by Mark Tonsetic

The return of the infrastructure engineer

Nov 30, 2016
CareersIT Leadership

Infrastructure engineers have many opportunities. But these opportunities require fresh thinking about what makes a great engineer and a great engineering culture.

Corporate digital strategy—whether it involves the cloud, the Internet of Things or other technologies—has presented new opportunities for infrastructure engineering. The infrastructure engineer, traditionally relegated to hardware provisioning and maintenance, is now an integral part of solution design and delivery. But this shift entails new expectations along with new demand.

The shift towards cloud-based, software-defined infrastructure requires today’s infrastructure engineer to marry traditional, specialized depth in a technology tower (e.g., network) with architectural breadth across towers. That doesn’t mean a network engineer needs equivalent expertise in storage and hosting technologies, but it does mean engineers have to understand how network, storage and hosting technologies (as well as software) interact and integrate to deliver a business outcome. As more core engineering activities in each tower become automated, engineers will become more focused on the configuration and orchestration of technologies to deliver seamless service performance.

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However, the new infrastructure engineer isn’t just required to span technology towers. A focus on supporting solutions delivery requires engineers to develop deeper knowledge of software development, often in the context of DevOps.

DevOps engineers typically bring a range of skills from both the conventional infrastructure and applications skill sets, including expertise in agile methods, a deep understanding of operations, and automation. Like good developers, they may need to understand both how to derive support requirements when working with business clients, as well as what development teams need to deliver code. While teams of the future may need fewer engineers, the ones they do need will need to be, as an IT leader we recently talked to put it, “corporate athletes”—fluent in technology from requirements through delivery.

Unfortunately, the demand for the new infrastructure engineer is currently greater than what the market can support, leading to salary expectations beyond the ceiling of many staff budgets. Our analysis of data from CEB TalentNeuron, a tool containing over 2 billion job descriptions across 175 countries, found that the median salary for a DevOps engineer ranged from $109,000 to $155,000. (Disclosure: I am employed by CEB.) Median salaries for solution architects and cloud solutions architects fell within this range as well.

An extremely competitive recruiting market has led several organizations to ask whether corporate athletes can be built, as well as bought. Our analysis of corporate IT practices suggests the answer is yes, with the right three-step approach:

1. Look for “unicorn potential,” not for unicorns.

The new infrastructure engineer must have both technical and business competency. Many organizations make the mistake of looking externally for the perfect hire—the “full-stack engineer”—when they should instead look internally for the potential to develop these competencies.

One IT organization we studied staffed a new cloud infrastructure team completely with internal candidates based on two considerations. First, while each candidate had depth in at least one technology tower, they also demonstrated technical ambition, or the initiative to develop cross-functional expertise. Second, each candidate had to demonstrate an orientation towards business results: the ability to understand the business context of a technology project and the business value required from a new solution.

In the application development space, our analysis of more than 300 agile teams has shown the teams with these foundational competencies are two to four times more likely to be successful in achieving project outcomes, and we believe this will hold true for infrastructure engineers, as well.

2. Change the engineering culture, and the engineers will follow.

In many IT organizations, legacy cultures and mindsets can inhibit the development of the technical and business competencies organizations need. CEB’s Climate of Openness Survey of nearly 1,000 IT employees found that 94 percent are too risk-averse, process-centric or siloed to effectively meet new IT demands.

These aren’t characteristics that are innate to IT staff. They’re characteristics that IT organizations have inadvertently promoted through performance metrics, leadership communications and organizational models. These strategies can all be retooled to emphasize learning agility, a business-outcomes orientation and in-person collaboration with business partners.

3. Reframe career paths around key experiences.

The breadth required by the new infrastructure engineer requires exposure to a range of experiences not necessarily provided by the traditional career path, whether in terms of working with new technologies or business activities that depart from “business as usual” (like M&A). In short, the new infrastructure engineer can’t be built from the old career path. Thoughtful IT leaders build career paths for their teams that are less focused on roles and more focused on the experiences staff will need to draw from as future engineering leaders.

The opportunities for infrastructure engineers have rarely been as bright as they are now. But these opportunities require fresh thinking about what makes a great engineer and a great engineering culture. Leaders who get this right will have an outsized impact on the success of their companies’ digital strategies in the years to come.

Sarah Love, IT program coordinator at CEB, also contributed to this article.