Celebrating Technology Leaders Episode 13: Inspiring Women of DevOps

In episode 13 of “ACM-W Celebrating Technology Leaders,” our host, Bushra Anjum, spoke with three technologists with successful DevOps careers to learn from their experiences, both as DevOps engineers and as women in the field.

  • Dorothy Nordberg, Sr. DevOps Engineer, Pure Storage: Dotty is an engaging Team Lead who excels as an advocate and mentor. She is also an accomplished DevOps Engineer with over 10 years of experience in systems administration, maintenance, and automation. Through various speaking engagements, panel discussions, and individual sessions, she has enjoyed and been energized by many opportunities to mentor several hundred folks new to tech.
  • Ayesha Noor, DevOps Manager, Yotascale: A QA turned DevOps Professional working for over a decade in the industry, currently on a mission to help large enterprises reduce their cloud spend.
  • Keheira Henderson, DevOps Engineer, Freelance: Keheira is from Nashville, TN, and currently lives in Colorado, working as a DevOps Engineer. In her free time, she collects backpacks, builds mobile apps, plays video games, and naps.

Let’s get to know them!

Can you tell us about your educational background and career journey? How did you get into your current role?

Keheira: I got into computing from a weird path. I wanted to be a music producer but ended up attending an engineering school. At that time, I mainly focused on mobile security research. I’m an Android developer. I’ve been in DevOps for two years now. My major transition was through doing more automation – freelancing automation like managing back-ends. It worked out for me.

Ayesha: I did my Bachelors in computer engineering around 13 years ago. I started as a QA engineer, and for the first five years of my career, I worked as a QA engineer with some infrastructure management work. Eventually,  I got bored with QA, so I shifted to infrastructure management and developing CI/CD pipelines for the small project that I was working on. I then got an opportunity to work with a Silicon Valley startup, and that’s when I completely switched to DevOps. So, everything that I have learned in DevOps is at that startup, and I have seen growth from zero to where we are today, which is working with big enterprise customers in the US. So, that’s how I got into DevOps, and I’ve been working as a DevOps engineer for around six to seven years.

Dotty: I have a non-traditional background. I do not have a computer science degree. I have a bachelor’s degree in maths. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I started working as an administrative assistant, which is a good job. I wanted to do something else, something more on the science end. So I worked to get some Microsoft certifications, which allowed me to get two job offers as a Microsoft systems administrator. 

Interestingly, the company I worked for had no openings in its IT department. So I interviewed at these other places. So, when I got two job offers, I chose one and handed in my two-week notice to my manager. About an hour later, the director of IT came over to talk. When I had talked to him previously, he had told me there weren’t any roles. So, I thought he would just congratulate me on my new role at the other company. Instead, he offered me a job in the IT department.  It was a better offer, so I wound up staying there and learning a lot. It was a great job.  That was when I was living on the East Coast.

I grew up in New York, lived in Georgia for a while, and then moved to Silicon Valley, California. As a tech person, it’s interesting to see all the buildings with signs of Salesforce, LinkedIn, Meta/ Facebook. I started working as a contractor at one of the big companies that had just acquired a little startup that was building satellites. They had two launched into sub-orbit around the Earth, and that was just a dream job because I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. So I got to do that, and that was a great experience.

I have learned more and more as I went along – the Linux operating system, different CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous deployment) tools, and platforms. I am constantly learning new things and am now learning Terraform to work on infrastructure as code as I get into the coding side. So, it’s been an interesting journey, and I’m still excited and happy to go to work.

What’s it like to be in DevOps?

Keheira: I work in the space industry. For me, it’s system admin and automation. So, a lot of Terraform. I am currently learning Ansible, but I had a background in AWS beforehand. So many times in my previous job, I was at the table when projects were built and looked into resources versus budget based on a particular stack. I was working with VMs, and servers using Docker and Kubernetes. 

Dotty:  I would agree with that.  DevOps is development and operations – we manage, maintain, monitor, and scale the systems the engineering teams use to develop their code. So, that’s the operation side, and then wherever we can, we automate tasks. There’s a joke that DevOps and operations people are kind of lazy in that if something is repeatable or done constantly, you automate it so that you never have to do it again. Then you can work on something fun. 

