How to build a career in cloud computing

Basic IT skills topped off with service management finesse and business know-how are good starting points

In the six years Drew Garner has worked in IT for Concur Technologies, his responsibilities have morphed along with the fast-growing provider of on-demand employee spend management services. Hired as a network manager, with a background in information security consulting, he quickly added server responsibilities to his role, and then became the network, server and storage guy.

"Many IT professionals out there already have the basic set of skills in place that they’ll need for cloud computing, so it’ll mainly be a question of increasing awareness and getting involved in sample scenarios."

Bharat Rao, associate professor of technology management at Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly)

That exposure, which included a leadership role in the company’s virtualization deployment, made him the go-to for perspective on cloud computing, he says. Now senior manager in charge of architecture services at Concur, in Redmond, Wash., Garner is explicitly tasked with cloud project management.

In fact, Garner returned stateside only days ago from a two-year stint in Europe to shepherd the company's cloud strategy, he says. "One of my main objectives for the next year to 24 months is figuring out how we extend our private cloud, integrate a hybrid cloud and evaluate public cloud providers," Garner says.

Toward that end, he has pulled together a four-person team comprising nuts-and-bolts technical planners and project managers/designers. While the technical planners study the mechanics of cloud computing and its integration into the Concur architecture, the project managers and designers will plot what resources will be needed from other IT teams -- database, server and storage, for example -- and how to phase in deployment.

In addition, Garner selected managers from across IT, including research and development, to participate in a multidiscipline architecture review board.

"This is a total collaborative approach. We all need to be plugged into this together -- we're not going to implement cloud in a vacuum because what we do will help with the future functionality and cost of our products," he says.

If not by name, then by function

At Concur and elsewhere across the enterprise spectrum, IT professionals are making a career in the cloud today.

IT professionals who understand the nuances of cloud computing are in demand at newbie ventures entering business with all infrastructure and services in the cloud as well as within existing companies grappling with how to best take advantage of this latest computing trend. These folks might have in-depth technical knowledge, the ability to decipher vendor strategies or be able to advise on, plan and architect cloud solutions, for example.

Cloud computing skills

Developing continued expertise in one or more of the following IT areas will better prepare IT professionals for a role in cloud projects

  • Systems administration, with an emphasis on virtualization
  • Storage networking
  • Virtual switching
  • Services management - a la the IT Infrastructure Library framework - and orchestration
  • Business-IT alignment
  • Software-as-a-service management
  • Data analytics, data warehousing, master data management
  • Information security, compliance, data integrity
  • Cloud platforms (from players such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft)

But that doesn’t mean IT professionals looking for their next strategic career step should seek out cloud-specific titles. Those will be hard, if not impossible, to find, experts say.

"Cloud is a convenient term to encompass an emerging set of business and technology models, but in and of itself it’s not a role," says Jimmy Harris, managing director of cloud computing at Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.

If a company is going to embrace a cloud computing model, it’ll need IT professionals capable of handling service management, for example. They’ll be charged with defining service sets, determining their performance characteristics and assembling the components necessary for delivery. "So service manager is a role, but not ‘cloud’ service manager," he says. "The cloud is just part of things."

To put it another way, "If you don't find ‘cloud’ in the title, you will definitely find specific pieces and parts of the cloud in a job description. You’ll find things like, ‘Do you have exposure to Microsoft Azure, Amazon, Google and virtualization? What have you done from systems administration, networking, storage and code perspectives?’" Garner says.

Agreed, says Dan Shipley, data center architect for Supplies Network, an IT consumables wholesaler in St. Charles, Mo.

While Supplies Network has developed a private cloud using Xsigo’s virtual I/O technology and expects to move to a hybrid model at some point, IT hasn’t designated "cloud manager" or some such as a job title, he says. Rather, it’s added associated responsibilities to some existing titles and is requiring lots of education and training on the company’s cloud’s fabric and virtualization platform, Shipley says.

This mirrors what Robert Half Technology sees among its clients, says John Reed, district president with the worldwide IT employment firm.

"We don't see a lot of companies specifically saying, ‘this is a cloud computing role we're creating,’ but we’re filling positions for that role in one way or another with people who have the resources and expertise to support cloud computing initiatives," he says.

For example, a company might come to Robert Half looking for a data warehouse professional, information security specialist or systems administrator to do A, B and C. "If we start to probe into the sorts of projects they’ll be working on and why the hire is needed, that flushes out to the cloud computing effort -- but if we don’t ask, they’re not really telling us," Reed says.

What makes a cloud expert

The specific cloud-related talents will vary by company, of course.

For his cloud team at Concur, for example, Garner says he looked for technologists who had good experience with systems and storage, but also know coding. "We've grown through rapid acquisition and so have a unique mix of applications. We can't just go to Azure and say we’re a 100% Microsoft shop or to Amazon and say give us your Java plug-in. We've got a mix of both," he says.

He also picked strong communicators, people who are able to navigate around operational politics and get everyone moving toward a unified vision, Garner says.

What’s lacking at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital (WDH), which is building a private cloud using a vBlock system from Cisco, EMC and VMware, is a technical writer, says Scott Heffner, network operations manager at the Dover, N.H., medical center. Over the next year or so, such a role will become increasingly important, he says.

"Until you can document and review your processes, you can’t automate them -- and that’s really what the cloud is supposed to be all about," Heffner says.

WDH has no cloud professionals by name, he adds. However, the hospital is working on deepening specific skill sets across IT in support of the new, virtualized environment, Heffner adds.

At Supplies Network, fundamental knowledge of the virtualization platform, including the technology’s affect at the network and storage layers, is imperative to the company’s cloud initiative, Shipley says. "They need to understand how to segregate traffic and guarantee [that] data stays compliant as it moves across the virtual infrastructure," he adds.

Also helpful is a basic server skill set that includes an understanding of server farm management, fault-tolerance, redundancy and high availability, says Bharat Rao, an associate professor of technology management at Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly).

But a higher-level understanding of the business is an imperative, too, he adds.

"From the business side, being able to manipulate large data sets and do analytics, visual analysis and create reports are especially important," say Rao, who ran a one-day cloud computing workshop at the university, which is now planning a full executive-level course on cloud computing for business professionals.

Accenture’s Harris agrees. "From a professional characteristics point of view, IT folks will need to be more closely aligned with the business and place greater emphasis on the intersection of business knowledge and understanding how various services work and how you use those services to better enable the business," he says.

But with a continued focus on day-to-day operations at many companies, "those are rare skills today, to be honest," Harris adds.

Increased exposure to cloud principles is a must. As Rao says, "Many IT professionals out there already have the basic set of skills in place that they’ll need for cloud computing, so it’ll mainly be a question of increasing awareness and getting involved in sample scenarios."

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