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Creative ways to boost your in-house enterprise DevOps talent

If only experienced DevOps developers grew on trees. Here's how large enterprises are training their own employees -- and college kids -- to increase the pool of available DevOps talent.

It may be a DevOps world, but that's not making it any easier to find DevOps talent. Not only are software developers in short supply worldwide, those with specific DevOps experience are even rarer and far more expensive.

Not surprisingly, attendees and speakers at the DevOps Enterprise Summit (DOES) 2017 in San Francisco discussed and debated this issue. If there was a consensus, it was the need for internal and external training to boost the pool of available DevOps talent.

From an enterprise perspective, issues with finding DevOps talent begin in universities, many of which simply aren't offering cutting-edge development curriculum.

"I am concerned we are training people for older development approaches," said Robin Yeman, Lockheed Martin Fellow.

Her company, with its 90,000 employees, has been doing considerable work to update university curricula. The goal is to train students in best practices using modern cloud architectures to build real applications. This reduces the money Lockheed spends on assimilating new DevOps talent from these universities, but it does require an investment in sharing knowledge about the tools and best practices Lockheed is using.

It's not just about learning new technologies, either. While it is important that students learn the principles to build software, they also need to learn about more subtle things, like tradeoffs. Will today's new grads understand when it makes sense to build new software versus buying commodity solutions for applications that don't add core business value?

Practice makes perfect

One of the key elements of training engineers, managers and leaders about DevOps principles lies in giving them opportunities to practice their various skills through hackathons, said Paula Thrasher, director of digital services at CSRA. In these organized endeavors, employees show up and take on challenges like building a server in Amazon Web Services or Azure quickly.

Since CSRA also has a strong security focus, they practice friendly competitions around protecting and attacking each other's servers. This gives everyone in the company the chance to get familiar with the technical and operational skills of addressing challenging situations so they can be more agile in response to more serious threats.

"This costs a lot of time in lost billable hours, but it is worth it," Thrasher said.

One good practice for wannabe DevOps talent lies in working with vendors and partners to share their knowledge for navigating the various hackathon challenges. In her DOES 2017 presentation, Thrasher said they don't have a large training budget, but vendors are often willing to provide free training to build a better relationship across various CSRA teams.

At the end of these various hackathons, participants are encouraged to share their experiences. Teams that perform well can provide inspiration for others within CSRA.

Even participants hoping to boost DevOps talent who do poorly in a hackathon still bring back valuable lesson to their regular work. Thrasher said one user experience engineer learned to build a SQL server on top of Azure.

"I guarantee you she will not go back to her day job and build databases, but she knows how, and she will work better with people who do build them," she said.

Make it easier to experiment

CSRA also wanted to make it easier for engineers to experiment with new cloud technologies. However, it can be daunting for wannabe DevOps talent to spin up a new server because of the various approvals required.

To cut through this red tape, Thrasher established a sandboxing program that enables developers to experiment in the cloud in a way that is preapproved by governance and finance teams. These sandboxes are configured to automatically die after two hours using sanitized data sets preapproved by CSRA's internal auditing and security teams.

"This gives them a chance to try technology without the usual permissions," she said. 

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