Cloud Computing Skills Shortage Forces CIOs to Grow Their Own

CIOs, technology vendors and consultants agree that a serious shortage of cloud computing skills across the IT industry threatens to impede adoption and deployments. A CIO's best bet for addressing this dearth of talent is to focus on training their existing IT staff.

When Majestic Realty Co., a Los Angeles-based commercial real estate developer, moved to Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) for cloud-based email in early 2011, CIO Jon Grunzweig was shocked by the lack of technical support he found for BPOS in the marketplace.

"A year ago, no one knew anything about BPOS," he says. "We couldn't get good advice ahead of time on what to look out for, what to think about. That knowledge wasn't there. Microsoft didn't have it. Neither did third-parties."

The dearth of BPOS know-how complicated Majestic Realty's migration off of its on-premise Exchange servers. It also put a lot of pressure on Grunzweig's staff. They had to figure out how to configure Outlook for the cloud and how to integrate it with Majestic Realty's on-premise systems largely on their own. Of course, they made mistakes along the way.

For instance, when Grunzweig's network infrastructure team first configured Outlook for the cloud, his staff set it up so that email headers would come in to users' inboxes first, followed by the "detail" or body of the message. This way, users would see emails—more specifically, the headers—coming into their inboxes in near real-time. But this configuration created a problem: Because Majestic Realty's cloud email was slower than its on-premise email, when users saw new headers in their inboxes and clicked to open them, the messages didn't open because they hadn't finished downloading. Users didn't understand why their email wasn't opening.

"We realized that we needed to configure the desktop differently so that it wouldn't show new email in users' inboxes until the header and the detail were all there," says Grunzweig. "We encountered dozens of little things like that."

Grunzweig says he suspects that Microsoft was ill-equipped to help his company with the migration because the software giant focused on building out its infrastructure for cloud email and devoted few resources to supporting customers. "Microsoft has this really impressive infrastructure, but on the support side—to help people come up on it—the support was not good," he says. "They put really inexperienced, green people on this initiative. I'd never seen something like this from Microsoft."

The Cloud Computing Skills Shortage

Majestic Realty's BPOS migration illustrates many of the challenges CIOs face as they move infrastructure and applications to the cloud. The biggest hurdle of them all—and the one that menaces cloud deployments the most—is the lack of IT professionals who are familiar with cloud offerings and know how to implement them.

Across the IT industry, CIOs, technology vendors and consultants agree that there is a serious shortage of cloud computing skills that threatens to hamper adoption. Whether it's software engineers who know how to develop applications for the cloud, resource planners who can estimate an enterprise's need for computing capacity, architects who can integrate services from different cloud vendors, or administrators who understand how to configure and support cloud-based services, a wide range of cloud-related skills are in great demand, and companies can't leverage the benefits of cloud computing without them.

To illustrate the scope of the skills shortage, a recent analysis of hiring trends from Wanted Analytics, a provider of recruiting data, quantifies that the demand for cloud skills far outstrips supply. The company counted more than 3,400 job ads for IT professionals that required cloud computing skills in February 2012, a 99 percent increase over February 2011.

"People who understand cloud operations and how to deploy cloud solutions are really sought after right now," says Greg Pierce, cloud strategy officer with consultancy TriBridge. "Talent is very difficult to find and very expensive."

Mark Thiele, executive vice president of data center technologies at Switch, a Las Vegas-based provider of data center and colocation facilities, says the organizations that are currently struggling the most with this skills shortage are the ones that are trying to support other companies and their cloud requirements. "All the hosting providers and small cloud startups and professional services organizations are cruising around the world trying to find anyone and everyone who can spell cloud," he says. "If you have successfully built and delivered any kind of cloud environment for someone and can put that on your resume, you can write your own ticket."

Indeed, without these cloud-savvy IT professionals, everyone suffers: the vendors, the consultants and their customers.

Look for Workers With Their Heads in the Cloud

CIOs need people—both internal staff and third-party providers—who can help them think through their cloud computing plans, develop business cases, determine what to move into the cloud, how to get it there, how to integrate it with on-premise systems, and how to secure it. The stakes for getting these plans right are high.

"The CIOs who will fail will do so because they've forced the cloud issue with a less than holistic view of their entire organization," says Thiele. "They will end up investing millions of dollars to put something in [at the behest of their CEOs] that becomes an anchor or an eyesore for the IT organization. There's no way to underestimate the potential for that risk."

Thiele says he has observed that nightmare scenario play out inside several big financial services companies that he says spent millions of dollars to build their own private clouds only to have them fail completely.

"Without those skills, you'll be wasting your time," warns Thiele. "It'll be like having a Ferrari engine without any Ferrari mechanics around to service it."

How CIOs Should Address the Cloud Computing Skills Shortage

If Grunzweig's experience is any indicator, CIOs will not be able to rely exclusively on professional services firms to take the lead on cloud deployments. A year ago, he couldn't find any consulting firms in his budget with any knowledge of BPOS. Nor could he identify third-parties that could help him do data replication and back-up in his company's private cloud, another project he was pursuing at the time (and continues to pursue).

A year later, Grunzweig says he has a handful of consulting companies in the Los Angeles area that he can call who have a better understanding of how to back-up data in his company's private cloud. But, he is quick to add, "there is still a void of information."

Even consultants agree that CIOs will have to focus on shoring up their internal staffs' cloud computing know-how.

"By 2016, there will be more deployments of software in the cloud than on premise," says TriBridge's Pierce. "If that holds true, then right now you can't afford not to build those skills in your organization. The best way to build talent is to start doing cloud deployments and learn as you go."

David Nichols, CIO Services Leader for Ernst & Young, agrees. "The vast majority of these skills will have to be rebadged," he says. "CIOs will have to take a component of their workforces and get them skilled and up to speed. A lot of this will be trial by fire."

As Majestic Realty's experience shows, the "learn as you go" approach to cloud deployments is fraught with lessons learned, but right now it's the company's only viable option. Despite the difficulties Majestic Realty faced getting answers to their BPOS questions, Grunzweig's staff still managed to complete the project on schedule, migrating the whole company in groups over a six-week period.

The benefit of the "learn as you go" approach is that it results in a stronger, more knowledgeable IT staff—and one that will be better prepared to work on additional cloud deployments that Grunzweig is contemplating, such as cloud-based virus protection and CRM. Clearly, the challenges Grunzweig and staff have encountered migrating to cloud-based email and data back-up have not scared them off.

"Luckily," says Grunzweig, "I have an incredibly talented, experienced team."

Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Security and Cloud Computing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at mlevinson@cio.com.

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