The cloud has a people problem

In tech, we like to pretend that every problem can be solved by throwing hardware or software at it. We assume insights will magically appear from data if we apply the brute force of algorithms and servers. We believe applications can blithely flit from cloud to cloud through “single panes of glass” and portability layers. In sum, we forget that technology is really about people and what they do with that technology.

For those who have chosen to forget this truth, Gartner analyst Lydia Leong offers 1,172 words of reproof that the people problem applies to cloud. Anaconda’s survey of data science professionals rings the same warning bell for data science, with 90% of respondents acknowledging concerns over the potential impact of a talent shortage, and 64% expressing concern about their company’s ability to recruit and retain technical talent. Even in the land of abundant open source, we have a people problem, where concerns over sustainability should be focused on caring for individual project maintainers.

So, people matter. In the cloud world, recognizing this fact can help us be more pragmatic about how we approach cloud strategy and the people that implement it.

Multicloud reality

Much of the multicloud marketing in the past several years has had more to do with what vendors wanted to sell than what customers could realistically implement. We spent far too long talking about a single app working seamlessly across multiple clouds and not nearly long enough thinking through who was capable of building such a thing. Yes, specific software-as-a-service vendors can take care of all that underlying complexity (e.g., compute in one cloud is very different from compute in another), ensuring your data layer, for example, is consistent across clouds. You can also shift to a microservices-based architecture, as Snap has, which can make it feasible to pick and choose different clouds to host specific services.

But let’s not kid ourselves that this is simple. In fact, as System Initiative CEO Adam Jacob points out, “Multicloud as a strategy for a single app appears to be dead/dying. Instead, it’s ‘choose the right cloud for the application’ based on what can be rearchitected.” This isn’t always true (as mentioned, SaaS providers can deliver multicloud for a single app by taking care of the data layer or other aspects of the application), but it’s much closer to reality than the old marketing of multicloud, wherein apps magically ran across multiple clouds. As Aiven’s Ian Massingham notes, “Customers didn’t want to spread applications across multiple providers, but legacy vendors really, really wanted them to think that this was a good idea.”

In this rising awareness, Jacob goes on, “I don’t need portable plumbing. I need a better way to adopt and manage the rearchitecture” to take care of “specific components in unique software architectures.”

It’s good that we’re finally getting real about multicloud. It’s bad that we’re still not staffed to manage it.

Talent shortages all the way down

“The cloud skills gap has reached a crisis level in many organizations,” argues Leong. “Organizational timelines for cloud adoption, cloud migration, and cloud maturity are being impacted by the inability to hire and retain the people with the necessary qualifications.” If that sounds bad, it’s because it is bad. Such shortages are hard enough to solve for one cloud within an organization. What happens when the organization tries to implement multiple clouds?

I’ve suggested, following Google’s Forrest Brazeal, that one sure way to safeguard your job and accelerate your career is to become proficient in more than one cloud. In order to understand and respond to that burgeoning cloud complexity, enterprises will need people who are “cloud multilingual.” The problem is that many people are still struggling to become proficient in even one cloud. This problem is compounded by organizations that may inadvertently undervalue cloud skills or overtax the few employees who possess them. It all can culminate, Leong suggests, in the “exacerbation of existing market patterns where the digitally ambitious have had outsized and potentially disruptive success … and where other organizations are unable to imitate those successes, leading not just to failures of IT projects but also meaningful negative business impacts.”

All of this sounds bleak but it need not be.

Remember that technology is really about people. In Leong’s parting paragraph she notes, “There’s only so much [Gartner] can help you with your skills gap if your organization has the deadly triplet of not offering good pay, not providing a good working environment, and not making people feel like they’re doing something valuable with their lives.” The first step toward reducing talent shortages is to pay people well and treat them even better.

I make that distinction between “pay” and “treatment” deliberately. As Leong highlights, “An increasing number of the technical professionals I talk to care more about good executive support for the cloud program, a cloud team that’s executing well and doing smart things, an opportunity to bring their best selves to work, … and strong belief in the organization’s mission, than they do about pay per se.” Pay matters, but it’s much more than that: “At a lot of slow-moving enterprises where the pay isn’t great, there are also cultural issues that make highly skilled cloud professionals feel out of place and not valued.” The first step in solving the cloud talent shortage within a given organization is to celebrate and elevate the talent you have.

As I’ve written, “Given that tools won’t magically make multicloud a success, it becomes critical to invest in people who can help navigate those clouds.” The key to cloud is people. Always has been. Always will be.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.


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