Women in DevOps: Helen Beal

Written by: Hannah Inman
6 min read
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In our Women in DevOps blog series, you’ll hear from talented women in DevOps. They will share their experiences in DevOps, their thoughts on leadership, lessons learned and also how we can encourage more women to focus on an IT career. This post highlights Helen Beal from Ranger4.

Hi Helen! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m Helen and I help people practice DevOps principles in real world organizations for Ranger4. I describe myself as a DevOpsologist as my main role in my working life is to study the inputs and outputs of the thinking systems that make up DevOps. I am also a product owner and member of the Board of Regents at the DevOps Institute and am a DevOps editor for InfoQ. Outside of DevOps I am an ecologist and novelist. I once saw a flamingo lay an egg and I have a particular fondness for llamas.

What skills are needed to become a DevOps Leader?

I’m going to answer this question in two parts and first address the characteristics and personality traits needed then move onto the skills and behaviors (and new behaviors can be learned). Firstly, then, the characteristics and personality traits of DevOps leaders: empathy, energy, enthusiasm and passion in the face of obstacles (I love Jon Smart of Barclays’ phrase: “Obstacles are not in the path; they are the path.”), tenacity and the will to overcome those challenges and a problem solving mindset.

In terms of skills and behaviors, the 2017 State of DevOps Report showed the contribution of transformational (as opposed to coercive or transactional) leadership skills to overall organizational performance. Transformational leadership combines vision, inspirational communication, intellectual stimulation, supportiveness and personal recognition (never underestimate how far a simple thank you reaches). A DevOps leader needs to act as a servant leader and a coach. Being an effective coach means having a toolkit of frameworks and techniques that help people to get the right work done right and figure out how to solve problems themselves. A leader must also see him/herself as a learner and make time to find and practice new techniques to help others improve.

Most organizations find the cultural part of DevOps evolution the most challenging, since DevOps begins in the technology parts of an organization where we are not usually practiced in having these ‘softer’ conversations – so DevOps leaders also need to have genuine concern for the wellbeing of the people they serve and the willingness to talk about emotions, feelings, values and behaviors.

What does career success mean to you?

I’m particularly interested in neuroscience and neuroleadership - more research becomes available seemingly daily to help inform us scientifically about the behaviors we experience and observe in our working environments. Having data to provide evidence to support theories and being able to understand how different parts of the brain and chemicals operate is extremely helpful in understanding who we are and why we do what we do. And how we can do it better.

I mention this because one of the works in this field is Your Brain at Work, in which the author, David Rock, posits his theorem that each of us has a primary motivator. He says there are five and describes them in his SCARF acronym: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. I’m an ‘autonomy’. So a primary way in which I frame my success in my career is around how much of the work I do I choose to do. I also highly value controllery and learning continuously. Ultimately, I just try to get up every day and do the best I can and find joy in the people I connect with, the good things that are happening and through working out ways past the more tricky areas.

What set you on the DevOps career path?

I guess an early interest in computing – a ZX81 when I was six years old, writing customer relationship management Access databases for a cat boarding house where I worked as a chalet maid (I know!) for many years in my teens, an English Literature and Language degree with a module on computing focussed on natural language parsing and this emerging thing called HTTP and a job after graduating at IBM were the steps that got me here. My career in technology has been mainly focused on the software development and delivery lifecycle, release and deployment automation and more recently the broader DevOps topic. I love the way in which it’s brought the teams of developers and sys admins together (and so much more since) and I have relished the opportunity to expand my capabilities to include cultural and organizational change and work across entire business value streams.

What do you love most about being a woman in DevOps?

I’m a bit uncomfortable sometimes about identifying as a woman – having been in IT for so long I’ve got kind of used to being a bit of a rarity and just glossing over it. I guess there is a bit of negative bias and a bit of positive bias from different people and places and times. I do think the fight for equality is strong though and the support I see from the men I work with is hugely helpful. My partner told me last week about a senior female leader in the technology company he works for talking on stage about how it’s going to take around another 200 years for women to have equal pay and he and his colleagues were horrified. It’s good to know that most people get feminism isn’t women against men.

So what do I love most about being a woman in DevOps? It’s not really about being a woman – it’s about DevOps. I love the ground-breaking improvement thinking systems and practices that help the people I work with do work better every day and along with that become happier and more fulfilled people. At Ranger4 we say we are fanatical about making life fantastic and, for me, that’s the core of DevOps.

What are some lessons you have learned on your DevOps career journey?

This is a really hard question to answer (yeah, I know I chose it!) as DevOps is such a learning journey. Once you’ve nailed the foundational elements you can deep dive into topics like DevSecOps and safety culture, agile, continuous delivery and automation, building quality and resilience in, lean and value streams and outcomes, organizational evolution and leadership. Maybe the main lesson then is to always be a learner and alongside that, listening and always having compassion.

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