Periodically in the information technology business, we get an idea that ‘changes everything’. Sometimes, like with the advent of the web, that hype is justified; other times, like with the commercial expert systems in the 1990s, not so. So where do we stand in terms of the cloud, and if it is here to stay, how will it impact not only training, but IT professionals themselves? Gary Flood ventures a forecast.

The cloud has become a handy catch-all term for a number of things such as Software as a Service (SaaS), virtualisation, the growth of open source and / or web-based technologies like Google and the general interest in tough times to outsource as much as possible to both save cost and concentrate on activities that might make you money in an unforgiving market.

Put all of that together - and while you're at it, add some storage, platform and network capacity as a service too (i.e. all hosted remotely) - and you have a situation in which there is almost no need for you to have any internal IT resource any more.

Patently, if we don't need IT departments any more, we don't need to train IT people. We may not need so many IT people either, presumably, or if there are any to be left, they'll only work for vendors. We may even, some say, not need any sort of training in technology full stop, as applications will be so simple and whizzy and will also be only used by kids who didn't grow up in a non-Facebook world... you get the picture.

We decided to step back from all this noise for a moment and try and get a debate going to see what the future status of training might be in the cloudy times we seem to be moving into.

True or false: The cloud means you no longer need any end-user application training

There does seem to be a recognition by all sides that in a few years, while you may need to schedule training for highly functional, specialised systems, most application training will disappear. This is partly down to a demographic shift as more so-say ‘digital natives’ enter the workforce.

‘Legal and financial people will probably always need training for more specialised apps - but for the majority of users, they just want to drive a car and aren't that bothered if it's a Volvo or a Peugeot,’ thinks Bjarne Rasmussen, CTO of international software supplier CA.

Joseph Brown, European General Manager for RightNow, agrees. ‘Application training will not go away for things like the new ERP system. But it may change for the sort of desktop applications most users will use - and they may not want any at all, as it will more likely be the Google apps they use on their own laptops anyway.’

Some people are convinced that users will change as part of the influence of the cloud. ‘One of the core issues is, I feel, the need for users to make a conceptual change from the notion of “applications” to one of delivering services constructed of business processes,’ says Martin Banks, journalist, commentator and analyst in the IT industry who now tracks all things cloud for IT news website BusinessCloud9.

‘I don’t see training requirements being geared to the concept of “using application X” in the future. Instead it will move to “providing service A”. What is more, there will also be a need for staff to think about the new services required as the business changes and develops. So there is an opportunity for end users to develop into “service creators”, with the attendant need for training that helps them develop such skills.’

Verdict: False. There is likely to be less of a need in IT training budgets for basic ‘how do I work my computer’ - but that is less to do with the cloud than with a changing workforce and basic skills.

True or false: The cloud will move the IT job market to the supplier side.

The majority view on this aspect is that the real job market going forward will only be for people who work directly for such suppliers. This view, however, is matched with healthy scepticism by a minority view that such talk is all moonshine and nothing much will change.

One to support the majority view is RightNow's Joseph Brown. ‘The cloud will have a radical effect on the IT organisation, as we will just no longer need so many people to bolt servers together, at least in most end-user organisations. Which is a negative, but the positive is that the IT roles that remain will become much more integrated into the business, so that for the training path there may well be more MBA than MSc going forward.’

But not everyone is so gung-ho about the potential change. ‘I don't buy this argument at all,’ says Alan Bellinger, Executive Consultant to the Institute of IT Training. ‘The impact of the cloud is on support staff, but it doesn't impact the need for C#, database, architects, security specialists and so on - and they don't come as MBAs! My argument is that vendor qualifications are more important than ever, as IT will sprout more and more specialisms; but the traditional sweet spot for both MS and Cisco quals is nowhere near as sweet as it once was, it has to be admitted.’

‘In a pure cloud world, sure, end users would consume services provided by vendors without any knowledge of the technology providing the service,’ says Mac Scott, Assistant Director of IT infrastructure consultancy Xantus. ‘In this model you could do away with the traditional IT function and focus on vendor management. But in reality I doubt this would not apply to all but the smallest start-ups.’

Chris Pirie, General Manager, Microsoft Learning Worldwide Sales & Marketing, agrees: ‘For very real issues we are still going to need real IT professionals around to solve.’ Or as Scott says, perhaps a bit more pungently, ‘Data centres don't get built by tooth fairies with wiffle dust.’

Similarly, Eric Denekamp, a Dutch-based IT trainer in Microsoft technology, does not see any major changes, though he thinks that ‘IT is changing for a lot of people and companies. I think it is a waste of time for a smaller company to invest in “all” knowledge, so it is wise to invest in a partnership with someone around the corner who knows you and your needs.’

Verdict: Unclear. It's still just too early for any certainty on the part of either the pro-cloud or less convinced of us to say if we will see radical downsizing in the IT headcounts of end-user organisations or any such major shift in the employment landscape.

True or false: The cloud means IT training for professionals needs to fundamentally change

The main thrust here is that the cloud is only a ‘geographical' term - that it just denotes that technology sits in another place than in a firm's basement but doesn't fundamentally change. Hugh Cox, Chief Innovation Officer at a UK firm called Rosslyn Analytics, for example, is adamant that cloud computing won't change the world of IT training. ‘The skills required to develop and manage IT, from hardware to software, remain the same both in-house and with the vendor. Cloud computing is merely a delivery model of a product.

