As the first DevOps member at Accenture Tampa Advanced Technology Center, James Gress has built an amazing team. He spoke to us about an intensive DevOps training program he’s spearheading at Accenture in an effort to bring more talent to Tampa Bay, and about DevOpsDays, an event coming up in June.
Matt Vaughn: Can you start off by giving us the 30,000 ft overview of what Accenture is, as far as the company and what you guys do?
James Gress: Accenture is a global management consulting and professional services company. We analyze business goals and needs, devise solutions, and help implement them across a variety of technologies.
Matt: With that, you’ve been with the company for 18 years. Can you give us the Cliff’s Notes of your career? How you came on board, and the roles you’ve held over time.
James: I started at Accenture as a software developer, writing legacy and modern technologies. Quickly moved over into doing architecture and tools. I got exposure to many different technologies. Not only the applications that are supporting our clients, but tools that support developers as well. A lot of the tools included homegrown automation systems, issue tracking, checkin, checkout, and promote tools. We even wrote a small code quality program for C and COBOL in the late 90s.
Back in 2000, we were probably the closest thing to doing DevOps before it technically existed. Most things were automated – remote builds, remote migration, and packaging systems to send code off to the client. Since then, a lot of the tools have really accelerated in DevOps over the last few years. There are obviously new techniques rather than writing your own, but we’ve always been in this space. I did architecture for a good number of those years, creating software and tools for developers, and creating applications for clients.
In the last 4 years, I moved into creating a DevOps capability out of the Tampa ATC from the ground up. I was one of the first members, at least in Tampa, and had a hand in hiring the rest of the team. It’s really good to see the growth and the camaraderie that we have here. We get to touch the latest and greatest stuff. It’s really cool. We also have the skills to support client needs when it comes to legacy stuff as well.
Currently, I am leading the North America DevOps Solution Factory here in Tampa.
Roxanne: What made you join the Marines?
James: I knew I wanted to be in the service. I wanted to join the most prestigious and the very best. It was a great experience. The Marine Corps really instilled a lot of great qualities like honor, integrity, and being able to adapt to situations quickly; and they are definitely skills I still use today.
With the Marine Corps, just like with Accenture, it’s all about the people and the values they instill in you. There’s a real sense of camaraderie, and it was just a great environment to be in. Working specifically on the CH-46 helicopter, it’s surprising how thin the metal that’s on the outside of the helicopter is. I did to get to go up a few times. Most of it was fixing it on the ground. But it’s interesting actually putting your fingers on it and experience different things.
Roxanne: Going back to your career, are there any highlights that you’re super proud of?
James: Actually, a lot of them. I’ve been in the business for 25 years. I can remember creating software from the ground up, working on very large-scale projects, and working with many of the Fortune 500 companies. Along the way, I think there are qualities in all those things that I’ve been proud of.
I would say the most interesting one lately has been building the capability here in Tampa. Building a capability that had just one person into something that is a thriving team has been very rewarding. Our team is actively involved in the community, and is excited about working on cutting edge technologies.
Roxanne Williams: Since our audience is technical, when you say you got your start as a developer, what did you code in?
James: Back in the year 2000, it was COBOL and C.
Roxanne: Oh man, taking us back.
James: I came in as an experienced hire, so I already had COBOL-like mainframe experience. At the time, Accenture was looking for COBOL development on the Unix environment, migrating up to mainframes.
It was a unique scenario. We were doing all the host development work in Unix, and for some clients, promoting that application up into a mainframe environment. Quite a unique scenario for the late 90s developing one code base across different OSs. There were a number of different things we had to build to make sure cross-compatibility was there. That just didn’t exist back then out of the box.
Matt: Did you start doing C when you were in the Marines? I saw that you were doing Avionics in the Corps. Were you a part of development around embedded systems for that, or was it more around the engineering side?
James: When I was in the service, I was doing aviation electronics for CH-46 helicopters. That was back in the early ’90s, when people were still fixing electronics. There were some PCs out there, but it was still kind of new. Once I started getting my hands on software and computers, it was an easy gravitation from fixing electronics to software development.
Roxanne: What do you guys for DevOps in terms of tech stack?
