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How to succeed in an ops career without really trying

An ops career can be stressful if you don't approach decision makers, vendors and end users with flexibility and realistic expectations.

Making DevOps and traditional IT operations work properly is usually a thankless job.

End users expect a perfect experience without interruption. To make this happen, end users shouldn't notice that ops did anything. Doing things correctly, as IT ops and DevOps professionals know, often turns out to be the hardest thing to consistently achieve. Constantly refocusing priorities, while keeping systems running and making continual changes to a production environment, is stressful.

All environments are different -- there is never a one-size-fits-all answer. Part of a successful ops career requires the traits of flexibility and good decision making under fire. But there are ways to improve the situation.

Getting buy-in for resources

Budgetary constraints are a common brick wall for ops. But the solution could be as simple as buying a small piece of software that allows staff to work proactively and can make everyone's lives easier. Having a request rejected for a $30 product that will save you hours of work each week can be frustrating. The solution is to make a business case for what you need. Justify why the purchase is necessary, and outline what will happen if it's not spent. Outline other options too, if there are any, and show why your solution is the best. If that gets rejected, seek other input.

Communicate issues to your team so everyone understands your goals. That proposed software that was rejected could have a trickle-down effect with grave consequences on your company and, possibly your ops career. For example, a well-meaning, but inexperienced, IT employee may try to find a free solution to a problem online. But downloading the wrong free tool online can open the organization up to security issues or malware.

Mitigate risks with vendors

Vendors can be a great source of pain, and there's a lot that can go wrong when dealing with a third party. However, there are steps you can take to mitigate vendor risks.

Limit [vendor] access to your systems after implementation, and only grant access when necessary.

Before buying from a vendor, ask for customer references. Test the product and try to poke holes in it. Be sure you fully understand how the product fits into your business plan. Ask about potential problems with the product. And finally, ask to speak to both sales and engineering staff. Engineers are generally not driven by sales bonuses, so can give you more realistic answers to your operational questions.

After buying, be as involved as you can with implementation. Hoping the vendor will make the best decisions for you and your environment is not a safe approach. Limit its access to your systems after implementation, and only grant access when necessary. Insist on change management and being informed before anything gets looked at if it is connecting to your environment, if possible.

Being diplomatic with all end users

To the IT department, everyone is an end user. From the receptionist to the CEO, everyone wants a piece of you. End users can be demanding -- with high expectations and unreasonable requests. They can be the bane of existence for ops, wanting something fixed or changed at unrealistic deadlines. It's rare to see a workplace where one rule can be enforced within all these groups without exceptions. And it can be difficult to understand the requirements, find or create a solution to their problems, and then implement it in a timely way.

My general advice for dealing with end users is to be adaptable. Some users want to have an hour-long meeting discussing a tiny request, and others will give a one liner and expect a whole new system to be implemented based on that. The art of communication, and in turn, managing expectations, is the most important skill in your ops career. Do it poorly and everyone will notice. An ops career can be enjoyable and fulfilling, but you have to put a lot in to get something out of it. Shortcuts and temporary fixes are going to make things worse for all involved. Always communicate change; a well-designed solution that provides flexibility will make life in IT ops a lot less stressful.

Next Steps

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This was last published in February 2016

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