As with two other big trends in digital delivery over the past decade or so—‘Cloud’ and ‘Agile’—the awareness and expectation of DevOps can be oversold and too easily misunderstood by key stakeholders. In a world where people increasingly ask for a simple summary, striking a balance between selling the benefits and highlighting the challenges and required investment, needs to be given due attention. DevOps cannot be reduced to a one-line description.
This is as true in the hiring and retaining of good DevOps engineers early in the development of your DevOps evolution. Unless the whole hiring process is aligned, you have every chance of attracting the wrong sort of people and losing out on the good ones. Does everyone involved in the decision to hire someone have a clear shared outcome in mind?
Many small companies have the luxury of having a very personal hiring process. The person leading the hiring may well be the person that the new hire will report to or at least have daily contact with if they join the team. This can, and within smaller companies often does, include a wider team mixer where the candidate and existing team can get to know each other and measure their fit. Larger companies don’t usually have this flexibility built in.
A more typical picture for large companies is to involve HR and their typical hiring channels—those people that have been so good at getting the traditional delivery engineers, may not have sufficient knowledge of the skillset of the DevOps engineer. Of course, some recruiters will be quick to evolve with the changes, but most will take time to do so.
To improve your chances of finding good people, the sort that are going to help you take your delivery where you want to go, will require more hands-on involvement than you might have had before. Add to this that you may need to look at setting a cultural expectation that could be different from the wider business culture that HR teams are more used to representing.
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Equally important to evolving your internal hiring process is the way you engage with prospective candidates. Where you may have sold all the positives of the company or been very focused on the specific work that they were being hired for, you may need to now be more forthcoming with the challenges and aspirations for cultural change.
Whilst this level of open hiring might feel uncomfortable (because nobody likes to talk about the challenges and issues), you are more likely to hire people who are interested in being part of the solution and have the right expectation going into the role.
Here are 6 steps that will help:
1. Educate and inform the hiring channel.
Ensure you are very clear with the recruiters about what you are looking for, as much in terms of technical skills, but also with a clear steer towards where you want the new recruit to assist in developing your team's’ overall capabilities. If changing culture is important, make sure that this is clear to the recruiter, and that they understand what you mean by this. It is a waste of everyone’s time if you hire someone expecting them to be the catalyst or agent for change, only to find out that their expectation is that the change has already happened and they thought they were joining a well-oiled DevOps machine.
2. Increase your hiring capability internally.
Instead of having a two or three step interview process that’s one-on-one, look at how you can build in more collaboration from the outset. If you’re wanting to have more open collaboration as a culture, take that into the hiring process. Have two or three people from the first meeting, and instead of an interview aim for a discussion. Of course, you need to keep the focus on their fit, but having others involved already starts to share what is good in a potential candidate with more people. Ensure that the people involved (or at least those leading) the discussion understand and support the move to a new DevOps state. Even if you can’t secure all the candidates you might want to, you may hear some great real-world experience war stories across a broader set of people.
3. Reduce the ‘process stuff.’
From day one you’re making an impression on your new hire. The more you can do to make this seamless, the better, both for you and for them. If they arrive and have to go through a difficult system of online forms, reviewing compliance policies and sitting through one-day inductions just to get a laptop and their log-in details, they’ll quickly see that the company is not culturally what they’re looking for. Building this capability may require testing something more flexible and trust based, with the right controls in place.
4. Schedule early feedback discussions.
Make sure you’re scheduling in a couple of early discussions with the new hire. This shows that open collaboration is part of your personal leadership approach. Try to ensure that these discussions allow the new hire to be very honest about what they are experiencing—are the issues aligned to your own expectation, or worse, or better? If appropriate open this up to a smaller group, which goes further to show the desire for a culture of communication. You will need to judge when and whether this is appropriate, based on your own experience of the existing team and their willingness to hear, and offer, honest discussion.
5. Support team builders, deal with team breakers.
Any role that involves changing culture or ways of working can upset existing team members, however that doesn’t mean that a bad hire can upset people unnecessarily. You will need to look at whether the new person is making a positive – if somewhat uncomfortable – change that takes the business in the direction you want, or whether they are simply disruptive without being able to take others on the journey too. Too often managers don’t deal decisively with bad hires early on, and beyond a probation period this can become more difficult to address. It’s not worth upsetting your good people by allowing a bad hire to stay around to do damage.
6. If you promise cultural change, then you must follow up too.
To hire good people you will need to paint a picture of where you’re aiming to be, unless you’re already hiring into a good DevOps culture. No single hire should be expected to carry the change themselves – that needs your support and backing. A great hire will quickly spot if they have an impossible mission and will be out the door – there are just too many other good options out there for them to stick around. Make sure that you are doing your part to empower and enable them to move the whole capability in the direction that you want.
There are few easy hires, especially with technically talented people, but when those talented people are also expected to influence a change in culture, it is very important to make sure that they are leading in the way that you need them to.