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S4E2: How to Break Into a DevOps Career With Nicole Forsgren

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Dr. Nicole Forsgren is the CEO and Chief Scientist at DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA), where she and her team use data to help software companies reach their full potential. She’s best known as the lead investigator on the State of DevOps Reports–the largest DevOps study to date–and has earned several distinctions as a thought leader in DevOps.

Before entering this career path in DevOps, Nicole was a professor, a performance engineer, and a sysadmin. She left academia with the goal of bringing science-based insights to the tech industry, which she has certainly achieved.

In our conversation, we talk about all things DevOps! Nicole explains what DevOps is, how she discovered it, what skills are required based on what area of the field you want to enter, and what the next steps are for a person pursuing or considering a DevOps career.

This episode was transcribed with the help of an AI transcription tool. Please forgive any typos.

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Laurence Bradford 1:17
In today's episode I talk with Dr. Nicole Forsgren, the CEO and Chief Scientist at DevOps research and assessment. We talk all about DevOps, specifically what it is, what skills a DevOps career entails, how a person can get started in a DevOps career, and much more. Dr. Nicole Forsgren is the CEO and Chief Scientist at DevOps research and assessment. She's best known as the lead investigator on the largest DevOps studies to date. She has also worked as a professor, a performance engineer and assists admin.

Laurence Bradford 1:54
Hey, Nicole, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Nicole Forsgren 1:56
Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Laurence Bradford 1:58
So I am so excited to talk talk with you today because you are the first person to come on the show who specializes in DevOps. So I just wanted to get right down to basics right away. Could you explain what DevOps is to our audience?

Nicole Forsgren 2:12
Sure, absolutely. And I'm, thank you, I'm so excited to be here to talk about this thing that like I'm so excited about this is perfect. So, DevOps is a new software development and delivery methodology that's helping companies and organizations around the world bring value to their organizations in faster, less painful ways, right? That's probably the the easiest, high level way to explain it. But what does that mean, right? What do I actually mean when I say that? So what we mean is, it's going to be some technology in ways that talk about you know, it's going to be words like continuous integration, continuous delivery, using version control using automated testing. But it doesn't just stop at technology and automation. It also brings in processes that pull from, like the Lean management and the Agile canon. And it's also culture, right? It's really kind of a cultural transformation, wherein we bring different groups of people together that maybe traditionally didn't really work together. Right? It's the dev team. It's the QA folks. It's the ops team, really working together in close groups. So that like I said, we can deliver value faster and more reliably, and in less painful ways than we did you know, maybe 10 or 20 years ago.

Laurence Bradford 3:40
So how did you first get into DevOps at then?

Nicole Forsgren 3:44
So it was it was sort of interesting. As you mentioned, I was a professor, but before that, I did hardware performance, I was admin. And I used to work on these really large systems and, you know, work on delivering value and I wanted to help Make it better. But when I did that, you know, we would we would come to our manager or come to our leaders and say, well, let's try this. I want to try this. And they would say, oh, that it's a great story. You know, it may be worked for that other team over there, but it won't work here. You know, we're different, right? I'm sure. You've heard that. And I'm sure people who have who have worked in tech have probably heard that or have had that experience before. And so I actually kind of got into DevOps through research. So I went decided to go get a PhD because I wanted to study what broad practices and capabilities could help make this process the software development and delivery process better and more smooth for all teams broadly. And so that's that's sort of how I got into it is kind of investigating the stories and then collecting data from it from a broad perspective and from a research perspective.

Laurence Bradford 4:55
Okay, nice. So it sounds like you were intact before that. Did you always work in tech or as you come from another industry earlier in your career?

Nicole Forsgren 5:04
I did. I always worked in tech. And actually my very, very first job was on mainframes.

Laurence Bradford 5:09
Oh, wow. So yeah, you've been in tech. That's great, though. But you have always worked in DevOps. DevOps hasn't been around all that long. Am I right?