James: That’s a great question. The simplest answer is all of them [laughter]. Accenture does have what we call ADOP, which is the Accenture DevOps Platform. We have a version that is hosted and managed, which is enterprise-level applications of some of these tools. SonarQube, Nexus, Selenium, Jira, Confluence, and a few others.
We also have one that we’ve completely open sourced. That one is called ADOP Community. ADOP Community is out there for the public to grab, play with, and contribute back to. We encourage contributions, comments, and feedback on things people like and don’t like, to make the open source better. It’s a great tool for creating small projects, doing training, internal demos, etc. You can spin it up in 20 minutes. It’s a complete stack of tools, fully integrated with the sample application that runs through a pipeline, going through code quality analysis, security scanning performance testing, and integration testing.
It really gives you that starting point, and gives you the ability to understand where things fit in the DevOps lifecycle. It also gives you the ability to start adjusting right away, without having to figure out some of the tedious things that you normally would have to do.
We also have a company called Avanade, which is Accenture-owned and Microsoft-owned. They have a platform called AMEP, which is the Avanade Modern Engineering Platform. It’s a Microsoft-centric toolchain with VSTS and Azure DevOps based technologies.
A day in DevOps at Accenture
Matt: What does an average day look like for you and for the team?
James: I do a lot of capability development. We’re actively engaged with many clients. As such, I’m always looking for ways to leverage what we’re doing with these clients into something that can help build up the capability.
Working with new clients, I get to touch on all aspects of the onboarding process. Understanding the tech stack, what their needs are, and seeing how we can assist them from a Tampa Bay Advanced Technology Center and a DevOps Solution Factory standpoint. I run workshops with clients, do DevOps assessments, and project planning.
I’ve also been working on developing training curriculum for our Talent Creation Factory, which we’re introducing this year. The goal with that is to bring on new talent in the Tampa Bay area.
It all boils down to looking for new opportunities for us to grow locally, and to serve our clients more effectively.
The cool new training program for DevOps at Accenture
Matt: Can you tell us a little bit more about the training initiative you just mentioned?
James: There’s a huge demand for DevOps. Actually, there’s a huge demand for new IT skills across the board. Accenture has an initiative to start bringing in new talent across all of these different platforms, whether it’s cloud native engineering, blockchain, machine learning, AI, etc.
Tampa was selected as the growth center for DevOps. Essentially, we’re hiring new analysts and new associates who might not have deep skills, and we’re sending them through a 12 to 15 week training program where they’re given the foundation to be T-shaped engineers. They will get the breadth of software development across the top, cloud native engineering, software delivery lifecycle, and DevOps across the top. And then specifically for DevOps, we’re going to build out the bottom of that T, to be more DevOps-specific. We’ll be able to really focus in on that, and provide deep knowledge in that particular area.
Accenture has more than 450,000 employees globally. We have lots of stuff out there, so I was able to pull in a lot of the curriculum. I was able to put together an intensive 2 week training program for DevOps. I’m really excited about it because it’s very immersive, and project-simulated. It’s going to start off like a typical project would, with a kick-off meeting. The Scrum Master goes in and creates a bunch of stories. Then, the students will actually take tickets off of our Jira stories, execute them, and build on each activity as we go along.
For example, installing software, putting some plugins in, starting to build pipelines, converting pipelines. The first week is more on the dev side, and the second week focuses on the app side. At the end of the two weeks, they have something where they can say, “I have this complete DevOps lifecycle from start to finish, and I understand how all the pieces fit together.”
Roxanne: What kind of people are you targeting with this program? Brand new to the workforce, or has a couple years of experience?
James: Both. We are looking for people that are new to this industry. Ideally, they have taken some programming classes or have a degree in technology. But we’re looking for just some basic skills, make sure they can navigate around Linux, have a little bit of a background, and maybe a couple of courses in software. We’re launching folks from that basic understanding into actually being project-ready after that 12 to 15 week program. Part of that program is actually doing shadowing, so they get not only the project simulation side, but also exposure to the actual real life experience.
Matt: What was the biggest challenge of trying to put this specific chunk of the program together, those two weeks?
James: The biggest challenge was time. Just finding enough cycles and finding enough time to get in there and execute that vision.
We get to kick it off next week. It’s been a while since we’ve brought in analysts at an associate level in the Tampa ATC, and the excitement that some of these folks have coming out of college, getting into their first position, is really refreshing. It’s great to see the motivation and the eagerness to really try to absorb these skills and technology.
