LEE SYSE: Overcoming the shortage of cloud skills
The talent shortage is not only a local problem but a global concern
By 2025 more than half of all IT spending will be used on the cloud, with two thirds of that directed towards application software. The skills essential for this cloud-driven world feature prominently in the SA government’s updated list of critical skills published earlier this year. But the talent shortage is not only a local problem but a global concern.
This has created a free-for-all when it comes to cloud specialists. Contributing to this is the fact that the skills needed for the digital environment cannot be shopped off the street. Individuals are carefully nurtured and developed by an organisation to gain the certification and experience essential to fulfil their specific cloud needs. This makes them highly sought-after by competitors who require similar resources.
Jack of all trades
Traditionally, ICT skills centred on fostering specialisation in the likes of infrastructure, networking, storage and software development. But thanks to the availability of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotic process automation, companies are moving away from hardware-driven operations to software-defined ones.
The pandemic has certainly given fresh impetus to this. When Covid-19 hit there was a need to rapidly digitally transform to enable a remote work environment. This has subsequently given way to a hybrid model as employees start returning to office life. Even so, the shift towards the cloud has happened and will continue to accelerate. Businesses must board this train sooner rather than later if they are to remain relevant and competitive.
It has resulted in a growing need for technology generalists who are more adaptable to evolving business needs that result from maturing cloud technologies. For the erstwhile specialists, this requires a notable change in mindset. To go from an expert one day and begin from nothing in a different field the next day can be intimidating.
Complicating this is how nebulous the term cloud has become. Cloud skills between service providers differ significantly. Certifications in one environment mean little in another. For example, AWS has 11 certifications, Azure 12, and Google more than 50. No individual can be expected to be an expert in all of them. And where do you even start if you want to build your cloud skills?
The answer might sound simplistic and even counterintuitive to the generalist theory – it requires an individual to focus on the specific vertical relevant to the industry in which the company operates. In this way, the cloud can become something concrete to focus on with a well-defined skill set in mind.
Employable skill sets today, and in the future, will require less book knowledge and more practical experience. Universities that still push an academic approach with a few laboratory sessions thrown in as a practical component are not doing enough to address the skills shortage in the cloud.
However, there are tertiary institutions willing to change. Rather than thinking of a degree or certification as knowledge sharing, practical execution of those skills is critical. The logic with which management approaches this must improve. It is not about hiring someone fresh out of university and expecting them to have an immediate impact. It takes time, investment and a level of patience not found in traditionalists.
But there is hope. For instance, the private sector can take advantage of graduate programmes to give students the real-world experience that has become so in demand. It is about creating an environment where experience-driven tasks are prioritised, benefiting both the graduate and the business. It takes effort to mentor someone, and many companies decide against it for this reason. However, those that give juniors the exposure they need will be rewarded in the coming years. It is then just a matter of ensuring the right incentive structure is in place to mitigate against the risk of the person being poached.
While nuts-and-bolts technology training will always be important, it is the soft skills an individual has that can be the deciding factor in who to invest in, or to employ. Even in the pre-pandemic world no company would always find employees who completely fit the job specifications. This has become even more apparent today given how quickly technology is evolving.
Having the soft skills, including a willingness to learn, adapt and change with the environment, becomes an imperative. If someone has a technology foundation and is willing to continue changing with the technology, that person becomes an invaluable resource. Other things to consider are communication skills, leadership abilities, being able to challenge themselves and take responsibility for their actions, and being willing to experiment and push the boundaries.
The brain drain and poaching are realities facing businesses today. To combat this attention must turn to the journey an individual will embark on with the organisation. It is not about trying to get as many certifications as possible or throwing money at people. It is about charting a career path that is continually assessed and appraised to focus on the cloud skills that will be critical for a company’s success.
For their part, companies must be open to employing people who might not have the experience but show a talent for the soft skills previously mentioned. Recruiters need to be sensitive to the fact that they will never find all the skills a company needs in one individual. Rather, it is about looking at the potential of the person to grow into the position.
Solving the cloud skills shortage will not happen overnight, but the sooner all stakeholders can start in the process, the faster momentum can be built to get the right talent in place.
• Syse is cloud technology lead – cloud providers for Sub-Saharan Africa at VMware.
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