Nicole Forsgren 5:18
So it, it sort of depends on who you talk to. Right. So, DevOps, the term hasn't always been around, right. So I think the term was, depending on who you talk to. It's sort of started trickling up and around, maybe 2008 2009. The idea started 2007 2008 2009 kind of as an idea around agile system administration, right? Like how do we kind of take the ideas and the concepts around agile and agile development? How do we extend it through the IT operations and maintainability and system administration? Right. And so some groups will say they've been doing it forever, right? Like you're always gonna fight like, you know, Original hipsters, right? The original tech hipsters are gonna say, well, I've been doing it forever. But it really wasn't a broad movement, probably Intel, it didn't really start getting traction until probably 2009 2010. And it's really kind of taken hold. And it's spreading throughout more of the industry now, although we do find large pockets of organizations that are still just starting now. So for anyone who's listening, thinking, but I'm not doing it, we're not doing it, that's fine. Right? You can always start. It's always a process of ongoing improvement. So when I started it, I was not doing DevOps, right. I was definitely doing just core, you know, programming in mainframes, and then also system administration because I was also maintaining the systems that I was working on.

Laurence Bradford 6:44
Got it. So I'm thinking about just like companies and so actually the company I work for, it's a company called teachable to start up and we're at about 60 people and we don't have a dedicated DevOps person yet. We do have some people who help with DevOps related tasks, but a bigger company. Is there usually an entire DevOps department? Are they usually like part of the engineering team? Like, I guess it could vary, but what does that usually look like?

Nicole Forsgren 7:11
So I'm gonna answer by saying it depends. And it's really interesting you say that because some people will get, like really defensive, or maybe like aggressive, they will say you shouldn't have a DevOps person or you shouldn't have a DevOps department. Although when we do have a DevOps department, it's often in just larger organizations and what that DevOps department might look like. It's kind of an enablement organization, right? Like, they may help everyone else kind of do the DevOps, right, as I kind of joke about the DevOps. What often we will see is a cross functional team doing DevOps practices together, right, we'll have this cross functional team wherein, you know, as I said, it's part tech and automation. It's part process, and it's part culture, when we're kind of pulling everyone together to help everyone do all of these projects. Together, so we're going to be using version control for all production artifacts, right? Not just application, but also our infrastructure code. And our configuration, we'll be using automated testing practices.

Nicole Forsgren 8:15
We'll be using deployment automation. We'll be doing trunk based development. We'll also be using Lean management practices like whip limits and working in small batches, doing all those sorts of things. And then the cultural piece, right, so making sure that our ops folks and our dev folks and everyone is really communicating closely, and taking smart risks and trusting each other and innovating together. So you could absolutely be doing DevOps without having a dedicated DevOps person. And some people say that that's the way it should be done as you shouldn't have a DevOps person or a DevOps department. Whereas other groups will have a DevOps team, and they'll say that's the right way to do it. There is No one right way.

Laurence Bradford 9:01
So it sounds like it encompasses all these different things right? Like culture automation tech, how can a person listening to this podcast right now? Get started on a career in DevOps? Is there like a certain area they should start exploring? Or maybe there's another career that usually like kind of funnels into being DevOps?

Nicole Forsgren 9:25
Sure. So there are a few different things you can do. If you've never heard of it before. There, there are a few things you can read. And there are one or two books that are considered seminal reading. Right. So one is the Phoenix project, written by Jean Kim, Kevin Barry Spafford. And it's actually a novel, right, so for people who just don't like reading it, there's also it's also on audiobook and it actually tells the story of an IT organization kind of going through transformation. And that's actually really, really helpful and really great because it helps you visualize right what it is and what a transformation looks like, and, and what constraints are right? Like what this might really look like and then what you can expect to sort of see at the back end. So that's a really great place to start at least. The follow on to that is DevOps handbook that's a little more prescriptive, right? What are the core practices? What are the core capabilities that was written by Jean Kim jazz, humble, john Willis, Patrick Dubois that just came out in the last year or so. And so that one's a little more prescriptive. Effective. DevOps is also really great. Jennifer Davis, Catherine Daniels wrote that, and that's a little stronger on the cultural side. So those two together DevOps handbook and effective about DevOps are really those are really nice companion pieces, and really good reference books as well.