Ayesha: I would completely agree with all said. In addition, it’s a job where you have to have the mindset to make things work more efficiently to help everyone run their stuff more cohesively, in a more fail-safe way, and much faster than they would. In my experience – working in a startup –  things are often chaotic.  Initially, the developers did a lot of the setup, and it was complete chaos. So, automation and maintenance play a big part – we clean up, adhere to best practices, and remain true when faced with very fast bills or shipping out increments of the product repeatedly and frequently. You do the right thing, even if it takes time or more effort, instead of doing what works now.

How do you manage different teams that may have conflicting asks or preferences?

Dotty: That’s a big one. There’s the software development life cycle, where one of the first stages is planning, but that’s months before the actual product is shipped. You can’t always predict what you’ll need at what time. DevOps deals with the resources needed, sometimes at the last minute on the development side. Say, we will get requests for 100 new systems. That’s often not possible – there is a misconception that operations, DevOps, and sys admin teams have servers just sitting in the back waiting to be used. We do not. In this case, the general plan is to put the fire out -by asking the requesting team will 10 get things unstuck? Then we can see if anything can be reused or repurposed to get another 10 the next week. If you need 100 new systems, it can take three or four months from when it is ordered until it is delivered, racked, and stacked. That’s even pushing it. So the hope is that engineering and development teams will bring DevOps in as early as the planning phase and ask: “Do we have the resources to do that? Do we have the infrastructure to roll this out in a month or two?” I’ve been in a couple of planning meetings where they brought us in early, and everybody was much happier with the infrastructure they requested. I was hoping that teams would talk about it, and it would catch on with the other engineering teams. Managers may need to push a bit more to get the DevOps side of things into the planning stages. 

Keheira:  ln my previous job, I managed five teams. The cool part is getting people to understand what DevOps Engineers are there for. Over my time – the change from when I started to when I left was amazing. In the beginning, they were just talking about XYZ deadlines. Because of my security background and experience in the cloud, I could insist on compliance even though it makes people mad as it slows them down. So over time, it got to the point where we talked about upcoming deadlines, the pipeline compliance-wise, and how we can better position ourselves moving forward. In my first few months,  I thought I would quit and return to being an Android developer, but in the end,  we planned better with deadlines. I just felt really good.

Ayesha:  When I joined my startup, the developers had already set up a lot of the production infrastructure, but they needed to go deeper into infrastructure. They created AWS lambdas which are your on-demand compute. So serverless. They had three different lambdas if they wanted to create one lambda in three different environments. So, therefore there was a very long list of – hundreds of – lambdas that I was supposed to manage. We had to rename them to be more legible because nobody followed the naming conventions. I remember looking at that mess and thinking there was no way I was spending the next four weeks renaming and structuring them. That’s where the automation mindset comes in. So, I made a whole pipeline that would create versions within the lambdas for different environments, so I shrunk that list of 400 lambdas to 100. That was one of the first opportunities I had for automation, streamlining things and making them neater and more manageable. I remember that very fondly. Overall, how you see tasks of weeks getting reduced to hours is a very nice feeling I chase personally in my career.

Is DevOps a promising career for women?

What are the unique challenges and opportunities for women who want to go to this career compared to a software development position?

Ayesha: I made the switch from QA to DevOps. Keheira would be more suited to speak about development versus DevOps. DevOps fuels learning because there is something new to handle each day, which I had started lacking in my career in QA after five or six years. Eventually, QA becomes repetitive. So, DevOps broke that monotony for me. The multitasking aspect of it and the breadth and depth of it were very gratifying for me. That’s something that many women can relate to because we’re juggling everything all the time. In the Pakistan Tech scene, many women are directed towards QA because that’s a ceiling on their technical talent, which I am very intent on breaking. After all, you can go for more challenging careers. You can go for things that you would eventually figure out are more suited to your natural temperament. 

