The state of IT jobs in Australia

The IT industry's shift to the cloud, along with the rise of DevOps, is prompting a growing number of employers to look for a new wave of multi-skilled all-rounders for whom technical skills often play second fiddle to attitude and aptitude.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

In an interview with Adam Bryant of The New York Times in June last year, Google's senior vice president of people operations Laszlo Bock said that grade point averages and test scores were "worthless" as criteria for hiring by a company like Google.

Bock instead cited five hiring attributes the company looks for across the board, including general cognitive ability, non-traditional leadership skills, humility, ownership, and responsibility.

"The number-one thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it's not I.Q. It's learning ability," Bock told NYT columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman in a subsequent interview early this year. "It's the ability to process on the fly. It's the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they're predictive."

The least important attribute Google looked for in a candidate, according to Bock, was expertise. Creativity is innate in humans, said Bock, but logic often needs to be learned. Those people with a natural serving of both will have more options, he said.

It's not your average traditional desired skill-set, but then Google's not your average traditional business.

However, Bock's perspective seems to be gaining traction in the technology industry, and his blunt dismissal highlights not just Google's view of the hiring landscape, but the changing requirements among tech companies in general.

If what's good enough for Google is good enough for the rest of us — and it probably should be — then the tech industry can expect to see this recruitment trend continue spreading throughout the industry's global landscape.

Sure, good grades can help, as can niche technology knowledge. It's just that those traits are now being weighed up with an increasingly broad and holistic set of skills and abilities.

All-rounders required

Darragh Kennedy, online platform manager of iconic travel guide publisher Lonely Planet, suggests that the emergence of this new multi-skilled, multi-disciplined all-rounder has become a necessary inhabitant, specifically in the area of DevOps.

DevOps, the ongoing software delivery approach incorporating development and operations, brings together software developers and IT operations in a bid to align development goals with organisational needs.

By Kennedy's estimation, Lonely Planet came to the DevOps table comparatively early, in 2007 beginning the process of shifting its operations away from the traditional siloed structure with large, intermittent software releases, to a continuous integration and delivery model.

But the company's IT overhaul required no small amount of retraining, rehiring, and workforce shuffles, with many of the company's tech team required to substantially broaden their skills palette.

"If you want to be in technology, you have to do all this learning and improving yourself, to keep yourself relevant."
— Darragh Kennedy, online platform manager, Lonely Planet

"Certainly, all of our operations engineers are DevOps engineers; they're all very proficient now with scripting and coding, with automation — whether it's for integration deployment or monitoring — so, certainly I think that skill-set is vital," Kennedy told ZDNet.

"Around the world, of the people who had those traditional infrastructure skills, it's the ones that have adapted, that have gone and learned some new tools, that are doing well," he said.

The company initially shifted to a VMware environment to deliver on its DevOps approach, but has since settled into the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud infrastructure. That move to the cloud required further integration of a multi-skilled toolkit for Kennedy's team.

"When we had our VMware environments, we very much had an automated ability to create environments and to deploy code across them," said Kennedy. "Then when we decided to move to the cloud, it probably pushed it even further and certainly, we got a lot of developers to learn infrastructure. Because we were building it all as code, they were really good at knowing how to use the API and the various SDKs."

These days, Lonely Planet is much more than just a publisher of guidebooks. It has made leaps and bounds into the consumer interactive digital space over the past several years, and now offers a smorgasbord of online services for consumers, in addition to its book and e-book publishing.

Lonely Planet website screenshot Leon Spencer
Image: Lonely Planet website; screenshot, Leon Spencer

Kennedy's DevOps push to build up automation, continuous integration, and continuous delivery has no doubt enabled that transition. The transformation hasn't been entirely without its growing pains, according to Kennedy, but as his team's skill-set broadened, the company was able to move with relative ease.

Now, Kennedy sees the up-skilling process — both for individual employees and for enterprises as a whole — as a key part of remaining relevant in a fast changing environment.

"If you want to be in technology, you have to do all this learning and improving yourself, to keep yourself relevant," he said. "Some people will embrace that and see it as an opportunity, and I see it as an opportunity to drive companies. It doesn't matter what industry it is now, if you don't have an IT strategy and a technology strategy, you're going to get left behind."

Doing IT startup-style

Perhaps nowhere has the true value of the IT industry's multi-skilled polymath been showcased more profoundly than when US President Barack Obama called in Silicon Valley's finest to fix the tech behind the federal government's disastrous Healthcare.gov website launch in October last year.

