IT jobs: Winners and losers in the cloud era

There’s a simple reason so many people say cloud computing will change everything about the IT universe: The cloud democratizes technology to a degree even more profound than when the PC first gave nontechnical people the ability to create unmanageably large spreadsheets they could play with instead of work.

It’s probably not as profound as the Internet revolution, which allowed ordinary people to rely on Google rather than an eidetic memory and rich classical education, but it’s not far off, says Dan Olds, founder of consultancy Gabriel Consulting Group. Cloud computing gives nontechnical people quick, affordable access to the most sophisticated software, storage, and data — access they’re using to try to do their jobs better, with or without the involvement of IT, he says.

CIOs used to have to deal with the occasional rogue IT project; now they have to deal with business managers who hire the equivalent of several IT departments using a credit card and their normal operational budgets, says Susan Cramm, founder of executive career-development and strategy consultancy Valudance, as well as former CIO of Taco Bell and CFO of a smaller PepsiCo restaurant chain. In fact, 65 percent maintain an IT budget of their own — carved from their normal operational budget — for SaaS or cloud services they can buy directly, rather than going through IT.

What does this mean to IT jobs? Some IDC stats give an indication:

    • By 2014, one-third of all IT organizations will be providing cloud services to business partners rather than providing IT internally, says a poll of attendees at IDC’s Cloud Leadership Forum in June.
    • By 2015, spending on public cloud services (including SaaS) will make up 46 percent of all new IT spending, says IDC’s June 20 forecast of Worldwide IT Cloud Services. SaaS will make up three-quarters of that spending, giving SaaS and cloud providers the leading role in vendor relations with your company.

“It’s not a matter of throwing out all the job descriptions and organization and starting something new,” says Sean Hackett, an analyst at the research firm 451 Group. “There are a lot of commonalities, but the experience will change. Ultimately the bulk of IT could look more like a projects office than the way it looks now, when most of the hands-on work is done inside. It probably won’t be a total transformation, but moving into cloud, there will be more of that and less DIY.”

Where are the changes actually going to happen? Here’s a breakdown by role of who wins, who loses, and who must change in the cloud era.

Biggest winners: Enterprise architects
The biggest change, analysts and IT vendors agree, will be the rise to prominence of a job often considered too abstruse for many companies and too narrowly focused to be practical for others, says consultant Cramm. That job: enterprise architect.

Enterprise architects have often been their own worst enemies, says Mark Egan, CIO of EMC VMware, the company most responsible for the spread of virtualization in IT environments. “It takes really top technical skills to be able to master the technical aspects, but you find a lot of people with that level of technical understanding don’t want to talk to anyone,” Egan says. “They might just want to sit and draw out systems on paper and not know how to get anyone to want to work with them.”

But in an organization whose IT infrastructure is heavily virtualized, abstracted, and split among internal and externally housed cloud platforms, the most important IT staff job — hands down — is the enterprise architect, Egan says.

Architects — system, database, network, or otherwise — are typically systems designers whose jobs are highly conceptual, but also very concrete, says Chris Wolf, a virtualization and cloud analyst at Gartner. “Underneath all the abstraction there is just as much of a need to manage the details of resource management and performance as with physical servers,” he says. “Instead of only having to deal with the number of variables you might have within one server farm or data center or smaller set of servers, in a cloud-based infrastructure you can allocate resources like memory or CPU cycles or bandwidth or I/O across the whole organization. That’s a far more complicated picture.”

Within a cloud infrastructure, the relationships among applications, networks, and servers are far more complex than traditional infrastructures because there are so many additional connections, says Rachel Dines, an infrastructure and operations analyst at Forrester Research. That means architects are essential.

Despite the abstract notions that people typically associate to architects, the reality is that much of the job focuses on the critical details than enable everything to work well. For example, “people tend not to think of performance tuning in cloud or virtualized systems,” says Patrick Kuo, an independent consultant who has helped build Web and virtual-server infrastructures at Dow Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Defense Information Services Agency.

