Will the cloud take my job?

It's no secret that the cloud is coming and it's coming fast. Nearly every analyst has made aggressive predictions that outsourcing to the cloud will continue to grow rapidly. And while the cloud is now taking many jobs that used to go to internal IT, automation and self service capabilities of “private clouds” are taking many other jobs from IT with some vendors saying that automation can allow one administrator to manage as many as 30,000 servers. No doubt that these trends have some in IT fearing for their future, as evidenced by the recent flurry of popular IT articles about pursuing MBA degrees and gaining more business skills. I decided to take this path a few years back and have racked up 10’s of thousands in debt and countless hours on graduate school, and while this is important for some specialized roles, not everybody needs to go to grad school to accelerate their career even in these turbulent times. Working in IT doesn’t have to be scary, in fact I think today there is more opportunity to make your career more rewarding than ever, and there are many great ways to start advancing and protecting your career right now.

I remember the first SAAS application I helped deploy. It was great! One less application to worry about, and simple, fast installation. It meant an end to  frequent application updates and  late night service windows for IT. The SAAS provider even provided training, drove product usage, and handled support. What I didn't realize at the time, was that "as-a-service" wasn't only nice for the infrastructure teams, it also tempted the business side into thinking IT could be replaced.   

I meet with IT engineers every day, and especially among network engineers the response I see to new forms of outsourcing is often an attitude of frustration, and a lack of understanding as to why the business does not recognize the tremendous value that they bring to their company. When faced with outsourcing, many engineers just think their business is being shortsighted and stupid, and often lack awareness of the real reasons why outsourcing decisions are made. But often we cannot offer a compelling argument to our business leaders, in their terms, as to why they should in-source. Most of us work hard, and stay educated on the advancements in our area of expertise. Yet despite our efforts, we are often still at risk of being outsourced.

BACKGROUND : 12 ways the cloud changes everything


I would suggest that much of the reason for this is that the business value we seek to provide is often not the same type of value that businesses are looking for. With as much focus as there has been in recent years on business/technology alignment, our efforts have somehow missed the mark.  Gartner recently highlighted this problem stating that IT departments have focused too much on technology and not enough on business needs, resulting in a "veritable Tower of Babel, where the language between the IT organization and the business has been confounded, and they no longer understand each other."

In response to this dilemma, many are considering the pursuit of MBA degrees, which have gotten so popular the degree is starting to commoditize. While pursuit of an MBA may be a good career move for many, there is increasing realization that an MBA degree alone may not provide much value to business. The recent article "CCIE vs. MBA vs...?" quoted one employer as saying "I've had bad luck with MBAs ... it really depends more on the person than the title", and I couldn't agree more. Pursuing an MBA can give individual very useful tools, but most of these programs don't make an individual more motivated, innovative or creative, which in my opinion are the critical attributes needed today.

So if pursuing an MBA isn't what is needed, then what is?

What your business needs is not a degree, but someone who has the motivation and capability first to recognize business problems and ways that things could be done better, and second to demonstrate in the proper terms how to implement the solution to the business problem. While this sounds simple, it can be quite complex, however there are several new methods that can make these processes much easier. There is also a third component that is very important: a Master's Degree gives you a credential ... but just driving more value for your organization may not. While this is a legitimate concern and one that has been a big problem in the past, I would like to suggest there are now good solutions already in place to this problem. Ironically one of the reasons why I have pursued a lot of credentials myself was so that I could have a platform to share the message that new forms of credentialing are needed beyond simplistic certifications or expensive and time consuming degrees that often are not good criteria for finding the ideal candidates. And fortunately today with social media there are much more effective ways to manage your personal brand, and HR departments are already using these as key criteria for both internal promotions and external hiring. 

What I describe here may not sound all that different from what you already do right? You probably already look for better ways to help your business function more efficiently, but as I alluded to earlier, we first have to learn to align what we think is important to what the business thinks is important, and vice versa. In other words, you have to learn how to think like a business ... at least within certain contexts. The good news is that you probably already have been developing several key skills that will make this easier, and at the same time business leaders are starting to recognize more common sense approaches as social media and globalization are radically transforming consumer behavior.

How you troubleshoot infrastructure problems has also already given you key skills that can be reapplied to business problems. I remember when I taught Cisco certification courses, I always challenged students to think like the router ... if you can mentally put yourself in the position of a router, and understand the context and criteria by which the router behaves as is common in troubleshooting, you have already been practicing valuable business skills. The whole of society functions on networks, and today the most brilliant minds in the social sciences examine societal and organizational problems from a very similar perspective of how we troubleshoot computer networks ... identify the common behaviors or protocols that entities commonly use in their decision criteria, determine what action they will take based on the criteria, and then determine the effect on the surrounding network. While you already have been developing many of these skills, the next key is to learn to shift your perspective.

