Bob Flynn of Indiana University co-chairs an EDUCAUSE group dedicated to cloud computing.

Apr 23 2019

To Optimize Cloud Deployments, Close the Skills Gap

IT leaders prepare for cloud-reliant campuses by beefing up the expertise of IT staff.

To build an IT team that can handle the growing demand for cloud services, universities can outsource some of the expertise they’ll need. But to succeed long-term, they’ll have to develop cloud savvy in-house by training staff, university IT leaders say.

Every institution is wrestling with a cloud skills gap, whether they are cloud-first, just starting on the journey or somewhere in between, says Bob Flynn, Indiana University’s manager of cloud technology support.

In fact, members of the EDUCAUSE Cloud Computing Community Group spent a considerable portion of their March meeting sharing strategies on how to cultivate cloud skills internally

“We spent half the hour talking about training,” says Flynn, who co-chairs the group. “It’s a big issue. Everyone is trying to figure this out right now.” 

Colleges are embracing the cloud for its many benefits, including improved agility, security and manageability, and the potential for more cost-effective IT. But to reap those payoffs, IT staff must have the necessary skills to deploy and manage cloud services. They’re also learning new ways to approach familiar tasks, resources and procedures.

As one measure of the need, Liam Eagle, research manager of cloud, hosting and managed services at 451 Research, points to a 2017 report that noted 41 percent of organizations lacked the skills to properly manage cloud deployments. It’s not clear that much has improved. In a 2018 survey, Eagle says, 451 Research found that 42 percent of government and education institutions cited cloud expertise as one of their most pressing skills shortages, second only to information security.

There is some overlap between the two skills, Eagle notes, with many institutions coming up short in cloud security expertise.

“It is becoming more of a challenge because the demand for these resources — the access to talent — is increasing across the board faster than we can create those skills,” says Eagle.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how universities can overcome top cloud migration challenges. 

What’s at Stake in the Cloud Skills Gap on Campus

To optimize cloud deployments, colleges need a variety of proficiencies: building cloud-native applications, migrating applications to the cloud and optimizing cloud usage to save money, to name a few. Central IT organizations also must create governance policies, such as standard network configurations or security protocols, for server and storage resources in the cloud.

Indiana University, for example, houses nearly all its applications and data in its internal data center. But because faculty and researchers are driving cloud adoption on campus, Flynn says, IT staff are acquiring cloud skills and developing appropriate guidelines and controls.

The importance of those skills became evident a year ago, when a faculty member created an account in the public cloud that turned into an attack bot. The provider notified the university, and IT remediated the problem.

Cross-campus c­ollaboration helps IT peers solve problems together,  says Cornell University's   Sarah Christen.

Cross-campus c­ollaboration helps IT peers solve problems together, says Cornell University's Sarah Christen.

Cornell is a highly distributed IT organization, with 250 central employees and about 500 IT staffers in individual colleges and departments. Christen created the campuswide group so that everyone could collaborate, discuss issues (for example, how to refactor applications to the cloud) and create how-to documents, which they share over a wiki.

“We solve problems together rather than reinvent the wheel every time,” she says.

As for training, Cornell offered a 100-day online training that included hands-on projects.

Indiana University recently offered training to its cloud security working group (comprising staff in networking, security, operations and policy) on how to properly configure and manage workloads in Google Cloud Platform. Flynn plans to offer the same for AWS and Azure. 

Because classes involve only a small number of people, Flynn plans to obtain subscriptions to online training, and use a library model where people can check out licenses for three weeks at a time to get training in preparation for certification tests. If the university wants to provide hands-on training, they can pool the licenses to hold training sessions, he says.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read more about how universities use cloud solutions to improve network performance. 

Tips and Best Practices: Closing the Cloud Skills Gap

Successful cloud transformations first require a shift in mindset, away from the traditional IT inclination to lock things down and maintain control, says VMware’s Munro.

Campus users, including students, want to innovate and create on the latest technologies, and that includes cloud services. So IT staff must adapt and be flexible, while addressing privacy and security concerns, he says.


The percentage of IT leaders training current employees on new IT skills, with cloud being the top focus area

Source: Robert Half International, “The State of U.S. Tech Hiring,” December 2018

The bigger issue was that central IT staff didn’t have security controls in place for public cloud workloads. That’s about to change after the CIO issued an edict for central IT to develop controls across the three major public cloud providers: Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform

“Even if a school is not aggressively moving to the cloud, the security, networking and operations folks need to have cloud in their skill set to be of service to the university,” says Flynn. “When a faculty or researcher uses a university login to create a project in the cloud, it’s official university business, and we are responsible.”

Universities can hire experts, but to fully address the skills gap, they should train existing employees, says Richard Munro, VMware’s director of global cloud strategy.

Nobody can go out and recruit all the talent that is necessary to get to the cloud. They are not going to be able to afford it,” he says.

Sarah Christen, director of IT infrastructure at Cornell University, agrees. Cornell has created new positions, such as cloud DevOps engineers, and has made good hires. But with cloud skills in high demand and Cornell isolated in central New York state, she says, those strategies have their limits.

“It’s hard to hire from the outside,” Christen says.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how universities can benefit from cloud monitoring services.

Colleges Customize Cloud Skills Training for IT Staff

Every campus is unique, so leaders are training their teams in a variety of ways.

At the University of Notre Dame, IT leaders set a goal in 2014 to move 80 percent of services to the cloud. They accomplished that in three years by creating a cloud team and rotating IT employees in for six-month stretches.

That way, everyone gained experience on new methodologies, says Scott Kirner, the interim senior director for campus technology services.

Notre Dame provided two types of on-premises training to IT staff, which included security experts; application developers; and network, systems, storage and database engineers: a two-day training on basic cloud foundational skills and, for those who needed it, a week-long cloud architecture training course.

Cornell embarked on a cloud initiative four years ago in a move to modernize its IT infrastructure. It provided online training to central staff, but also created a campuswide peer education group that meets twice a month to discuss cloud strategies, says Christen.


The percentage of North American organizations that cite cloud computing as the most difficult area in which to find qualified talent

Source: Global Knowledge, “2018 IT Skills and Salary Report,” June 2018

It helps to have a manager to oversee cloud adoption, Flynn says. In his role at Indiana University, he coordinates cloud adoption, including negotiating contracts, coordinating training efforts and developing best practices.

“Dedicate somebody in a position like mine, whose job is to figure out the cloud and provide recommendations on how to handle it,” he says.

Institutions often supplement an increased training regimen with cloud-specific support solutions, such as cloud monitoring services. These systems — think dashboards and other tools that provide insight into the use and performance of cloud services — ultimately help to centralize and streamline monitoring. That makes it easier for staff at all skill levels to manage the cloud more effectively. 

Support IT Employee Development with Ongoing Cloud Training

Most employees are eager to acquire cloud expertise because it’s an opportunity to stay relevant, Kirner says. But there may always be staffers who resist change or view the cloud as a threat.

IT leaders can motivate these workers, he says, by telling them, for example, that while they may not manage a RAID array anymore, they can help the organization figure out which of the many cloud storage solutions are best suited for specific workloads

Ongoing training is critical, Christen says, because service providers introduce new services and features regularly. Cornell gives staff eight to 10 cloud workshops on campus every year, including a recent two-day workshop on containers, she says.

Realistically, of course, IT staff may not be able to learn every technical skill out there, so Munro recommends that teams focus on the problems their institution wants to solve and then get cloud skills in those specific areas.

To supplement training, IT leaders recommend that institutions take advantage of free resources from providers, increase collaboration among campus IT groups and consult peers for their best practices and strategies.

Photography by Chris Bucher

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