The Cloud Skills Gap Myth

cloud skills gap

lot of attention lately has been given to the cloud skills “gap”—an apparent shortfall of workers with the skills and expertise required to build cloud-native applications. But that’s news to many of the young, certified engineers looking for a job in their field in a historically tight job market. In reality, there is not a skills gap so much as a misunderstanding of how to build a team with the right foundational skills. Employers are looking for unicorns—people who have been in the cloud for five to seven years, know every in an out, and can ruthlessly build exactly the right code on an unrealistic schedule.

Ignoring the unrealistic expectations, we can focus on one key metric: five to seven years of cloud experience. If we think about AWS, one of the oldest cloud platforms, five years ago they closed out 2013 with an estimated $3.8 billion in revenue. Their customers were largely startups and small businesses, and they were just beginning to pivot to larger enterprises. Today, AWS will close 2019 with nearly $40 billion in revenue, a 10-fold increase. That such early adopters are hard to find is all but a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately, companies are in such a scramble that they often don’t realize this paradox; they’re pounding their head against the skills gap wall, wishing current workers would skill up while searching in a different job pool that was sized correctly for the time: 90 percent smaller. So, doesn’t that imply a gap? Not necessarily. Companies need to get to the cloud in a way that is smart, thoughtful and effective. And people are key to get the job done. Perhaps there is a self-imposed gap, but it is not a necessary one.

The cloud was a hairy, wild place five years ago. You had to bring your own everything, including duct tape. Today, a wealth of open-source tooling, educational material and reference designs exist. The journey to the cloud is a well-beaten path, and while it does require an aligned strategy, clear approach and competent execution, it does not require a team be staffed end-to-end with wizards and heroes. In fact, this is exactly why the cloud is now the default choice to run business applications, enterprise systems and company products.

None of this is to say there’s an easy button to get to the cloud now. It still requires a competent, skilled team. And more than anything, it requires a firm understanding of what to do far more than how to do it. Competent engineers of any level of training can quickly learn the how, but the what is a sea of choices, not all of which are compatible and certainly not all of which are optimal when put together.

So what should employers do? I have identified four key changes that any company ready to make a shift to the cloud should make to accelerate and prepare their workforce. Even if there were a grizzled, ready-to-deploy workforce of cloud journeymen, nothing would be better than your own employees who already are passionate for your business and are assuredly hungry to skill up and dig into the cloud.

Develop a culture that encourages change, creativity and adaptability

No one has more than four years of experience building serverless because AWS invented the category four years ago with the release of AWS Lambda. But there already are thousands upon thousands of open-source projects to facilitate serverless development. There are mature, powerful frameworks and excellent design patterns. While we have so much more to learn about serverless best practices, we already have hit a high maturity level with a young concept.

The point is, experience in “the thing” is no longer the measure. Technical aptitude today is measured in ability to adapt to new designs and creatively incorporate them into existing experience. Companies need to encourage this by ending the practice of hiring to specific low-level technical skills, frameworks and languages. Instead, companies need to invest in employees that can learn dynamically and then foster a culture that encourages change, creativity and adaptability. These characteristics allow employees to feel rewarded for seeking out new ideas and approaches. It also allows employees to challenge conventions and standards within a company rather than blindly following them. Most importantly, it creates the fuel on which the right type of employees will run.

Give current engineers the resources to retrain

You hired your current engineers for a reason—presumably not because you felt they were well-qualified to run your busted old stuff. The cloud does not diminish their skills or ability to contribute to the future of your business. Quite the opposite. Most employers believe their team could get to the cloud, just not fast enough. Bringing in seasoned talent is often about keeping existing business priorities on track while getting a cloud move off the ground in parallel.

Do not underestimate the ability of existing employees to retrain quickly. There are a number of excellent self-paced training resources available, such as A Cloud Guru and Udemy. Buy your employees training licenses and Safari accounts. And allow them to spend self-directed time simply consuming the training. Giving employees a small allowance to use AWS or another cloud platform on their personal time can provide a phenomenal return on investment.

Tap into the plentiful market of certified junior candidates

Certified engineers who have retrained into the cloud or are just starting their careers report difficulty finding the jobs they were promised. Employers are going to need to begin cultivating junior talent in this domain just as they do elsewhere in their organizations. Many of the lightly skilled candidates have retrained from other areas of IT and have considerable experience in building complex systems, but they’re passed over because they don’t have the mythical “five years of cloud.”

The young workforce is as adaptable as any in a generation, unencumbered by the baggage of rotary dial, cordless phones and compiled code. A talented, young Python developer with an AWS certification can be making an impact quickly, and you want her on your team. Set your job descriptions up correctly to capture these candidates and don’t let your recruiting department screen them out.

Invest in reference designs, common tooling and other standards

One of the biggest challenges in the cloud is that you will have an explosion of infrastructure as code and a cascade of dependencies as you start building serverless functions, microservices and other cloud-native design patterns. You’ll inevitably go from a small number of easy-to-manage code repositories to hundreds, each depending on each other and dozens of open-source libraries and frameworks. It’s a bit messy.

Assign your best engineers to monitor the situation and look for opportunities to set standards. Document as much as possible. Create tooling for repetitive tasks, such as deploying an update to a Lambda or obtaining access credentials. Update and evolve these standards regularly as you get better and wiser.

This may seem like a strange recommendation in an article about developing your workforce, but it actually is essential when you are retraining. The syntax and semantics of the cloud can often be the most intimidating part. Writing a Lambda is easy as pie to many Python developers, but deploying it outside of a pretty web GUI is intimidating. This truth comes up again and again in the cloud. The “hard” parts are so often the parts most easily eliminated with the right organizational glue.

More often than not, companies already have the big pieces they need to begin a thoughtful, efficient journey to the cloud. The four key changes suggested above will get the workforce prepared and accelerate that journey. One final piece that many companies can consider is a Managed Service Provider that specializes in the cloud. MSPs support companies in making their cloud journey by augmenting existing engineering teams. They can help both with identifying what to do in the cloud and creating the tooling and design patterns that are stumbling blocks for many companies just starting out. MSPs are a high-leverage investment that let you focus on your core business and engineering priorities.

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