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IT careers: 10 top DevOps engineer interview questions for 2021

Blog: The Enterprise Project - Enterprise Technology

Love it or leave it, the “DevOps engineer” title – still stirring debate among IT pros – is here to stay in 2021. It was one of the hottest and hardest-to-fill positions in IT in 2020.

[ Why is DevOps engineer a controversial IT title that’s here to stay? Eveline Oehrlich explains. ]

Today, job boards show loads of open DevOps engineer positions (and similar titles or roles). That means there will be many DevOps engineer interviews, and they come with considerations for both the interviewers and candidates.

What do DevOps hiring managers seek? “The number-one trait they look for is team fit.”

Ravi Lachhman, evangelist at Harness, notes an intrinsic challenge in DevOps interviews for both sides of the table: The DevOps engineer title is inherently broad. Both the hiring manager and the interviewee need to develop questions and answers accordingly, and expand their horizons beyond the traditional technical interview.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate to recently talk to a series of DevOps leaders around their hiring practices,” Lachhman says. “The number-one trait they look for is team fit.”

While job seekers should anticipate technical questions around tools and processes, the people part of the equation is just as important, if not more: How do your individual traits bolster the team you’re looking to join? There is likely less perceived value in ‘I know all the tools!” than in “Here’s how I’ve helped reduce operational complexity” or “Here’s how I’ve helped different teams better work together toward common goals.”

[ Where is your IT career headed? Read also: IT careers: 10 critical skills to master in 2021. ]

“DevOps teams continue to scale, and meeting the demands of the engineering organization and the business side of the house takes grit,” Lachhman says. “No one person can have the entire end-to-end expertise in every system and platform that the team builds and supports. Working as a team and having an open mind is critical, and most of the time there will be more than one hand in the DevOps team delivering functionality or infrastructure.”

10 DevOps engineer interview questions and answers

With that context in mind, we asked Lachhman and other experts to share some of the top interview questions for DevOps engineers positions (and similar roles) in 2021. And, of course, we’ll share advice on developing good answers. You can use these from the standpoint of both the interviewer and the candidate. (Also check out our related story, Top IT interview questions for 2021, for more prep material.)

Let’s dig in:

1. What did you do to exceed expectations in your last role? What opportunities did you have (and take) to improve your outcomes?

Eveline Oehrlich, chief research director at DevOps Institute, says that the first and final questions in an interview are especially important since psychology (serial-position effect by Herman Ebbinghaus) shows they will be the easiest to recall later. As a result, they can have a lasting impact on the perception of the interview for both sides. Oehrlich suggests this one as a lead question, while bearing in mind that 2020 was a trying year for many individuals and organizations alike.

“This will show what abilities a person has, above and beyond mastering a role,” Oehrlich says. “The demand for people who are able to change, be creative, flexible, and driven is one of the top 10 must-have skills from our research at the DevOps Institute.”

DevOps is not about one concentrated skill or platform; this question opens a wide door to learning how someone approaches a role, solves problems, and so forth.

“As things still will be difficult in 2021 given our global situation on jobs, skills, pandemic, and financial situations, it is essential that the person we hire is empathetic and can adjust to different situations,” Oehrlich says, adding that this question is also an invitation to discuss additional skills or experience that might be relevant to the position, beyond the core requirements of the job description.

“The interviewer can follow up with specific questions on what was the person’s favorite part of the previous position and, if suitable, what was a challenge,” Oehrlich says. “Of course, smart interviewees turn this around into a positive, [such as] ‘I am very detail-oriented and because of that take a lot of care when I work on a specific project.’ This will also allow an insight into the employees’ desire to learn.”

[ Want more advice? Read also: How to get a job during COVID-19: 9 smart tips. ]

2. Tell me an initiative you can spearhead that will improve DevOps workflow

No matter the specifics of the role, most DevOps pros are obsessive about continuous improvement throughout the software delivery pipeline and the related infrastructure. Here’s a chance to show how you identify and go about implementing those kinds of improvements. Experienced DevOps pros could obviously share real-world examples; someone trying to break into their first position could use a hypothetical. Regardless, automation is one area to stress.

“A DevOps engineer should be prepared (and eager) to find specific areas where automation can streamline processes in 2021, even if that means suggesting team reorganizations to better align with cloud-native pipeline workflows,” says Glen Kosaka, VP of product at NeuVector. “Many DevOps functions all along the CI/CD pipeline and into production – from security to operations to compliance management – need to be organized more efficiently in order to eliminate manual processes or configurations that are impeding progress or unnecessarily hogging DevOps’ time.”

[ Need to explain key Agile and DevOps terms to others? Get our cheat sheet: DevOps Glossary. ]

This is the kind of question that helps differentiate between someone who’s good at talking tools and processes versus someone who understands how those tools and processes can produce tangible results. They can discuss not just the “what” of DevOps but the “how” and “why,” especially when it comes to automation.

“The gains to be had are big at many enterprises, and DevOps engineers should make the case for being proactive – or at least ready and willing – in 2021 to place every activity and requirement under scrutiny for more automation,” Kosaka says.

3. Describe a time you chose to build out a solution rather than buy, and the factors that went into the decision

Questions that not only reveal someone’s technical chops but also how those skills intersect with critical thinking abilities are key in DevOps interviews. Asking about the build-versus-buy choice IT teams regularly make is a good way to dig into that relationship.

