I’ve gone on record saying that whilst the cloud won’t kill the IT admin there is a very real (and highly likely) possibility that the skills required to be a general IT administrator will change significantly over the next decade. Realistically this is no different from any other 10 year span in technology as you’d struggle to find many skills that were as relevant today as they were 10 years ago. Still the cloud does represent some fairly unique paradigm shifts and challenges to regular IT admins, some of which will require significant investment in re-skilling in order to stay relevant in a cloud augmented future.
The most important skill that IT admins will need to develop is their skills in programming. Now most IT admins have some level of experience with this already, usually with automation scripts based in VBScript, PowerShell or even (shudder) batch. Whilst these provide some of the necessary foundations for working in a cloud future they’re not the greatest for developing (or customizing) production level programs that will be used on a daily basis. The best option then is to learn some kind of formal programming language, preferably one that has reference libraries for all cloud platforms. My personal bias would be towards C# (and should be yours if your platform is Microsoft) as it’s a great language and you get the world’s best development environment to work in: Visual Studio.
IT admins should also look to gaining a deep understanding of virtualization concepts, principles and implementations as these are what underpins nearly all cloud services today. Failing to understand these concepts means that you won’t be able to take advantage of many of the benefits that a cloud platform can provide as they function very differently to the traditional 3 tier application model.
The best way to explain this is to use Microsoft’s Azure platform as an example. Whilst you can still get the 3 tier paradigm working in the Azure environment (using a Web Role, Worker Role and SQL Azure) this negates the benefits of using things like Azure Table Storage, Blob Storage and Azure Cache. The difference comes down to having to manually scale an application like you would do normally instead of enabling the application to scale itself in response to demand. In essence there’s another level of autonomy you take advantage of, one that makes capacity planning a thing of the past¹.
It’s also worth your time to develop a lot of product knowledge in the area of cloud services. As I mentioned in my previous blog cloud services are extremely good at some things and wildly inappropriate for others. However in my experience most cloud initiatives attempt to be too ambitious, looking to migrate as many services into the cloud as possible whether there are benefits to be had or not. It’s your job then to advise management as to where cloud services will be most appropriate and you can’t do this without a deep knowledge of the products on offer. A good rule of thumb is that cloud services are great at replacing commodity services (email, ERP, CRM etc.) but aren’t so great at replacing custom systems or commodity systems that have had heavy modifications to them. Still it’s worth researching the options out there to ensure you know how the cloud provider’s capabilities match up with your requirements, hopefully prior to attempting to implement them.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and realistically your strategy will have to be custom made to your company and your potential career path. However I do believe that investing in the skills I mentioned above will give you a good footing for transition from just a regular IT admin to a cloud admin. For me I find it exciting as whilst I don’t believe the cloud will overtake anything and everything in the corporate IT environment it will provide us with some amazing new capabilities.
¹Well technically it just moves the problem from you to the cloud service provider. There’s still some capacity planning to be done on your end although it comes down financial rather than computational, so that’s usually left to the finance department of your organisation. They’re traditionally much better at financial planning than IT admins are at capacity planning.