Dotty: DevOps is a good opportunity if you have that mindset. If you like to learn, if you like science and tech, go for it. When I first started, I was usually the only woman on the team, and that can be intimidating if you’re “the only,” whether you’re the only woman or you belong to any other underrepresented group – because of race, nationality, or LGBTQ. It can be intimidating. But the good news is that it’s getting better. At one point, I was in a team of 20 people, and I was the only woman. That’s 5% female. Now I’m on a team of eight people with two women. So, that’s 25%.  

It’s taking a long time, and we have a long way to go, but companies are investing in DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion – programs, which is great. Some companies have clubs for folks who have different identities. There’s one at my company for women in engineering, but anybody can join. So, allies are more than welcome.  Also, benefits like maternity and spousal leave are very beneficial to women and their families. 

So, it is a promising career for women, and it’s improving.  I’ve seen it in my career and look forward to the next couple of years too. Progress is slow, but it’s there, and we’ll celebrate every little step as we go along the way, building up on that. 

Keheira: It’s a good career. I’m a researcher. I researched mobile security for my Computer Engineering degree, tried grad school, and dropped out.  I love research. I love learning. DevOps was a cool fit. My biggest challenge has been being the only black woman on my team. In my previous company, in the entire section of the organization, people liked to challenge you a lot more. But my parents raised me to challenge folks back. Often, people just say whatever and keep it moving and expect you to be okay with that as a woman. But if you sit down and lay your credentials out on the table, it makes it a lot easier for people not to see you as just a developer who happened to be in this. 

This job allows me to code after work a lot more. I get to read many more things, and then I get to try a lot more.  I can screw up a system that no one cares about because it’s on dev. But if you do that as a developer, the whole app crashes. It’s really fun for me to learn new and niche things and focus.  I plan to go back to graduate school next year. I don’t know what I’m going for, maybe maths or network security, but it’ll be important for me to grow.

How can one be successful in this career?

What is the skill set required to be successful in this career?

Dotty: A coding language of some kind, familiarity with continuous integration and continuous deployment. Operating system knowledge helps. Nowadays, virtualization is big- AWS, Kubernetes,  VM, server systems versus client systems. For non-technical skills, curiosity and problem-solving are really good skills to have. If you like to solve puzzles in your off time or have a learning mindset,  you will do well in your DevOps career. 

Keheira:  I’d agree.  From more of a developer perspective,  I would learn the cloud, and I’d be good at my stack but be able to fully deploy to the cloud. So, as an Android developer, I can still do back-end development. I get excited about coding. It’s my hobby. I’m also a documentation snob – that helps me. In my jobs, I talk to design teams and back-end teams, and in startups, it’s unbelievable. There’s no documentation. So, I would force everyone to approve my documents beforehand, and then we’d go on to the next step. That helped me be known even in the startup I was working in. They knew if you talked to Keheira, you would have some documentation, and then she would automate things for the mobile devs.  It’s probably not everyone’s best path, but that’s what worked for me. 

Ayesha: I agree with what everyone said, but I would also like to add that you need very good people skills to get everyone on board with your proposals. I agree with Keheira that documentation helps a lot. I might be wrong, and it might be very gender specific, but I think women are more organized.  This career path has a lot of breadth – you must know many things. You might not be going very deep into a technical stack, but you must know how a basic network works and OS. Women juggle that well because we are already used to multitasking and keeping many things under control. It became very apparent to me that this job was suited to how I operate. 

Is DevOps a good career for a fresh graduate, considering requirements like breadth of experience, multitasking, and many skills in terms of hardware and software? 

Keheira: So, I will be a little controversial. DevOps shouldn’t be a first job.  I think it’s very hard to manage and see the big picture if you don’t have at least two to three years of experience in one of the other core things – if you haven’t been a system admin, you haven’t been a dev, you haven’t been on the operation side, it’s hard to see how the things connect. When I moved over two years ago, there were no Junior DevOps positions.  And I understand why, but I don’t know how to change that. It’s very hard to say, “Let’s have a junior,” as we expect people to set up three load balancers using Terraform by the end of the week.  That would be overwhelming. But if you already understand a bit of Terraform or AWS or know how to figure things out quickly, it’s a lot easier to connect the pieces, and you won’t feel beaten up within the first three to six months.