‘With fewer apps to manage, the role of an end-user IT department could be perceived to be easier, but it’s not,’ concludes Cox. ‘IT departments have a greater challenge of integrating both on-premise and cloud applications while doing so under budget constraints and pressure from internal business users for actionable information delivered via the applications/systems.’

So the IT suppliers we contacted said they hadn't changed their certifications and saw no need to, either. For instance, Jens Ziemann, Training Manager for Central and Eastern Europe at Red Hat, says that ‘cloud requires the same IT skills as the rest of technology so we do not see any need to change the curriculum, as it already covers elements of cloud like virtualisation.’

‘Cloud isn't so very different or radical to what's gone before in IT that we need a completely different track or curriculum re-write,’ adds Microsoft's Pirie. ‘There are huge areas of technical complexity in working with the cloud from the IT professional's point of view around things like security, identity and access management, which need training to support.’

‘There’s still lots of techie training needed,’agrees Xantus’ Scott. ‘Also project management (PRINCE / MSP) and service management (ITIL) training isn’t going anywhere soon.’

CA's Rasmussen thinks we'll see not so much an IT contraction as something of a boom. ‘Through this shift towards cloud computing, businesses will require a set of specialised IT people with new, “killer” language skills - similar to the way the rise of the internet spawned demands for HTML and XML expertise - although the industry doesn’t yet know precisely what these skills will be.’

For Allan Pettman, UK Managing Director, Global Knowledge, there is real opportunity for IT professionals in all this. ‘Yes, there is a logic that says organisations who adopt cloud may need less personnel to be involved in the management and support of IT. But there’s also a certain logic that simply retorts that these people will need to invest in new skills to adapt and maintain their business value.

For example, network administrators who used to own the network now will need to be influencers and assume a role in advising their organisations what to put in the cloud, what to retain and why. There are additional opportunities for capable IT personnel as IT roles get closer to the business agenda.’

Microsoft’s Pirie agrees with this view: ‘The message for the IT administrator at least is that their jobs can't just be about keeping the boxes humming - they have to get much more strategic and involved in the way the business runs,’ he explains, and Martino Corbelli, Marketing Director of Star, adds: ‘Rather than managing the IT, the IT manager now has to manage people, SLAs, contracts and so on, so this will definitely require some upskilling and it will also require the IT manager to think more strategically.’

A case in point: Microsoft, the cloud and IT training

It's worthwhile looking at what Microsoft, as one of the major IT providers, is doing in response to the cloud, both from a technology and a training perspective.

‘It's all about three screens and the cloud,’ Pirie says, referring to the idea that IT will go to regular desktops, but also laptops (remote working) and mobile devices (mobile working). ‘So that's why we have developed Azure, our cloud version of Windows, which is not a whole new OS but an extension of the existing Windows.

“The Microsoft philosophy about the cloud is all based on the idea that it's got to be about software plus services. Some people say all you need is the thinnest client possible, a web connection and away you go - but turning away from what is often a lot of power at a cheap price, namely the local device, doesn't make sense to me. It's the blend of the two, the local device and all it can do, plus the cloud, that we see as crucial.’

For Pirie and his team, tasked with developing training for Azure, the key job roles are the developer and the IT admin person. For the developer, Pirie argues, the core product is the same in this model; they still start with .Net, then lay on SQL, then the user interface level using Visual Studio. It's at that point things start to go into different paths, he says, because ‘the presentation layer now offers a lot of choices, Windows, web or phone, so we have accommodated the software and the training to support that set of choices’.

What does he think, then, will happen to the IT role and IT training itself? ‘Some companies will go all the way to fully hosted cloud, others just won't - nonetheless, it's going to be a combination where the IT professional will be both needed and have many choices, job-wise. This is a great opportunity to finally flip the 80:20 break-fix maintenance cycle and have IT seen as delivering much greater value to the business.’

Verdict: True and False! True, there will be changes in the way IT is delivered. False, to the extent that the majority of technical training, industry and vendor certification becomes redundant.

Conclusion: What does the cloud mean to the IT training community?

‘When it comes to the cloud, a lot of companies say they are into it, but when you dig a bit, they don't really know what it means,’ says Gary Duffield, Chief Learning Architect at QA. ‘In some ways, away from all the talk about “services” or “platforms”, it's as simple as outsourcing a bit of your business IT and running it from a data centre in Dublin.’

‘I can see non-line business processing taking place in the cloud (HR, payroll, email, and so on) but I can’t see the FSA approving a UK institution running core banking or insurance applications in the public cloud any time soon,’ adds Xantus' Scott. ‘The cloud will be a strong force for change in IT. But it will augment, rather than replace, traditional IT.’

BusinessCloud9's Banks agrees: ‘My feeling is that some of the older qualifications will diminish in value to the business (and therefore to the individuals), to be replaced for a while by what I’d call “empirical judgement” - basically, an employer guessing whether someone is capable of doing a new type of job.

Over time, as some “understandable mistakes” are made in such appointments, new qualifications will start to emerge for the new job-types, such as (and these are pure guesses on my part) CSAA (Certified Service Aggregation Architect), CSCE (Certified Service Component Engineer), CSAE (Certified Service Availability Engineer) and so on.’

Could it be that the IT Training of 2012 will write about the very first such being launched? Stay tuned to see.

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