Nicole Forsgren 10:54
Now for people who are really strong on the dev side, continuous delivery day, Farley Just humble wrote that that's always really fantastic as well. Now you asked, How do people often get into DevOps? Right? So what's the what's the traditional career path for this? You can get into it from the dev side, you can get into it from the ops side. Some people get into it from kind of the the coaching or the product management side, right? So there's so many different ways to get into it if you're really interested. So that's, I think, something that I really, really love about it is that it focuses on and it favors, teams empathy, you can always jump online and look up DevOps days and find a local DevOps days in Meetup group. And the thing I love about is that it's such a strong community based conference, and they're everywhere now. Right? There are so many different local devopsdays groups. The morning is often a handful of talks, and the afternoon is open spaces. That's an unconference. And so people will kind of get together they'll propose talks are topics that they're sort of interested in. And then it kind of organizes kind of a self organizing conference around what topics or topics are interesting to people. And sometimes it'll be something like microservices or Kubernetes, or monitoring, but sometimes it's even like bookclub. You know, what's, what's interesting to people now and so you end up growing your community. And that's something else that I really love about the DevOps community is it's about community and sharing and making everyone better. So there's always a really fantastic way into the community.

Laurence Bradford 12:31
Fabulous. So you named a bunch of great books, we're definitely going to include those in the shownotes. You also talked about meetups and the community that there is around DevOps. However, I just know my listeners and they're probably thinking, What skills do I need that what skills do I need? So So is there any like maybe a shortlist or, or a long list perhaps of different skills that are important when it comes to a DevOps career?

Nicole Forsgren 12:56
Sure. Okay. So there's, I want to say like, there's so many but there's also a It kind of depends, right? The answer is always It depends, depends on what it is you want to do. So if you want to go into this and be like a product manager, you can like definitely knowing Agile and Scrum and working in small batches and decomposing work, value stream mapping. Those are some really fantastic valuable skills in terms of leading teams and growing teams that you can now. If you want to come at this from an IT operations kind of framework side of things, knowing either Puppet or Chef or Ansible or you know, Microservices, that can be really fantastic. If you want to come at this from the depth side of the house, that is going to be sort of dependent on what languages you know, your employer is going to know is it going to be Go is it going to be you know, Erling is going to be Rust is going to be Ruby, some of that will kind of depend on Where you end up going? So I would suggest finding or even geographically, right like some, some pockets of the country end up having or some some development hubs end up having like really strong communities around particular languages because employers end up using those languages. So kind of dig into what is happening in your area. And sometimes you can find it just by looking at meetups, right, the meetup and meetups end up cropping up to support those languages. So you can find out what's happening in your area.

Laurence Bradford 14:30
So you mentioned Chef, and I saw on your LinkedIn that you had worked there in the past. And this is it's a company it's a word that I see mentioned all the time, in different tech articles and in job listings as something a person should know. I'm gonna admit I don't really understand what Chef is. Could you explain what the company does and also just like what you did there?

Nicole Forsgren 14:55
Sure, absolutely. So Chef is a configuration management It's so they're open source version is configuration management tool. puppet is another one that's also configuration management, salt and Ansible or our other. It's a different two different types of open source configuration management tools. And so they're, they're great for if anyone has heard of infrastructure as code. It's a fantastic way to manage really large infrastructure. And so for anyone who is new to this area, let's think about a server, right or your laptop, right? When you buy your laptop, you set it up, right typey typey, we click a few buttons, we kind of can set up our laptop and it's not too bad. Or we can think about buying a server, right, we can configure a server manually. But what happens if we have 100 servers, we can set them up, we can configure them, if we want to change a configuration setting. It's not too bad if we need to do it with one or two or five or maybe even 10. But what happens if we have 100 of them or 1000 of them or 10s of thousands of them?

Nicole Forsgren 16:00
We don't want to have to do it one at a time. So we want to do that with code. Particularly, we want to do it with code, because then we can do it with code. And we can push it out to all of the servers. And what happens if it doesn't stick? Right? It doesn't work or it doesn't roll out. We want the code to know that didn't work, and then manage the configuration of all of our servers, and upgrade all of our servers and patch all of our servers. So that's what our configuration management software does. It manages our infrastructure with code. So chef is one of those software's that does that Chef and Puppet, and salt and Ansible. Those are all types of configuration management software's.