Roxanne: I have found that most DevOps people I’ve met are really, really passionate about it.
James: Oh yeah.
Matt: It’s nice to see junior talent being grown, especially in that space. Obviously not everybody is like Accenture, as far as the mindset of growing DevOps people. Many DevOps people don’t actually have DevOps in their job title.
James: I have seen that across the board, which is interesting. I’ll have some people that under-represent their resume, and after talking them with them, it’s like, “Hey, you really have more.” I almost want to help and tell them, “You need to put this in your resume.”
I’ve been hiring DevOps for 4 years now. It’s really great to see the rockstars come through. Like Roxanne said, they have that passion. It’s good to see the folks that list themselves as automation engineers, for example. They’re just right on the cusp of being able to get in this space and flourish. One thing about Accenture is that there are no barriers in front of you once you get in. You can take your career as fast as you want – there’s nothing holding you back. It’s not like, now that you’re hired in this position, you’re stuck here. We do have normal promotion cycles, but if you’re performing at the level, you’ll make the promotion.
Matt: To tie into that, what has kept you at Accenture for so long?
James: Overall, Accenture’s a great company to work for. A lot of people here actually have more tenure than I do – some have 20+ years. We have some great benefits, and the culture is fantastic – it’s more of a cohesive culture.
Accenture wants to be the most inclusive company in the world, and we have a ton of programs that help facilitate that. So, we get a great mixture of people that come through, which really helps us with being able to innovate and get fresh ideas. For this reason, everyone is able to work well with each other.
Roxanne: DevOpsDays. Can you tell us a little bit more about the event? What kind of speakers and sessions can we expect to see?
James: We actually wanted to do it earlier, but to be able to pull off a DevOpsDays, you have to have a number of other local companies involved and we didn’t quite have that a few years back. Just recently, I got a call back from DevOpsDays, “Hey, there’s a few more people interested.” We’re like, “Fantastic. Let’s get this organized.” We went from initially having 3 companies involved, to now having 7 on the organizing committee.
This really shows the technology growth and demand in the area. The DevOpsDays Tampa Bay first inaugural event will focus mostly on folks are doing local in DevOps and provide a great way to socialize and learn what is going on in the Tampa Bay area in DevOps. Registration opened in March and everyone is welcome. It will be a great event for anyone interested in DevOps, including folks that are new to DevOps, DevOps evangelists, DevOps engineers, and DevOps leaders.
To learn more about the event, follow this link: https://www.devopsdays.org/events/2019-tampa/.
Matt: With your many professional years in Tampa, have you seen a positive shift when it comes to tech talent in Tampa?
James: I’ve actually seen a pretty positive shift just in the last couple of years. I’ve lived here most of my life, and Tampa’s never been the high tech hub. Although, I do believe, and Accenture believes, that Tampa is about to explode as a tech hub and we’re here to accelerate that growth.
We host and attend meetups, and we’re seeing growth there too. The topics that come out of the meetups are more mature, and it really shows the level of what’s happening here in Tampa from a technology perspective. We’re hearing of more and more local companies that are starting to either get in the space or mature the space. It’s refreshing to see local companies moving this forward. You see books on their shelves like The Devops Handbook, Gene Kim stuff and whatnot, and you can see that they’re very passionate about it. They’re starting to get into the space and learning from others and starting to explode this out. I’ve seen great movement even in the candidates that have been coming through. We’re seeing a shift to much more detailed, developed technology skills across the board – and more of them.
Roxanne: If somebody is that good, is it unheard of for you guys to relocate somebody to Tampa?
James: We have relocated a few – well, I would say they self-relocated. They already had a desire to move to Tampa, and they’d heard good things about us. I think Tampa has a lot to offer, as far as technology goes. Tech facilitates tech, and I think the more tech jobs we can pull down, the more companies will want to create offices here or move down here to say, “Hey, we want to tap into that talent.” It’ll just keep exploding from there.
Matt: Where do you feel the pain points are when it comes to talent retention locally?
James: I think a great way to keep talent here is to make sure our folks are building their own skills. There’s a high desire in DevOps to grow those skills. There are so many skills to actually grow. It’s beyond difficult.
