SRE vs. DevOps Guide: Differences, Job Descriptions, Salaries

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn about the similarities and differences between SRE and DevOps, what it takes to work in these roles, and how to get started.

[Featured Image] A DevOps engineer adjusts his glasses while looking at his laptop.

On the surface, the roles of site reliability engineers (SREs) and DevOps engineers are similar, as they require similar skill sets and use similar tools to accomplish the same goals. However, depending on your specific interests, personality, and work style, one role may suit you better.

The following is a quick guide to give you an overview of the difference between SRE and DevOps engineering jobs to help you determine which one might be right for you.

SRE vs. DevOps: key differences

The most significant difference is DevOps teams create software and then refine it. In contrast, SRE teams work with already-built software to ensure it functions correctly and cooperates with other software and systems. SRE and DevOps share more similarities than differences, but there are important distinctions between the two.

Approaches to SRE and DevOps differ

On a deeper level, the two approaches differ in their fundamental approaches to work. The DevOps approach is more philosophical, while the SRE approach focuses more on practices



At its core, the fundamental purpose of DevOps is to break down the barriers that divide two separate units (development teams and operations teams) to facilitate faster and better work. In that sense, principles, not systems, steer DevOps, and the units want to create the best product possible by implementing gradual improvements. 

What is SRE?

Site reliability engineering refers to safeguarding systems and ensuring their continuous functionality. Marked by a focus on maintenance, SRE teams work to automate ways to keep their applications functioning. You can think of SRE teams as playing the peacekeeper role within the IT family. They keep all the applications, servers, and teams talking to each other and focused on what they see as the prime directive—delivering a working product. 

The SRE approach began at Google in 2003 as a systematic way to ensure their service remained continuously usable. The approach is guided by measuring service-level indicators (SLI) that indicate how often the service does what its users want it to do. For example, when you enter a product name into a search engine, you expect to get results about the product. However, sometimes errors occur. An SLI tracks how often those errors occur and notifies the SRE team when they happen too often.

SRE roles

SREs are proactive and reactive. As an SRE, you always look to fix known issues and determine ways to prevent future downtime or hiccups. You monitor websites and services to discover errors, such as latency issues and traffic problems, that can threaten the user experience. SREs are also the first call when something goes wrong.

On a day-to-day basis, you will work on a triage system as an SRE. You'll tackle issues based on their potential for harm, handling the biggest or most pressing problems first. At more prominent firms, SRE teams will work shifts 24 hours daily, so someone is always available in an emergency.

At smaller companies, you will trade “on-call” shifts and share responsibility for after-hours crises. When you’re not fixing availability and reliability issues, you'll use your programming knowledge to write automated processes to keep things working smoothly. You may also build software to monitor site performance and alert teams when issues arise.

What is DevOps?

Although we typically think of DevOps as a single team, it represents the combination of two historically distinct entities: development and operations.

Initially, the development unit created software while the operations team tested that software and plugged it into a broader system. When operations found bugs, problems, or inefficiencies, they reported back to the development folks, who would work to iterate a new version of the software or fix their original code. 

As you can imagine, this approach could have been better. Companies realized combining these groups into a single team made more sense. DevOps represents an integrated approach that has proven to be faster and more responsive. 

Today, DevOps teams are responsible for creating and testing new software. The old two-team format has been combined at every stage of the software lifecycle, allowing for a continuous approach to refinement and remediation. 

DevOps teams strive to create the best software possible as quickly as possible. A DevOps team is a variety of workers with widely divergent skill sets who all work on the same project simultaneously. By eliminating the silos that previously kept these workers separate, the DevOps approach seeks to streamline how to create and launch great products.

DevOps engineer roles

Because of the nature of a DevOps team, DevOps engineers wear many hats. They create software, test it, and refine it. They work to make their products better before and after launch continually. As a DevOps engineer, you look to solve problems at a theoretical level. If you find an issue, you don’t simply try to solve it. You think of why it happened, what could prevent it in the future, and what other similar issues may arise from the same kind of thinking.

Collaboration is a significant part of a DevOps engineer’s role, and this approach requires constant communication and teamwork. You work alongside a variety of other workers with different skills and abilities.

While a DevOps engineer is typically trained in operations but deployed to solve issues in the development process, an entire DevOps team will also include engineers who specialize in development. If you enjoy creating new products and communicating with other people, a DevOps career may be a good fit.

DevOps environment vs. SRE environment

Another difference between DevOps culture and SRE is the emphasis on breaking down organizational silos. Working as an engineer on a DevOps team means collaborating with many different kinds of colleagues. You’ll work alongside UX designers, QA experts, testers, and more. The best DevOps engineers are good at communicating with others and work well in team settings. Once firmly rooted in a DevOps team, you may have a chance to contribute to many aspects of a product. 

Conversely, SRE has a more practical and systematic bent. Instead of focusing on building new products, SRE teams work to keep existing products running smoothly. They don’t look at problems as opportunities for refinement. Instead, they look for errors threatening the service’s availability and reliability. When they find those errors, they quickly act to fix them. The SRE ethos is concerned with promoting efficiency and usability.  

If you become an SRE engineer, you’ll serve on a team of software engineers with similar (but probably not identical) skill sets. You’ll be among like-minded people who tend to approach problems in similar ways. While you’ll still collaborate, you will spend much of your day coding automations that keep sites or products running smoothly. An SRE engineer’s primary function is to solve problems.

