I wrote this back when I was at Kickstarter and never published it. A lot about my job has changed in transitioning to SRE (post on that to come?), but I still think this was a fun examination of my previous job.

Day in the Life of an Ops Engineer

I often get asked how working in Ops is different from other fields in software engineering. I’m always excited to introduce people to the operations engineering field so I decided to write this blog post envisioning what a day in my professional life is like. You’ll often hear operations engineers referred to as Site Reliability Engineers (SRE) or Ops or DevOps. I can’t speak for everyone that identifies their work under those umbrella terms but I can give context through what my day-to-day experience has been as an Operations Engineer.

In this post, I will give an overview of some of the concepts I work with every day. In order to cover these topics, I’ll center this post around a story. This story is constructed as a timeline of one of my days working as an ops engineer loosely based off my experience on the Kickstarter ops team. Throughout the story I’ll be discussing real events that an operations engineer might be tasked to handle. I will use each of these events to introduce us to different concepts in the very broad field of ops engineering.

As ops engineers, we solve tough problems and set the path forward for our engineering organization. I hope that someone could use this post as a way to test if they are interested in going into Ops or Site Reliability Engineering.

9:15AM - Is the site down? (Concept: Metrics and Monitoring)

Our day begins with a message from my coworker Sam. He got in a little earlier this morning and saw that there was some code sitting on our master branch in Github and decided to deploy it. After his deploy he gets an automated message from one of our Slack chatbots to go check our metrics system to make sure his deploy went ok. This is a normal message after every deploy and Sam, being the great developer he is, goes to check Grafana, where our metrics dashboards live. On our dashboards indicating responses from the site he notices something’s off. We’re spiking a bit in 404 responses and it started a short while after his deploy. When I get into the office I have a message from Sam explaining the situation and asking if I can look into why this might be happening.

Part of what an ops engineer does is monitor the site. We set up a system to track the health of site. Through these tools we can help Sam solve the problem. Beyond our metrics system, we have an ELK system for keeping track of logs. We take a look at where the 404s are coming from and see that, because the code changed some paths to no-longer-existing code, we are getting errors. We point Sam to the relevant logs and he reverts his deploy.

10:00AM - Working on a Project (Concept: Build and Release Engineering)

Things have settled down with Sam’s problem, so I turn my attention to my main project for this sprint. Lately, we’ve noticed that our CI (continuous integration) system is getting super slow. From the time a developer merges their changes, it takes 20 minutes for them to deploy! It only took 10 minutes a month ago.

Part of working as an ops developer means ensuring that the experience of developing our software is smooth. Another way of phrasing that is that the process of delivering software is easy. We use continuous delivery and integration pipelines to automatically test and deploy our code and when that pipeline becomes heavy, it worsens the process. Our longest running process currently is integration tests so I’m working on making our CI run the integration tests in parallel to the rest of the test suite. This will return our CI process time to its original 10 minutes.

12:30PM - Developer Happiness

It’s lunch time! And I notice that a couple of frontend and fullstack engineers are getting lunch in the kitchen so I join them. I start talking about my project to improve the build times and they’re really excited. However, one speaks up. She says that what bothers her is not as much about the build times being so slow, but that they’ve noticed a lot of spurious failures lately, meaning even when the 20 minutes of tests stop running, sometimes the build is red for no reason and you have to go back and build again. This means that builds take 40 minutes! And sometimes more!

“Developer Happiness” is a key part of an ops engineers job. Your customers are the other engineers on your team. It’s key that you take user input and listen to them. We thought the main problem with our CI was how slow it was, but it seems that getting of these spurious failures may be more important. Making sure that people trust me is an incredibly important part of my job. I want people to feel like they can tell me things about our processes and tools that bother them, alert me when issues arise, and trust me enough to let me help them fix it.

1:30PM - Security Engineering Meeting (Management skills)

After lunch, I have a meeting we call the “Security Roundup”. We meet every other week. Because we have such a small team, we don’t have a full time security engineer. In order to make sure we don’t miss out on security issues with Kickstarter, we have this meeting of interested parties discussing any security issues that may come up. This week our CTO is in the meeting. We’ve been informed that a project likely to get a high amount of traffic is launching in the near future. As operations engineers and fraud specialists, we are being asked what we would recommend to do to prepare for this added attention on the sight. The meeting is a dialogue that results in a list of action items. It’s important in this meeting that these action items get completed, but they require many different teams coming together and some of the people who will need to work on the list are not in the room. I’m tasked with seeing the list is completed. Even though I’m not a manager, often because of my position in the organization and admin access, as an ops engineer I am tasked with management. For this reason, more than other areas of engineering, it takes some management skills to be an ops engineer.

2:46PM - Chaos (Incident Response)

After the security meeting, I work on my CI project. Suddenly, my coworker Chris runs up to my desk a little panicked and says “payments RDS replica is about to crash, production is next”. Chris is worried because if the production replica crashes, we’ll have our data syncing out of date. The replica is what all engineers use to perform read actions. I hop in our “incidents” Slack room and alert the channel about what’s going on and take the role of “Incident Commander”. Then I ping my coworker and ask her to be the second in command for the incident. Together we hop on a call to remediate. Running incidents is key part of my job. It requires staying calm and focussed and often dealing with stressed-out stakeholders.

4:45PM - Unable to Work (Local and Deployed Dev Environments)

After taking a break after the outage to clear my head, I return to a message from my coworker Carla. She needs to finish a project today but can’t get her deployed developer environment to load. She’s seeing an error that Short read or OOM loading DB. Unrecoverable error, aborting now. She needs to be able to see how her code is working in this environment so she can open a Pull Request by the end of the day. Can we help? I happen to know what’s going on because I’ve helped other developers debug this this week. I tell her to look in her Redis logs and if there is a problem to restart Redis.

It’s the end of the day! We made it. But wait…

3:21AM - On Call Selfies

We’re not done yet! This week we’re on call, which means if something happens with the site we are responsible for fixing it, no matter the time. At 3:21AM we get a “page” from PagerDuty about a problem with Elasticsearch refilling its indexes. Luckily for us, the team is forward thinking and we’ve seen this problem before. We look at our Runbook and find the exact line of code we need to run to solve the problem. We also think “Why are we being pinged at 3AM to run one line? Could we automate this? But, that’s a problem for tomorrow morning.

We make sure everything is ok, snap a quick “on call selfie” and head back to bed.

Concluding Thoughts

Finally, I want to conclude with some thoughts about what it means to be an ops engineer and why it’s so great.

  • It may be scary from the outside, because it seems like ops engineers know so much about computers. But really, the most important skills are communication and keeping calm under pressure.
  • It’s fun! You get to cover a wide range of topics and interact with lots of other types of engineers on the team.
  • Although it seems like the computer science issues that come up are “expert level” learning about ops is actually a really good introduction to a lot of these topics because there are tangible examples of realistic issues like “running out of memory” or “efficient algorithm design” that you see everyday.
  • Even if you don’t want to be an ops engineer, understanding some of these topics and the constraints on your code when it gets put on servers at scale is important because things will break and you can learn how to fix them!