On this sponsored episode of the podcast, Ben and Ryan chat with Drew Firment, chief cloud strategist at Pluralsight, about the state of cloud today. We cover the skills gap that leads to delays in implementation, the inertia around infrastructure at a lot of organizations, and the steps you can take to get (and prove) cloud literacy.
SPONSORED BY PLURALSIGHT
Early in the days of high-traffic web pages and apps, any engineer operating the infrastructure would have a server room where one or more machines served that app to the world. They named their servers lovingly, took pictures, and watched them grow. The servers were pets. But since the rise of public cloud and infrastructure as code, servers have become cattle—you have as many as you need at any given time and don’t feel personally attached to any given one. And as more and more organizations find their way to the cloud, more and more engineers need to figure out how to herd cattle instead of feed pets.
Gartner forecasts that around $500 billion will be spent worldwide on end user cloud computing during 2022. Firment says that’s only 25% of IT budgets today, but he expects it to grow to 65% by 2025.
Don’t doubt the power of your people. Gartner estimates that 50% of all cloud IT migration projects are delayed up to two years simply because of the lack of skills.
Pluralsight just published its State of the Cloud report. 75% of of all leaders want to build new products and services in the cloud, but only 8% of the technologists have the experience to actually work with cloud related tools.
Want to start earning your cloud certificates? Head over to Pluralsight.
Connect with Ben or Ryan on Twitter. Find Drew on LinkedIn.
[intro music plays]
Ben Popper Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my colleague and collaborator, Ryan Donovan. Hey, Ryan.
Ryan Donovan Hey, Ben. What's new?
BP Well you and I just had our first big IRL event in a long time. We were down in New York City for the Flow State Conference, and something that came up a lot as it usually does was cloud technology. We heard a lot about AWS and Azure and GCP. We had a lot of clients from that space who are users of Stack Overflow for Teams. And luckily today we get to learn a little bit more about that. We have a great guest today. Welcome to the show, Drew Firment, Chief Cloud Strategist at Pluralsight. Drew, welcome to the show.
Drew Firment Oh, it's great to be here, Ben. Thank you very much, Ryan. It's fun to be back in some real life events these days. It's pretty energizing.
BP Yeah, it was energizing I have to say. I met some startup people, I met some folks who had just recently come over from other countries to try working in New York, and first time I'd done that in two and a half years so it was cool.
DF Oh, fantastic.
BP So Drew, the first thing we always do on the podcast is to the degree that you're comfortable, why don't you date yourself a little and tell us how'd you get into this world of software and technology? What was the first time you touched a line of code or a computer, and what brought you to where you are today?
DF Oh wow, I am going to date myself. Back with Al Gore inventing the internet kind of stuff.
BP Nice, you worked on the pipes.
DF So actually my first computer I have very fond memories of. Timex Sinclair, little membrane based keyboard, you piggyback some memory on the back. So that was my seventh or eighth grade science fair project. Some lines of Basic to see my name scrolling across this little six inch black and white monitor. So I kind of got hooked there. I was like, “Wow, you can tell something else what to do versus my sisters telling me what to do all the time,” so that was very empowering. I moved over to a TRS-80 and started doing a little bit more, trying to code some games or different things like that. So I really just kind of became pretty comfortable with the idea of computers early on. My mom had her own business and I tried to do some bookkeeping on it and things like that, sort of the early days of spreadsheets. And I didn't really think too much about it to be honest with you. Going into high school being a young boy, I don't think many of us think too much to be honest with you. So it wasn't until I was in college that I was like, “Hey this is something that I know pretty well and I could probably make a career out of it.” And I became a lab manager at the local student computing lab and was helping other students out. I was actually an Apple Student Representative for the campus, so I was a big into Mac.
BP Nice. What generation of Mac was that? What Apple products were you bringing to students at the time?
DF Oh, man. Well back in the day it was the Mac Classic that kind of started off the whole thing and being able to carry that thing around by the handle.
BP The briefcase computer. Love it.
DF I kind of look at the Macs probably like I do at cloud computing, to be honest with you. Because when folks came into the computer lab looking to write papers, they had the choice of going to a Windows system that was like, “Hit F1.” It wasn't even Windows. It was just sort of the early Microsoft, “Hit F1 for this, F2 for that,” kind of stuff to get to Word. Or there was the Mac interface. And the goal wasn't to learn how to use a computer, the goal was to write a paper. So I would generally move people over to using the Mac, and I think that there's a lot to be said around that and cloud computing. I mean, the goal isn't cloud computing. The goal is to drive outcomes, whether it's your individual outcomes or business outcomes and that certainly makes things a lot easier.
BP Very cool.
