Justin's TechBlog

A Software engineer with a tangent on DevOps/SRE and all things cloud - from the dark world of WinTel. Loves to play around with CI/CD tools, and all things cloud scale, and spends much of his time gaming. If you're a Ops/Infra/WinTel guy looking to transform into something more relevant, this is your blog!

Thoughts on DevOps/Site Reliability Engineering and the IT consulting/outsourcing industry

Another non-technical post in quite a while - written while waiting for my flight back to Sydney from Brisbane (still distraught because of that ridiculous Pacquiao VS Horn decision).

This basically is my commentary on the state of the “IT consulting industry” with regards to the changes happening across tech, and how it’s affecting how organisations “contract” external party consulting companies. I’d like to touch some related pillars like HR, recruitment, outsourcing, and the growth mindset (as well as its opposite, the fixed mindset) - and how this affects the maturity of the IT industry.

A Core realisation

Before I start, there’s one thing that I’ve believed in since about 4 years ago - when this digital disruption wave started - that any organisation that doesn’t believe they are a tech organisation in this day and age, will die a slow death of mediocrity towards the spiral into irrelevance.

The good news is a lot of organisations have since realized this already and have tried to make advances into “digitally transforming their business”. The bad news is what most failed to account for is that you will need to “digitally transform” your staff and their capabilities as well, whether through organic means, by acquiring external resources, or maybe by asking someone to do that for you (e.g. outsourcing).

Consulting Companies

Consulting companies, system integrators, or whatever they like to call themselves nowadays built their business model on one key assumption - that the market does not want to own complexity within their organisation, especially in domains that are not their “core business”. Thus created the need for organisations who, for lack of a better word, are really really good in “keeping the lights on”. Enter Consulting organisations, System Integrators, Outsourcing companies, etc. The problem with this however, is that these organisations built practices, capability, and processes which have been overfitted to “keep the lights on”. Which fast forward to today is everything that “transformation” and “disruption” stand against.

The problem with outsourcing

“I want to focus on my core business, outsource everything else” - is a phrase thrown around almost everywhere, and unfortunately, IT was part of that heap of “not my core business” domains. Organisations who have shackled themselves to 3-5 year outsourcing deals have unfortunately been held hostage by other organisations who have ran their stuff for the last couple of years, who own that knowledge and capability of “keeping the lights on”, and are now the primary blocker in truly achieving transformation. Thus, it is not uncommon to find that sentiment of organisations to these consulting/SI/outsourcing companies are not positive.

A ray of hope?

It’s not all bad news in the consulting world though - at least in Australia, “born in the cloud” consulting organisations have spun up who have realised that the old way of doing consulting (which is really only good for the consulting industry, not for its customers) no longer works. I can think of a pair of companies who i’ve had the pleasure of interacting with in my job hunt. These organisations know that charging $$$ for manhours, while building in complexity and tight depenencies is no longer a business model that will work. Instead, acting as coaches for transformation is what builds more meaningful relationships. These organisations also help the market embrace complexity, and make it trivial. A good example is the idea of deploying code multiple times into production in a single day - a previously heretical statement in “the old world”, but something that really becomes important in this age of “disruption”. The old adage of teaching a man how to fish versus giving them a fish, is the best allegory I can think of.


All the things above help form my conclusion that current consulting companies cannot and willl not adopt DevOps/Site Reliability Engineering practises. Simply because they view the outcome as something that puts them out of a job. This is the same conversation with automation VS blue collar work - where I believe, yes it is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to transform blue collar work into work higher above the value chain.

The challenge for Human Resources

It is without question that the tech industry is always in dire need of good capability. And obviously, top tech talent will always be in high demand and in low supply. So unless we can magically churn out top tech talent from a magical box, this problem won’t go away anytime soon. The other option, sometimes for smaller players in the tech space is to attract the right talent (more on this later). Hire people based on their potential and willingness to improve, rather than what they currently do or what they’ve done. Easier said than done right?

Attracting the right talent

Again in my job hunt for the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the absolute pleasure in dealing with individuals in the recruitment space (specifically those in the DevOps space) - and one common denominator I’ve found is that almost all of them either attend meetups, or organise meetups. What’s the best way to look for people who have this mindset? Go to where they are, or even better, organise an avenue for them to do so.

Similar to sales people, I believe top tier recruitment have to function as sales - building a pipeline, having that intimate relationship with customers, and ultimately, being customer focused. These great recruitment professionals understand that the customer are the candidates, and the product is the organisation they are placing for.

How to keep them?

Now that you got them to sign, job done, right? Not really - if you hired the right people, these people will look for key things in their new role:

  • Being part of a real outcome - does the product you deliver, or trying to deliver actually solve a problem that is worth solving? Does it deliver a real outcome for it customers?
  • Being heard and empowered - are they just there to do what they’re told, or did you actually hire them because you need their help to solve specific problems?
  • Is there a safe system of work to allow experimentation and innovation? - Keeping the lights is hardly innovation. So if you haven’t engineered a way to allow these individuals to experiment to learn and try bleeding edge stuff (towards customer outcomes of course) then expect them to start looking for other places where they can.
  • Compensation - who am I kidding? Who are we kidding? Of course compensation is probably the #1 or #2 metric here. If you’ve had a read of the Netflix culture slide, top tech organisations understand that if you only give them what they’re worth once they’re leaving, then you’re already too late. Give them (proactively) what the market deems they’re worth (high performing tech organisations pay at the 75-95th percentile) even before they think about leaving.

The challenge to IT pros

The last part of this equation is us, tech pros, developers, sysads, sysops, testers, and everything in between. I leave you guys with this graphic below: from here fixedminsetvgrowthmindset.png

Some excuses I’ve heard for the past x years across multiple industries:

  • I’m not a developer
  • I’m not an ops guy
  • I don’t understand networking (not MLM LOL)
  • I’ve never touched a server
  • I don’t have time to study

News flash - soon enough the market will exclusively look for cross-functional professionals. To illustrate, below are a number of metaphors used to describe individual skillset (an alternative read is this):

  • I-shaped - is what the market was looking for 5-10 years ago. People with very specific and deep, deep skills in a single discipline. Take DB admins, .NET developers, Javascript developers, COBOL developers, ABAP developers. These people used to get paid really really well. But now, there’s an overabundance of them with not enough work. Outsourcing and consolidation needed people with more diverse, but less deep capabilities.
  • T-shaped - is what outsourcing needed and breeded. People who are multi skilled, probably really really good in one place, but not much anywhere else.
  • E-shaped - defined differently everywhere, but in the simplest sense, people who are deeply skilled in multiple disciplines, while being competent everywhere else. This is what technology organisations must strive to have in their employee roster. This gives you redundancy, ability to shuffle and rotate individuals around without losing velocity. Most importantly, allows people to have a better understanding of the bigger picture/both sides of the fence. Allows you to easily make everyone responsible for organisation-wide goals and outcomes, instead of role-specific goals and outcomes.

Again, easier said than done. But our industry actually has it better than most industries. Other industries are facing job extinction due to automation, ours is simply undergoing a natural evolution - where we must upskill, and cross-skill to what the industry of the future requires.

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