Cloud skills certification can add zeros to your pay cheque

Grab some letters to put after your name

As IT recruiters collectively bemoan the dearth of cloud professionals, the doom-and-gloom predictions that cloud services would result in the death of the IT department now seem nothing short of laughable.

The most recent research from industry body the Cloud Industry Forum suggests that cloud computing has achieved mainstream deployment in the UK, with 78 per cent of organisations adopting at least one cloud-based service.

Conducted in June 2014, the survey of 250 senior IT and business decision makers indicates 15 per cent growth since September 2013 and 62 per cent growth since 2010.

Large private enterprises show the highest rates of adoption at just over 80 per cent.

But as cloud comes of age and organisations scramble over one another to tie their colours to its mast, the excitement over the flexibility of cloud services is being tempered by concerns over the security of cloud data storage.

When it comes to recruiting, there is nothing like an inherent fear to drive demand for people with the requisite know-how. The result is a thriving market for certifications, as individuals desperately attempt to differentiate themselves from others in the job market and organisations try to remove some of the risk from the recruitment process.

“Cloud computing is becoming very much the norm,” says Anthony Sherick, managing director of recruitment website Technojobs, which attracts 20,000 visits each day.

"Demand for cloud skills over the last couple of years has grown by about 20 per cent as companies look to embrace a cloud computing strategy."

Terry Erdle, head of skills and certifications at trade association CompTIA, agrees. “Cloud is a very important piece of the whole technology milieu,” he says.

“Everyone is going to the cloud, yet very few people understand its technical nuances, particularly when it comes to a business-critical service.”

Rumblings about a massive shortage of cloud professionals are certainly not new. Back in 2012 a study by analyst IDC, commissioned by Microsoft, found that 1.7 million cloud computing jobs were unfilled across the globe, and predicted that by 2015 there would be 7 million unfilled vacancies.

The paper’s assertion that the IT workforce generally lacks the necessary training, certification and experience for the cloud should perhaps be taken with a tiny pinch of salt, given the vested interests of its sponsor.

Nonetheless, other studies back up its prognosis, including a report by hosting company Rackspace published last year. This warned that 48 per cent of businesses in the UK were hindered by a lack of cloud skills and two-thirds of them had no idea where to acquire them.

Where's the cream?

There is no denying the proliferation of cloud certifications, and the number seems to grow exponentially as the market matures. For IT managers looking to recruit the crème de la crème, understanding the relative benefits of one certification over another can be something of a minefield.

A company looking to spin up test and development servers will have a very different check list to one looking at alternative ways to deploy core critical applications.

Individuals struggling to decide which certification will fill the cloud-shaped hole in their CV may take some solace from an analysis of jobs posted on the Technojobs site.

It shows that the proportion of jobs for which cloud certifications are a prerequisite verges on the insignificant, largely due to supply and demand economics.

“I would expect this to evolve as demand and interest in cloud computing continues to grow and employers look for greater differentiation and skill sets in candidates,” Sherick says.

Analysis by US-based Foote Partners shows that shifts in IT roles have had a profound impact on the IT skills market. Employers are aggressively pursuing multi-talented workers with a mix of technology, domain, business, process and people skills. It writes:

It can also be a unique combination of pure tech skills: for example, cloud administrators who are adept at automating the configuration and operations in a cloud environment by combining a variety of different skill sets around systems administration, virtualization, storage and network administration. It’s not about just configuring and running a server. Or cloud developers who have mastered new sets of APIs, new frameworks, and non-relational databases like NoSQL to develop elastic and scalable apps in the cloud.

After seven years of sustained overall market value decline, Foote Partners’ latest IT Skills and Certifications Pay Index shows that in the US IT certifications are once again driving pay hikes.

Cloud is one of the areas leading that trend, alongside architecture, project management and IT security. VMware Certified Design Expert – Cloud and HP/Master ASE – Data Center and Cloud Architect V1 are among the certifications listed as gaining 10 per cent or more in market value on the previous quarter.

Some form of certification will undoubtedly tick a box for recruiters, offering them reassurance and third-party acknowledgement of the skill levels job seekers claim to possess.

NaviSite managing director Sean McAvan says recognised certifications such as VMware, VCP and Cisco CCNA provide the right mix of product specialisation and general IT knowledge.

For technical implementation and support staff, his company demands certifications in Cisco with a minimum of CCNA-level training, ideally at CCNP levels.

Engineers supporting Microsoft Exchange environments would need Expert-level knowledge of Microsoft Exchange 2010, ideally with experience of Exchange 2007 and/or Exchange 2013.

Triumph of experience

“The focus is on recent qualifications and consistent hands-on experience,” McAvan says.

“While qualifications are quite important, some candidates may not have applied this knowledge in recent years, so on paper they look great but they fall down when asked technical questions.

“Certifications don’t mean everything and will not replace practical experience. It is important to look for a balance of both in the candidate.”

