There are two seemingly competing positions on the IT labor market: a system administrator and a DevOps engineer. The responsibilities and skills of both ones sound similar to those who know not too much about the nuances inherent in the positions. At the same time, typical vacancy announcements specify very different salaries for sysadmins and DevOps.
An average DevOps engineering specialist salary is significantly higher than the one offered to an average sysadmin usually. Moreover, the salary of a junior DevOps can be higher than the one a senior sysadmin has. Why so? And who are the guys claiming to be paid on par with experienced programmers?
The DevOps specialist salary seems to be an interesting topic that reflects both long-lasting trends and recent events taking place in the modern IT sector. Companies propose generous compensations to DevOps not just because the demand for such sort of specialists keeps growing. Some other reasons are available actually. Let’s investigate them together to help newcomers to the IT market understand why the DevOps salary sounds as it sounds.
Is There a Definition Conflict?
“The DevOps profession as such does not exist while calling experienced operation engineers sysadmins is not correct”. Didn’t you face such or similar claims appearing regularly among IT specs? We bet you did. At the same time, there are a lot of open job positions for sysadmins with an attractive salary promise. Those hiring ads seem to be different but their content commonly confuses sysadmins and DevOps.
Of course, all employers are free to call the position as they wish. They just expect candidates corresponding to certain job requirements while any candidate can decide how to call oneself. However, both employers and job seekers are interested in getting their visions converged. Otherwise, how can they find each other?
Besides, the proposed salary of DevOps engineers is misleading those sysadmins who are not against being called DevOps having no sufficient skills to do the job in fact. In order to realize why the promise of DevOps salary is not exaggerated it is worth considering what DevOps engineers have to do to earn the money they are paid with.
Why “DevOps” Implies More than “Sysadmin” Does
It is crucial to get things right in terms of definitions. Instead of being one of many job activities, DevOps expresses a specific culture if not a philosophy. This is a methodology that allows programmers, QA engineers, and sysadmins to work together faster due to automation and seamlessness. Hence, DevOps engineers are the ones who implement such a methodology into workflows. This in itself hints at why the salary of DevOps engineers has to be higher than average.
All stages of the IT working process are potentially covered with DevOps activities:
- At the planning stage, DevOps engineers help decide which architecture is the most appropriate for one or another application. Selecting a proper orchestration system along with a scaling method belongs to the DevOps duties as well.
- Setting up servers goes next in the process when a development environment is checked.
- Automation of testing goes prior to deployment, and DevOps engineers take part in the process on par with QA specs.
- It is necessary to get feedback from users to make improvements after an application is released. This is a DevOps engineer who should arrange the improvements to be made invisible for the users while an application is updated continuously.
- Dozens of other tasks have to be solved by DevOps engineers to coordinate the workflows of developers, testers, and sysadmins.
Everything mentioned above belongs to almost ideal conditions. In reality, teams often start projects when a planning stage is missed, a wrong architecture is selected, and thought about automation comes to mind after almost everything stops working. Sorting through all those problems to make the project go again is the key competence of DevOps engineers. It is clear that the DevOps specialist salary should reflect the responsibility they have to take. But more on that later.
What is a DevOps engineer?
Typically, a DevOps engineer is a programmer having hands-on experience in testing, deployment, and maintenance of IT products. Besides, managerial skills have to be available to link workflows of different departments. DevOps engineers should adhere to the following basic principles:
- team-wide coherence provides catalyzed development along with the users’ access to the latest updates;
- preventing teams against the diversion to redundant activities should be provided via automation of all processes;
- combination of multidisciplinary specs in one working environment is necessary to exchange various skills and create new approaches on a joint of different competencies;
- assessment of results reflected in the related documentation allows every teammate to access information about the process efficiency;
Meeting those principles is possible if DevOps engineers possess certain skills. They include inter alia:
- programming languages;
- deep expertise in operating systems;
- planning and collaboration;
- configuration management;
- continuous integration;
- setting up cybersecurity;
- dealing with cloud hosting;
- containerization/orchestration of data.
