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Empathy vs. sympathy for Site Reliability Engineers (SRE)

Knowing the difference between empathy and sympathy can make for great Site Reliability Engineers. Here's why it matters.
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Many people have had the insight that DevOps is about people. Often, they will summarize it as DevOps is about empathy. I have found, however, that idealizing empathy is just as bad as thinking that DevOps is about a single technology.

I remember when I first heard Paul Bloom talking on Rationally Speaking. Julia Galef introduced him by saying, "I'm writing a book on empathy," psychologist Paul Bloom tells people. They respond warmly, until he follows up with, "I'm against it."

SRE are different by design

Many of the people who are titled, at times, Site Reliability Engineers (SRE)—or DevOps Engineers, or Production Engineers, or Platform Engineers, or other terms that indicate the same responsibilities connected to DevOps practices—are fundamentally and intentionally different than many of the people they have to work with. In order to be good at this job, you need a reasonably solid ability to program and a reasonably solid ability to handle operational issues.

This is an uncommon skill set. It often is acquired by starting as a software developer or an IT administrator and slowly gaining complementary skills. This means there are few truly "junior" people in that role, as with any senior-level role, gaining the necessary skills and experience takes time.

Sympathy vs. empathy

Being more senior than someone, and having skills they lack, makes it difficult to empathize. It is difficult and inaccurate to guess what someone might be struggling with or what they need help with.  Site Reliability Engineers who try to use empathy imagine themselves in the other person's role and will build tools and processes that would be good for themselves if they were in that role.

In contrast, sympathy begins with trusting that people have unique insight into their own lived experiences. A Site Reliability Engineer focusing on sympathy will start by talking to people, understanding their problems, and believing them when describing pain points. Site Reliability Engineers focusing on sympathy will involve others in the decision process to solve those problems. A Site Reliability Engineer focusing on sympathy will release partial solutions to focus groups to see how they fail when used by people different from them.

It starts with caring

Sympathy. Compassion. Trust. These are the main tools a Site Reliability Engineer uses daily to make DevOps possible. Developing those is easy, as long as you care about people. Caring about people is the only thing that can't be taught.

If I hire a new SRE, I can teach them how to build sympathy. I can teach them how to express compassion. I can teach them how to build trust. I can, of course, teach them all the technical skills they need.

But I cannot teach anyone to care about people. If you do care about people, you already have the most important skill needed to succeed as an SRE.

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Moshe Zadka

Moshe has been involved in the Linux community since 1998, helping in Linux "installation parties". He has been programming Python since 1999, and has contributed to the core Python interpreter. More about me

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