Laurence Bradford 16:48
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Laurence Bradford 18:46
Thank you for elaborating that was so helpful and that you explained it perfectly. And now it makes sense why I see Chef and Puppet all over different job ads, especially job listings that are for DevOps because it's like a skill or a tool that they're looking for someone to know. So that totally makes sense. Yeah. So Nicole, it it seems like are from your LinkedIn again you are running your own company today and it relates to DevOps. So how did you end up making this switch from you know, being Professor than working at chef and now running your own company?

Nicole Forsgren 19:20
Sure. Okay. So let me let me walk through my my story just a little bit. My my path maybe. So I was in industry for years. And then I went got a PhD because I wanted to understand how like what types of things make software development delivery better, and what makes communication and collaboration better. So another area of my expertise is communication, collaboration, knowledge management, particularly among technical professionals. And then I went and I was a professor for years. So what some people don't realize is that for research, active professors are our primary goal and our primary job is actually teaching As research, and so I was research active for a number of years. And my, my expertise was DevOps. Right? So you did mention in, in my, in that introduction there that I've, I've done the largest DevOps studies today. So I was still being research active. And then I sort of came to this interesting fork in the road, where I was still doing a bunch of publishing. And I was trying to share much of my research with industry, because the goal when you're a researcher is to have an impact. And you can have an impact in a few ways. One is to publish as much as you can and get other people to cite your research. And another is to try to impact the industry. Right? So I'd been through that kind of.com bust, right. And I and I don't want to see that happen again, I was I want to see companies do well and impact their users and succeed and develop and deliver software speed and stability and drive value for their customers and value for their users and value for their stakeholders. And the way we made software even just a few years ago, Isn't cutting it anymore, it just doesn't work. And so I could have stayed in academia. But I just didn't see it having a big enough impact anymore. And so I decided it might be a good time to just come back to industry and continue doing research.

Nicole Forsgren 21:16
And so a couple of companies approached me and Chef was one of them. And Chef said, No, we'd love to have you come join us, we will, we would love for you to continue doing your research and have greater impact and greater exposure and at the same time, interface with industry and and get better ideas about what you want to continue researching and at the same time, help us improve our own software development delivery based on your research. And so I went to Chef and did that for about a year and a half. And at the same time, I was leading this the research I was lead investigator on the state of DevOps report. So I'm not sure if if you're familiar with that or if your listeners are familiar that we can That in the show notes as well. This was a project that I lead with the core team at Dora, which is just humble, Jean Kim, and also the team at puppet. So I just mentioned Puppet, right? That's another configuration management team. So this is the largest DevOps study to date. We've done it now for years. And we have been able to identify some of the biggest drivers of performance in software development, delivery and DevOps, some of the core technical and automation practices, some of the core process practices, some of the core cultural practices to really drive transformation and value at the technology level and at the organizational level. And so we did this for a few years.

Nicole Forsgren 22:20
And then we realized we had this like, really exciting thing. And so many companies would come to us at conferences, and they would say, I wish there was a way to measure my own team. You know, not just you know, I read this report and it's amazing, and it's Free and it's open source. And we'll include this in show notes. But I wish there was a way I could measure my own teams. I wish there was a way I could assess my own teams, right? I'm trying to build out my own Maturity Model. I wish there was a way I could assess it. And then, you know, where should I start? Nicole? We're doing a transformation, where should I start? And so we, we sort of me and Gina just sat down one day, and we said, well, I know how we know how to measure people now, because we have the scientifically rigorous way to measure it, because it's based on you know, the solid science and the solid research. And once I have a team's data, I can actually tell them where to start. And so we decided to start this company and we kind of started like, as this tiny little side project, you know, I got permission from chef, they were lovely, because it was this little side project. And then once it got big enough, I I stepped away from schaffen and it's sort of a real company we've decided to like see if it could be a real company. So I've been running it for a year now. And you know, Jess is joined full time as well and and we expanded the team and Sue Choi's on the on the team full time as well. And we're now we have to kind of two sides of the company so that the research is open source. And then we have an assessment product that is for sale. That's the commercialization side of the piece. So we can sell assessments to organizations, if they want to know how well they measure, I can benchmark them against the industry, I have over 23,000 data points around the world, all industries, all company sizes, and then I can tell an organization, which areas they should focus in on in their own technology transformations to really accelerate their own their own work in their own transformation, to really make a difference in their value creation.