The modern pace of life is stressful as such, not to mention the highly competitive environment of software development. That’s why DevOps engineers have to have certain personal qualities in addition to social stress resistance. Otherwise, they unlikely may claim the high salary of DevOps engineers. Hence, the following compulsory characteristics are to be inherent in every DevOps specialist:
- systems thinking;
- strong attention span;
- good memory;
- advanced engineering outlook;
- high productivity;
Pros and Cons of Being DevOps
Despite quite an attractive financial compensation paid for the DevOps labor, the position implies some tough aspects that can prevent sysadmins (especially younger ones) from requalifying into DevOps engineers. Maintaining a balance between the pros and cons of this job is not too difficult, however. The only thing needed is a clear vision of what DevOps proposes and what it requires. What are the advantages of DevOps?
- Decent salary
- Interesting work
- Strong market demand
- Broad specialization
- Career prospect
At the same time, the following factors can make applicants think twice before taking the job:
- Lifelong training in new technologies;
- Exceptional workload;
- Constant overcoming of difficulties in arranging communication within a team
Even though the drawbacks of the job seem to be less numerous than the advantages are, not every software engineer is capable of exchanging quite ordinary sysadmin duties for the stressful workflow of DevOps.
How Much DevOps Engineers Are Paid and Why?
The general consensus about the DevOps engineer salary is unequivocal: they are paid generously. But definitions regarding DevOps positions remain questionable in hiring ads. The vacancy descriptions represent different views on both responsibilities of DevOps engineers and the salaries they are promised with.
The secret is in the correlation between required skills and offered wages. There is a direct relationship between the two: the stronger the higher. It is worth getting to the bottom of the issue to see who is paid for what and how much. Making a certain classification of DevOps competencies wouldn’t go amiss. Let’s classify them through salary levels to recognize where sysadmins end and DevOps engineers begin.
Level 1: “any key” specialists ($250-600)
The so-called “any key” specs imply tech-savvy admin managers capable of maintaining any kind of office hardware. Such a sort of jack-of-all-trades represents the lowest level of sysadmins who unlikely can be called DevOps by any stretch of the imagination. A “junior sysadmin” is another name of the position that frequently occurs in job ads. Since the proposed salary is quite modest, the required skills are nothing special as well:
- setting up staff member workstations;
- software installation and license management;
- user accounts’ access control;
- technical assistance on computers and peripherals of all types (wi-fi routers, printers, headsets, microphones, slide show projectors, etc);
- maintenance and minor repair of computer hardware;
- procurement of office equipment.
Various small and middle-sized organizations are looking for junior sysadmins. If the company staff includes 10-15 people, the position is proudly called “system administrator”. If there are 100-150 employees, “junior sysadmin” or even “sysadmin assistant” will most probably define the position.
Level 2: System administrators ($450-950)
“True” sysadmins do not configure personal computers. Instead, sysadmin duties include maintaining infrastructures (both physical and in-cloud) along with related equipment and software. The infrastructures can cover internal issues (holding customer data and processing transactions, for example) as well as external ones (web hosting, launching services, etc).
Even though the proposed salary still stands quite far from the DevOps level, the required sysadmin skills allow using the DevOps engineer title in job ads of many employers. Technology stacks may vary from case to case but typical sysadmin duties are the following:
- installation of servers and network devices;
- administration of the whole range of software such as operating systems (both Windows and Linux), virtualization systems (OpenVZ, Xen, Proxmox, Hyper-V, VMware, VirtualBox), databases (MySQL, PostgreSQL, Microsoft SQL), network repositories along with local networks and VPN (PPTP, SSTP, OpenVPN), domain networks (Active Directory, DNS, DHCP), web servers (Apache, Nginx), email (Zimbra, Postfix, MS Exchange), IP telephony (Asterisk), CMS and corporate IT systems (Bitrix24), team development software (GitLab, Jira, Confluence), etc;
- Continuous automated monitoring (Zabbix, Dude, Alerta, Prometheus);
- Data backup and archiving;
- Automation of maintenance (by means of Bash or Python);
- Technical documentation development
The range of potential employers for such specialists is really huge. A set of tasks may differ depending on a certain specialization. Communication with customers, for instance, is present when the employer is a hosting provider. E-commerce projects may require skills in accounting software and cryptography-based security programs. Software development companies look for specs capable of creating development environments, etc.
