Mind the (skills) gap
Over the past year numerous international and UK-focused studies have underscored what most enterprises have, sometimes painfully, come to realise: Increased adoption of cloud computing and big data services and technology is driving transformation in businesses—not just in how the IT department functions, but in how these relatively new technologies and services are procured and consumed across entire organisations. And with the right IT skills in high demand and job specs in constant flux, businesses are struggling to manage this transition to a new model of IT.
It is clear that cloud-based services have gained mainstream acceptance among enterprises today. UKbased trade body the Cloud Industry Forum says that three in every four organisations are using at least one cloud-based service, up from 61 per cent in 2012 and 53 per cent in 2011.
The trend is only set to increase, according to data from the Business Cloud News Cloud Migration Survey, which polled more than 312 enterprise IT leaders in the UK, Europe and North America in May this year. More than ten per cent of respondents said that between 70- 100 per cent of their company’s IT estates are currently hosted in the cloud, while a further 28 per cent said they expect the same scenario by 2016. And with that acceleration, many believe, a huge shift in the skill set required by IT departments is imminent.
Where are the gaps?
“It’s not that we’re not going to need system administrators and database architects anymore—those jobs are still extremely important,” says Andy Wolfe, chief information officer of UK-based online retailer Shop Direct, which relies on a complex mix of legacy technologies provided by Oracle and IBM in addition to cloud-based services hosted on AWS. “But as we take on more and more of these cloud services we’re definitely seeing a need for up-skilling, which takes time and resource.”
Wolfe says that many of the new skills required in his IT department centre on how to improve alignment between commercial and IT objectives, where there is a significant gap according to current industry research. This means being able to effectively translate the needs of the various lines of businesses like marketing and sales into effective technological solutions.
This also demands a healthy understanding of how the business operates—not just a simple appreciation of key business processes from a technology-centric perspective, but a real grasp of the commercial objectives of the company. “We need business-savvy people to break down laymen’s needs, but we need them consolidated within the IT department, which can be a challenge,” he says.
While it’s clear that business acumen is an ingredient increasingly required within the IT department, the general consensus seems to be that, although the technical skills required will evolve, they won’t disappear altogether.
Jose Largo, IT director for Belgian-based luxury clothing maker Scabal says that 80 per cent of the questions his IT department fields are business-function specific. He’s also found that a greater portion of his time hasbeen consumed by meetings with lines of businesses than was the case a few years ago.
In terms of specific skills he says the infrastructure management piece traditionally needed within IT is starting to disappear, particularly as companies start to lean more on commodity-type infrastructure as a service offerings, or even highly-specialised stacks like SAP HANA or CDN-focused infrastructure. What is becoming more important, he explains, is the software development piece.
“Development is becoming more important because expected turnaround is so much faster than it used to be. That’s what IT people can and will need to do – go up the stack,” he says. “But there is a skills gap.”
There are benefits and drawbacks to this. On the one hand many companies won’t have to rely as much on technical consultants as they increasingly bring these skills in-house. But many will struggle with that, particularly companies that outsource large portions of their IT estates.
The only part that still seems to remain technical, Largo says, is device management – particularly for personal devices that employees bring in, often referred to as Bring Your Own Device or BYOD.
BYOD is a challenging yet increasingly important component of IT as more and more services get pushed to the cloud, and as the flexible working trend continues its upward trajectory. It means activities including identity management and directory services integration take on a renewed importance, with the enterprise all the while needing to ensure that security issues are satisfied and corporate data protected.
Where is IT going?
“There are security tools for the devices that we provide, but the key question is, how do you manage it on the devices you don’t provide?,” says Chris Moore, chief information officer of the City of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, who is currently penning a report on mobility strategies to support flexible working across city government.
Moore adds that increased uptake of cloud services has created a renewed emphasis on contracting and SLAs within his organisation because of how these services and their procurement deviates from traditional IT kit.
“What happens to your data if the company gets bought? Or goes bankrupt? We need to look at things like exit strategies and cost-capping with cloud agreements, which perhaps weren’t things we focused on as much with traditional hardware and software,” he says.
Part of the challenge with cloud computing and modern IT is simply that the solutions are so new and uptake has accelerated massively in a very short space of time. MongoDB for instance, a popular NoSQL database, has been around for just six years. But during that period it has become the sixth most widely used database overall and the most popular NoSQL service in the world according to DB-Engines Ranking. Most cloud services like Salesforce are far less than a decade old, and the cloudbased iterations of legacy applications (SAP et al.) are even newer but quickly gaining traction in enterprises. Within that context, how is any large organisation reasonably expected to keep up?
The added emphasis on commercial awareness in the IT department may well be coupled with a change in necessary technical skills required but there are also challenges that are organisational in nature. This is because many of these changes are clearly being driven from the wider business.
