The DevOps Human

Top 10 Human Skills to Make You a Successful DevOps Human

By Eveline Oehrlich and Karen Ferris


No matter what you do within your job it evolves around your knowledge, skill and abilities.  These are not the same things.  Knowledge is the practical and/or theoretical understanding of a topic. Skill is defined as the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance and ability is a natural aptitude of being able to perform, do or deliver a task.  Each of these are obtained differently.  Knowledge is obtained through learning, training and experience.  Skills are obtained through practicing and learning, and abilities are typically natural capabilities and difficult to learn, train or practice.  From research we know that skills can be developed and improved over time, by combining our abilities and our knowledge, but the underlying abilities are needed for the skills to be developed. Abilities, likewise, can be improved and honed to some extent – running fast is a skill, but the ability to run fast comes in part from having strong leg muscles, which can be developed through regular exercise.

DevOps Requires A Cultural Foundation From Its Beginning

DevOps adoption ranges from 19% at the enterprise level to 43% at the project level. Unfortunately, there are many challenges before or during a transition to DevOps.  One of them is the change in culture within the organization.  Gartner predicts that through 2022, 75% of DevOps initiatives will fail to meet expectations due to issues around organizational learning and change.  During inquiries with customers now and during my time at Forrester Research, I have seen how organizations have taken on a DevOps journey but failed because “their culture” was at fault.  Most DevOps humans know (or should know) that DevOps is not a specific toolkit or an adoption of a best practice guide but rather the change towards a joined and holistic mindset governed by a collaborative work ethic from all of the departments involved in the software delivery lifecycle. And all of this change should have a purpose which really is to deliver quality software at the appropriate speed for the business.

DevOps Needs A Sound Cultural Foundation

There are too many nuances and flavors of defining what is “organizational culture”. If we use Edgar Henry Scheins definition – who is considered the father of organizational culture – he suggests the following definition of culture:

“A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems”.  These problems Schein continues could be external adaption issues such as goals, mission or primary tasks, or internal integration issues such as common language, group boundaries, peer relationships, or both. 

Some critical aspects of DevOps are holistic thinking, collaboration, failure accepted, customer focused thinking and leaders serving people to name just a few.  Many of these aspects are new and most likely individuals have worked or solved problems working differently and are now faced with these changes via DevOps. Herein lies the challenge of the organizations culture. Whereas organizations which have started with the DevOps have learned how to work this way from the beginning, the traditional organizations born in the silos of IT don’t have this culture and need to build it. Changing organizations cultures go beyond slogans, behaviour patterns and values. A change requires mechanisms, but it also requires people and leaders with human skills.

DevOps Needs A Sound Cultural Foundation

To understand what the critical must-have human skills DevOps humans should possess, we have conducted our first upskilling survey in 2019.  Over 1600 individuals from across the world, across many roles and many companies have shared with us what they think the top ten human skills should be for a DevOps human.

Here they are in order of highest must-must have skills (See Figure 1 below from
Upskilling: Enterprise DevOps Skill Report 2019):

Collaboration and cooperation.  This category was defined as working with others to achieve common goals. A team with a common goal should be driven by tasks and deadlines which requires cooperation of the team members.  Often work is documented to achieve transparency and traceability for all team members.  Collaboration means team members share ideas and create a common knowledge base which is continually refined by team members.  Decisions are typically made together via consensus.  The challenges with collaboration is that it can create conflict as individuals have to work together – so it starts with individuals and ends with individuals. 

DevOps humans need to effectively manage conflict. Conflict can be a good thing when managed as it allows for and encourages diversity of thinking. Without healthy conflict ‘group think’ can result.

Tip: Define the roles of everyone, the associated responsibilities and some guidance on how to work in a team. Leverage system of records to review changes and show conclusions with supporting details also can be very beneficial.

Problem solving. This category includes the showing good judgment, focusing on the right thing, high quality decision making, accepting feedback to strengthen further improvement.We all think we know what problems are, but here is the definition just in case: problems are a perceived gap between the existing state and a desired state, or a deviation from a norm, standard, or status quo. Problem solving is the process of working through a problem to reach a solution. DevOps humans must be able to solve problems.

Tip: There are many approaches to problem solving but the most important step is to define what the problem is. Researchers have found that the effective application of problem-solving process is contingent on the structure and direction provided by the problem construction.  Some suggestions for problem-solving mechanisms are Kepner-Tragoe and Edward Bono. 

Interpersonal skills. This category includes communication, relationship building, listening. Humans today spend a significant amount of their working day relating to and interacting with others. Individuals are expected to possess personality traits and people skills that will enable them to work in teams, communicating effectively, and listening to others. These are all behaviors that help coworkers and oneself to accomplish organizational goals. Particularly important in a DevOps environment where team-based management and self-directed work teams replace hierarchical structures, individuals need to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively with others.

