Wanted: New skills for cloud computing success

As IT departments adapt to the cloud, managers may need new skill sets to make cloud computing architectures work.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

There is no doubt that cloud computing technologies have introduced new ways of delivering and managing IT services. In turn, many IT managers worry about being ready for the transition. Do they have the technical chops to make this architecture work? Which IT skills do they need to survive in this brave new world?

But the truth is, while cloud introduces new ways of managing data center infrastructure, the skills you need -- or need to develop -- are much the same as those any IT manager needs to get ahead in his career.

What do you need to know?
So, in addition to technical chops, which skills do IT staffers need to make the shift to cloud computing, and why? Here's a quick rundown on the most essential skills that IT managers and administrators should develop to deploy and manage cloud architecture effectively:


  • Financial literacy
  • Management and interpersonal skills
  • Negotiation skills
  • Process management skills
  • Market understanding
  • Technical chops

Financial literacy
Today, financial literacy requires that IT managers do more with less, and financial savvy is key to cost savings. Long-term thinkers believe in the value of hard-cost return on investment (ROI) and reject soft costs in ROI calculations because these costs are only shifted to new line items or projects without real return.

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Implementing a cloud-based email solution, for example, may seem more expensive than maintaining an existing one, but malware, spam protection, archiving and other costs may reveal the ROI of a cloud-based technology. Without financial literacy, a manager makes bad product purchasing decisions and projects to move forward on. A financially literate manager, on the other hand, is a driver of forward momentum.

The most relevant, tangible measure of financial literacy remains an MBA. It's worth considering whether a finance degree can help you in your core IT role: saving costs.

Management and interpersonal relations skills
Interpersonal relations are critical. The saying "it's not what you know, but whom you know" is important in your IT role. So is the idea that "if you can't get along with anyone, you won't know anyone." Without contacts and buy-in from stakeholders, risky projects will be passed over, and attempts to recruit or retain good talent will be denied. And in today's world of Facebook and Twitter, your relationships with others can be more easily known. There are real consequences for failing to maintain interpersonal relations and they range from poor performance and lackluster career opportunities to litigation and tragedy.

And no matter how strong a manager's interpersonal skills, conflict is inevitable. Within a manager's sphere of influence, staff may differ radically on deployment ideas, architecture plans, and so on. Entrenched staff may not be ready to go in this new direction, privacy advocates may have serious concerns about sensitive data, others may have concern about the impact of cloud architecture on staff roles, and technical staff may be skeptical about performance and reliability metrics. A strong manager must bring all conflicts to an end by having the right facts, persuasiveness, and the interpersonal skills to tie it all together.

Resolving conflict is a form of negotiation; outright negotiation is another. A good manager must understand that service-level agreements (SLAs), performance minimums, costs, and every other factor in implementing a cloud solution requires negotiation. A manager worth his salt comes to the table prepared with not only his own business' requirements but also information on what other companies offer.

Process management
Once conflicts have been resolved and a project is under way, a manager must also understand the business processes in place. If your IT department follows an established methodology such as the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) or Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF), implementing a cloud project requires following the processes that these methodologies call for.

For a cloud project to be successful, change management, service-level management and configuration management must be adhered to. So too, IT managers need to understand how to integrate cloud architecture into existing processes. When a cloud service is integrated into business processes, it becomes a part of the business rather than a lone silo. This isn't to say that cloud projects won't bring change to these processes. Moving applications, services or infrastructure to the cloud means changing the way those processes operate.

In all these skills, there is one underlying aspect: good judgment.

To successfully manage a cloud-based rollout, managers must use project management skills. Managers leading projects should have a strong understanding of project management methodologies. Organizations such as the Project Management Institute offer education and certification in project management and the various methodologies used to handle complex IT projects, such as cloud service rollouts. The Project Management Professional certification is the preeminent project management certification.

It is important that an IT manager become educated about project phases, how to accurately identify risks and resources, how to plot an accurate timeline, and how to set appropriate expectations in the framework of the project management lifecycle.

Market understanding
At every step of the way, management must observe the market landscape to ensure that decisions make sense. A successful manager considers whether to sign on for services that will implode if the company hosting such services were to go out of business. In the event of a vendor's failure, an IT manager should have an exit strategy and must ensure data ownership, code ownership, and the ability to transfer data. Managers should understand their company's needs, observing where improvements can be made and what needs to be done to get internal staff onboard. Managers must also understand the risks and the reality of failure -- including data loss, privacy breaches, and a whole slew of woes that can and should be avoided.

Technical chops
Because the cloud appears to be a switch-on, go-to-work model, it's easy to overlook its technical aspects. The question of whether a given product will work in a given business is not only about this technology meeting a business need. Products must also work with existing systems and technologies. Managers must understand how new technologies will affect existing technologies and understand how to integrate when needed, how to change technologies when needed, and when to walk away from a project. In short, IT managers need to "keep their chops."

As cloud computing changes the landscape of IT services, today is a time of great transition for managers. To be successful, a manager must add to his management skill set, hone existing skills and adapt to new paradigms. Ignoring the shift makes managers complacent during a period of upheaval, miss out on opportunities, and inevitably do more harm than good. And in all these skills, there is one underlying aspect: good judgment.

Joseph Foran is the director of IT at FSW, a Bridgeport, Conn. nonprofit social-services agency. In his role as director, he is responsible for working with executive and line management to come up with cost-efficient uses of technology that will better enable client services, employee efficiency and increased grant revenue. Joseph serves on FSW's Leadership committee, where he advises and collaborates with company management on both technology and business decisions. FSW's services extend across Connecticut from six locations across the southwestern portion of the state.

Prior to FSW, Joseph was an IT manager at filtration manufacturer CUNO, Inc. and at sports league Major League Soccer, and he has been a systems admin with consumer goods giant Unilever, as well as a consultant for Connecticut's Departments of Corrections, Mental Health and Education.

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