Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: The Future of Everything as a Service

How do I evolve my skills for the cloud era?

Moving to the cloud means that IT and business professionals need to learn new skills in order to get the best return from the technology. Here's how.

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Image: iStockphoto/dolgachov

The vast majority of businesses have migrated some critical applications and IT infrastructure to the cloud in recent years, but only 5-7 percent of the world's workloads have moved to the cloud.

"What's holding them back, generally speaking, is a combination of cost and also skillset changes," said Forrester senior analyst Chris Gardner. "I was in an enterprise for 15 years, and the skillsets were very traditional. It was more about monitoring, stacking, and keeping track of applications that are all monoliths -- moving to the cloud was a completely different skillset."

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Here are five areas where IT and business professionals can work to evolve their skillsets to meet the demands of the cloud.

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1. Understanding business processes

IT is no longer only responsible for equipment maintenance and management, but rather implementing the technology so it meets business goals, said Seth Robinson, senior director of technology analysis at CompTIA.

"They have to understand that business goal, and how it is going to be achieved throughout the different departments by understanding the routines and workflow of that department, and how all of this fits together," Robinson said. "And they're proactively suggesting the best technology and approach."

This typically requires cross-departmental work, said Ray Wang, principal analyst and founder of Constellation Research. "The reason this is important as a cloud skillset is because you have a chance to implement a new system, and add new functionality," Wang said. "You don't want to waste it."

2. Security skills

Moving from internal, on-premises data centers to the cloud means moving outside of your established security perimeter, Robinson said. "Companies have to think more about actually putting security within the application or within the data," he added, "Whereas before, they probably just left that application or data within the secure perimeter of their company."

This also means learning what data is in the cloud, how it is encrypted, and what set of firewalls and security measures are in place to make sure it isn't accessed by outside parties, Wang said.

3. Automation implementation

Learn to automate everything you possibly can, Gardner said. "If you're doing any commodity work everyday, automate it. If the human is not adding value to something, automate it," Gardner said. "What that allows people to do is shifts the value proposition of an IT organization from monitoring to analysis."

Many IT professionals have difficulties giving up control in this way, Gardner said, and worry that doing so increases risk. However, the opposite is true, he added. "When you have fast fingers typing in things or logging into servers, that's what increases risk," Gardner said.

As this grows in complexity, automation offers many companies a better option for security, Robinson said. As enterprise technology grows more complex but IT staff sizes stay the same, automation can fill in some of the gaps.

But automation has to be implemented carefully, Robinson said. IT workers need to know which pieces to automate, and be able to set notifications so that if something breaks, they can take care of it immediately, or know that it can solve problems on its own. "Even setting up that automation requires a lot of knowledge of how things are supposed to run," Robinson said.

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4. Embracing generalism

Until recently, IT has been very specialized in certain areas. "What we're finding is, as people move to the cloud, you don't need that specialization -- in fact, you need to know more about everybody else's specialization," Gardner said. "This is the drum that's been beaten for years about siloes crashing. Now it's finally becoming real, because there should not be a need to focus on these mundane, under-the-hood tasks, when you should be focusing on product delivery and acceleration."

Don't lose your specialization, but take time to learn about every aspect of managing applications, Gardner said. Forrester uses a concept called 'integrated product teams', which suggests that rather than focusing on projects in individual silos, companies should form a cross-functional team of people that focus on a particular product release, including infrastructure experts, developers, architects, security professionals, and business sponsors.

"When you move into the cloud, that makes a ton of sense," Gardner said. "You really shouldn't be focused so much on who spun off this instance. You should be focused on application availability, performance, things of that nature."

5. Developer disciplines

Professionals who want to successfully venture down the cloud path should learn some of the disciplines developers have, Gardner said.

"I don't just mean scripts -- I mean learning the APIs, learning how to tie into configuration management toolsets and continuous delivery toolsets," Gardner said. "For some folks that were traditionally the rack-and-stackers, this is hard to do. But all the things a developer would traditionally do to deliver an application meets the curve for everything in the cloud, including the infrastructure."

All of these skill sets "are typically gained by business folks who have a technical background or technical folks who've been serving stakeholders in the field," Wang said. "They cannot be done in isolation."

Continuous learning

A lot of IT pros -- especially those who experimented with the cloud early on -- have gained many of the needed skills already, Robinson said, including managing virtual machines and resources. And in dealing with the APIs from the cloud provider, they may already be learning to monitor systems better. "That eventually translates into really careful, precise monitoring of all the systems that you have across the architecture," Robinson said.

Credentials and certifications offered by IT organizations and vendors can also help teach some of these skills. However, "it's not really necessary to learn specific APIs for one cloud vendor, because increasingly, enterprises aren't leveraging one -- they're leveraging multiple," Gardner said. "It's more about knowing the general concepts."

Business employees must also pick up IT skills, just as IT teams are picking up business skills, so the two groups can work together more fluidly. But this requires a cultural change that takes time, Robinson said.

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