In the final part of his three part series on the changing role of IT in the era of cloud computing, Paul Robichaux explains what it takes to build a career in this new era. Read part one and part two.

With this framework in mind, we can turn our attention to figuring out how to climb the ladder. How can Alice turn her experience as an IT pro into the needed skills to become a cloud pro?

There are a few obvious answers. The way I typically think of Office 365 is that it doesn’t reduce the amount of work companies have to do to manage it compared to on-premises environments, but it rebalances that work across different skills and disciplines. What does Alice need to know to climb the cloud services skill ladder?

The first relevant area is one of pure technical skills. Knowing how to operate, manage, maintain, and troubleshoot a hybrid Office 365 environment is at the top of the list. Anyone with Exchange, SharePoint, Skype, or Active Directory admin experience is well positioned to learn the other skills needed to manage the complete stack (especially because some of the nastier parts, such as enterprise voice routing for Skype or proper server sizing and scaling for SharePoint, go away). Alice and her fellow specialists can gain this knowledge through hands-on experimentation and learning, or through formal or informal training provided by Microsoft, user groups, books, webinars, etc. Developing these skills gives specialists in one technology a good start on becoming synthesists and thus becoming more valuable and harder to replace.

Being comfortable with PowerShell is a huge requirement for cloud pro status. Azure and Office 365 offer web-based consoles for many management tasks, but those consoles focus on the most commonly performed tasks, and they are painfully inefficient for bulk tasks (such as gathering all your user accounts and enabling a newly introduced service feature such as Office 365 Planner). At an absolute minimum, cloud pros need to be comfortable connecting to both on-premises and cloud-based workloads and issuing commands in an interactive shell, but I’d recommend working to gain the ability to write and debug scripts (including learning to read others’ scripts and understand what they do). For people with prior development experience, PowerShell is fairly easy to learn; for those without, hands-on experimentation is the best way to gain understanding.

What about virtualization? That’s a more subtle answer. Office 365 doesn’t use it, but much of the work you might want to do with Azure involves using virtual machines running in Azure’s IaaS environment. In fact, one key skill that’s in high demand is the ability to move on-premises workloads (whether running on VMs or physical machines) to the Azure cloud. A cloud pro who knows how to effectively deploy, manage, back up, and secure Azure VMs will find tons of market opportunities, especially if that knowledge is coupled with specialist or synthesis knowledge of other applications.

The other major area of cloud pro skill development is that of design and architecture skills—an area where many traditional IT pros have been able to skate by with limited effort. Understanding the concepts that underlie cloud computing (including the notion of elastic computing and the ways that network traffic enters and leaves the Microsoft and Amazon cloud networks) is the obvious starting place, but you’ll also need to have a good understanding of cloud security (including knowing what your responsibilities are for securing cloud-based data or services you maintain), the cost model of your preferred cloud provider, and how to effectively work through the cloud vendor’s support system when problems arise. It is always a good idea to bolster your interpersonal and “soft” skills too—part of what separates a master from the other levels in the pyramid is the ability to clearly (and persuasively) communicate information to people in all levels inside an organization.

With all this in mind, how do you actually climb the ladder? Microsoft and Amazon both offer certifications for their respective cloud services, so Alice could follow the traditional route of studying for and passing certification exams as a way of both gaining knowledge and signaling that knowledge to her current and future employers. One of the best things about this approach is that it’s inexpensive, and may even be free—AWS and Azure both offer free service tiers, and Alice needs nothing more than a web browser (and maybe a Powershell-capable Windows machine for Azure if she wants to be fancy) to work with these services.  Second, any specialist in one product starts out with a great base of knowledge that can be applied to other products and technologies—if Alice is already an experienced Exchange administrator, that almost certainly means that she can learn enough about Active Directory, AD FS, Skype for Business, or other workloads that are likely to remain on-premises at Contoso. Third, keep in mind that in many respects, the cloud is still a great unknown inside many organizations. Starting or joining a pilot to move on-premises services to the cloud is a superb way to gain skills that are immediately relevant to your current job.

A word of warning though: for better or worse, you are ultimately responsible for developing the needed skills. Don’t count on your employer to provide them for you. This is nothing new, of course; a large slice of the current IT pro workforce is there because they took the initiative to learn skills that would allow them to change careers or advance more rapidly, and the cloud doesn’t change that. 

In Summary

The broad spread of cloud services, and vendors’ eagerness to get us to buy and use them, means that we have a golden age of opportunity. The need for IT pro jobs seems to be dwindling somewhat, although the size of the market means that there will long be positions for people with specialist or synthesis skills—consider the fact that there are still jobs for COBOL programmers! The sooner you can start building a cloud pro skill set, though, the better, as the cloud is here to stay. Future IT employment will probably never shift 100% to the cloud, but it will continue to shift more towards the cloud, and you can start preparing for that shift now.