Tip: Everyone is different but situational characteristics such as environmental settings, agendas, motivation, roles, rules and norms and task demands will shape and influence how a person interacts.  Important to know is that interpersonal communication which includes active listening, oral and written communication, assertive and nonverbal communication can be learned through training classes. Also, relationship building skills which includes cooperation, coordination and intercultural sensitivity can be learned as well.  One key ingredient of interpersonal skills which is the most difficult to learn but will grow over time is trusting others.

Sharing and knowledge transfer. This category includes effective transfer of acquired knowledge to others.Knowledge creation and leveraging knowledge across organizational and individual boundaries does occur to some extent in organizations today but mostly informally or in a ad hoc way.  As the awareness of the importance of knowledge grows, organizations must seek ways to foster the knowledge sharing within teams and for individuals in a more deliberate and systematic manner.

TIP: Understanding what type of knowledge for what purpose is the key step in a more deliberate and systematic manner.  A good way to define knowledge transfer is to create a decision tree which can be found in the following resource: https://archive.org/stream/commonknowledgeh00dixo_0#page/146/mode/2up

Flexibility and adaptability. This category includes adopting easily to change, remaining flexible and open to change. Being flexible and adaptable is grounded in one’s mindset.  Some important research was done by Dr. Carol S. Dweck around fixed and growth mindset.  In her research she describes how one can actually shift one’s mindset to continually grow and adapt.

TIP: If you want to stay flexible and adaptable you will have to continue to grow and learn. Changing your mindset is changing the way you think about yourself which will motivate you to gain additional skills and knowledge.

Personal value commitment. This category includes trustworthiness, respect for others, ethics and integrity. Values are stable long-lasting beliefs about what is important to a person. They become standards by which people order their lives and make their choices. Beliefs are typically shaped by mentors, experience and culture.  As organizations are introducing DevOps, key experiences, education, mentors and coaches can play a key role influencing the DevOps humans.  However, people already have some fundamental personal value commitment.

TIP: Leveraging experienced interviewers from across your organization during the hiring process will provide you with insights on a person’s personal value commitment.

Creativity. This category includes taking responsibility for finding new ideas and solutions to solve problems. As we already know, problem solving is a critical human DevOps skill. Few resources have been invested in the study of creativity. There are a variety of pragmatic approaches to test creativity, but the problem lays with the definition of and the criteria for creativity which has caused this research difficulty. 

TIP: Collaborate with a diverse set of people when solving problems. This allows for innovative and creative ideas to surface. Encourage brainstorming and create an environment in which crazy ideas can be heard. The crazy and most creative ideas can result in the best ones.  Think outside the box.

Empathy. This category includes understanding and taking different backgrounds, ideas and styles into consideration when working. Edward Titchener used the word empathy in 1909 as the English translation of the German word Einfühlung. Its etymology is from the Greek word empatheia, meaning to enter feelings from the outside, or to be with a person’s feelings, passions or suffering. No matter in what situation, the human capacity to recognize other minds and think about what might be going on is a vital skill (agreed upon by many researchers) if we are to make sense of behavior and relate to others effectively.

Empathy is a dimension of emotional intelligence as explained in Daniel Goleman’s publication “Working with Emotional Intelligence’. It consists of five competencies:

  • Understanding others: Sensing other’s feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns
  • Developing others: Sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities
  • Service orientation: Anticipating, recognizing and meeting customer needs
  • Leveraging diversity: Cultivating opportunities through different kinds of people
  • Political awareness: Reading a groups’ emotional currents and power relationships

TIP: Everybody should learn how to put themselves in the shoes of someone else. One way of doing this is to become an observer by potentially tagging along with one of your teammates who has different responsibilities.

Customer experience skills.  This category includes an understanding of how customers interact with the business. Adopting new ways of working such as DevOps should be undertaken for reasons of agility and speed of delivering value for the business and its customers.  To understand how to improve business value, one must understand how the customer interacts with the business.  DevOps humans should be able to understand customer journeys and customer satisfaction issues which then create a foundation for continuous improvement.

TIP: Customer journey maps are a great way to understand how customers interact with the business.  Explore them in conjunction with your business partner to understand pain points for possible improvements.

Multi-tasking. This category includes the ability to focus resources and activities on multiple tasks while achieving key goals and/or desired results. The Brodmann area 10 is a region of the brain which is partially responsible for our multi-tasking abilities. Although this region is extensive in humans, its function is poorly understood. Many of our complex behaviors and mental activities require simultaneous engagement of multiple tasks, and they suggest the anterior prefrontal cortex may perform a domain-general function in these scheduling operations.  

TIP When multi-tasking, make sure you prioritize the tasks so that you focus on the ‘right’ things. Without going further if you can multi-task already, congratulations.

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