It took a remarkably small and nimble team headed up by Google's former 'site-reliability engineer' Michael 'Mikey' Dickerson — also of the Obama for America 2012 election campaign website alumni — to get the troubled site working by December 2013.

One of the things most of those in the team had in common was a background in highly agile tech companies such as eBay and Twitter, along with a notably broad skill-set, and a startup-style approach to software development.

In fact, one member of the group, Gabriel Burt, CTO of Chicago firm Civis Analytics, even boasts a resume that includes work as a rocket scientist, according to Time journalist Steven Brill.

"Technical skills can be taught, but attitude is more innate and quite hard to change. So, the second thing we look for is the tech skills. The first component, attitude, is the important one in finding technologists that fit the Amazon mould."
— Glenn Gore, solutions architect manager, AWS Asia Pacific

So effective was the team that in early August this year Obama hired another team of digital experts. Once again headed by Dickerson, the US Digital Service team will handle an overhaul of US government websites in a bid to avoid future disasters similar to the Healthcare.gov scheme.

Although the tech startup sector may have fostered the rise of the tech all-rounder, Glenn Gore, solutions architect manager for Amazon Web Services (AWS) Asia Pacific, sees the enterprise end of the market making plenty of moves in that direction as well.

"It's been growing at both ends," Gore told ZDNet. "It grew a lot faster in the startup community, though, because they can execute a lot faster. But the enterprise end of things has been aware of it for a while, even if an enterprise looking at things from a startup perspective does take a bit longer to get there."

While Amazon is definitely much too large and established now to be called a startup, the company still seems to take a startup-like approach to many of its operations, focusing on customers, agility, DevOps, new ideas, and innovation.

Consequently, the company also takes more of a startup-style approach when it hires new employees, with candidates often selected for their attitude over their specific technical expertise, according to Gore.

"Technical skills can be taught, but attitude is more innate and quite hard to change," said Gore. "So, the second thing we look for is the tech skills. The first component, attitude, is the important one in finding technologists that fit the Amazon mould."

While Gore does not dismiss expertise out of hand, as does Bock, he believes that if expertise comes into the hiring equation, it should encompass a number of fields.

"In the tech skills arena, particularly in architecture, we're looking for someone with a rare skill-set that takes in infrastructure skills, datacentre, and storage skills, along with network knowledge," he said. "The same person should have a development software background — and to make it more difficult, we're looking for application expertise."

"Finding someone with just one of those skills is tough, and to get all three is very rare, but finding them is very, very valuable."

The trend towards this growing desire among technology companies to scope out multi-skilled applicants has been growing for a while now, not inconsequentially with the rise of cloud infrastructure migration and the emergence of DevOps as the go-to approach for enterprises and startups alike.

"It's been happening for a couple of years, and it's really hitting the mainstream now," he said. "They used to hand over these things to another team, but that's now being mixed up, and you're seeing that with the rise of DevOps," said Gore.

"It's been blurring the lines, and with the rise of cloud now, it's making everything API driven. They have to learn to interact with APIs. Merging DevOps and cloud together has created a perfect storm of requiring all four attributes," he said, referring to infrastructure, application, software development, and a candidate's fit into a company's culture and leadership model.

"This industry is not static — you have to keep ahead. That's the biggest piece of advice to everyone out there: you've got to keep across everything."
— Glenn Gore, solutions architect manager, AWS Asia Pacific

Gore revealed that AWS's hiring process can be quite "robust" in its quest to pin down the best candidate for the company's cultural fit. Most candidates will see at least four or five interviews, each with multiple interviewers.

Each of those interviews will usually take on a different focus, and the interviewers can dive into a lot of detail with the candidate. These interviews also give applicants a good chance to get to know their employer — a factor that has the potential to be more important than an applicant's specialist skill-set, according to Gore.

In fact, Gore said that AWS was redefining what the term 'specialist' means, with the company looking for people with a very strong knowledge base in one area, supplemented by skills outside of that specialty. This is an increasingly important element in an industry that's seeing a rapid growth in cross-discipline collaboration.

"If you are just one skill-specific, you can't work with other teams," said Gore. "There are side effects of collaboration. You build trust within the team. When you get that trust element you get scale appearing in your knowledge-base."

For those in the industry that don't possess a generalist skill-set or knowledge base, there is always the opportunity to upskill, according to Gore. AWS often conducts follow-up interviews with applications that missed out first time around, but went out to broaden their skill-set.

"We find great candidates who have got some really good skills in a specific area," he said. "We give some feedback, encourage them to do some training and reading, and if they can show they've made progress, and have broadened their skill base, that's promising."