DF Yeah, I made a career of it. I got into actually systems engineering at a satellite engineering company. I did some pretty cool things there with Hughes Aircraft Company. I got really familiar with Unix, fell in love with Unix to be honest with you. There's so many things that I learned as part of that stint, and joined a startup called Capital One back in the day. They just spun off from a bank called Cignet and I just sort of worked my way through the technology stack and into cloud computing.
BP I have so many questions I want to ask, like did you ever work on the Spruce Goose? Was that part of your time at Hughes?
DF You know what? There was a huge aircraft. That was definitely an interesting place. But what was so fascinating in those days is we were really solving the same problems that we're trying to solve today. In the case of Hughes Aircraft Company, you had all these different satellites that were providing a massive amount of data, no different than IOT devices. So the real question was, how do you ingest that data so you have high speed networks that you're looking to do that? Now we have edge devices and 5G or whatever. And then how do you store those? So mass storage, tape libraries, and storage management, and now you have a lot of the distributed storage. How do you access that? I mean, now we're using things like NoSQL and a whole bunch of other very, very fast ways to be able to get to that data. And ultimately then how do you display that data? In our case, it was scientists or military personnel that were using that satellite data to actually make some really important decisions. Same thing today, right? All of that data, ultimately you want to be able to use it for outcomes. So the problem space hasn't changed, but boy has the solution space really evolved, which to me, some of the most interesting things that are going on these days are related to cloud computing.
RD So let's talk about the state of cloud computing today. Cloud computing has been around for a decade now, at least. Where is the space today?
DF Well, I guess it's still running into the same problems interestingly enough. I thought we would be a lot further along, to be honest with you. So there is a little bit of frustration I have, it's kind of captain obvious in some ways. But I think with most things in enterprises, inertia really kind of has a stranglehold on many organizations, and there's a lot of ways that we've been doing things for a very long time that becomes ingrained in culture or whatever it is that you want to call it, but especially in IT where I brought up the fact that I worked in Unix. Well, this whole idea of pets versus cattle. I mean, in Unix I named everything. I was so proud of the servers that I named and the naming convention that I had for the domains. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever to be able to own a set of servers and in a domain and organize them and take care of them and feed them and watch them grow and have my pictures of them up on the queue behind me with where all my pets were. It was the greatest thing ever. But you identify with those platforms or those technologies, even DevOps platforms where people very much associate their identity as individuals within an organization with these technologies. All of a sudden you're coming along and you're saying, “Hey, none of that matters. It's as a service now. What matters is how you put those pieces and parts together to deliver outcomes.” Which is why you've seen startups just sort of crush the space because they don't give a crap about the technology per se. They're really focused on leveraging the technology to build something. As a matter of fact, I left Capital One after 20 years and I joined a startup called A Cloud Guru. It was the first serverless startup. We scaled the first 300,000 customers with zero compute cost using serverless. It was the very first serverless startup. Now, did the founder out of the gate say, “Oh, I'm going to become the first serverless startup because that's a great talking point?” No. Founder Sam was more interested in, “Hey, how do I get this idea to market as quickly as possible and with little cost as possible so I have a longer runway to deliver value to my customers?” So that mentality you're seeing and I'm assuming Ben and Ryan, you're probably seeing that when you talk to the startup world with cloud computing, a little bit more friction when it comes to enterprises. You have a little bit more change management to do, especially at the leadership ranks where it's very unsettling to see as a service come in and just sort of disrupt everything that they've been working on for 5, 10, 15, 20 years, to be honest with you.
BP Right. I love the perspective you have on it there, which is that startups don't have some of the historical baggage and so they feel free to experiment with some of the more cutting edge cloud stuff and then can proof that out to a point where then it becomes possible to say to other people, “You can get to quite interesting scale here, maybe this is valuable for enterprise adoption.” What are some other good examples in your mind of folks who, over the last five years, have taken the interesting opportunities in cloud and run with them, and now are kind of showing us the way, not just as you point out, the basic lift and shift which companies know they have to do but is going to take a while, but the stuff that is really, to your point, moving the industry forward?
