Will The Cloud kill my IT career before it even begins?
June 11, 2012 10:12 AM   Subscribe

IT-worker-in-training here. I've been reading doom & gloom articles about how Cloud-computing and virtualization will kill the market for IT professionals due to automation and economies of scale. Question for people in the IT professions: should I be scared?

I'm working on Cisco certs, finishing up an associates degree in IT, doing an internship, etc. I'm looking at sysadmin/network engineer types of jobs in the future.

It is my understanding that the ideas and technology behind the "Cloud" have been around for a long time, and are slowly becoming more mainstream. IT as a profession is not going to disappear tomorrow. However, I assume it will change, as always. What should I be prepared for?

I'm very nervous about this, (perhaps irrationally so) because, previous to this IT degree, I got an A.S. in computer-aided drafting. That profession collapsed pretty much in front of my eyes as engineers and architects took advantage of new tools and started doing their own CAD work. CAD jobs still exist, but a huge pool of out-of-work, seasoned CAD techs compete for them. I do not want to become instantly redundant again.

I am prepared for, even excited about, entering a turbulent industry where one must continually learn new skills to keep relevant. What I'm not prepared for is a depressing zero-sum game where I'm competing with 100,000 other IT folks for 10,000 jobs, and 90,000 of those people end up permanently shut out of the IT industry because of a massive industry-wide shift toward automation.
posted by UrbanEye to Work & Money (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The underlying concepts and expertise aren't going away soon: even cloud/virtualised environments are, for the most part, emulating standard hardware; the ongoing learning process consists of being able to apply standard practices while being aware of alternative approaches to slicing and dicing network infrastructure that are more efficient because the hardware is abstracted.
posted by holgate at 10:28 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I spend about 6 or 7 years working with a technology industry association in a city of 350,000 with a strong tech sector and a strong government sector. My main focus was research into HR, and I got to know a lot of CEO and hiring managers at local tech companies, and in government. I also helped a lot of job seekers looking for work, and was pretty successful in helping these people find meaningful, high-paid work.

The one group I could never find work for was sysadmins and people who strung cables and that sort of thing. Taking a look at the local school district job postings for this sort of work, the pay is about 30% less than what a dev is making.

I'm not really sure what you do, but if you can actually code (and I guess this depends on where you are located) and create things, you'll be able to find a job much more easily.

The last 5 years of the economic meltdown have erased any budgets for admin functions. If you are simply managing or administrating something, rather than adding value, you will be out of a job within 3 years.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:32 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Cisco certs are still going to be useful, because you still have to get the data from A to B, and that requires networking. If I were you, I'd bone up on ipv6, because anybody who understands that is going to have a guaranteed job for the next few years as companies get dragged kicking and screaming into the future.
posted by empath at 10:37 AM on June 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Your inexperience is a feature, not a bug. Many people in IT are stuck in the paradigm of monolithic, reliable systems with predictable performance characteristics talking to other monolithic, reliable systems over low-latency links. When that paradigm moves to the cloud, it fails. Amazon admits as much:
You need to think about is how to design your application for failure resilience. It's inevitable that EC2 instances will fail, and you need to plan for it. An instance failure isn't a problem if your application is designed to handle it.
There's good money to be made re-architecting legacy systems to be cloud-friendly. Read up on DevOps. Plan for failure. Embrace the Chaos Monkey.
posted by djb at 10:38 AM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't foresee cloud computing eliminating or even seriously reducing the need for sysadmins or network engineers. I do think their role will change, and some more advanced skills will be required, but the fact that you're thinking about this now (and that you're excited about continuing to learn new skills) suggests to me that you'll be riding the crest of this wave, not getting crushed under it.

