The human cost of cloud - what does it mean for tech jobs?

Moving to the cloud is not just about technology. But what does it mean for a company's organisation and IT employees' job prospects?

Cloud computing

The main drivers pushing businesses towards the adoption of some form of cloud computing are frequently expressed in terms of reducing capital and operating costs while simplifying the ongoing management of IT systems. The arguments for cloud computing have become familiar and well-rehearsed in recent years: it's cost-effective, quick and easy to implement, gives businesses the ability to run the latest and greatest software and to scale upwards/downwards as required.

But what are the human consequences of adopting cloud-based computing, including SaaS? The arguments put forward by those resistant to change -or "server huggers" as one industry player terms them - typically revolve around a potential loss of control to the business and fears over the robustness of data security. But for many people, especially in IT departments where the effects of any shift to remote provision of computing resources will be felt most keenly, the anxieties are possibly more visceral because these changes are likely to affect their own livelihoods. Some of those cost savings are going to come from salaries.

For the past 20 years or more, the major casualties of the huge adoption of IT in business have been those employed in other functions. But the cloud computing wave is bound to be felt much more keenly by the IT department or those employed in an IT function within a business. Supporting such a shift could, to use the well-worn cliche, be like "turkeys voting for Christmas". Hardly surprising, then, that cloud computing has typically found greater enthusiasm from the business than the IT department.

It would be reassuring to think IT has learned a form of best practice, derived from its own experiences in implementing systems that have affected other areas of the business, for dealing with the introduction of technology and systems that will have significant effects on its own structure. Alas, there appears little evidence for this. Given that so much IT time and resource is spent "keeping the lights on", it's understandable there is a reluctance to look beyond the devil they already know but cloud computing is likely to have profound consequences for IT personnel.

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Those who are perceived to be resistant to the shift to the cloud are less likely to prosper than their colleagues who are able to appreciate the potential of cloud-based solutions and use it as a means to develop a better understanding of what IT can do for the business. As the extent of cloud-based delivery of IT and services develops, the requirement will shift from reactive, firefighting roles towards a focus on the strategic and analytical. Much of the day to day mechanical aspects of the IT function will be handled offsite. IT staff worried about their place in a future that encompasses cloud-based solutions would do well to try and view it as an opportunity rather than a threat.

While there is a potential for the business to use the cloud as a mechanism to reduce headcount, it can also be viewed as an opportunity for IT staff to evolve their roles to something more strategic and incremental that adds value to the business.

Many IT staff have not been recalcitrant in the face of the cloud computing trend. Two-thirds of cloud projects are led by IT staff, according to a recent survey by the Cloud Industry Forum. The satisfaction level for those who have adopted some form of cloud services is extremely high at 94 percent. The primary driver for adoption of cloud-based solutions (usually in back office IT services areas such as email, disaster recovery/back up, storage and web hosting services) was said to be flexibility rather than savings. But it is noticeable that those who have already implemented a cloud solution plan to put more focus on cost reduction in the second phase of adoption. This could, potentially, affect IT staff.

A major area of concern identified in the survey findings perhaps reflects where a new dynamic will emerge for the roles of IT staff in a cloud computing world. Only half the organisations using cloud services had negotiated the terms of their contract with the service provider and many were unaware of where they stood contractually on issues such as liability, indemnity, insurance and ownership of stored content.

This suggests that as cloud services provision becomes more complex and takes over more critical applications, IT will need to have the skills to negotiate and manage relationships and SLAs with external service providers, sometimes acting as a broker for the business.

In many instances, tech employees will develop a relationship with external service providers similar to the one that currently applies between the other parts of the business and the IT department. Like any internal service company, IT will need to broker business objectives and find the right combination of external and internal service provision to fulfil them. Some businesses may already have people in the IT department with these types of skills, particularly those who currently manage vendor relationships for their companies.

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The requirement for IT to be able to articulate the business requirements to external providers is reinforced by the disparity between the results of the Cloud Industry Forum's survey of users and of channel companies supplying cloud-based solutions. While users ranked email, back up/disaster recovery, web hosting and storage as their highest focus areas, channel companies identified backup, storage and business intelligence as their top priorities. This suggest services from the IT channel community are likely to evolve from an area of competence rather than market demand.

In these circumstances, IT staff will need to be confident and knowledgeable enough to ensure their channel partners deliver a solution that matches what they require. Or find suppliers that can.

A positive approach to cloud computing could help IT make the wider shift towards being viewed as a strategic asset to the business rather than a cost centre. IT professionals will need to realise their core function is not running email or content management. They are not in the email game but a strategic part of the overall business.

Focus.com has outlined a number of ways in which IT staff can develop a positive attitude towards cloud computing, such as making the effort to learn as much as they can about the subject, experimenting with it and understanding how it can help the business and amplify their role within it. A good analogy Focus.com uses is that IT staff view themselves as a concierge providing the best experience for users within the organisation rather than as the landlord renting IT to them.

But to do that, they need to be able to look up from their screens and get their heads into the cloud.

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