This topic is too complex for a single post, so I will be continuing this topic diving deeper to share what I think are the most important lessons I learned pursuing my Masters and am learning now as I pursue doctoral research.  I have been trying to identify a pedagogy that would be the most effective way to learn and immediately apply the key skills for success in the modern business climate, and will continue this series in the following sequence:

1.       Fertile Ground & Motivation. The first and most important part of advancing your career is to be motivated and have a positive attitude, but we can't just make this up. Positive thinking alone is almost useless, it has to be a genuinely held belief to be effective. The good news is that all of the recent economic troubles combined with the impact of social media have created an environment where the old ways of doing business simply don't work anymore, and business leaders are starting to recognize this. Combine with this fact that the internet and social media can act as "The Great Equalizer", and the result makes for fertile ground. And you may be surprised to find that today, the solutions that will fix your businesses problems happen to also fix a lot of greater societal problems which can really build motivation and the finding of fulfillment in your career.  This post will go into some more depth on some of the latest research in business to understand what macroeconomic factors are creating fertile ground, and how to create fertile ground within your business if it's not already there.

2.       Define the Problem & Start Developing a Shared vision. This post will focus on learning how to understand problems from the perspective of business and how to shift your perspective. It is also important that you and the business come to agreement and have a shared vision for how to address problems, and this is not a one way street, often both the individual and the business need to shift to find the best solution, and this post will also touch on how to get your business leaders to shift their perspective. In other words you need to learn both how your business currently thinks, and then if necessary, how your business should think and then how to come to alignment.

3.       Build your Capabilities. By developing a shared problem definition and a shared vision on how your business needs to develop and grow, you have identified a starting point and ending point, and now need to develop the capabilities to fill in the details most effectively. This may include taking advantage of internet and social media resources and may even include graduate courses or a graduate degree. The key here is to understand what you are trying to learn and how you hope to apply it and then identifying the most effective way to learn the capability. One of the biggest problems with Masters degrees is that people often go in expecting that they will emerge from the program immediately knowing how to apply their knowledge and this is generally not the case. Learning how to quickly develop capabilities to address new business challenges is one of the single most important skills in business today, and this post will focus on how to master this capability.

4.       Fix your own back yard. The premise of this entire post is that in many enterprises, there is a misalignment between the value that infrastructure teams seek to provide their business and the value that business seeks to derive from infrastructure, which explains the current trend moving towards increased cloud outsourcing. Steps 1-3 focus on fixing some of the underlying problems causing this misalignment, so the next logical step would be to start applying the capabilities learned in step 3 within the context of the environment you are already most familiar with. This post will focus on developing a plan for your infrastructure that will make your CIO want to align themselves with you.

5.       Start applying what you've learned to other business problems. One of the key takeaways I have learned in pursuing a graduate education is that while businesses use many different practices to solve problems for different lines of businesses, when you take a more abstract view, the principles behind practices are quite similar, allowing those with the right perspective to quickly reapply knowledge from one domain to a different domain. This post will focus on techniques on how you can learn to use the knowledge you have to apply expert-level knowledge to business problems that you may have little direct experience with. Innovation has principles that remain consistent no matter where they are applied, and by mastering these principles you can make substantive contributions towards team efforts to solve a wide variety of business challenges.

The main reason why I am writing this post is because as I have pursued advancing my own education, I have received advancement and enjoyed greater career stability in these rough economic times, but those turned out to be mere side effects, the real benefit to me is that through the application of these skills my career has become more rewarding and personally fulfilling than I could have imagined. Business exists fundamentally because it provides valued services that make our communities function, and the shortsighted practices that led to many of the human and economic problems our world is facing today are now being dealt with. The most prominent thought leaders in business are now advising organizations to take much more forward thinking and long-term approaches, and this is really starting to take hold with business leaders. This allows us to share these learnings, and help our businesses grow in a way that is positive for employees and positive for the community. In my essay "Soliloquy of a Technocrat", I shared that I think the reason why I have always loved technology is because of all that it can do to make the world a better place. If you are like me and share a passion for technology for this reason, it is so rewarding to be able to leverage your love for technology in a way addresses fundamental problems with business and society that we have not been able to solve in the past, in a way that promotes the positive growth of community and the advancement of human dignity. It is my hope that I can help others to find this fulfillment. I don't have all the answers, but "a heroic effort is a collective effort", and I hope each of you will share things that you have learned so that together, we can learn to drive a new level of value for our businesses, and in the process, learn to use technology to solve the many human problems that our world is facing today.  

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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