IT jobs on the other side of the cloud

As companies turn increasingly toward the cloud, corporate IT staffers wonder if the grass is greener working for a service provider.

Jake Robinson remembers the day when he really understood what it means to work on "the other side of the cloud."

It was Thanksgiving, a couple of years ago. A retail client of Robinson's employer, Indianapolis-based cloud service provider Bluelock, posted on its site an iPhone app designed to give users access to coupons and discounts the following day, Black Friday.

It quickly became clear that the retailer had vastly underestimated demand for the app, and the database server at Bluelock was not prepared to handle the amount of traffic it generated. A solutions architect, Robinson was called in and spent most of the holiday tuning the client's database server to handle the traffic.

Lesson learned? "You have to go above and beyond when it's a client rather than users," says Robinson, who formerly held infrastructure and field engineering positions in traditional corporate IT departments. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between IT at a cloud service provider and IT in the enterprise: You're no longer an expense; you're now part of the primary revenue stream, which means the pressure is on to perform.

As enterprises increasingly consider moving all or part of their computing infrastructure to the cloud, IT professionals wonder whether they should follow the migration.

To find out what it's like working for a cloud service provider, and how it's different from working in traditional IT, Computerworld spoke to a half-dozen IT professionals who are veterans of corporate IT and now have jobs at cloud service providers. They compared and contrasted their experiences in the two settings and discussed the pleasures and challenges of each. Ultimately, the consensus seems to be that, in the future, working in corporate IT may not be that different from working at a service provider.

Surging demand in the cloud

According to a study released in March by cloud staffing agency Hire On-Demand (download PDF), demand for developers of cloud-based applications spiked by more than 365% between 2008 and 2011, with another 90% bump anticipated for 2012.

The study notes that "the gap between the supply and demand of experienced cloud developers is causing salaries and benefits to skyrocket, especially in major metropolitan areas." Cloud developers now command annual base pay of $75,000 to upwards of $150,000, depending on their skills, experience and location. In addition, cloud developers are often provided with "significant benefits," the study said, including the ability to work from home -- 39% of employers were open to this in 2011 -- as well as annual bonuses and signing bonuses. In a separate, Microsoft-sponsored study, also released in March 2012, IDC estimated that in 2011, IT cloud services generated 1.5 million new jobs and projected that number to reach 8.8 million in the next four years. (Those numbers include both jobs with cloud computing providers and cloud-related jobs within corporate IT.)

Source: IDC, 2012

Overall, IDC says "demand for cloud developers will likely remain high for the next five years, with another five years passing before supply catches up with demand. During that time, salaries and benefits will stay well above average, as will opportunities to advance into leadership roles."

Three differences in the cloud

Leo Casusol has put in his time in enterprise IT. He started out in the '90s writing ERP applications for the world's largest publicly traded copper company, and was later tapped to be senior vice president of engineering and technology at Quadrem, a business-to-business network for the mining industry. Now he's CIO of Miami-based Terremark, the cloud services division of Verizon.

He sees three primary differences working on the other side of the cloud. "First, on the service provider side, people have higher expectations. When you are delivering services to internal customers, sometimes you're not as aggressive as you are when you're [delivering services as] a vendor," says Casusol.

"Second, when you deal with external IT managers, you need to adapt your processes to deal with them." Specifically, account managers and others at the service provider must be better at both change management and at communicating proactively.

Working for a cloud service provider

Benefits

  • Constantly-changing environment.
  • Big paycheck potential.
  • More gratitude from customers.

Challenges

  • More attitude from customers.
  • On-call 24/7.
  • Scale can be intimidating.
  • Revenue generation part of the job description.

And third, "you now have to think about how to maximize your P&L impact by increasing margin and lowering cost," says Casusol. Specifically, "you need to think about scale, about deploying processes and tools that deal with volume," he explains. "You become a business within a business."

For those reasons, Casusol says, it may be difficult for traditional IT employees to make the transition to working for a cloud service provider. "You need to adopt a customer service mentality," he says. "Traditional IT is not looked at as customer-friendly, especially when they're enforcing policies. Going from being [a controlling influence] to being customer-friendly requires a cultural change."

Pat O'Day, Bluelock's CTO, echoes Casusol's last sentiment, as did other IT professionals. He spent 10 years as a Web services manager at a hospital, and then a little over a year in pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly's Internet group, running the security infrastructure. For him, traditional IT wasn't always fun. "I'll be completely honest: Sometimes we felt like we could almost hear the grumbles of people cursing IT," he says. "Is there more gratitude on the service-provider side? Yes."

High stakes

If there's more gratitude, there are also higher stakes and more demanding customers. Users choose the service provider they want to patronize, O'Day cautions, and they're free to choose to take their business elsewhere -- which will have an immediate impact on the cloud provider's bottom line.

"With a service provider, people get enraged if the network goes down for an hour," says O'Day. "You have to give 110% service. The way you behave -- how quickly you call people back, how quickly you address their issues -- affects the health of that customer relationship. There's a stress factor to consider."

Beyond that, service providers work on a much larger scale than most traditional data centers -- they may have as many as 2,000 machines in one cluster. Working on a platform of that scale can be intimidating, O'Day says. You don't want to screw up 2,000 machines in one shot, he warns.

But that scale can also be invigorating. Ken Owens spent the early part of his career doing various kinds of network architecture for financial services and telecommunications companies. Now he's technical vice president of security and virtualization technologies for Savvis, the cloud services arm of Internet and telecommunications provider CenturyLink.

At a service provider, you have more flexibility, because you're not locked into a specific silo. Ken Owens, vice president, Savvis

"At a service provider, you have more flexibility, because you're not locked into a specific silo," Owens says. "You have to understand the entire system, from storage to the network to the servers to security to how infrastructure is deployed by management systems. You have to have a much broader knowledge, and you have to go deep in any of those areas."

That can be a big plus for IT pros looking to expand their capabilities. "I like working for a service provider more [than traditional IT] because I'm able to solve problems for a lot of different companies," says Scott Grenier, a California-based consultant for Minneapolis-based Code 42 Software, a provider of cloud-based backup systems.

Having worked in IT at companies as diverse as Safeway, Industrial Light & Magic and Northrop Grumman, Grenier likens his career to being a musician. "The best way to get good is to play with as many people as possible," he says. "Here, I get to play a lot of instruments."

All jobs are cloud jobs now

As enterprise IT embraces a more integrated infrastructure, a flatter network and a more holistic perspective, tech professionals may have no choice but to adopt a service-provider mentality, no matter where they work.

With the advent of the cloud, "the world of IT is [becoming] way more complex and challenging for the IT professional," says Bill Hilf, Microsoft's general manager of platform strategy and a veteran of traditional IT himself.

As we move more and more to the cloud, IT professionals will have to become service managers. Leo Casusol, CIO, Terremark

"To be a great IT professional, you have to know about networks, storage, software, operating systems and then all of the different management instruments for all your different cloud providers," said Hilf. "I worry about IT guys who say they only specialize in storage. That works in yesterday's world, but you need to know about the entire stack to be effective today."

Terremark's Casusol concurs. "As we move more and more to the cloud, IT professionals will have to become service managers," he says. "They need to become more strategic one way or another. There is no way around it."

Frequent contributor Howard Baldwin last wrote for Computerworld about taking time out for innovation.

Read more about it careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.

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