Laurence Bradford 24:48
So with this product that you mentioned, this is super fascinating. These assessments, is this done is this kind of like a software product that they sort of put this information It kind of gives them a score or are you working alongside them more?

Nicole Forsgren 25:05
That's a great question. So our assessment is different from most that exist in industry right now, because we use a software product, right. So it's based on these scientifically validated rigorous survey questions. And that makes it repeatable, scalable, fast, it, it does kind of kick out a score. It's not, you know, we don't end up working alongside anyone. We don't send out teams of people to do interviews and assessments. And that's what that's what the rest of the industry usually ends up doing is sending out, you know, flying out teams of people, which is just fine. But what ends up happening is you end up introducing bias. And as I'm taking a lot of time, you can't interview everyone. Because ours is survey based and highly scalable. I can interview or I can survey rather, everyone on the entire team across dev test ops. Qa infosec everyone, right? Everyone that is involved in the software development delivery process so I can collect everyone's data, and then roll it up algorithmically.

Laurence Bradford 26:10
Wow, that's really that's really cool. I don't think I've ever tried to even compare it think of a comparison, but I can't maybe maybe there's other products kind of similar. But that's really. Yeah, that's really that's really fascinating. So you've been doing that now for over a year. Mm hmm. And that's, you know, your main, it's no longer a side project. It's become a full fledged business.

Nicole Forsgren 26:31
That's my real job now.

Laurence Bradford 26:33
How exciting. So do you guys have an office like an area that you live or get since it's all surveys, it can be done remotely?

Nicole Forsgren 26:41
Yep. We're all remote and we offer the product around the world. We have customers all over North America. All throughout the UK and EMEA. we're chatting with a handful in places like Australia and APAC we don't we don't have localization yet. We haven't translated into other languages but we're we're kind of up and down. On the west coast, primarily but but I've delivered assessments throughout India, like I said, all throughout North America. So, and we have some really, really fantastic customers in finance, healthcare and pharma, insurance, Telecom, retail. So we've got some we have some really, really fantastic, wonderful customers that have been lovely to work with.

Laurence Bradford 27:27
What an amazing story you have. And I'm like totally switching gears now. Well, it still is about DevOps. But one of the questions I'd written down I really wanted to ask is where the DevOps field is head is heading. And what I mean by that is, what can a person do today? What could they learn to position themselves in a way that would set themselves up for success in the future?

Nicole Forsgren 27:52
Oh, there are so many places that there are so many things that you can learn and so many, like different areas that we're going to I think it's, you can set yourself up for success in so many different ways. Right? So the interesting thing is that technology is just getting, in some ways smaller and smaller, and in other ways more and more complex, right. So we're moving toward microservices, which makes things smaller. But we're also including more and more distributed systems, which makes them more and more complex. Any type of things that are dealing with data machine learning, that is a new challenge that that DevOps is just starting to deal with and integrate. That's making things super, super interesting, right, including machine learning and AI. All of the micro services and platform as a service is making things move faster, which is really, really interesting. Getting involved in open source communities is always a great idea because more and more enterprises are embracing that and leveraging it and using those types of software as employees forms right now. So you know what, what enterprises were really hesitant and reluctant to use even three, four or five years ago, they're absolutely using right now. So that can always be a fantastic place to start.

