to,” notes Robert Reeves, CTO and co-founder and Datical.

There’s a simple way to see how often someone changes their online profiles: “You can put their LinkedIn profile URL in the Internet Wayback Machine to see how it has changed over time,” Reeves says.

Some change – even significant change – can be perfectly normal. But if last week they were pitching themselves as a business analyst and this week as a site reliability engineer, your radar should be chirping.

Keep in mind, too, that if resume keywords are more than an initial signal in your recruiting practices, you’re setting yourself up to be duped.

“If you’re trying to hire based mostly on resume keywords, you’re probably doing it wrong,” says Anders Wallgren, CTO and co-founder at Electric Cloud.

Pose the right questions, tests, and screening material

Our experts generally agreed that unearthing a DevOps faker can be similar to smoking out someone who’s overselling their programming knowledge or any other IT skills, for that matter.

“I don’t think DevOps is easier to fake than development,” says Nate Berent-Spillson, senior delivery director at Nexient.

You can ask candidates to do DevOps-related challenges or tests in the same manner as you probably check up on a developer’s fluency with a particular language or framework.

“Giving some hands-on exercises for both coding and DevOps is effective in weeding out fakers,” Berent-Spillson explains. “You can tell if someone knows their way around Jenkins, or is comfortable on the command line, just by watching the way they drive. Same thing for Dev: Live coding shows how comfortable they are with the tools.”

Similarly, good questions in a phone or in-person interview should help suss out the exaggerators, including those who simply fattened up their resume with keywords in lieu of substantive prior work.

“Ask questions such as: ‘What has been your favorite failure?’” Reeves advises. Don’t stop there; keep probing. “Follow up on ‘What did you learn?’ Then, ask ‘What changes did the organization make to ensure it didn’t happen again?’”

Be wary of the perfectionist

“You have to keep digging until they stumble a bit.”

Embracing failure is a key part of DevOps culture. “DevOps engineers are honest and circumspect,” Reeves says. “They realize that failure is an opportunity to learn and improve.”

Berent-Spillson likes asking candidates how they would apply DevOps to an existing legacy system or process.

“If they start to zero in on the rate-limiting step and making improvements there first, I know they understand what makes DevOps effective,” he says.

He also advises focusing on problem-solving as a core skill in the hiring process.

“You also have to keep digging until they stumble a bit,” Berent-Spillson advises. “You can’t just ask high-level questions or did you do x or y. You have to make them analyze and solve problems.”

Watch out for a focus on tools

Perhaps one of the biggest red flags that you might be dealing with a DevOps faker: They can speak at length, even eloquently, about tooling and technical skills but go blank when you bring up matters of culture, teamwork, and more.

“DevOps is as much about culture, visibility, and transparency as it is about technical skills, so anyone who says they are a DevOps Engineer and doesn’t speak to those aspects and only lists their technical qualifications is perhaps just trying to pass your resume filters by including ‘DevOps’ on their resume,” Wallgren says.

Maybe you’ve met someone acting their way through an initial programming challenge or another screening task: So too can someone Google their way to at least a cursory knowledge of popular tools and platforms.

“Can the person speak to their mistakes and learnings in their career?” Wallgren asks. “Do they focus only on their technical skill with Product X, or do they talk about how and why Product X was the right approach to the problem that needed solving?”

Reeves notes that tools and technical skills are certainly important on DevOps teams. But soft skills are equally critical.

“Anybody can bone up on DevOps tools, but that’s really not what DevOps is about,” Reeves says.

Berent-Spillson concurs: “If they just want to talk tools, they don’t get it.”

Speaking of tools, watch out for these warning signs

Berent-Spillson also pauses when he sees a laundry list of tools and platforms on someone’s resume that’s short on corresponding specifics.

“If someone has used a particular toolset, I expect to see project experience to back that up – not just a description of what the tool does,” he says.

He also keeps an eye out for “exotic” tools that few people have experience with; they may be legit, but they may also be a calculated attempt to pad the resume.

“Sometimes I’ve seen people list obscure tooling because they know no one will actually ask them a question on it,” Berent-Spillson explains.

Beware claims of sweeping DevOps expertise

Tread cautiously with people who regale you with tales of their all-encompassing DevOps knowledge. In the grand history of IT, DevOps is relatively young. Logically, we’re not far into the DevOps age: Not many people have 360-degree knowledge.

“First off, there aren’t many overall DevOps experts,” Berent-Spillson says. “It’s more typical that someone would be skilled in particular tools and platforms.”

We asked the experts we connected with for this a simple (if leading) question: Should we be skeptical of people who describe themselves as “DevOps ninjas,” “DevOps gurus,” or in similarly lofty terms?

The short answers: “Almost certainly, yes” (Wallgren); “Absolutely” (Berent-Spillson); and, “Yes.” (Reeves).

“The most ignorant believe they are the most competent,” Reeves says, pointing to the four stages of competence for further wisdom. “I’ve been doing software release management for 20 years, and I am still an idiot. But knowing my shortcomings helps me mitigate them.”

“I’m skeptical of anyone who’s that self-promoting,” Berent-Spillson says. “The best people are often very humble, and they will talk about specific areas of expertise and areas of deficiency.”

This kind of self-characterization is also antithetical to the kind of teamwork and healthy culture commonly found in high-functioning DevOps shops.

“This sort of labeling has enabled toxic behavior in technology, and it simply needs to go,” Reeves says.

Remember, skepticism can be healthy

There’s admittedly something a tad cynical about our headline: It assumes that fakers exist, for starters. But how about we swap out cynicism for skepticism: The latter, properly moderated, is actually healthy. (Because, yeah, fakers do exist.)

“Skepticism by definition doesn’t imply automatic and instant rejection,” Wallgren points out.

Even in that scenario where someone does self-anoint themselves into DevOps sainthood or otherwise seems possibly too good to be true, it’s OK to move a little farther into the process. You don’t have to immediately rule them out or worry that you’re just being a grouch. Hiring is ultimately a human process.

“If you like other aspects of the resume or individual, have a conversation with them, and you’ll probably figure out pretty quickly if it’s bluster or not,” Wallgren says.

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