SRE vs. DevOps: similarities

The SRE and DevOps approaches share several overlapping qualities. They both arose as a better way for technology teams to function, aim to create bug-free products that enhance the customer experience and spend a lot of time assessing products to find their weaknesses before anything goes awry. The most unifying aspect of both approaches is their shared goal of creating a more effective IT ecosystem.

The DevOps and SRE approaches developed concurrently and focused on resolving similar problems, so it’s no wonder they’re more alike than different. They use similar tools, such as automation, to solve the issues they discover.

SRE engineer role requirements

If you want to work in SRE as an engineer, you’ll need to strengthen your skills, knowledge, and experience to qualify for a role. Potential candidates often need serious computer science aptitude, coding skills, familiarity with different operating systems, and an understanding of automation technology and cloud computing. It also helps to have proficiency in networking, security, and systems administration. While that sounds like a lot, there are clear-cut paths to attaining all the necessary skills and credentials to start working as an SRE engineer.

Most companies insist on a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. A bachelor's degree is practically a must-have unless you’re already an established engineer working in the field. Beyond that, there are many ways you can sharpen your skills or pick up specific talents (like knowing Python) to put you ahead of the competition. Many online courses from platforms like Coursera can help you learn new coding languages. You can also gain certifications in SRE from tech-specific organizations, such as The DevOps Institute or the American Society for Quality.

DevOps engineer role requirements

To become a DevOps engineer, you must demonstrate a thorough understanding of software development to employers. For most jobs, that means earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science and having skills in specific technical areas. 

Most DevOps roles require experience with the Linux operating systems and an understanding of at least one (but preferably more) coding language, such as Python, Perl, Ruby, or Java. Employers like to emphasize their preference for “Agile development,” which means DevOps engineers must know how to work in a collaborative and fast-paced environment. 

To stand out or qualify for higher-paying DevOps roles, earn certifications in specific software tools. Becoming a Docker Certified Associate, adding a Kubernetes Certification, or passing the AWS Certified Engineer Professional Exam are great ways to strengthen your resume but aren’t necessary for entry-level positions. 

Read more: What Does a DevOps Engineer Do? A Career Guide

What are the career prospects for SRE and DevOps engineers?

SRE and DevOps engineers have many paths for mobility within their professions. 

For example, after starting as a DevOps engineer, you could be promoted to senior DevOps engineer and then up to software release manager. Suppose you discover you’d like to specialize along the way. In that case, you can move from a DevOps engineer role to become an automation engineer, a software tester, an integration specialist, a security engineer, or even an SRE with many of the same skills you’ve developed.

The future looks bright for SRE and DevOps engineers because demand for those skill sets is steadily increasing. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the field of software developers (an umbrella term that includes both SRE and DevOps roles) to increase by 25 percent from 2022 to 2032 [1]. 

SRE and DevOps engineers' job titles and salaries

Most job titles for DevOps engineering and SRE roles are straightforward, but it’s important to understand the subtle nuances and variations. 

If you decide to become a DevOps engineer, you can expect to earn $139,000 per year, according to Glassdoor [2]. An average entry-level DevOps engineer will earn between $87K-$134K but can make an average of $117K-$179K with four to six years of experience. DevOps engineers who advance further can earn titles like Sr. DevOps Engineer and command salaries up to $145K-$224K after 7-9 years of experience [3].

The average base salary for a site reliability engineer in the US is $143,000 [4]. However, your experience, technical skills, and company size may affect the exact compensation. Typically, larger companies pay higher salaries for SRE work. Entry-level SRE engineers earn an average base salary between $74K-$110K, increasing to $96K-$140K after four to six years. Mid- and late-career SREs, usually called Sr. SRE or SRE II and SRE III, are likely to earn up to $185,000 [5]. 

While similar roles typically use the name SRE engineer, a few other common terms for these positions include reliability engineer and automation engineer. Sometimes, a company will look for SRE engineers with extra training or skills in a specific area and post ads seeking something like “SRE engineer - security.”

Should I pursue SRE or DevOps engineering?

Consider your personality, work style, and interests if you’re trying to decide between SRE and DevOps engineering. While the roles share many basic skills, their different philosophical approaches to work and day-to-day tasks make them very different jobs. 

You will experience a greater variety in your day-to-day tasks as a DevOps engineer. You’ll also need more human skills than SRE engineers because of the high cross-department collaboration that often accompanies the role. The multifaceted nature of the job also means DevOps roles are well-suited for those who can multitask well or have excellent time-management skills.

If you enjoy troubleshooting and don’t mind the occasional emergency, a job in SRE could be the right fit. SRE engineers have more solo work than DevOps engineers and tend to write a lot of code. You may have worse working hours or on-call duties. SRE engineers also operate by a more rigid system with more apparent targets, which works better for some employees. SRE jobs require more skills, experience, or specializations than DevOps jobs, so you may need to put in more work upfront. Becoming an SRE engineer may be your calling if you want a more systematic approach to work.

Get started with a foundational certificate

No matter your career path, a helpful place to start your education is with the DevOps, Cloud, and Agile Foundations Specialization program offered by IBM on Coursera. This online, beginner-friendly course will introduce to you the essential tools and concepts of DevOps and site reliability engineering. With IBM's DevOps and Software Engineering Professional Certificate, also beginner level, you can master DevOps, Agile, Scrum, CI/CD, and Cloud Native with hands-on, job-ready skills.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers,” Accessed October 6, 2023.

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