I'm a professional software developer working on interactive web stuff. The company I work for hosts a lot of their sites on Amazon's cloud. The fact that it's running on a virtual machine rather than a server in a rack doesn't actually change that much. It's still, functionally, a Linux box that needs administration. We still deal with load balancers, system turning, package installation and upgrades, and all that stuff. Granted, something like Heroku's cloud doesn't have those requirements, but we're a long way away from that kind of hosting working for a large set of apps.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, even if smaller sites are able to abstract away the details of running a server, that server still has to exist somewhere, and somebody's got to run it. I can guarantee that Amazon employs a huge number of sysadmins and network engineers to keep their cloud running, and those people will only become more important as the cloud is used more heavily. In addition to that, big high-volume sites like Twitter or Facebook are going to need dedicated hardware and and people to run it for quite some time, not to even mention behemoths like Google.

If you want to expand your skillset in the direction that new growth is happening, I'd look into dev-ops. There's a lot of interesting work out there in the intersection between sysadmin/network engineering and automation. Take a look at tools like Chef and Puppet. Practice setting up automated deploys and server configuration. There will be a place for you if you develop those sorts of skills.
posted by duien at 10:41 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think cloud computing is something to worry about on its own. But the trend towards automation will definitely be something to keep in mind as systems continue to be easier to use. To be truly sucessfull in IT anymore, you need to understand what's behind the curtain of that easy interface, and also know how to automate processes to some degree:

- Powershell/batch/vbs scripting
- Remote deployment of software packages/operating systems (will often involve intimate OS knowledge and scripting)
- Central management/remote support
- Virtualization of systems and/or applications to reduce support overhead
- Mobile computing, VPN, Firewalls, and other internet related technologies

To a certain degree, there is a more of a trend towards hardware abstraction/virtualization and centralized management. Cloud computing takes this a little further but comes with its own set of challenges which are often factors that help managers decide whether to keep computing infrastructure in house or on the cloud. For a considerable amount of computing needs, cloud services are simply not up to the task (yet..). Think of it the same as terminal based computing...it fits certain tasks perfectly (eg. general computing) but is also prohibitively expensive for more involved tasks (workstation graphics computing).

To me the "IT Professional" paradigm is moving away more and more from the IT employee who is simply good with supporting hardware/software on business PCs and more towards the IT employee who is able to automate via scripting and solve problems via centralized management/remote support. The unfortunate side effect of this is yes, you can "do more with less" with this approach.

There's still a need for employees that can physically move hardware and replace parts. But that function has become so simplified compared to 10-15 years ago that you don't need to hire "IT Professionals" to carry it out as many of the once involved steps can now be automated. Those tasks have essentially become intern work.

So my suggestion to stay ahead of, or simply with the game:

- Look into learning more about SCCM/SCOM if you're already invested in supporting Microsoft technology
- Get very familiar with virtualization (PCs, server farms, ESX, Hyper-V, Citrix, etc)
- Invest more time into learning package automation/management/deployment if you're interested in this field
- Learn Powershell...it'll repay you 30 fold for the time spent...AutoIT or AutoHotKey, vbs, and simple batch as well
- Being familiar with *nix and all of the technologies paired with it is also a huge plus, as many companies rely heavily on *nix backends.
- Find a niche profession within the IT field that you find would be useful or think you'd tremendously enjoy and MASTER the heck out of it.
posted by samsara at 11:05 AM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

For this type of career concern, I recommend as many informational interviews with current, working, professional IT types as possible. Just call up the business, say you're a college student doing career research, ask for the IT supervisor. Ask them for 10 minutes of their time to help you with career research. Then meet in person and ask them what you asked us here.

A second recommendation would be to join an IT professional group that meets, in-person, once a month or so.

Both of these recommendations will help you in the crucial area of meeting people who are doing what you want to do. You can watch as they adapt, ask them how they're doing it, and be one of the top people in their mind as they look for new qualified job candidates.

I also wanted to throw out a recommendation for sole proprietorship. I live in a town of 15,000 people (swells to 40,000 during the work week) and I know of six small B2B IT businesses that are doing tons of work. They generally do not have to worry about keeping up with any particular technology, because the businesses they serve are generally 5-10 years behind the curve. But most of the guys I know do like to keep up, which is just extra credit. :-)
posted by circular at 11:30 AM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am an IT Professional.

