Agenda 2023: Five Behavioural Skills Which are the Secret to SRE Success

Arvind Mehrotra
5 min readApr 10, 2023

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Site reliability engineering (SRE) is fast becoming a staple for DevOps and IT infrastructure management. Research indicates that over 60% of organisations are employing SRE processes today, with nearly 1 in 5 organisations applying SRE principles throughout their IT practices. However, technical expertise, tools, and metrics are insufficient to ensure SRE success. A lot of it also hinges on culture and behavioural skills.

Interestingly, companies with the correct cultural tenets and behavioural skills are far more likely to succeed in SRE. Organisations with a “just” culture — where incidents do not lead to any penalisation — are 500% more likely to be SRE elites! So, which behavioural skills make the correct mix for success?

1. The ability to embrace healthy conflict, disagreements, and differences of opinion

Site reliability engineering is a team sport. It relies on divergent perspectives from multiple expert professionals to solve problems, understand the root cause of issues, fine-tune operations, and always strive for success. Unlike traditional infrastructure monitoring, there are very few solo practitioners in SRE. Instead, teams in charge of system availability, change management, emergency response, capacity planning, etc., must all work together towards SRE goals.

That is why you need conflict management and the ability to learn from them as critical behavioural skills. It doesn’t just mean negotiating between divergent views to find a workable middle ground. It implies assimilating insights from different people with different ideas to arrive at the most optimised solution.

2. Individual and collective accountability

Accountability is crucial in site reliability engineering since the field deals with highly scalable systems delivering maximum value.

Things often go wrong in SRE, and when they do, it is vital to quickly find the root cause and its solution without pointing fingers. That is why individual and collective accountability is an essential behavioural skill for site reliability engineers. It ensures that professionals can identify their role in a situation and work as a team towards finding the resolution.

Another aspect of accountability is recognising team members’ positive efforts and achievements. Peer-to-peer recognition ensures the dissemination of knowledge and best practices across SRE teams and implementation through positive reinforcement. SREs often work under high-pressure conditions with little room for error, so a sense of collective accountability can alleviate the pressure to bring out the best in these professions.

3. An eagerness to learn from your subordinates and peers

On-the-job learning is an essential part of site reliability engineering. However, what’s often overlooked is that much of this learning can come from younger professionals and your immediate peer networks. That is why an eagerness to learn from others is a valued behavioural skill among SREs. In addition to self-motivated and self-paced learning through formal channels, mentorships, and one’s downtime, SREs need to have a mindset tuned to absorbing information from any source at any time.

It is also because site reliability engineering is a relatively new field, and it is constantly expanding. Knowing just one aspect of the job or specialising in one technical skill isn’t enough. An eagerness to learn from others helps SRE professionals get closer to becoming “masters of all trades” and also permeates the learnings across their teams.

4. A capacity for two-way communication

Regarding behavioural skills, communication is usually right up there on the list. For SREs, this has two aspects.

First, one should have the confidence and ability to communicate their opinions and perspectives to team members, even if that results in a conflict. It also includes raising interpersonal issues or discussing well-being in the workplace, if necessary. The second aspect of this behavioural skill is empathy. Empathy allows SRE professionals to understand problems that may not be part of their worldview, functional approach, or sphere of knowledge.

Without two-way communication, engineers often try and resolve issues in silos — which causes delays, stress, and adverse outcomes. Instead, collective problem-solving through the right behavioural skills brings in the power of feedback and iteration to fix issues faster.

5. A greater tolerance for ambiguity

As market expectations and digital environments become more complex, SRE professionals must often work with shifting goalposts. Therefore, the ability to navigate ambiguity is an excellent behavioural skill. It has three component skills — humility, curiosity, and self-benchmarking.

Being humble makes it easier to accept that one’s expectations will remain unfilled. It also makes it easier to learn and adapt to changing conditions. Furthermore, curiosity is a critical behavioural skill that helps you navigate ambiguity and find anchors that will act as the bases of your decision-making. Finally, self-benchmarking makes it possible to understand one’s successes and failures to apply the knowledge in other areas.

Site reliability engineering is poised to become a staple in enterprise IT, and SREs are among the highest-paid IT professionals in the world. It is because successful SREs bring a unique mix of behavioural skills, in addition to their technical proficiency and educational qualifications, that makes them ideal for high-pressure, dynamic scenarios where their work directly impacts business outcomes.

To learn more about behavioural skills and how to develop them, email me at Arvind@AM-PMAssociates.com.

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Arvind Mehrotra

Board Advisor, Strategy, Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor