Blame cloud skills gap on lack of breadth, experience

Expertise to integrate cloud with existing IT systems and ability to manage vendor relations most lacking areas, say industry insiders, with one noting gap won't stay wide for long.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

More companies are evaluating or have made the leap to cloud computing, but that process is hampered by a lack of broadly-skilled and competent internal IT resources, said industry insiders. The cloud, they added, has altered IT's role in the company and to keep pace, new capabilities--both technical and non-technical--are currently in sore need.

Chris Morris, IDC Asia-Pacific's associate vice president for cloud technologies and services, said because cloud computing is different from the on-premise model, it has changed the skill requirements of IT.

"With cloud, we're now sourcing applications from outside [providers] to either supplement or replace the in-house application developers, he told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview.

"So while we have application developers who have the technical capability to write and test the code, what we also need, and are in short supply, are people with a business understanding of their company's own nuances--what makes it tick--so they can customize those cloud services to suit their company," he pointed out.

According to Lum Seow Khun, business unit executive for independent software vendor (ISV) and developer relations at IBM Asean, the skills required of a cloud architect are critical and currently lacking in the market, such as designing cloud computing infrastructure and application solutions.

A cloud architect must have strong knowledge of IT infrastructure design and implementation and also the business application dependencies regarding the overall infrastructure and cloud system for both operational staff and end-users, she said in an e-mail.

"There's only a small percentage of senior system admin and solution architects with the experience to fulfill cloud architect responsibilities. A majority of IT professionals have specific skills related to certain areas, but not the breadth of skills or the experience," she said.

And that is why existing enterprise architects in an organization can't just immediately become cloud architects, analysts noted. As explained by Steve Hodgkinson, Ovum's IT research director in the Asia-Pacific region, there is a lack of enterprise architects with hands-on experience of how to integrate cloud services into existing enterprise architecture frameworks and legacy systems.

In an e-mail, he said there's been a growing awareness of cloud services in isolation as niche services, but far less experience on "how to confidently integrate cloud services with existing in-house IT services" to make the cloud services a seamless part of the overall IT portfolio in the company.

Cloud management ability also wanting
The gap in cloud skills is not just technical, but also managerial, which Hodgkinson identified as the ability to make balanced assessments of the key risks associated with procuring, contracting and using cloud services.

"The potential risks and issues of cloud services tend to be overstated because they are unfamiliar, while the actual risks and issues of in-house IT tend to be understated because they are familiar," he said.

Hence, it is crucial that audit and risk management staff cultivate the skills to be able to assess the risk tradeoffs between the various ways of sourcing IT services in a more balanced and objective way, he noted.

IDC's Morris concurred, noting that the ability to manage all externally-sourced services is currently inadequate. Traditionally companies juggled a portfolio of on-premise application and outsourced services, hence the ability to manage relationships with "a whole bunch of cloud providers" is missing in several organizations now, he pointed out.

Unless a company knows how to manage and monitor multiple vendor relationships, contracts and service-level agreements (SLAs), it cannot take full advantage of the cloud or use it that efficiently to achieve the cost-saving goals that it had in mind, he said.

Cloud just starting to sink in
The current gaps in cloud competency within enterprises, despite the recent uptake in cloud adoption and industry hype, can be attributed to timing, according to Morris.

During the economic downturn in 2008, technology training and education was one of first things that got cut from IT budgets in companies. At the same time, cloud was an evolving technology, and "the jury was still out as to whether it was an enduring concept or not", he explained.

Furthermore, all the cloud-competent people were already snapped up first by IT and cloud service providers, so companies would go to these external consultants and professionals to implement their cloud environment instead of doing it in-house--which will take longer because they have no experience and they may not meet their ROI (return on investment) targets, Morris added.

IBM's Lum also noted that cloud computing is still in the early stages of adoption and will likely only go mainstream in the next three to five years.

The timeframe, she said, accords a good opportunity now for the tech industry, academic and government to collaborate closely to drive skills in cloud computing. For instance, Big Blue organized the IBM SmartCloud camp last July in Singapore for students, developers and IT professionals, with the aim of helping to reduce the gap between cloud implementation and the skills required to manage cloud.

Morris noted that with the rise of the cloud and demand for relevant skills, there is significant incentive for IT talent to retain and extend their competence, given the possibility of a bigger paycheck.

Over time, the skills gap will definitely narrow, but such expertise won't necessarily be found in end-user organizations. That's because companies may end up preferring to hire external cloud experts on a project basis and do away with the permanent in-house headcount, he explained.

The IDC analyst also stressed that being cloud-ready is more than just cloud competency. It is also about company leaders, especially the business managers, having a clear understanding of what cloud services can and can't do, he pointed out.

"Many times the services are heavily promoted to business managers as a way of getting around the CIO. That can cause conflict inside the organization, because what the business manager wants may not integrate at all with existing IT architecture."

Hence, instilling cloud-readiness means training the business unit managers about what opportunities as well as costs externally-sourced services can provide, so they can better plan to increase revenue and profitability or reach new markets, said Morris.

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