For many who are familiar with the term, ‘T-shaped skills’ has come to be seen as just more HR and recruitment jargon used to assess candidates in an impersonal way. However, it pays to put these preconceived ideas aside to examine more closely what this term means and how T-shaped professionals can contribute to a more effective team in a DevOps environment.
What is a T-shaped professional, and why does it matter?
Simply put, T-shaped skills is a metaphor used to describe the abilities a professional has. Their specialist area or expertise is depicted by the vertical bar of the T as this knowledge is deep. While the horizontal bar represents the knowledge the professional has of related areas. Contextual knowledge not only helps to give the professional a broader perspective but also gives them the ability to make connections between topics and skills. This ability is, as you can imagine, why it becomes interesting for a cross-contextual discipline such as DevOps.
So, in which ways are T-shaped skills so important in DevOps Teams? We can summarize it in 3 statements:
- DevOps and Digital Transformation
- There is no I-Shape in Team
- The T-Shape and Trust
Let’s take a look in more detail why these T-shaped skills add value to DevOps teams.
1. DevOps and Digital Transformation
As it stands, when you search Google for ‘T-shape’ and ‘DevOps’ you find over 1 million results. The volume of results aside, there still seems to be little emphasis on T-shaped skills when discussing DevOps teams or understanding why they are arguably even more critical to DevOps than other areas. This lack of emphasis could be because DevOps teams are by nature cross-functional, which means that key players in a DevOps team already need a higher level of awareness of the skills of those around them.
The reason that DevOps and Digital Transformation are so strongly connected is not just because the DevOps team’s way of working reflects the need to have one holistic and cohesive business. It is also not because during Digital Transformation silos should be broken down and traditional business mindsets left behind. The reason that DevOps and Digital Transformation make so much sense together is because the ability to self-steer should be organization-wide and not limited to DevOps teams:
‘DevOps helps organizations succeed with digital transformation by shifting the cultural mindset of the business, breaking down detrimental silos, and paving the way for continuous change and rapid experimentation…. This helps organizations “self-steer” toward better solutions to continually improve, says Matthew Skelton, head of consulting at Conflux and co-author of Team Topologies.‘
DevOps teams work on end-to-end projects that span the entire organization, meaning DevOps professionals are aware, like no others, of the moving parts throughout the chain. As a T-shaped individual, it becomes easier to understand and work with all of these parts as you already have the mindset of someone who can look further than their own area of expertise.
2. There is no I-Shape in Team
The problem of the I-shaped professional comes into sharp focus when you examine how a team functions when it consists only of specialists. A team only composed of single-minded I-shaped individuals who cannot relate to their colleagues’ knowledge creates a situation where working together becomes nearly impossible. Such a team also results in having to rely on one person for input on a specific topic and their personal opinion of how to move forward. As soon as you have more than one person who is qualified to give an opinion, the result becomes more balanced. Team members who have multiple skill sets are also more creative and able to think outside of the box:
‘Now imagine instead of having a few ‘go-to’ team members, you’ve developed your whole team into T-shaped engineers. Engineers who can use a multitude of skills and technologies to solve a problem, and aren’t constrained by the idea of “this is what I know, therefore this how I’ll solve it”.’
By putting together a team of professionals with unique backgrounds, different areas of expertise, and broader skills, you end up with a team where ‘every team member can take responsibility for all aspects of a team’s mission (10 ways to build highly effective DevOps teams)’. This strengthens teams by making sure that at any stage of a project, team members can take on different tasks depending on the demand for a particular skill. It also has several practical advantages:
By developing T-shaped engineers, you end up with a better and more resilient team ‒ where holidays and sickness have less impact as someone can always pick up the work ‒ and (usually) an easier to maintain and manage technical solution. Discussing DevOps: A toast to the T-shaped engineers
Ultimately, there is no room for I-shaped professionals in a DevOps team. I-shaped professionals don’t contribute to the team long term in the way someone with T-shaped skills does. Aside from being unable to see the bigger picture and not being able to select different skillsets to address a problem, they are a liability because they create a dependency. In the fast-moving world of DevOps, it’s simply not wise to compromise on something so vital. Of course, it’s one thing knowing that T-shaped professionals are essential to create a high performing DevOps team, it’s quite another finding them:
The real challenge, of course, is finding a large enough pool of T-shaped engineers. For some reason, in a world where solutions are almost always built using multiple technologies, we have developed extreme niches for our engineers. Discussing DevOps: A toast to the T-shaped engineers
3. The T-Shape and Trust
A side effect that building a team of T-shaped DevOps professionals has is that it will help foster the environment of trust essential to DevOps. Of course, this is not an unwritten expectation – but the nature of the T-shaped professional means that professionals working together are more likely and able to understand each other’s expertise. This understanding makes it easier to create a team that trusts each other. The concept of trust is widely documented as one of the key elements of DevOps but also one of the most difficult to achieve. The definition of trust by Dr. Tway (as published in his dissertation “A Construct of Trust” in 1993) is often used to explain the complexities associated with trust. According to Twan, trust is constructed of three basic elements:
- The capacity for trusting
- The perception of competence
- The perfection of intentions
The element that is important within the T-shaped professional context is ‘the perception of competence’. The competence that colleagues in a team perceive in themselves and in each other is essential:
The perception of competence is your perception of your ability and the ability of others with whom you work to perform competently at whatever is needed in the current situation.
This perception of competence leads to a situation where colleagues trust each other to keep to (unspoken) agreements because the team shares an understanding of their importance. It follows that those colleagues who have a broader set of skills are more able to show their competence to others and be perceived as competent.
How to Build a T
Whether you’re an aspiring DevOps professional or a DevOps team lead, you are probably wondering by now ‘How do I build this T?’ or ‘How can I encourage my team to become T-shaped?’. The answer is both simple and complex. The simple part is, keep learning. The complex part is choosing what to learn.
If you’re in an individual, choose topics that are related to your expertise, and start exploring. Shaping your T requires some consideration as you need to think about the direction you want your career to take in the long term. Once you know what you aspire to be in five or ten years, you can start selecting topics that will build the path to get you there while building your T at the same time.
If you are a team lead, encourage your team to learn from each other about the topics immediately adjacent to their existing skill sets. Take a look at which skills aren’t covered by skills your team currently has and maybe encourage them to learn about these topics. Providing incentives, such as a training and certification budget, will help.
EXIN and T-Shaped Professionals
EXIN knows that the T-shaped professional is essential in the fast-moving world of IT. To help meet the needs of IT professionals and organizations, we have created a range of career path certifications. These certifications not only provide direction for professionals who want to work towards a role, but also helps to build T-shaped professionals by combining specialist skills with contextual knowledge.
For DevOps specialists, EXIN has created EXIN DevOps Quality & Test Engineer and EXIN DevOps Quality & Test Master. Both of these career paths feature certifications that can be completed one step at a time. Once each certification has successfully been attained, the professional is rewarded with the official designation to show they have completed the career path.