Level 3: SaaS infrastructure specs ($1200 – 2000)
This is when specialists start protesting against the “sysadmin” term in vacancy descriptions. The thing is in the level of responsibility: uninterrupted accessibility of distributed infrastructures is required. Specialists of such a level call themselves either “infrastructure engineers” or “system engineers”. Potential employers call them DevOps engineers oftentimes. Nonetheless, this position implies “sysadmins on steroids” rather than pure DevOps engineers. The job position requires some extra duties added to the ones indicated for level 2.
- skills in containerization systems (Docker, Kubernetes);
- experience in distributed event streaming platforms (Apache Kafka);
- adjusting monitoring systems (Zabbix, Grafana);
- dealing with configuration management systems (Ansible).
Usually, those specialists are in demand for large companies that develop heavily loaded multi-user services such as e-commerce platforms, online cinemas, banks, and telecom providers. This is the level when sysadmin tasks can be easily confused with DevOps duties. Besides, the proposed salary stands close (if not overlaps) to the level of DevOps engineers. This could be the DevOps level if no next one was available.
Level 4: DevOps engineers ($1500 – 3500)
Specialists of such a level differ from all previous ones fundamentally. They do not belong to a certain profession. Instead, they adopt a set of very specific practices that have appeared in response to a hidden conflict between software developers and system engineers. Developers want to release as many features as possible while sysadmins need to keep the system running.
Any new code is able to damage a program with high probability. Operating engineers are suspicious of new features, therefore. A dilemma between sustainable work and necessary updates lies in the very essence of DevOps.
The DevOps practices are numerous, but there are only two key approaches any DevOps engineer has to follow in any case:
- Tight collaboration of developers and operating departments;
- Automation of CI/CD processes
The latter is often possible only via migration to a microservice architecture. Usually, it is provided by Docker and Kubernetes.
In order to distinguish “sysadmins on steroids” from DevOps engineers, it is necessary to figure out which duties and skills are common for both positions and which ones belong to DevOps exclusively. The overlapping job requirements are the following:
- knowledge and experience in administering Linux, containerization systems, databases, LAMP;
- understanding of working principles of TCP/IP;
- expertise in setting up systems of monitoring and logging;
- practical experience in infrastructure configuration via code;
- scripting skills in Bash, Python, Ruby, or Perl;
- experience in dealing with cloud platforms.
The DevOps-specific requirements that are never found in sysadmin job ads include the following:
- understanding of DevOps philosophy;
- following the infrastructure-as-a-code paradigm;
- understanding of both software development lifecycle and CI/CD principles;
- tight collaboration with development teams.
In terms of priority, sysadmins focus on infrastructures while DevOps engineers spend most of their time on automation of development and release processes along with monitoring arrangements.
Large companies having big development departments look for DevOps engineers to provide their code with both high quality and fast delivery.
What Affects DevOps Engineer Salary
Only a few factors can significantly affect DevOps engineer salary. Some of them do it in a positive manner, the others have a negative effect.
Usually, wrong self-promotion damages the image of applicants. Quite an ambivalent identification of DevOps vacancies in job ads makes the situation even more complicated. Many system engineers (especially young ones) who have sufficient DevOps skills are hesitating to position themselves as DevOps engineers. They tend to be honest with potential employers: “How may I call me DevOps if just sysadmin is indicated in my previous job records?”
Hence, they often accept a lower sysadmin salary taking over the responsibilities of Microsoft Azure DevOps engineers, for example. The wrong self-promotion is inherent in junior DevOps mostly while experienced lead DevOps engineers are always aware of their value.