The Business Cloud News Cloud Migration Survey results suggests 76 per cent of IT professionals believe non-IT personnel and lines of businesses outside IT are getting more involved with IT decision-making; 82 per cent believe these non-IT groups are driving more interest in adopting cloud services than ever before.
“What we’re seeing to some extent is a consolidation of the IT into the business departments,” says Ajay Gandhi, vice president of cloud at data integration specialist Informatica. “IT is no longer necessarily isolated but is directly tapped in to the commercial needs of the day, which means more interaction with lines of businesses than ever before.”
Gandhi says that IT departments should expect to see business process automation and systems automation go more horizontal more frequently, as various departments and lines of businesses start to consume cloud services that can greatly benefit from deep integration.
While this won’t necessarily translate into having an IT specialist embedded in every line of business, the holistic view of IT, he says, is becoming more prominent because users working within these departments are taking a more active role in the service consumption component— though not necessarily in the sanctioning of those services, a trend commonly referred to as ‘Shadow IT’.
Still, despite that increased uptake of cloud services has contributed to the rise of APIs, arguably making cloud-based services more easily integrated with one another than their on-premise predecessors, IT departments will continue to grapple with the question of whether or not to own the integration piece in-house or outsource it.
But the skills gap isn’t just borne of increased adoption of cloud services. The growth in popularity of big data analytics has many of the same drivers including increased attention from marketing, sales, and other lines of businesses outside of the IT department.
Bill Thirsk, vice president and chief information officer of Marist College in New York says that the shift in the skill set required by the IT departments of today is challenging universities like Marist to respond quickly with new curricula to fit the bill.
“Technology used to be managed in silos, but we are now at a state where networks reside in servers, storage is embedded in networks, and they are all controlled by software. For IT, that’s a radical change,” Thirsk says.
In addition to overseeing Marist’s internal IT strategy, Thirsk sits on an advisory council made up of other CIOs from Fortune 100companies to help develop the university’s IT curriculum, one of its most popular programmes.
He says that the school changed its curriculum by broadening it to include more courses on high-performance and high-volume system management as well as advanced and emerging networks, business intelligence, and big data analytics – all of which are likely to play an enhanced role in the commercial world as the Internet of Things makes the transition from marketing buzzword to reality.
“As more and more people and devices connect there is an emerging need for better, faster, and more sophisticated systems to handle the volume of transactions. But I think the biggest problem or the biggest shortage we’re going to see really quickly is in analytics,” he says.
The shortage around analytics skills isn’t just growing within IT – these skills are increasingly required across organisations more broadly. A recent Coleman Parkes Research survey of 200 senior IT, finance and marketing executives at companies larger than 1,000 people from Europe and Australia found that nearly three quarters of non-IT personnel use big data technologies and services for strategic decision making.
And although IT professionals may not be data scientists, they may need to investigate how data generated through cloud-based systems can mesh seamlessly with on-premises enterprise resource planning, data warehouse or other systems, and work with the business side to make effective use of big data.
Up-skilling to narrow the gap
When cloud services began hitting the market en masse few perceived such a dramatic shift in the IT sector, which is now quite clearly in the throes of change. In fact, a report published by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UK CES) in the second half of 2013 suggests growth in the UK digital industries could be hampered by an impending skills gap brought about by the rapid proliferation of cloud, big data and mobile technologies.
According to the organisation’s research the digital sector will require about 300,000 new recruits by 2020, and many of them will require specialised IT skills in order to keep pace with increased change within these businesses as they begin to rely on new technologies and operate within a context of heightened emphasis on cyber security.
Jim Reavis, co-founder and chief executive officer of Cloud Security Alliance, a trade body that also helps certify IT professionals on skills specific to cloud computing, says that as cloud computing becomes the primary IT platform the key skills in demand include virtualization, Hadoop and other NoSQL databases, newer operating systems and scripting languages.
“Having several of these skillsets will definitely enhance one’s career, and this should be based on a foundation of awareness of cloud computing, definitions and risk issues.”
Reavis says that the biggest deficiency –which can be easily remedied – is in the scope of IT professionals’ awareness. Because cloud is a shared responsibility IT professionals have to have at the very least a cursory knowledge in the legal, compliance and risk management issues in addition to the more focused technology skills. The second, he says, is a simple lack of hands-on experience. Many people can talk about it he says, but everyone, no matter their IT role, should test and configure cloud services at least a few times to reinforce their knowledge of how they work.
Still, while up-skilling is clearly seen as essential in equipping the IT professionals of today to manage the technological, organisational and cultural shifts currently gripping organisations globally, how the industry goes about narrowing that gap is far from clear. Results from the Business Cloud News Cloud Migration Survey paint a mixed picture. 44 per cent of respondents said they company plans to increase resources devoted to IT training over the next year, while 66 per cent said spending would remain the same, which raises questions about how enterprises are going to cope with a transition in skills requirements well on its way.
“Very few organisations have adapted to what’s going on,” Thirsk says. “But the skills shortage is here, it’s true, and it’s dire.”