Cloud adoption will fail because of the skills gap

In order to adopt cloud IaaS and PaaS successfully (and arguably, to adopt SaaS optimally), an organization needs skills. Most of all, it needs technical skills for the whole application lifecycle in the cloud — the ability to architect applications (and their underlying stacks) for the cloud, develop for the cloud, secure the cloud, run and manage and govern the cloud environments and the applications in those environments. The more cloud-natively you can do these things, the better.

If you can’t do these things in cloud-native patterns (often because you’re migrating your legacy), you at least want to try to modernize and cloud-optimize — to leverage PaaS rather than IaaS, to automate everything you reasonably can, and otherwise exploit the cloud capabilities to maximum effectiveness. This, too, requires skills.

Cloud skills needs — and associated “soft skills” and mindset — are needed in infrastructure and operations (I&O) teams and security and risk management (SRM) teams. They’re needed in application teams, data science teams, and other technical end-user teams that exploit cloud services, along with enterprise architecture and other architecture teams. There are also nontechnical skills that have to be built in the appropriate teams — effective cloud sourcing, effective cloud financial management, and so on.

My colleagues and I have previously written that the cloud skills gap has reached a crisis level in many organizations. 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.

There are lots of reasons for the skills gap — insufficient number of trained and experienced people to meet demand, escalating salaries plus a globalized market for talent that results in NYC banks nabbing skilled cloud architects working for enterprises in Iowa or Missouri (or Poland) for NYC banking salaries, and the quality of the opportunities available.

For instance, 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 (excellent team management, great colleagues, feeling valued, etc.), and strong belief in the organization’s mission, than they do about pay per se. It isn’t just about pay — but 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.

While many organizations are trying to retrain existing I&O personnel especially, these efforts can fail because the DevOps emphasis of successful cloud-optimized or cloud-native adoption results in fundamentally different jobs. Not only does this require the development of strong automation (and thus coding) skills, but it also results in a more project-driven workday,  greater autonomy (but also more self-starting and self-motivation), and more communication and collaboration with application teams and other cloud users. Those who prefer “IT factory work”, solitarily executing repetitive ClickOps tasks driven by service requests, generally don’t enjoy the change in the nature of a job.

Organizations that can’t retain cloud-trained staff often react by leaning more heavily on the people that remain, which jacks up stress levels, leads to resentment, and often turns into a spiral of departures. Contractors can help fill the gap — if the organization is willing to spend the money to hire them.

Many organizations are successfully bridging the gap with consulting (professional services) and managed services (a Gartner survey showed about three-quarters of organizations use such services for at least a portion of their cloud IaaS+PaaS adoption). Many cloud managed services deals include explicit training and gradual handover to the customer’s personnel, allowing the customer to take over bit by bit as their team gets comfortable. However, MSPs, SIs, and other outsourcers are also struggling to fulfill the demand, which leads to both project delays as well as throwing less-qualified bodies into the mix in order to try to meet contractual obligations and grow revenues.

I believe that we are rapidly reaching the point where the skills gap is not only endangering the ability of individual organizations to fulfill their cloud computing ambitions, but where we may begin to see systemic back-off from cloud ambitions, resulting most notably in cancelled or substantially scaled-back cloud migrations as a common market pattern. (Disclaimer: This is a personal statement scribbled while eating lunch. It is not a peer-reviewed Gartner position.) Also, note that in no way am I claiming that this is likely to lead to repatriation!

Organizations that are late cloud adopters were already more hesitant about going to the cloud in the first place. They tend to have less of a belief that IT can help drive business success, have more technical debt, and tend to have lesser-skilled people (with less up-to-date skills). They may have been the recipient of many people who fled early cloud-adopting organizations because those people didn’t want to re-skill, so they face significantly harder internal pushback and potentially internal sandbagging of cloud projects. When they do manage to successfully train people, those people often leave within a year for both better pay and a more congenial, faster-moving environment.  Late adopters may simply not be able to generate enough internal competence to even safely and successfully use outsourced assistance.

However, even organizations that are not late adopters often have different parts of the business at different paces of adoption. Notably, they may have digital business divisions, or more ambitious fast-moving business units in general, that have substantial cloud adoption, while other parts of the organization lag behind. Those that are charging ahead may remain successful and continue to expand in the cloud, while the rest of the organization remains unable to beg borrow or steal enough skills from those other successful outposts to overcome the on-premises inertia.

This may lead to an 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. This, in turn, has a follow-on effect on the cloud providers. As enterprise bets on the cloud grow bigger, one might begin to see these projects, especially mass migration and transformation, as gambles more so than realistically-executable plans. Any plan that is predicated on if we can get the people who can do this stuff is fraught with nontrivial probability of failure.

(As always, my Gartner colleagues and I are happy to advise on inquiry, but there’s only so much we 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 and not making people feel like they’re doing something valuable with their lives. However, I also spend some significant percentage of my inquiry time listening to people vent, so I’m happy to sympathize with your tale of woe, too, and in most cases reassure you that what you’re trying to get your organization to do would be the right thing…)

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Posted on September 12, 2022, in Strategy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. no lies were told here.

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  2. I agree that cloud skills are inhibiting leveraging cloud. One obvious way to try to address this is to increase cloud skills. We should certainly do that, but it runs into a number of hurdles as you point out.

    Another, complementary approach is to find ways to reduce the cloud skills that are required – to find ways to make cloud easier to use, by lessening both the cognitive / skill burden as well as the toil burden required of application teams in order to reap the benefits of using cloud. If effective use of cloud today requires a skills bar , we can certainly try to bring people up to that bar, but we can and should also try to lower that bar.

    Lessening the required skills can also make achieving that level accessible to a larger population. Think of a bell-shaped curve of the intellectual capability of the developer population. With the skills bar set at the current level, there is some vertical line through that curve, and the population to the left of that line are just not going to reach the required skills no matter how much training we do. If we reduce the required skills, we can move that vertical line to the left so a larger population has the capability to learn to use cloud.

    So, how to make cloud easier to use – lessen cognitive / skill burden on the individual workload team, as well as lessen non-value-added toil? My 2 cents: we need more platforms – platforms provided by the CSPs, for sure, but when that is insufficient, likely also platforms operated by your own company. (I’m using “platform” in a more generic sense than the NIST definition of platform-as-a-service.)

    A basic example: rather than requiring every application team to operate their own Kubernetes environment – even if using CSP-provided Kubernetes such as AWS EKS, Azure AKS, GCP GKE – some centralized team of Kubernetes expertise operates shared, multi-tenant Kubernetes environment(s), so that application teams can focus on their application. Big, highly-capable teams may choose to operate their own Kubernetes environments, but for small teams (think of simple workloads that may be supported by a fraction of an FTE), or those that simply don’t wish to bear the burden of self-sufficiency in operating Kubernetes, deploying and operating in such an operated-by-somebody-else Kubernetes environment becomes much easier.

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  3. I don’t understand how Gartner can still be taken seriously. The tripe churned out by their so-called analysts is like a cross between the “Ministry of Stating the Obvious” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The organisation reminds me of the many wasteful public sector organisations, employing countless people with “non-jobs” who don’t contribute anything useful to businesses other than serving to pull the wool over the eyes of clueless technophobe managers and CEOs, and fleecing them out of small fortunes for annual reports that resemble something from a newspaper’s astrology page.

    Like

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