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Software Development

DevOps Engineer vs. Software Engineer – What are the differences?

September 5, 2023
Pedro Paranhos

The lines between roles can blur when discussing software delivery and system infrastructure, yet their distinctions are crucial.

Although most people understand what a Software Engineer does, “DevOps” is a relatively new concept (the term officially occurred for the first time in 2009) and requires some explanation.

As DevOps gains space and importance across IT departments worldwide, understanding what sets DevOps Engineers and Software Engineers apart and where they intersect can help improve clarity and assertiveness among team members and managers.

Definitions, responsibilities and skill sets

Software Engineers: The Architects of Code

Software Engineers design and build web, mobile or native applications according to project requirements. They employ different programming languages, frameworks, and design patterns to achieve this.

As you can imagine, these activities can’t be reduced to just “writing code”. When approaching each project, Software Engineers must strategically consider several factors such as system architecture, data flows, third-party integrations, scalability, algorithm efficiency, and more.

We can split a Software Engineer’s tasks into three main areas:

  • Software Design involves tasks such as gathering project requirements, modelling data structures, and establishing system architecture.
  • Software Development consists of writing code, testing and debugging it and pushing it to production using Version Control Systems such as GitHub.
  • Software Maintenance entails managing and updating the active codebase, refactoring legacy code, increasing code performance, and ensuring backward compatibility.

DevOps Engineers: Bridging Development and Operations

The term DevOps comes from “Development Operations”. DevOps Engineers ensure a seamless transition from software development to production and maintenance while ensuring system robustness and maximising delivery speed.

DevOps Engineers are often at the centre of communication between Quality Assurance Engineers, Software Engineers, Project Managers, and Product Owners, constantly looking for system optimisation and cost reduction opportunities. Therefore, apart from technical skills, a DevOps Engineer must also have strong communication skills.

In short, DevOps Engineers are catalysts that bridge and accelerate all the steps in the software development lifecycle.

diagram showing how a devops engineer related to other team members

A DevOps Engineer’s tasks can also be segmented into three pivotal areas:

  • Infrastructure and Configuration Management includes defining and setting up server configurations, managing cloud resources, and using Infrastructure as Code (IaC) tools like Terraform or Ansible to ensure the reproducibility and scalability of infrastructure setups.
  • Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) revolves around automating the software delivery pipeline. It involves integrating changes from multiple contributors, automatically testing code, and deploying updates to production. Tools such as GitHub Actions, Jenkins, and GitLab CI are commonly employed here.
  • Monitoring and System Reliability focuses on the health of the deployed applications and infrastructure. Monitoring tools like Prometheus, Grafana, or ELK Stack can help preemptively detect and remedy system bottlenecks or issues, ensuring maximum uptime and optimal performance. DevOps Engineers will also perform basic security audits.

Where do Software Engineering and DevOps overlap?

There a few synergies between these roles which enhance software delivery:

  • Shared Code Repositories: Employing platforms like GitHub or Bitbucket for centralised codebase management, facilitating code reviews and enabling rapid iterations.
  • Automated Workflows: Implementing CI/CD pipelines where both contribute to automating tests, builds, and deployments, reducing manual errors.
  • Feedback Loops: Proactively addressing system bottlenecks or code inefficiencies using monitoring tools like Prometheus or New Relic.

They often must collaborate to optimise monitoring tasks (and the monitoring systems themselves). In such cases, the Software Engineer will look at the application’s performance while the DevOps Engineer will focus on the infrastructure.

Why should you care about the distinction as a Tech Leader?

  • Strategic IT Management: Distinguishing these roles helps to pinpoint resource allocation, ensuring software resilience, scalability, and timely releases. Moreover, your teams will have clear goals, tasks and responsibilities.
  • Driving Digital Transformation: With Software Engineers focusing on cloud-native applications or microservices and DevOps Engineers ensuring Kubernetes-based orchestration, companies can quickly pivot or scale digitally.
  • Ensuring System Reliability and Security: While Software Engineers might integrate security libraries or conduct static code analyses, DevOps Engineers establish secure deployment practices and real-time vulnerability scanning. They can create and maintain a monitoring system to keep your organisation running smoothly.

How do we harness each specialty’s expertise?

  • Building Collaborative Teams: By ensuring both roles use a shared code repository, processes get automated, eliminating silos and speeding up codebase updates, which leads to faster innovation and reduced go-to-market time. Both roles tend to overlap, so there need to be clear lines and responsibilities.
  • Continuous Training and Skill Development: Emphasising certifications like AWS Certified DevOps Engineer or Certified Kubernetes Administrator can keep teams in line with best practices. Remember that modern cloud providers offer various services; therefore, one person can’t be a complete expert in all of them!
  • Implementing Modern Toolsets: Adopting cloud services (AWS, Azure, GCP) and the proper tools can significantly enhance software delivery speed and reliability. Remember to diversify your tools since many vendor might try to lock you in, and migration towards different toolsets in the future might be quite expensive.

Conclusion

As IT roles evolve and fragment, especially in mid and large-sized organisations, understanding the distinctions and interdependencies of DevOps Engineers and Software Engineers becomes essential. These are the dual engines boosting a company’s IT productivity, and both roles must be understood and nurtured to sustain a well-oiled, software-making machine.

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