The Future of Operations

This week I was at Velocity Conf with most of the Etsy Ops team. We had people talking, people helping, and people having great fun all week long.

Towards the end of the week, during the DevOps Days meetings, I had a chat with John Allspaw and the other members of the team about the future of Operations as a craft and trade. Some interesting things came out of this.

…but first a little history lesson:

Back in the late 80’s, through to about 2003, most people agree the best place to find strong operations talent was in ISPs. For years ISPs had been incubators for people who were hungry to learn, improve and excel at Operation roles such as Systems Administration.

At the end of the dot-com bubble, businesses realized they needed to tighten their belts in order to survive. One of the unintended consequences of this was the end of the great incubators we had come to know and love. Suddenly people entering the trade did not have such great places to go.

It took several years for companies centered around web technologies to grow into the main stream. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo, MySpace and many others were able to provide a new place for the raw talents of newcomers to be tempered.

Having crossed that rickety bridge we find a new problem is emerging: In the last ~10 years it has become more difficult to find junior operations talent.
I don’t know what the cause of this is, but it is clearly a trend that needs more investigation and attention.

I feel that as a community, we need to step up and encourage more people to enter the operations trade.
It’s certainly a hard sell; there are few schools which provide degrees in systems administration which isn’t entirely surprising as Systems Administration is much more a craft and vocation than an academic pursuit.
We’re also waiting for systems administration salaries to stabilize again after the recent global recession.

That said, the outlook today seems good. The jobs board at Velocity Conf was covered multiple layers deep in jobs ads. By the end of the conference, our little Etsy Careers sticker could hardly be seen.

Most systems administrators start out being self-taught, playing with Linux or Windows internals, learning how the system works.
I feel that we need to do more to encourage this activity, and expose more people to the crafts of Systems Administration and Operations, in much the same way that companies have done for Computer Science and Software Engineering careers over the last two decades.

There is a growing understanding of the importance of Operations from respected leaders in the IT industry, and research groups, but we need to make sure we don’t ignore the foundations of the pyramid we’ve spent many years building. We need to keep bringing more people into the fold, for they are the ones who will continue the work.

Schools around the world welcome anyone who wants to talk to students about career options. I encourage anyone reading this to find a local high school and see if they would be willing to accept a talk with students on the benefits of careers in Operations.

The community needs to be nourished not just with knowledge, but also with talent, energy and ideas from new faces.

One thought on “The Future of Operations

  1. Reply
    Silver Knight - June 24, 2011

    I think also a bit part of the problem that gets heavily overlooked is simply that systems administration/operations is sometimes an extremely thankless job. When it’s done well, it’s frequently ignored and those who keep things running smoothly are often looked down upon by the corporate bean-counters as an expense. “Why do we need all these people when everything is running so smoothly?” Often it’s the very people who MAKE it run smoothly who are the first to go when corporate goes looking for ways to slash costs and line the pockets of the CEOs/CIOs/other alphabet soup. It’s not until things start to break down that the folks who kept everything running smoothly get noticed at all, and by that time they are only noticed as a target to blame for the problems. Let’s not blame the cost slashing bean-counters for drastically cutting NECESSARY resources that they don’t understand. Let’s blame the last remaining people who scramble frantically with a fraction of what they need to get the job done. Thanks to clueless H.R. folk beating down the people who used to care, nobody WANTS to be beaten like dogs anymore.

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