Ross Spelman, a senior consultant and head of cloud assurance at information security company Espion, adds: “When trying to identify staff, it is important that the foundation principles of the cloud are in place."

Espion has tied its colours to the SANS and CompTIA certification streams. “In our opinion they are the best for a thorough understanding and give a very good overview of the core cloud computing principles,” says Spelman.

For more in-depth certification, meanwhile, Espion has opted for the CCSK+ (Certificate of Cloud Security Knowledge certification) from the Cloud Security Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation set up to promote best practice for security assurance in cloud computing.

All geek to me

However, Erdle is not alone in criticising some technical cloud certifications for failing to bridge the gap between business and IT departments.

He also believes vendor-specific certifications on their own are not enough to allow people to work across the range of different cloud environments.

Business frustration with techies who bring geek speak to the boardroom and can’t translate technical knowledge into business results have been a driving force behind its vendor-neutral certification, Cloud Essentials.

Developed in collaboration with cloud rivals such as Google, Amazon Web Services, IBM and Microsoft, Cloud Essentials sets out to demonstrate that an individual knows what cloud computing means from a business and technical perspective, as well as what is involved in moving to the cloud.

It is an approach that appears to be supported by research from IDC. In a report published in 2012, the analyst warned that cloud computing is a complex environment with a variety of enabling technologies:

Most organisations will need technical proficiency and even expert proficiency in a wide range of these technologies to be successful.

IT managers who are hiring for cloud-related jobs find that understanding the relationship between cloud computing and other activities, such as service management, business continuity, and even the business value of cloud, is as important as understanding the specific technologies being leveraged.

Companies get into trouble because security and compliance can be overlooked

“With cloud computing, users are getting closer to buying the business functionality they need without having to call the CIO,” Erdle adds.

“Procurement of cloud services is a great way for companies to get into trouble, because security and compliance can be overlooked.”

Almost a year ago, CompTIA launched Cloud+, a full professional certification which focuses on deployment, utilisation, security and compliance of cloud technologies. Security represents by far the biggest element – about 35 per cent – of the programme.

Nonetheless, even Erdle accepts the need for vendor-specific certification. “CompTIA is a very good baseline and then you can train people in a specific technology,” he says.

Most of the big players in the market have already developed cloud computing certification schemes and the list is growing. Deciding which to pursue depends on what your organisation wants from the cloud.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has devised its own education and certification programme delivered through accredited training partner QA Training. The programme is organised around different roles, including solutions architects, developers and sysops administrators.

“Mapping from one environmental construct into a modern construct is quite an involved process,” says Ian Massingham, technical evangelist at Amazon Web Services(AWS).

He said, “We introduced certification because customers want validation that the resources they use have a certain skill. For individuals, being recognised as a technical expert is really important.”

The advanced Architecting on AWS course is designed for individuals with experience in designing applications on the AWS platform. It covers how to incorporate data services, infrastructure configuration management and security on AWS.

“One of the challenges is people coming from a more traditional systems background. It’s about the breadth of the ecosystem and not just about buying a box. If you don’t have the awareness of the breadth of services, you will miss out on all the benefits,” says Massingham.

“It’s important to give customers a choice. We think our certification gives people a deep grounding but if customers want to source alternative training, we’re certainly not averse to that.”

In the frame

Ultimately, a solid strategic overview of cloud capabilities and in-depth technical knowledge of specific products is a killer combination, with the potential to command huge salaries.

For individuals looking to enhance their CVs with the most sought-after skills, having a clear view of your career objectives is an obvious starting point.

Employers want people who understand deployment and security. If you have your heart set on a specific industry, even a small amount of research will soon throw up details of any qualifications you may need to get a foot in the door.

SFIA (the Skills Framework for the Information Age), meanwhile, is an industry-wide framework to help organisations and individuals understand the skills requirements of a given role and a given level, and details qualifications associated with it.

“Some sort of benchmarking is very useful for organisations in that context,” says Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT.

Regardless of the specifics, most experts agree that there are certain boxes that any certification should tick. In particular an element of continuing professional development recognises that technology never stands still.

“If people take lifelong learning seriously, they are definitely the sort of people you want in your organisation,” says Thilthorpe.

Ultimately a certification that offers some form of future proofing can only be a good thing.

“It’s about good practice, doing today’s stuff well, and next practice, doing tomorrow’s stuff now,” says Thilthorpe.

If you are still scratching your head as to which certification track to pursue, bear in mind that certifications on their own will not necessarily cut the mustard. Relevant experience will certainly give you the edge, or may even be a crucial requirement.

“IT professionals need to gain cloud experience in the workplace to enhance their career opportunities,” says Sherick.

Thilthorpe adds: “The industry needs to recognise that certification is important because there’s a currency for these things. It’s not about ticking a box, it’s about outcomes.

“That’s the language we need to speak as a profession.” ®

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