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DevOps / Kubernetes / Microservices / Platform Engineering

What Does a Platform Engineer Do? And Do You Need One?

As software scales out and becomes more complex, DevOps is needed more than ever to wrangle infrastructure into a usable state for developers to build upon.
Feb 9th, 2024 9:16am by
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If you are in DevOps and looking for a new role, you have a wealth of opportunities. As software scales out and becomes more complex, DevOps is needed more than ever to wrangle infrastructure into a usable state for developers to build upon.

But this expansion of need has also led to a growing number of responsibilities for DevOps engineers. Because of that, we’re now seeing subsets of the field become roles in their own right, such as platform engineering.

Platform engineers are tasked with building the platform developers need to be productive. This role combines deep technical knowledge with the soft skills needed to understand developers and the leadership skills required to understand what the organization needs in order to grow.

Here’s how we see this role, and why it is an important one for organizations looking to give developers a better experience.

The Ops of DevOps

At a high level, a platform engineer’s role is to increase developer productivity and engineering velocity. Platform engineers provide engineers with the tools and environments necessary for rapid, efficient and secure software development. By reducing the friction and eliminating the barriers in the development process, platform engineers enable developers to focus more on creating innovative products and less on operational complexities.

What does this mean they are doing day to day? A platform engineer specializes in creating and maintaining the software platforms developers use to build and deploy applications. They focus on the infrastructure and foundational technologies that support application development, such as cloud services, server management and database systems.

They will be providing the “platform” that application developers in the company can easily use to test and deploy applications. Depending on the company’s size, some of this management might be wrapped into an internal developer platform (IDP) that a platform engineer manages, allowing developers to self-serve their deployment and operational needs.

This IDP typically includes tools for automated testing, deployment, monitoring and scaling. The platform engineer is responsible for ensuring that this platform is efficient, reliable and user-friendly for the developers. They collaborate closely with software development teams to understand their needs and tailor the IDP accordingly, facilitating a smoother, more efficient development process.

In addition to these responsibilities, platform engineers often find themselves actively involved in troubleshooting and resolving any infrastructure-related issues that arise, thereby maintaining the overall health and performance of the system.

A Platform Engineer by Another Name

The platform engineer is a relatively new role in engineering organizations, but that doesn’t mean the responsibilities of this role are new. If you are currently in a DevOps role that is more on the operational side, then your title might be platform engineer at another company. Other titles you may find where platform engineering is a key component of the job description include site reliability engineer, infrastructure engineer, cloud architect and DevOps automation engineer, among others.

These are not the same roles, but they each have some overlap in a Venn diagram with platform engineering. Moving to platform engineer is an option if you find yourself with one of these titles. They differ from traditional operational roles as they focus on developing and fine-tuning the tools and systems that facilitate the entire software development life cycle. The role requires a deep understanding of software development processes. This understanding enables the platform engineer to create streamlined, automated workflows that support and enhance  the efficiency and effectiveness of their development teams.

If you want to transition to platform engineering from similar engineering roles:

  • Enhance your cloud and infrastructure knowledge: Gain a deep understanding of various cloud platforms and infrastructure management practices. These are core components of platform engineering.
  • Increase your knowledge of IDPs: Acquire knowledge about IDPs. Learn how to build and manage platforms that allow developers to self-serve and automate many aspects of the development life cycle. This includes understanding the integration of various tools and systems in order to create a cohesive and efficient development environment.
  • Develop automation skills: Focus on learning and mastering automation tools and scripting languages, which are crucial in creating efficient development and deployment processes.
  • Learn about system design and architecture: Understand the principles of system design and architecture, as platform engineering often involves designing scalable and reliable systems.

As this is a nascent field, the role shifts with a company’s specific needs and technological landscape. One platform engineer might focus more on cloud-based solutions and microservices architecture, while another might be deeply involved in on-premises infrastructure and legacy system integration.

How Your Platform Engineer Role Shifts as Your Company Scales

The role of a platform engineer can change dramatically depending on the company’s size. At a small company, the engineers building a product will choose their infrastructure for deployment. Platform engineering really comes to the fore in larger companies where developers are organized into functional teams and there is a need for some centralized infrastructure.

Small Companies

At a small company, the platform engineer role is multifaceted, combining hands-on technical work with strategic decision-making. This often includes working closely with a small team, where each contribution is critical to the company’s technological infrastructure and overall success. There, their role may be more similar to an engineering leader or DevOps manager, though their responsibilities still reflect those of a true platform engineer.

Roles and responsibilities:

  • Development environment setup: Establish and maintain the entire development environment, from local setups to cloud-based systems.
  • Cloud service management: Oversee cloud services, including the selection, configuration and management of cloud providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform (GCP).
  • Kubernetes implementation: Even in small setups, introduce and manage Kubernetes for container orchestration, improving the scalability and efficiency of applications.
  • Implementation of internal developer platforms (IDP): Create and manage a basic IDP to streamline the development process, making it easier for developers to deploy and manage applications.
  • Application scalability and security: Ensure that applications are scalable and secure, often requiring a deep understanding of software development and information security.
  • Direct collaboration with founders: Work closely with company founders or key stakeholders to align technology strategy with business objectives.
  • Full-stack awareness: Have a broad understanding of both frontend and backend development processes and tools.

