Private Clouds Will Change IT Jobs, Not Eliminate Them

Forget the technical issues in building a private cloud. You can solve those. Help your staff overcome fear and resistance to change so your project can move forward.

Mike Fratto

September 18, 2012

4 Min Read
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At the InformationWeek 500 conference, editor at large Charlie Babcock and I held a workshop on private cloud. We learned as much from the audience members as they did from us. One of the more interesting discussions centered on the challenges organizations face in implementing private clouds. For almost all in the room, it wasn't a matter of technical as much as organizational: How do you overcome employee resistance and get them to embrace cloud?

Prior to the event, I was talking to a longtime friend who's a software architect and is now heading up his company's private cloud initiative. The problem he's facing isn't making the business case--he has a budget and a directive. He's not troubled by the technology--the company will train and outsource for the expertise it needs. The No. 1 problem is staff resistance. As a software architect, Bob (not his real name) is an outsider to IT operations, but he's comfortable with automation and software-driven IT. Unfortunately, the IT department isn't.

IT has a mandate to deliver reliable services, and it has worked hard to develop processes with checks and balances that satisfy that mandate. Change control rules the roost, and planned recovery procedures are required for every change. Cowboy IT isn't allowed. The result is that IT operations are mostly manual, and any functions that are automated are tightly controlled with a skilled operator at the helm in case something goes awry. It's how the company has always done it, and it works.

Listening to Bob's frustrations, two things became clear: First, not everyone likes change, especially change that can disrupt a well-controlled environment. However, if IT can create repeatable manual processes that must be followed precisely every time a task needs to be performed, then surely IT can automate those very same processes. Automation done right will actually reduce errors, once a process is set it can be repeated at will.

Sure, it's scary to think of what might happen if an automated process goes unpredictably sideways. No one at Amazon predicted prior to 2011 how its automated recovery procedures would exacerbate an outage of the Elastic Block Storage service on the East Coast. Moving to automated systems means new problems will occur--sometimes at terrifying speed--but the key for IT is to focus on root-cause analysis and then feed what has been learned back into improved automatic processes. EBS had a disruption--but that in no way justifies not automating they system. Even with a highly publicized outage, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

Bob is also dealing with operations staff members who feel like they're automating themselves out of jobs. The press is replete with stories about large Internet behemoths like Facebook, Microsoft and Google that run hundreds or even thousands of servers with just a single admin. That means fewer IT jobs. No one wants to automate himself out of a job and, frankly, staff members aren't likely to tell management about their fears. But it's a problem you need to address head on.

The fact is, the roles your IT staff members take on will change, and that's something MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, who was also co-author of Race Against the Machine, spoke about at the InformationWeek 500 Keynote. Computers and automation are affecting every aspect of production, including IT, in profound ways. Computers are well-suited to rote tasks but don't perform well with fuzzier tasks. Most importantly, computers can't apply new learning in one scenario to future tasks. You still need staff, but you will need fewer technology-specific engineers with a private cloud because automated systems will indeed replace a highly paid person who's simply clicking Next, Next, Next.

What you will need are experienced engineers who can think about systems and apply their expertise to IT systems that deliver value. The place to find such people is on your operations team. Most of the IT people I have met in my career share three similar traits: They're smart, they like challenges, and they like to learn new things. That was abundantly clear in our 2012 Salary Survey--"job challenge" came in among the top features that matter in a job, after salary, stability and benefits. For those looking for a new job, "more interesting work" was the second-most selected reason behind higher compensation. Bored IT staff members will look for new challenges outside your company.

How do you make this transition? One of the CIOs attending the IW500 suggested: "You have to sell [private cloud] to IT [operations]." He's right. You, the IT manager, have to get staff past the fears that IT operations managers may have. If they're afraid of potential disruptions to IT and their ability to deliver services, then challenge them with making it happen. Send them to training if they need it. Move some of their existing responsibilities to someone else, and give them time to work out what needs to happen. If they're afraid of losing their jobs to a deployment script, remember that you still need someone to write and maintain that script--someone with IT operations experience--and you're going to get more effective automation from someone on the inside, who already knows the IT landscape and goals.

Get your staff on board, and everything else will fall into place.

About the Author(s)

Mike Fratto

Former Network Computing Editor

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