“This question helps shed light into their thought process and decision-making abilities,” says Abby Boyle, director of recruiting at ReliaQuest. “Have they done their due diligence and considered all options or alternatives? Have they weighed out each option to determine which solution is best and the most ROI? Finally, have they given thought to maintainability with the solution they’ve built and how that applies to the team or company in the future?”

4. Describe a deploy pipeline for a three-tier web application

Arjun Narayan, co-founder and CEO of streaming SQL database Materialize, says this is a question his firm asks in any DevOps or SRE interviews. It serves here as an example of how interviewers and candidates should be prepared to dig into skills and experience that apply to the company’s specific technology products or stack.

The prompt is born out of Materialize’s customer-facing web application, which consists of three pieces: a React single-page application, a Ruby on Rails API backend, and a PostgreSQL database.

“The backend and frontend are in different directories of the same repository. Our application developers have already written a test suite with good coverage for both the frontend and backend and would like new changes pushed to the main branch to automatically deploy the new code to production,” Narayan says. “As part of the interview, we’d ask a candidate: How would you host the three components? How would you deploy changes to the code and database schema? How would you scale the application to handle 1,000x the current number of users?”

Again, the wording of this particular prompt or question will vary depending on the product or stack the person will be working with in a given position. But Narayan says it’s a wide-ranging prompt that gives the candidate a chance to show off their skills and knowledge, rather than an interview “gotcha” or a nitty-gritty technical test.

“We’re really trying to allow space for a candidate to focus on their strengths and previous experience rather than trying to suss out their weaknesses,” Narayan says. “By providing a candidate with a broad prompt and attempting to drill in for depth somewhere they are comfortable, we feel that the candidate will have a better experience and the interview will be more substantial than if you try to test simply for subject matter expertise.”

Let’s dig into six more questions, starting with your ability to build consensus:

5, 6, and 7: A trio of related questions

How do you go about building consensus?

How do you take feedback? Is there a time that you had negative feedback and what was your response?

How do you learn and keep up with industry trends?

Lachhman points to each of these three related questions as examples that are equally important for DevOps hiring managers and candidates. Each speaks to the practical realities of a DevOps engineer position and DevOps culture overall. Continuous learning speaks for itself; if you can’t respond to that question, you’re sending up a red flag.

The question about consensus-building ties to the interdisciplinary nature of DevOps roles and the need to be able to work well across functions and stakeholders, Lachhman says. Not everyone has the patience required to get buy-in for changes that will impact an entire team or organization, for example.

“Dealing with lots of engineers can be like herding cats,” Lachhman says. “Lots of opinions and priorities can fly around.”

Lastly, the feedback question is inherently worthwhile to DevOps culture, but it is perhaps especially valuable if you’re interviewing someone who is transitioning from, say, a traditional software engineer role into a DevOps job. Lachhman notes that a person might be used to hearing feedback only in code/sprint reviews, rather than the more frequent feedback loops they might encounter as a DevOps engineer or related role like SRE.

“As a DevOps engineer with potentially more internal customers, feedback is certainly to come more often,” Lachhman says.

8. What is the biggest challenge you faced in your previous position or team? How did you overcome it?

If the first and final questions have the most influence on the overall feel and substance of an interview, this is Oehrlich’s suggestion for a closing prompt.

“This is great as the last question as it can expose a variety of skills such as problem-solving, communication, collaboration, learning, and styles – all top must-have skills for a DevOps [professional] or any human going into 2021,” Oehrlich says.

Oehrlich notes that a candidate who’s on top of things will also return this question to the interviewer: “What’s the toughest challenge your team is facing right now?”

This can produce insight into the day-to-day realities of the position and organization, including potential warning signs about cultural problems or other issues.

“This could make or break the deal,” Oehrlich says. “I asked that question one time and I learned that there was a lot of bureaucracy within an organization [that impeded people’s ability] to get things done. Even though the position was excellent, with great benefits and a super-cool challenge, I was no longer interested.”

9. Why are you hiring?

But wait, you said that was the final question of the interview.

Not so fast: Extending Oehrlich’s anecdote, it’s important for DevOps engineer candidates to ask questions of their own. While this is common advice for most job interviews, Lachhman says it’s especially critical for DevOps roles because the title can mean very different things to different people. It’s the proverbial wide paintbrush.

This big-picture question, suggested by Lachhman, could reveal a lot about the hiring manager, the team, or the organization – whether the reasons are good, bad, or ugly.

“This is a loaded question that can expose a lot about the team and workload,” Lachhman says. “Are they hiring because they want to scale the team and hit the limits on what they can achieve? Did someone leave and they are forced to backfill? Are they looking to bring on additional skill sets that they do not have?”

10. How much of this job is on-call?

This is a good way to dig into an organization’s philosophy (or possible lack thereof) on work-life balance without actually using the phrase “work-life balance” directly, which could produce a canned answer that obscures some of the realities of the job.

“System engineering jobs usually have an on-call portion to their job if supporting production systems,” Lachhman says. “As the development pipeline is viewed as critical for business, they are starting to be treated like production systems with the [same] rigor and uptime requirements as prod.”

This is a chance to find out what’s expected of the DevOps engineer in terms of pager duty and/or general workload – another facet of the job that could vary significantly by team or company – and how that meshes with your goals.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

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Experts share the DevOps engineer job interview questions you will face in 2021 and advice on how to answer them.


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