Dotty: I agree, it could be tough. I will take the opposite view – it could depend on the organization. Our DevOps team has an entry-level person who started from the software side. But they had that growth mindset; they were super enthusiastic during the interview process. They were passionate about what they did. They knew enough that the other team members could help them with what they didn’t know. And they had other skills that we needed. So, it could be a first career if it’s something that you’re excited to do. I have been on many interview panels, and your passion for what you do is just as important as your skills, and in some cases, when you’re starting, it’s more important. They need to see that you are interested in learning.  New tech comes out every week, and suddenly, the DevOps team has to learn it. There’s so much to learn – even some seniors like me are learning Terraform now. Other people on the team, with fewer years, may have Terraform knowledge. So, there’s a balance. If you were to find a job that you were interested in but requires skills you aren’t sure about, and you got the job offer, go for it. They’re going only to hire you if they think you could do the work, and you’ll be interviewed by six to eight senior-level people who know what they’re talking about and what the job entails. So, go for it. 

Ayesha: I agree partially with both panelists. It is a growing job, not an easy one, and sometimes that scares fresh grads. You have to have a passion for learning. You will have a steeper learning curve in the beginning. You will have to be more dedicated to your job. I agree with Keheira because I was already in my former career when I switched over. That helped me ease into a new career instead of being thrown into the midst of things and having to drown or swim. However, things are changing. I’ve hired a junior DevOps who has developed as his first job. I see myself helping him learn things in months that I learned in years. So, it’s easier with support. That’s why I like DevOps as a career option for women. Whatever background you’re coming from, you can ease into it,  even if you’re starting as a fresh grad, as long as you are very committed to your job. You have to know that there will be a learning curve, but it will be very well worth it in terms of job satisfaction and career progress. 

Which type of experience would help a person to ease into a DevOps career?

Ayesha: I would have adopted more easily if I had some admin experience before switching because it was a steeper learning curve. Any experience you have before switching to DevOps will not be wasted. Even today, my QA experience is very relevant because I have an eye for detail. I know how to spot things that could go wrong.  Because I have had experience with security testing, for example, I can weigh in on security issues that come up, and I know how to resolve them now that I’m on the other side. Anything you know may help because DevOps requires a breadth of experience. 

Keheira: For me, the system admin part was the biggest deal. You don’t have to do it as a developer, but I learned on my own because I was interested in how people were not using a mouse when they worked. Then probably QA – sometimes people say they had never written a test as a mobile developer. In the developer world, especially mobile, the testing is through QA. We don’t write tests. I wish I had done much more in college to focus on testing. A lot of the time, you’re looking at a pipeline of tests to see what broke and why it broke. I would understand more of the thought process if I wrote better tests. 

Dotty:  I’m coming from the other side. I was a Systems Admin, and now coming to the coding side. So, for me, it seemed like a pretty easy fit. When I first started many years ago, DevOps did not exist. Many of the senior folks I work with now are like me. They were sys admins,  and they may have had a computer science degree. They also have home systems set up and their home networks. If you do stuff at home, that would be helpful to you to get experience to bring to the job. 

Where can fresh graduates or people looking for their first job go to find entry-level DevOps positions?

Keheira:   I found my first DevOps job on Reddit. I know that is unusual, but there’s a r/devopsjobs and r/devops.  So I’m also a space nerd and work in the space industry through the government. So, at that time, they were talking about a satellite company that had an open house to hire folks.  I was excited about working in space and getting out of my mobile struggle. I failed my first interview because they were looking for a more senior person, but they mentioned another opportunity. So look in unusual places. I’ve never got a job off of LinkedIn. Sometimes I lean heavily on social media –  I didn’t know how to get into DevOps – so I asked anybody I could on these platforms what books I should read and study. I didn’t see any jobs at the time when I was looking for this. So, I was just throwing questions everywhere.