He advises that you start with the right servers and processors — make sure each has enough power, memory, and cache, and that network connections are reliable and fast — then split major functions and distribute each across the infrastructure to help avoid bottlenecks from weak links in the computing chain, or concentrations of too many workloads in one place, Kuo says.

“We’ve been able to get better performance in many case with a four-tier architecture instead of your typical three-tier, putting a layer of caching in the front, then the apps servers holding most of the logic, then the Web servers and a replicated database backing them up. It’s all n-tier application design, but it has to be done differently in virtualized environments like cloud services or you get bottlenecks in places you wouldn’t think would cause problems,” Kuo says.

Winners: System administrators
Other than architects, the jobs undergoing the greatest change as cloud encompasses the data center are those involving hands-on system administration.

Architects may design and tune cloud infrastructures, but system administrators do the detailed work of spreading workloads across servers, virtual servers, and data centers, assigning CPU cycles, memory, storage, and other resources as needed to keep performance high.

“If you don’t change job descriptions so sys admins aren’t restricted to one silo — because the applications and VMs in an internal cloud aren’t restricted, either — you’re letting the potential gain in efficiency for IT people go to waste,” says Forrester analyst Dines. “You can’t get the most out of a cloud infrastructure if your admins are still suck in older ways of doing things.”

At VMware, for example, Egan thought it made more sense to distribute IT staffers to individual business units according to the amount of IT resources used by that unit. Rather than working in the data center and being responsible for supporting a business unit, they’re located in and responsible to IT managers within that business unit — feeling and being treated as a part of the business-unit team rather than as support from outside the department, Egan says.

But cutting the absolute connection between system administration and physical hardware doesn’t eliminate the need to maintain the hardware, consultant Olds notes. “You have to have people handling the hardware itself or the networks, but a lot of the things we used to do have gone away,” Olds says. “You don’t usually have someone sitting and rebuilding a server for hours or days. If a server goes bad, you pull the card out of the chassis, throw it away and slot in another. Or you close out the VM and provision another. Then you go on to the next thing. It’s a far higher level of efficiency.”

Winners: Front-line IT managers
Lower-level IT supervisors and managers will also have to make major changes to their responsibilities and daily routines under cloud infrastructures — and for the same reasons that apply to sys admins, consultant Cramm says: If all the system administrators are responsible for processes running in portions of the cloud distributed throughout the company, it makes no sense to have their direct supervisors locked in the old silos.

IT gains from loosening organizational structures so that people are assigned to support specific business functions or business units, rather than to a specific server, says James Staten, a cloud computing and infrastructure analyst at Forrester Research. Most companies moving into cloud or virtual computing for the first time don’t appreciate how restrictive organizational silos can be in slowing or stopping a migration, even if the only problem is the need to continually make ad hoc decisions about who is responsible for which workloads or Web services, he adds.

The result of the cloud for IT supervisors is a role similar to the one they have today but in a far larger environment — one that could encompass the whole enterprise rather than just one facility.

Changed roles: CIO and senior IT managers
Like lower-level IT supervisors, senior-level IT managers are having their responsibilities expanded and barriers among them broken down — or should be — to accommodate more flexible infrastructures that include applications or islands of computing power housed with external service providers.

“A significant amount of the computing power and applications the typical enterprise uses is coming from or or Google or other service providers,” Staten says. “If you’re going to rely on that connection and integrate it with the rest of your infrastructure, you need someone who can identify standard interfaces, enforce service levels, make informed decisions about which service providers to choose.”

In the past, the CIO or IT executive responsible for outsourcing deals was the only one involved with those kinds of extracurricular connections, Forrester’s Dines says. With cloud and SaaS, many of the senior IT managers will find themselves doing it.

Changed roles: Contract and service managers
Dealing with service-level guarantees, searching for and choosing the best provider for a particular IT service — whether that be a SaaS company, external cloud provider, or internal IT — is too much for many IT people to handle given their hands-on workloads, says consultant Cramm. “Typically you’re talking about a couple of dozen SaaS providers and platform providers you have to be able to talk to and integrate technology with,” Egan says, “and managing those contracts becomes a skill set in itself.”