I do not see the cloud "taking away" my job. At the very least Amazon is going to need to a staggering handful of engineers to keep expanding at the scale they are.

Personally, I think having some business savvy will go a long way in the future. Being able to have an understanding of what it actually takes to engineer a complete system AND manage projects from the businesses side of the house will be a WAY more valuable set of skills over the longest-term of your career as cloud computing will readily allow outsourcing IT engineering hands and feet overseas.

That being said, the cloud is additive.
posted by roboton666 at 1:39 PM on June 11, 2012

KokuRyu - The last 5 years of the economic meltdown have erased any budgets for admin functions. If you are simply managing or administrating something, rather than adding value, you will be out of a job within 3 years.

That's simply not true. The developers are creating products that are, shockingly, sometimes unstable, thus requiring people to administer the systems they create. Are you saying there is no value in having someone determine that mail to 50,000 users is being blocked by a dead firewall? Is there no value in architecting and deploying new infrastructure that the client wants and is paying for?

And no, cloud computing should not scare you. Your lack of experience should scare you.

The overwhelming majority of admins and managers I've worked with have all had degrees in the liberal arts, business, religion, and even a few math and astrophysics PhDs. None of them have any specific IT training.

EVERY single person we have hired who had 10,000 certifications that they got in the military or had an associates degree in computer administration has been an absolute dud. I'm not saying that's you. I only have a sample side in the 100-150 range.

Whether they are clear about it or not, what IT administration employers want are people who can think critically and solve problems creatively.

What appeals to you about IT admin work? Solving problems? Or adding users to shared drive ACLs and moving network storage around? Because the latter is incredibly boring, yet something that a lot of folks end up doing.

Getting back to cloud computing, our company has been developing a cloud computing division. Time will tell if it is successful.

So far discussions with our clients have gone like this. They tell us they want cloud computing. We give them a quote, which is usually much less than Google or Amazon. Once we start getting into the details, they usually abandon their desire for it. It is marginally less expensive than an on-site hosted model, but what NONE of them can stomach is the idea that their mail servers will be shared by other clients and won't physically be on site any more. Even more than that they can't deal with the idea that their administrators will be split between even more clients than usual.

If this is your dream, keep at it. Don't get discouraged. But get a job as soon as you can, even if it's answering phones or creating NT accounts.
posted by MonsieurBon at 5:09 PM on June 11, 2012

So I'm hiring, and I had to look at 300 unbelievably shitty resumes today, so I'm sorry if this is harsh. No...it's not fucking OFPS, dumbass.

"Cloud computing" is nothing more than the latest marketing term for "renting computational resources based on business need", and we as an industry have been doing it intensively since the 1950s. IBM originally built their entire business on it. Calling it something new and telling people it's "game changing" and "a new paradigm" is a way to give the people who can't adapt a convenient boogie-man to say "I'm unemployable not because I can't adapt to the demands of my industry, but because a magical new technology unfairly took my buggy-whip job away".

If you wanted a career that didn't involve a continuous evolution of yourself tracking an industry changing faster than any other in history, you deeply fucked up going into IT. Admittedly, there was a time where you could get a job at a fortune 50 company doing adds/moves/changes 37.5 hours a week from 22 till retirement, but those days are gone. You are either good, professional, adaptable and ambitious...or you aren't. If you're really the former, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. If you're "I have a cert, I can add users to an NT domain, they said I'd have a job", you are well and truly screwed.