Medium-Sized Companies

Platform engineers at medium-sized companies begin specializing in specific areas as companies grow, focusing more on improving and scaling existing systems rather than building them from scratch. At medium-sized companies, a singular platform engineer may be dedicated to overseeing a function, or a small team of platform engineers will oversee efforts.

Roles and Responsibilities:

  • Automating deployment processes: Develop and maintain CI/CD pipelines to streamline software deployment.
  • System architecture improvement: Enhance the system architecture for better performance and reliability, possibly involving microservices and serverless architectures.
  • Kubernetes expertise: Deepen the use of Kubernetes and API gateways to manage and orchestrate complex distributed systems across multiple environments.
  • Advanced internal developer platforms (IDPs): Develop and manage a more sophisticated IDP, incorporating more automation and self-service capabilities for development teams.
  • Third-party service integration: Integrate and manage third-party services and APIs to extend system functionality.
  • Collaboration with multiple teams: Work with different functional teams within the company, such as development, QA and security, to ensure cohesive operations.
  • Documentation and best practices: Create comprehensive documentation and establish best practices for system usage and maintenance.

Large Companies

Platform engineers typically manage complex, large-scale systems in large organizations and are involved in high-level strategic decision-making. In larger companies, they are often focused on a dedicated function with a well-backed team and budget to devote to their efforts.

Roles and Responsibilities:

  • Large-scale cloud infrastructure management: Oversee extensive cloud infrastructure, focusing on optimization and cost management.
  • Kubernetes at scale: Implement and manage Kubernetes clusters at scale, addressing challenges related to multitenancy, security and large-scale deployments.
  • High availability and disaster recovery: Ensure systems are highly available and have robust disaster recovery plans in place.
  • Database performance optimization: Specializes in optimizing large databases for performance and security, often involving data warehousing and big data technologies.
  • Enterprise-level internal developer platforms (IDPs): Design and administer advanced IDPs with extensive automation, monitoring and self-service options for large development teams.
  • Leadership and team management: Lead teams of engineers, setting goals and standards while mentoring junior members.
  • Strategic planning and policy development: Contribute to long-term infrastructure strategy and develop policies for IT practices and security.

Across all company sizes, the platform engineer is vital in aligning technology with business needs.

It’s not just the company’s size that matters; its culture and approach to technology also significantly shape the platform engineer’s role. Platform engineers may be encouraged to experiment with cutting-edge technologies in organizations that value innovation and rapid growth. Conversely, in companies where stability and risk aversion are prioritized, the focus might be strengthening existing systems and processes. Understanding and adapting to these cultural nuances is crucial for success in this role.

As platform engineers move from smaller to larger organizations, their influence and the scope of their responsibilities tend to increase. In smaller settings, they may be directly involved in tactical, day-to-day operations, whereas for larger companies, their role often evolves into a more strategic one. This may include setting long-term infrastructure goals, shaping policies and mentoring junior engineers. The career progression can also lead to roles like chief technology officer (CTO) or head of engineering, where the blend of technical and leadership skills acquired as a platform engineer proves invaluable.

Improving as a Platform Engineer

One way to think about the required skills for a platform engineer is to categorize them into two different but necessary skill sets.

The first skill set is technical understanding. This might include:

  • Focusing on automation: Automating repetitive tasks saves time and reduces the likelihood of errors, making systems more reliable.
  • Prioritizing security: Always consider the security implications of platform decisions. Understanding and implementing best practices in security can prevent significant issues down the line.
  • Proficiency in cloud technologies: Become well-versed in cloud platforms like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud. These are integral to modern platform engineering.
  • Understanding of containerization and orchestration: Knowledge of tools like Docker and Kubernetes is crucial for efficient deployment and scaling of applications.

The second skill set includes the so-called “soft skills.” These skills are just as important. Platform engineers must bridge the gap between software development and operational infrastructure, ensuring that both sides are aligned and optimized for the best possible performance. Platform engineers must understand individuals and teams on both sides and work with them to find the optimal solution. This requires:

  • Effective communication: Clearly articulate technical concepts to non-technical stakeholders and collaborate with various teams.
  • Problem-solving skills: Think critically and creatively to resolve complex technical challenges.
  • Teamwork and collaboration: Work effectively with both development and operations teams to achieve common goals and foster a culture of continuous improvement.

Moreover, platform engineers often lead initiatives in implementing and adopting new technologies, such as containerization and cloud native solutions, to keep the development environment at the cutting edge. This forward-thinking approach is a hallmark of the platform engineering role, marking it as a distinct and increasingly vital discipline within the broader scope of DevOps. As the year progresses, we expect to see an even greater rise in platform engineering.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Docker.
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