Cramm warns, “There are a lot of technical issues to integrate with an outside provider, because cloud sounds so fantastic, but as we found out with Amazon, if you don’t do your due diligence and don’t have the contracts laid out right, you’re not going to get what you need and you’ll spend the whole [term of the contract] wishing you did it differently.”

Managing external vendors and contracts is second nature to large populations of specialists within IT, mostly those at companies that have outsourced most or all of their IT, Olds says. People in such organizations will more easily adapt to the external management challenges that come with the cloud.

Changed roles: Enterprise developers
It’s not that large companies will be using less software than they used to, it’s just that they won’t be writing or customizing nearly as much of it themselves, says Forrester’s Staten.

Companies can get either the bulk or a large chunk of the software they use from or other SaaS providers, which means they don’t have to build the core functions of those applications themselves.

They do need to maintain the data and databases, as well as implement a certain amount of customization to make generic SaaS apps fit their workflow and data — but much less so than in the past, he says. “You’re not really customizing Salesforce to meet your needs,” Staten says. “You’re making some adjustments, using APIs and documentation and simple tools they supply. Mainly you’re adjusting your internal workflow to match what the SaaS providers you choose can supply. In some ways that’s actually better because you learn more about standardizing on efficient processes rather than customizing everything.”

Consultant Cramm expects the demand for developers to remain strong in a cloud-oriented enterprise — it’s just that less of the development will be done internally and more by outsiders. “If you can get what you need externally, in terms of enterprise applications, why build it yourself?” she asks. “Someone still has to do that programming; it’s just not you.”

Losers: IT middle managers
If there is one class within IT that will suffer from wider adoption of cloud and virtualized systems, it is those between the hands-on supervisors and the managers who work directly with the CIO. “Think about it,” says Gartner’s Wolf. “If you have sys admins doing networking and applications and storage and there’s a lot of reaching across among silos, why do you need a separate manager for each silo?”

He adds, “There’s an overall flattening of management within IT as a lot of those silos become obsolete, and so it becomes more important to be a generalist who can do a lot of things than to remain a specialist at any one thing.”

Losers: Technical specialists
Specialized skills — in networking, security, storage, or any other IT discipline — has been the best guarantor of a job or chance for advancement in many IT organizations, says 451 Group’s Hackett. Not any more.

IT people working with applications based in the cloud need to know about networking, storage, security, user interfaces, and all the other parts of the infrastructure that application touches. “IT doesn’t require skilled resources at the lower levels to maintain a data center. It requires a guy who can go over to a rack, pull out a bad board, put another one in, and slap it back in the rack,” Hackett says.

That means IT needs more people able to do a lot of things and not as many who can do a very few things very, very well, consultant Olds says. “Increasingly what we’re seeing is that companies are willing to hire those [specialized] skills from outside on a temporary basis. So you end up with IT being populated much more by IT generalists, but they’re generalists with a lot higher level of skills than before. That’s good internally because you’re hiring experienced people, but it makes getting that first job or two harder for people right out of school or who are very early in their careers. There’s a higher barrier of skills to climb.”

Uncertain implications: IT support and help desk
Predicting the demise of the help desk and direct IT support role is risky because users always need more help than IT can afford to give, analysts agree.

As enterprise applications become more intuitive and Web-oriented, and as corporate applications become available in an app store that users can browse to find the applications or resources they need, the need for hordes of support people living on the phone or walking into business units to repair someone’s laptop decreases.

“If you can put all your apps in a Web interface, so they live in the cloud, and the desktops are either remote-managed or provisioned via VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure], it’s more possible to fix a problem by closing out the VM and relaunching a virtual desktop for that user, or to log in remotely, fix things, and log out,” Olds says.

“The key to being able to scale to support very large cloud infrastructures is automation — the ability to automate solutions to common end-user problems, password reassignments, reconfigurations, provisioning new resources, and so on,” Olds says.

Of course, such automation can reduce the need for support staff, Olds notes. But “usually you find the company has taken those people and moved them to different responsibilities, or given them time to do the things they were supposed to do — the things they couldn’t do because they were always running around putting out fires.”

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