What @MonsieurBon said...if you are adverse to adapting your skillset to an industry that literally changes focus every 4-5 years, you are in the wrong place. And the indignation of the people who felt that minimum effort should have resulted in maximum career have drained me of any sympathy.
posted by kjs3 at 8:15 PM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ug...let me follow up on that. If you're thinking that your ticket to the IT career motherload is by passing the "Windows 2008 Server Administration" cert, you will be screwed when the "Windows 2012 Server Administration" cert comes out. Certs are a treadmill where you or your employer gets to pay to prove you can get a job. If you can't break out and build a job around being good at the job, you'll spend your career chasing certs to get low-level cert-oriented jobs which are obsoleted when new certs come out. There is an army of "consultants" who live in this world, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone.
posted by kjs3 at 8:46 PM on June 11, 2012

Response by poster: Well, I seem to have screwed up in saying systems/network admin. I was trying to indicate that my interests (and what little experience I have) are in systems and networking, as opposed to application or website development. I didn't realize admin was such a dirty word. So, I guess I'm looking at systems/network architect types of jobs in the future?

As for certs, I'm getting a couple because I'm trying to get to the point where I can get interviews for the "low-level cert-oriented jobs". Foot-in-the-door stuff.

As I originally stated, I don't fear the pace of IT. I fear a structural shift occurring (there apparently isn't) that puts massive wage-pressure on people who are very good at what they do simply because there are far too many of them (there apparently aren't)
posted by UrbanEye at 3:31 AM on June 12, 2012

Response by poster: Also, kjs3, I'm not sure if I'm parsing your harsh statement correctly.

Should it be read as "No, [cloud computing] is not [killing the IT job-market]. Oh for Pete's sake, fucking dumbass"?

or is it "No, [cloud computing] is not fucking [acronym I'm not familiar with], dumbass."

Or am I totally off base here?
posted by UrbanEye at 3:38 AM on June 12, 2012

Yeah, network jobs are a little more secure. But that's mainly because working with Cisco equipment is like trying to have a conversation with a goldfish. That is to say it is incredibly un-fun and awkward.

However, you will have a long long path before you are architecting anything. All of our server infrastructure architects have 10-15 years experience supporting, fixing, and deploying such systems, and then 5-10 more years on top of that doing architecture work. On the network side, new hires seem to spend at least 5-7 years pulling cables on the server floor, fixing switch issues on site, and staying up for days at a time troubleshooting remote carrier issues on the other side of the world.

While the design work might seem easy, like "hey, they just use a MS-supplied spreadsheet that takes the number of users you have and tells you how many of each server to install with what specs," where the specialized knowledge comes in is when they have to plan how to move users/sites/domains/forests around without messing up what's already there. This comes from years of experience seeing things done the right way and the wrong way, or the right way with the wrong people or the wrong way with the right people telling you it's the wrong way but the client wants it done that way anyway.

It's that honed professional judgment that distinguishes a Junior Engineer from a Systems Architect.

When I was first starting out in the industry I mistakenly thought that having spent my summer and winters in college administering small offices or even being the final point of server/desktop escalation at a Fortune 500 company had prepared me to manage, say, a local school district's systems.

What I was missing then and have since developed are skills that aren't part of any cert cram book. Those are things like knowing how to figure out the impact to users of your changes, making backups of configs before you change something, documenting the things you design, knowing when to push back on a client/coworker/manager when what they are asking for is unrealistic, helping coworkers rise to challenges by supporting them, knowing how to troubleshoot systems that you aren't responsible for so you can prove to another group that the broken link/server/firewall is their responsibility, and being ready to step into new roles and responsibilities with no training or lose them to someone else who is hungrier than you.
posted by MonsieurBon at 10:44 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

@UrbanEye: wasn't calling you a dumbass. Sorry, I was being oblique with OPFS. I had just looked at a well "certified" resume for a networking position and noted that he didn't, apparently, know that the routing protocol is actually "OSPF". Those are the sorts of things you really should try and get right.

I fear a structural shift occurring (there apparently isn't) that puts massive wage-pressure on people who are very good at what they do simply because there are far too many of them (there apparently aren't)

That's fair. And you've read it correctly. There *is* a structural shift occurring. But there's *always* a structural shift occurring in IT. This is nothing compared to, say, the move from mainframe/minicomputers + terminals to PCs, the death of Netware or the change from bridged data networks to routed networks. A lot of very good people found themselves without a chair when the music stopped. But that's because they waited to long to get good at the things the industry now cared about.