Roxanne: DevOps is the kind of thing where you just learn your whole life. Technology is so–
James: You will be constantly learning. And just when you think you have one thing down, we’re going to mature something else.
I think keeping them challenged and engaged is a huge part of that. I also think having the right culture, the right people to support that, and great leaders in the space is critical. Personally, I’ve had great mentors within Accenture, great leaders here that have made me successful.
That’s a big reason why I’ve stayed at Accenture for so long. Knowing that your support structure is also interested in growing you in your career, giving you the support that you need, and having that blameless culture. When problems do arise, it’s, “How do we move forward and make sure that we’re putting the right quality gates in to prevent that from happening again,” rather than finger-pointing.
On his community involvement
Roxanne: You mentioned that a lot of your people are involved in the community. What kind of events can we see you guys at?
James: We do a monthly – or almost monthly – Tampa Bay DevOps event. I’m trying to do these more topic-based, where we’re going through more innovative topics since we have a ton of exposure globally. For example, Accenture just did what we call DevOps Week, and that is 5 days / 24 hours of nothing but live presentations on DevOps. Now, I know that sounds hard, but North America was really during the North American time zones, and then we had other geographical locations fill in the gaps. UK was doing the mornings to afternoons. Since we’re a global company, we were able to fit in the presenters either during their normal work day or very close to that.
Roxanne: When is the next one?
James: I don’t have a date for the next one, unfortunately. As for other community engagement, internally, we have our DevOps Week I mentioned earlier, and we also do hackathons – events where you stay up 24 hours and create innovative solutions.
Roxanne: Oof. Do you go to work the day after or do you take the day off? Because that’s rough.
James: We do usually try to do it towards the end of the week. It’s a little bit different every year, but the idea is you start with a basic premise of what you’re trying to do. It’s very open as far as whatever that team wants to do, because we’re not trying to necessarily direct them in a way. But it’s like, “Hey, come up with a business thing that maybe you’ve thought about during the year that you wanted to try to see if we could implement in 24 hours. It doesn’t necessarily have to be complete.” But usually there is some kind of minimum viable product that comes out of it that you can demo and showcase and say, “Yeah, this is how far we got.” Gives them the ability to get on a global stage across all of the rest of the community at Accenture.
Roxanne: Have there been any ideas that came out of those hackathons that ended up being implemented?
James: As a matter of fact, the ADOP community is one of those things.
James: That came out of a hackathon. But if you think about it, we have quite a number of trained folks. Across Accenture, we have 44,000 trained DevOps professionals. 4,100 actually in the practice, considered DevOps. 450 in shared services or the Solution Factory.
In essence, I don’t know of another organization that has more of a DevOps presence than we do.
Tech in Tampa
Matt: What do you hope to see in the next few years when it comes to Tampa Bay in technology?
James: An explosion in growth. Accenture’s here to make that happen, or to help accelerate that growth. I want to see more innovation into the area. I know Accenture’s involved in Water Street, and that’s pretty exciting.
I’d like to see growth for us in the new IT space, not only in DevOps, but in machine learning and AI. I’d like to see the marriage of those two happen more effectively. We see evidence of that, people putting some machine learning and AI into some of the DevOps development tools. But being able to see some of that start to mature out would be, I think, very interesting.
It’s kind of my side thing. You always have to have two things going on. I have my DevOps, and I have my machine learning and AI stuff. Actually, I recently purchased one of those deep lens cameras from AWS and played around with it, made it recognize people. I don’t get to do a lot of engineering in my day-to-day here. So, I spend the weekend sometimes doing things like this.
Roxanne: Which companies locally are involved with machine learning and AI? Because with all the companies we’ve interviewed, I think we’re at about 35 interviews, I don’t remember a single one really talking about it.
James: Nielsen, in fact, is huge at it. Indeed, they’ve been doing machine learning and AI before it became popular a few years ago.
Roxanne: Are there any further thoughts you’d like to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline for you or Accenture?
James: DevOpsDays is going to be great – make sure you register now!
About James Gress:
James is a DevOps leader with 25+ years of experience in software delivery. He currently runs a global team specializing in implementing continuous integration and continuous delivery across multiple industries, technologies, and software platforms. He is experienced in software architecture across multiple software languages, supporting custom software developer tools, and custom automation tools on new and legacy platforms.
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