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The definition of a platform engineer can be slippery. Ask several IT professionals “What does a platform engineer do?” and you might get several different answers. One platform engineer might be at the intersection of DevOps, AppSec, architecture, and SRE, while another might broadly support infrastructure for all developers in their organization. (Sometimes, in less successful teams, they’re essentially a DevOps engineer with a fancy title.)
One thing’s for sure: The platform engineer role is changing the way software companies make software. We’ve got the information you need to know to get a platform engineer definition. Read on to find out what a platform engineer does, what to expect from the role, skills that separate the good from the great, and what to look for when adding engineers to build your platform.
A platform engineer is an IT professional responsible for designing, building, and maintaining an internal developer platform (IDP). A platform engineer helps integrate and maintain the foundational infrastructure tools that enable an organization to deploy, operate, and manage software applications more efficiently.
A platform engineer definition can be hard to pin down because of its similarity to other DevOps roles. But it is unique in the DevOps space, and with an increase in platform engineering popularity, it's worth examining where this definition of a platform engineer came from.
Platform engineers arose when complex software systems started requiring more complex, more reliable infrastructure underneath them (including hybrid cloud and virtualized computing). It takes specialized knowledge to maintain and optimize infrastructure that sophisticated.
Though DevOps is focused on collaboration between development and operations teams, it wasn’t enough to keep pace. Developers were forced to use tools they didn’t always understand and didn’t have the time to master (and which were often not part of their job description).
Additionally, because teams were working in siloes, developers were often duplicating work by creating multiple versions of something to solve the same problem twice. That essentially doubled the amount of work being done without doubling the value of it. At the same time, it added to the complexity of infrastructure and configurations, compounding those problems across the organization.
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So you had this growing need for a new type of IT professional. One who could design, build, and maintain robust toolsets and workflows to support and simplify the underlying systems that comprise infrastructure – and create high-level abstractions that made developers’ lives easier.
In many ways, the platform engineer has existed for decades. But the increasing complexity of infrastructure necessitated a role explicitly designed to address the gap between developers who need to move fast and the complex tools they use. Thus, the role of the platform engineer was born.
A platform engineer designs, builds, and supports foundational infrastructure for developers (though operations teams may also utilize the platform). A DevOps engineer is focused on fostering collaboration and process alignment between development and operations teams.
Read more about the differences between platform engineering vs. DevOps >>
A platform engineer designs, builds, and maintains a platform for software development. This role is commonly responsible for administering configurations for various environments, maintaining applications, communicating with platform users and stakeholders, and preparing reports for systems and assets.
Every platform is at least a little bit unique, so platform engineers might have different responsibilities in different organizations. But platform engineers are commonly responsible for tasks like:
Platform engineers use a variety of tools to build, maintain, and secure platforms. Check out a list of common platform engineering tools >>
Like any position, the bare responsibilities of any platform engineer will only take them so far. The future of platform engineering depends on more than slick coding skills and knowing how to get around a variety of tools. No matter what specific tasks they perform in their role, a great platform engineer is able to leverage their expertise, experience, and soft skills to make a platform developers understand and want to use.
The line between a platform engineer and a DevOps engineer is most easily drawn by the understanding of a platform as a product, not a process. Great platform engineers see the platform they’re building like any well-made (and well-supported) product. A platform is built to solve problems for users; improved using feedback from those users; updated in pursuit of specific goals (like efficiency and user satisfaction); and measured by metrics that track progress toward those goals (like platform adoption).
Curious Who Else Should Be on Your Platform Team?Read our blog about platform engineering teams to learn more about how to stack your team.📄 PLATFORM ENGINEERING TEAMS
Read our blog about platform engineering teams to learn more about how to stack your team.
📄 PLATFORM ENGINEERING TEAMS
As caretakers of the infrastructure that underpins development, platform engineers have to facilitate clear communication between users and other stakeholders. Our first-ever State of Platform Engineering Report (2023) found that 61% of organizations doing platform engineering put communication on their list of important skills for their platform team. Ability to foster collaboration came in at 54%, followed by the ability to distill user requests into core requirements (45%) and a willingness to challenge established norms (37%).
A platform engineer does more than just help build and maintain a platform. They have to be able to understand the benefits and use cases of a developer platform and explain – or ‘evangelize’ – those benefits to a variety of stakeholders. 43% of respondents to our 2023 platform engineering survey listed “Deep knowledge of internal customers” (a key tenet of product marketing) among the most important skills for a successful platform team. They should be able to understand their customers – e.g., developers, ops teams, and even company leadership – and effectively champion the platform to those audiences.
Automation is one of the core responsibilities of a platform engineer. It’s what removes bottlenecks and lays golden paths for developers, and it’s at the heart of any strong IDP. Automating routine tasks (like provisioning and access control) and then building them into a platform takes many disparate aspects of development and makes them available across teams.
Puppet is the only open source automation and configuration management solution built for complex infrastructure – the kind that needs platform engineers the most. It’s the solution of choice for mature platform engineering teams, with the ability to effectively manage large-scale infrastructure across public cloud, private and hybrid deployments, and on-premises IT environments.
You can use Open Source Puppet for free to power your perfect platform using the link below. For more about platform engineering, including survey results and tips from successful platform engineering teams, download the latest Puppet State of Platform Engineering Report for free.
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Manager of Product Management, Puppet by Perforce
Margaret Lee is a product leader at Puppet by Perforce. She has always worked to give a voice to the Puppet user base, establishing her as an advocate for customer needs. She leverages her cross-team experience to identify the challenges Puppet customers face and find solutions that ensure DevOps success.