The problem you're going to face is that there *are* way too many low skill, low experience, low wage IT drones competing for a foot in the door. The bottom is flooded with folks who have been convinced these certificate mills prepare them for a high paying career. Like I said...I got 300 resumes for a handful of slots so you better believe we'll be picky. What there are *way* too few of are technically adept and nimble, driven, customer and business focused people at every level.

So...advice. Get some certs so the HR gatekeeper can check that box. But ace your degree to show you have some general, adaptable skills. Most of all, do everything you can, every day, to *kill* at your internship. Be the guy they can count on. Never forget that your client/customer is not the technology, it's the people that use it, and make them happy you're around. Nothing will be more valuable to you to set yourself apart from the other folks than a reference to the effect "this guy came to work every day ready and able to do the job and he was great at it". We hire that guy.

P.S. - Since I'm ranting...there really should be an investigation of the mills that seemingly exist for the sole purpose of turning GI Bill money into a passing grade on an industry cert as quickly and as cheaply as possible with no intention of making a vet employable. There needs to be an investigation followed by some hangings.
posted by kjs3 at 10:59 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, I should get a good reference from the internship.

It's over now, partly because of conflicts with my paying job, and partly because the IT department is now in turmoil over potential outsourcing and other major changes. While I was there (there being a nonprofit with about 500 machines spread over 14 campuses, one being 300 miles away, and a 4 person IT staff) I devised an automated Windows 7 deployment solution. This involved some learning, since I had no experience with scripting, Windows Server, DNS, DHCP, any Windows deployment tools, Active Directory, configuring a physical server, configuring virtual machines, or creating a LAN, virtual or physical.

The sysadmin wanted me to figure most of this stuff out on my own. The Win7 deployment-specific stuff was new to him too, so he couldn't help me there even if he wanted to. After a few months (2 or 3 days a week) I had a lite-touch deployment process figured out. I could demonstrate it on my test network and on physical machines. I wrote documentation for the whole process. It works. They plan on using it in production if they ever get money again.

The project is highlighted in my cover letters.
posted by UrbanEye at 11:46 AM on June 12, 2012

And yet, Litetouch deployments are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to OS deployment. But now that you've gotten there, delve into ZTI and SCCM OSD if it has become an area of expertise that interests you. Keep your mind exploring each and every possibility. Develop workarounds to the challenges encountered, and leverage whatever resources your team can offer to come up with robust solutions. Engage your aptitude and master the art of google-fu. You're well on your way to becoming a valued IT professional....these are the things that will set you apart from others that have little experience but lots of "certs."
posted by samsara at 1:57 PM on June 12, 2012

UrbanEye: "What I'm not prepared for is a depressing zero-sum game where I'm competing with 100,000 other IT folks for 10,000 jobs, and 90,000 of those people end up permanently shut out of the IT industry because of a massive industry-wide shift toward automation."

Honestly, my theory on The Cloud owes a debt to Coase: it doesn't matter who owns the computer, the end workload is the same as long as transaction costs are zero. Either your employer is paying you to work in their crappy datacenter, or you work in Amazon's growing network of DCs. Or you find yourself in an entirely new job title that never sets foot in a DC.

Now, you might argue that economies of scale and standardization would cause more IT unemployment, but there's a fundamental opposite force to standardization: customization. Firms offering Wordpress or Drupal or whatever hosting are most profitable when each client can be shoehorned into the same thing. Plus it gets a little dicey when you try to court both Al-Jazera and the DoD as clients; they end up wanting isolated systems and half the advantage goes missing.

Frankly, the bigger question to me isn't whether or not The Cloud will kill your career, it's whether the big name vendors students pursue certs with will be around in ten years. The statement "They plan on using it in production if they ever get money again" should have you more concerned than cloud computing.
posted by pwnguin at 12:33 AM on June 15, 2012

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