"Just being able to use skills in different way can be really enlightening. It's like a different person we're talking to sometimes when they come back for a second interview," he said. "This industry is not static — you have to keep ahead. That's the biggest piece of advice to everyone out there: you've got to keep across everything."

Keeping pace with the tech race

As the IT industry continues to be bombarded with technology developments and release cycles, keeping up with emerging technology is vital in securing technology jobs and then holding on to them, according to Budd Ilic, Australia and New Zealand regional manager for copy data virtualisation provider, Actifio.

"The industry's changing so quickly and it's a matter of, who keeps up will be able to find other jobs," Ilic told ZDNet. "Especially at that technical level, you need to be up-skilling all the time."

"You need to be able to understand these automation technologies, how to move workloads into the cloud, how that whole cloud environment works, and the quicker the technical people pick up those skill-sets, the more employable they'll be," he said.

"The whole shift to cloud is making a big difference, because the cloud providers know how to run these environments at a very large scale with as few people as possible."
— Budd Ilic, Australia & New Zealand regional manager, Actifio

Ilic, whose company, at the time of writing, was looking to hire two more staff members for its Canberra office, said that the broad technology mix in most companies — and not just technology companies — is opening the floodgates for multi-skilled candidates.

"For technical roles, employees need to have a good grasp of, and a good experience across, a broad range of technologies, because we touch so many different aspects of an enterprise IT system — from the storage to the networking, to the applications, to different components within the environment", he said.

Actifio, which deals with copy data virtualisation, usually looks for candidates that have come from the virtualisation or storage business, and have worked for other large companies in the field, usually in a senior position.

From Ilic's perspective, applicants that have previously held senior positions are likely to come with not only a much broader knowledge base over a greater range of technology, but also a sense of how that fits into an organisation's larger operation.

"Typically, our guys come out of either the virtualisation or the storage business and have worked for other large storage vendors, or the likes of VMware, but have got a quite senior outlook," he said. "We often look for senior guys that have had a lot of experience across a broad set of technologies. Usually they'll have greater strengths in a particular vertical, or space in the technology sector, but they still need to have a broad range of skill-set across the board."

Like Amazon's Gore, Ilic believes that the shift to the cloud has played its part in driving the requirement for the multi-skilled polymath in the IT industry, with enterprises often requiring fewer staff members in IT teams as infrastructure gradually becomes software-based.

"The whole shift to cloud is making a big difference as well, because the cloud providers know how to run these environments at a very large scale with as few people as possible," said Ilic. "As a result, they're going to require less and less IT staff, and the big cloud providers, due to all the automation and consolidation they do within their cloud environment, are not going to need as many IT people."

"I see that even in federal government, a lot of the smaller agencies and departments are now using shared services from the bigger larger departments and, as a result, it doesn't make sense for smaller organisations where IT isn't their core business to have lots of IT staff.

"As a result we see less and less IT people, particularly in the small to mid-tier organisations, whether they be government or commercial. There's a definite shift to cloud, and that's going to bring a lot of change in regard to IT people employed within the industry," he said.

This trend may seem to conjur a bleak outlook for IT professionals not skilled up in more than one major area of expertise, but for Safi Obeidullah, Citrix director of sales engineering for Australia and New Zealand, it is not without its opportunities.

"We look for people with a broader skill set but at the same time have deep expertise in specific areas. To be successful in IT these days, you can't just know one thing. In addition, non-technical skills are increasingly important."
— Safi Obeidullah, Citrix director of sales engineering for Australia & New Zealand

It is in the interest of most companies to invest in ongoing training for their technology teams, and in the case of Citrix, training programs for existing employees is just one way in which the cloud, networking and virtualisation company can keep its edge.

"For changing business requirements or new products, our first step would be to explore opportunities to retrain existing employees," Obeidullah told ZDNet. "This highlights the importance around multi-skilled people with both technical and non-technical skills.

"We do this through a number of methods included in-person training — either internal or external — online training and peering program whereby the employee can learn from a peer through first-hand experience," he said.

Yes, a broad skill-set is important, but so is deep expertise in one area, according to Obeidullah, although he also concedes that an applicant with a skill-set that extends beyond traditional technology fields will have an easier time nabbing that dream job.

"We look for people with a broader skill set but at the same time have deep expertise in specific areas," he said. "To be successful in IT these days, you can't just know one thing. In addition, non-technical skills are increasingly important."

"In fact, technical capabilities are only a small part of what we assess when bringing on new people. Teamwork, accountability, communication skills, consultative selling, and the ability to orchestrate resources are some examples of attributes that we assess," said Obeidullah.

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