Dotty:  if you’re looking for a new position, I would do a job search on LinkedIn or indeed.com, one of those places. Find jobs that look interesting to you. Then figure out which skills are needed for those jobs. Compile a list and find the top skills that all those jobs that you’re interested in are looking for. Then highlight them on your LinkedIn profile or wherever you’re looking for jobs. I have gotten jobs through LinkedIn. Recruiters have found me. 

If you don’t have those skills, figure out a way to get them through online courses or certifications. Many places like LinkedIn Learning, AWS certifications, Coursera, udemy.com, and Khan Academy offer low-cost or even free resources. Then, network, like Keheira was saying. 

Ayesha: From a transitioning perspective, it’s very important to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing in their job function because that helps you understand how things function overall. Then it makes it easier to switch. Before I switched from QA to DevOps completely, there was a time when I was doing both. I was managing IT departments and infrastructure in addition to doing QA. So, if you want to switch, it’s very important to network within your team and shadow someone senior doing something you are interested in. That’s always a good learning experience because you get insight into practice instead of theoretical knowledge.

Could certifications help improve your profile or make you an ideal candidate?

Keheira: So, speaking for government work, it’s a requirement to have a Security Plus. So, if you want to be in that realm, red tape like me, you need a Security Plus. Even if you don’t have it, it usually is a requirement that within three to six months, you get it. I do not have any Cloud certifications anymore; I’m so far into the work now a certification wouldn’t help me. It hasn’t been a requirement; no one has questioned me that way, but if you’re interested, maybe Terraform certification would be useful.  I would advise you to learn the material; you don’t have to always sit for the test. I don’t have a networking certification, but I know the networking basics. That’s fine for work.  I don’t feel pressured to spend money to get a certification. 

Dotty:  If you’re already employed, see if your company will pay for your certifications. I’ve done that, which is awesome because it can get very expensive quickly. I would highly recommend searching the internet using the resources I mentioned earlier. 

Ayesha: Certifications sometimes increase your visibility for potential recruiters because they are stamps showing you are skilled in a particular area. If you are going for certifications, go for something specific to your job function instead of very generic ones.  I completely agree with Keheira that you must learn the material, and it’s not always important to sit for the test if you cannot afford it. I recommend going through practice tests because they have actual scenarios on which you can test your knowledge. For me, certifications have always been a way to stamp out any imposter syndrome I have. So every couple of years, if I’m lagging with certifications, I  sit for the exam and have a stamp on my resume that shows an external party has vetted the skill. But they’re not a mandatory requirement for progress in your career.

What is the next step for a person who is considering this career? 

Ayesha: A comprehensive roadmap is shared on roadmap.sh for DevOps, which helps you get a grip on the breadth of things you should learn. So, you have a nice checklist to go through. I also recommend courses from Tech World with Nana. She has very nice courses for someone looking to switch to DevOps, even if they don’t come from a tech background. Those aren’t apprehensive, and they could help you bootstrap your career.

Keheira:  I’m a person that makes up my mind and then just goes for it. So, I’ve got most of my advice from older people in SRE (Site Reliability Engineering).  If you talk to people with that old-school system admin SRE background, they’ll tell you way more than I ever could because while this is such a new field, it has many old-school setups and structures. So, ask them questions. I would make a blog. I’m really big on that – I have my blog. Track your progress. That’s the easiest way. If you get a new certification, write about how you studied for it and the topics that interest you. You can repost that on Linkedin to attach your name to the things you’re learning. When it’s time to look for a job, and they look you up,  you will have all these links, which will be your secondary resume.

Dotty: I will be the old-school person that you can all contact. You can find me on LinkedIn. I’m happy to talk to anybody if they have other questions or want one-on-one time. I can hook you up with resources. I do come from the old-school system admins, and SRE does overlap quite a bit with DevOps. So, if you can find an old DevOps/SRE person, they would be more than happy to help. I look up to my peers as my helpers; they’re always super helpful. That’s one of the best things about working in this career. I work with super smart people, and they are more than happy to help. 

As we close this panel blog, feel free to reach out to any of the panelists! They all said they were happy to help. 

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