The opposite situations take place as well. When a former system engineer from a big bank, for instance, who has quite bright wage expectations cannot fulfill the simplest trial task on Kubernetes, the high DevOps engineer salary appears beyond the discourse.
The number of DevOps engineer job ads counts in the thousands on head-hunting portals nowadays. It seems the DevOps labor market is overheated. However, such an opinion has been formed due to a certain confrontation between HR managers and IT specs. The latter ones look down on recruiters who, in turn, are holding grudges against arrogant IT guys.
The true market overheating takes place when proposed salaries go down that is not observed in the current situation. On the contrary, the average DevOps engineer salary keeps rising up no matter how many new vacancies appear. Both sysadmins and DevOps engineers remain in great demand.
A certain confusion between job requirements of both groups is nothing but a ruse of employers and recruiters who want to use the fancy DevOps term in their ads. It can be safely assumed that the DevOps labor market is still far from being overheated. High salaries of DevOps engineers solidly testify to the situation.
The latest IT trends cannot but have a clear effect on the average DevOps engineer salary. Numerous mergers and acquisitions indicate that business is getting more consolidated at the corporate level. The larger the project becomes the more complicated the infrastructure appears. The richer the company is the higher the salary is paid to those who are able to smooth various frictions between programmers and operation specs – to DevOps engineers.
Mobile app trends add fuel to fire as well: the so-called super apps start occupying the minds of western entrepreneurs after WeChat and Alipay become the mainstream mobile solution in Asia. We will definitely see something like a hybrid of Facebook and Amazon shortly: both the financial appeal and all-in-one user convenience of WeChat-like mega-apps leave no chance for the western market to stay untouched.
Hence, DevOps engineers will find another impetus to be hired since any super app is a cloud-native solution per se. The AWS DevOps professional salary (no matter whether it is AWS, Azure, or any other cloud environment actually) cannot go down in such circumstances. The impact of DevOps will keep growing across the entire IT market in the foreseeable future. The DevOps engineer salary will behave accordingly, therefore.
Competition between employers
The very nature of DevOps functionalities implies some sort of immunity to the local peculiarities of employers. It means that a Ukrainian DevOps engineer can easily find a job at an American company, for example. Local Ukrainian employers have to compete with foreign employers that propose higher salaries. A particular spatial localization does not matter in our example: the same applies to any geographical area where skilled DevOps specialists can be found.
Employees always vote with their wallets. If an entry-level DevOps specialist is offered a higher salary abroad than a senior DevOps is paid at a local company, unlikely patriotic reasons can prevent the first one against leaving for better living, right?
However, the DevOps engineer is an in-office position: freelance DevOps specs are very rare. That’s why a social package (accommodation, food and travel expenses, etc) is usually taken into account in addition to purely financial compensation. This adds some intrigue to the competition between DevOps employers: living in Kyiv is cheaper than living in Berlin, not to mention Palo Alto.
Competition in goods leads to price reduction while competition for talent results in higher salaries. DevOps engineers can benefit from the competition between employers which is going to be more fierce over time.
DevOps engineer salary is the subject that indirectly reflects how the contemporary IT market evolves. Since demand for DevOps specialists keeps growing, the global IT industry steadily migrates toward cloud-intensive solutions in which tight integration of development and operation processes takes place.
A certain confusion between sysadmin and DevOps engineers is still present in the job ads abundantly available on hiring platforms. Both employers and recruiters often speculate on the very DevOps term to draw attention to their vacancies. However, the salary level of DevOps engineers helps distinguish “sysadmins on steroids” from true DevOps.Both external factors affecting DevOps engineer salary and internal features of this activity have been observed in our post. We do not claim to have any exhaustive overview of the topic: the latter is too dynamic to be caught up in the moment. Nonetheless, we can hope that our concerns explain why the average DevOps engineer salary is reasonable for today.
Dmitry has 5 years of professional IT experience developing numerous consumer & enterprise applications. Dmitry has also implemented infrastructure and process improvement projects for businesses of various sizes. Due to his broad experience, Dmitry quickly understands business needs and improves processes by using established DevOps tools supported by Agile practices.