How to move from IC to DevOps manager and succeed

Lauren Gibbons Paul ·
Mar 1, 2022 · 4 min read · Leave a comment

As a seasoned DevOps engineer, an individual contributor (IC) role might eventually start to chafe. Here are 5 strategies to make the case that you're ready for a DevOps manager role, and 3 key things to keep in mind once you get there.

It’s more than just the title

Just as many organizations don’t have dedicated DevOps teams – they just do DevOps – many will not have a title that sounds like “DevOps manager.” It is not uncommon for your current position to morph into a managerial role, so let your manager know you’re interested. Also, it never hurts to come into that conversation with a transition plan already in hand.

Until then, hone the skills that make for a good manager of any type – things like being a good communicator, mentoring others, and fostering collaboration. Collaboration is a must-have in a management role.

Keep developing your tech skills

A well-rounded DevOps manager has deep technical expertise in at least one area, such as systems architecture, along with broad technical experience. Ideally, a manager will have the ability to program in multiple languages to give relevant feedback and better understand the tools and support team members need. You’ll also need to understand how to respond to security incidents.

Sharpening and adding to your technical skills – and learning new ones – are some of the best things you can do to make yourself more attractive as a potential DevOps manager. Not only will new skills help advance your career, they’ll help your paycheck even if you decide to remain an individual contributor. And don’t forget the “impress your boss” benefits of being a continuous learner.

Understand the expectations (and implications) of management

As a DevOps manager, job number one is mediating the interpersonal skirmishes among team members and with other groups. Alone, that can be challenging enough, but it’s just the starting point.

Before you take on the role, make sure you understand what is involved. A DevOps manager will be expected to help set goals and timelines, oversee project management, obtain needed tools and skills, understand the work teams are doing, advocate for team interests within the wider organization, evangelize, and generally be a cheerleader for anyone who needs it. And don’t forget, cheerleading is serious business in many organizations. A DevOps manager also needs a good network, and to be able to bring people onboard to fill skills gaps.

Find a mentor

Many companies offer mentorship programs, including GitLab, and they can be a tremendous resource for someone looking to grow into a management role. A mentor doesn't have to be a technology leader – learning management from someone in marketing, sales, or finance is useful as well.

Volunteer for an interim role

Whether it's the "great resignation" or simply the usual tech churn, turnover can mean teams need "interim" leaders. Being an interim manager can be an opportunity to get your feet wet, help out in an area that might not be completely familiar, and show your willingness to stretch, learn new things, and be a true team player. Obviously, many interim roles don't turn into permanent ones, but they still offer experience that can help build a case for a promotion to management.

Now, you're a manager

Once you’ve stepped into a DevOps manager role, here are three ways to be successful:

  1. Lead the change. The concept of DevOps obviously means that development and operations are working together, but it also requires working closely with other functional areas with a culture of openness. Good managers break down organizational silos and help people assimilate and embrace the changes needed for successful DevOps. The best DevOps managers are able to bridge communication gaps, tearing down the walls between functions – especially developers, IT operations, and security – and strive to instill a sense of shared purpose and empathy.

  2. Focus on the processes and the metrics. A successful DevOps manager is able to toggle quickly between personnel and process. Fine-tuning the CI/CD pipelines, test automation, multi-cloud options, and cutting-edge technology choices like Kubernetes and AI/ML will require a continuous improvement mentality and a serious reliance on metrics. If you can’t measure performance, it’s tough to improve it. Also, by focusing on incremental performance increases, a DevOps manager not only increases development velocity, but is in a good place to plan for the future.

  3. Don’t overlook training for the team. Technical skills are the lifeblood of the DevOps team, and they need constant updating. But most people feel they are too busy to take time for training and some of it may not be particularly compelling. Your challenge as a DevOps manager is to first convince your managers that the training is justified and then to persuade your team to make time for it. Find the right kind of training and offer it to the people who need it, when they need it. Delivering learning in chunks of five to 10 minutes, also known as microlearning, has been proven much more engaging for employees and drives retention. So, look for training employees can schedule and do on their own time and terms – and ideally via mobile devices.

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