Laurence Bradford 29:14
Wonderful, wonderful. So you mentioned a bunch of these things, all these resources, all these directions one can take and how DevOps careers can really vary from company to company. And it just depends on kind of what direction you want to take it, which is really exciting. I love how flexible it could be. But for someone who is super new to tech, and they think something in DevOps that is very, you know, combines these different areas, tech automation culture, as you mentioned, if there's one thing they could do to get started, again, this person is your experience. What would it be? So maybe it's a certain book or course or maybe it's whatever what was would it be?

Nicole Forsgren 30:00
Okay, so I would, I would say two things. So one, I would say, read the Phoenix Project, because that will be like a fantastic intro and overview into what DevOps is, right? Like, like, that's table stakes. You've got to read the Phoenix Project because everyone will also ask you have you read the Phoenix Project, so you need to read the Phoenix Project, or listen to it on audiobook and then pick up some sort of technical skill. now realize it's not just technical skills, but you know, figure out what it is you want to do if you want to be a developer. Maybe jump into some sort of open source community Tech Community right now go is a great language. They've got an amazing open source community. They're super welcoming. I keep hearing like amazing amazing wonderful things and as soon as I have any free time I'm probably myself gonna pick up go like I know a handful of other languages. I don't know go yet but like that, that is top of my list. So if you are thinking about going depth side, like maybe because Sit or go, or like Python, right pythons also nice because it's a great language. If you're considering getting into analytics and any type bit like in any way, Python is really great or maybe are. If you're thinking about the ops side of things, or the infrastructure side of things, or the the past the platform as a service side of things, maybe look into, like micro services, or containers, maybe look into, like Kubernetes, or pick up something like puppet or chef, that can always be like an interesting place to start and do a little bit of reading into like, what, what does, what does infrastructure mean, right, like, What does infrastructure look like? And some of that will be a little bit of reading and then you can play around with the code at the same time as well.

Laurence Bradford 31:47
Awesome. So I love that you mentioned Go I actually have a article I wrote recently, based on research that StackOverflow published. Now I realized that this recording is not I'm going to come out for a bit because I'm pre recording everything. But nonetheless, it was called the two highest paying programming languages you may be never heard of, and go is one of them. So it's definitely super in demand right now, for all the listeners, if you've maybe never heard of it before.

Nicole Forsgren 32:15
See, I didn't know that. And really, they are known for having one of the friendliest, most welcoming and open communities ever. Which is, which is great, right? Because you specifically asked for someone who has not done any of this. Right? So that's the thing. And also I love money, right? love money. So get paid, and go for a welcoming community. That's a win win.

Laurence Bradford 32:36
Yeah, I didn't realize the community aspect. But that's even that makes it even better, right, high paid scale or language to know. And they have a welcoming community. Yes, like perfect for a person to learn if they're just getting started to go in that direction. All right. Well, thank you so much, Nicole, for coming on the show. Finally, where can people find you online?

Nicole Forsgren 32:54
Well, thank you for having me. And some of the best places to find me, you can go to my website, nicolefv.com. So that's Nicole, F as in Frank, V as in Victor .com, or you can always hit me up at Twitter. It's @nicolefv.

Laurence Bradford 33:07
Great. Thank you again.

Laurence Bradford 33:14
That's our show. Thanks for tuning in. For a recap order, browse through other episodes and show notes head on over to learntocodewith.me/podcast. If you like tech related content like this podcast, make sure to sign up for my email list. You can do so easily right on the homepage at learntocodewith.me. There's a big signup form right at the top. I will send you new blog posts tell you about time limited course deals and much more. It was great to have you with me today. Join me next week for another episode.

Key takeaways:

  • DevOps is a new software development and delivery methodology that’s helping companies and organisations around the world bring value to their organisations in less painful ways.
  • If you’ve never heard of DevOps before but you’re interested in it, read some of the seminal books on the topic: (1) The Phoenix Project, (2)  The DevOps Handbook, or (3) Effective DevOps.
  • Since DevOps is a hybrid field, there are many ways to get into it — from the “dev” side or the “ops” side. Some people get in from the coaching or product management side.
  • Decide which area of DevOps you’re most interested in and pick which skills to learn based on that.
  • Getting involved in open source projects is always a good idea, because more and more enterprises are using it.

Links and mentions from the episode:

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