DF I mean, I'll just kind of go back to a little bit of where I came from with Capital One. They're a little bit of the darling of the enterprises and really a beacon out there. And I really do think that they did things the right way, and that's not to say it was easy. One, early on they really started at the top down and said, “This is not a technology transformation. This is a business transformation.” So at this point there's like $500 billion being spent worldwide on end user cloud computing surfaces, right? It still only represents about 25% of overall IT budgets, but it's supposed to grow to about 65% of IT budgets by the time we get to 2025. So cloud is about to kind of hit that inflection point, cross the chasm, everybody's going there. There's a lot more money being spent. But ultimately is it being spent for the right reasons? This isn't like spending on cloud for you want infrastructure as code, or spending on cloud to save costs for your data centers. This is, you should be spending on cloud because you want to drive speed to market innovation for your customers. So they were really focused on cloud computing as a transition to this new operating model, so that was one. Then they were very methodical about how they went about doing it. So I spent some time, I was actually Director of Engineering for Cloud and Operations, and so I actually own third level support for our cloud engineering efforts at Capital One, which meant I felt the pain firsthand when people were spelling AWS WTF. And it was very painful when you get going. If people aren't picking up what you're throwing down, there's a lot of friction in that process. And I actually earned a patent at Capital One measuring our cloud adoption and maturity. I used APIs to gather the data and be able to visually display to see how much we were migrating, how well we were migrating in terms of a well architected framework, and then the cost structure of it. And all that did was show that we were getting our ass kicked to be honest with you. We were spending a lot of money just like these organizations are doing now, but we weren't really getting the ROI from it. It was really a slow process, and I learned then what most organizations are learning now, which is that it had nothing to do with technology– it's all about people. So Gardner estimates that worldwide, 50% of all cloud IT migration projects are delayed up to two years simply because of the lack of skills. So if you're spending all this money, people want their money back in terms of an ROI perspective. Well, who's going to do the work? So I realized that early on, especially the third level support became a very easy way for that problem to manifest itself and I granted folks sincerity at Capital One. We have some great, really, really smart folks, a hell of a lot smarter than I am. You just have to unleash their greatness and grant sincerity that they're trying to learn. But you have to provide them the little bit more of a strategic investment and approach to how you're going about doing that. It's not about throwing links at people. Culture is about creating sustainable learning communities. It's about creating a language. It's about creating artifacts associated with that. So I ended up pivoting to Dean of Cloud Computing at Capital One and drove a wide scale talent transformation. I learned a lot from that and have a lot of scars from that. But the goal was to accelerate people through that trough of despair that you're inevitably going to run into. So long story short, they had a massive talent transformation in terms of unleashing the greatness of the individuals and kind of led the way. And this past year, Capital One shut down its last private data center. They're 100% in the public cloud. So they don't have a bunch of admins, system storage admins, security admins, database admins, that are running around in data centers like I did for years doing that undifferentiated heavy lifting. They're really focused on more customer value and using those levels of abstraction that cloud services provide to deliver value.
BP I liked a few of the things you mentioned there, Drew. They kind of relate back to some of the ways we've been trying to understand Stack Overflow for Teams. And one of the things we talk about is communities of practice and figuring out a way for folks internally to be able to teach each other. And like you mentioned, you can't just drop somebody a link and say, “Go figure this out.” It’s much better to understand who the subject matter expert is within your organization to be able to find what they tried and failed and learned from, and then hopefully get to reuse that knowledge without taking up too much of their time. So dean makes a lot of sense in that context. You need a learning community within your organization.
DF Yeah, you’ve got to connect skills to outcomes and it's all about people. In the State of the Cloud that Pluralsight just published, it’s showing that 75% of all leaders are wanting to build new products and services in the cloud. Well, I'm kind of wondering what's the deal with the other 25%, to be honest with you. But only 8% of the technologists have what we would consider extensive experience in terms of the survey results to actually work with cloud related tools. So it's no wonder you have these two years of delays going on, because that's a pretty big gap. And again, you have to create communities of practice, and this concept of culture I think is very powerful to be able to drive a sustainable transition.
RD I wonder how many of these two year delays are because somebody's like, “Alright, we need to get to the cloud. Figure it out, engineering team.” And I wonder if you think there's a more sort of intentional way people can approach that instead of just signing up for AWS and then figuring out how to get there.
DF Yeah, 100%. That's a great question, Ryan. I would agree wholeheartedly that that's exactly what I'm seeing. It's not as necessarily strategic as I would hope to see it. Generally when I work with organizations, I classify their approach in three buckets– tactical, strategic, and transformational. And at some level you have to kind of do the crawl before you walk and run. So that's understanding when you first are starting off and innovating and really kind of thinking about things, it's going to feel a little bit more tactical, to be honest with you. I will say that there's enough folks that have earned the scars of early cloud adoption to accelerate pretty quickly through that tactical stage and there's enough hardened patterns right now you should be leveraging. So in general, I do think at the top of the house there's generally a pretty clear, “Why are we doing this and where are we going?” I mean, you go to CIO Magazine and everybody's talking about the why of digital transformation and where are we going as cloud. Then it usually comes down to a program team that's being chartered, and being said, “Well, go figure out how to do this.” And then they're like, “Well, how the hell are we going to do this?” So that's sort of the next layer down, and that's where I spend a lot of my time– how the hell are we going to do this? So when you think about cloud it's not just the technology. It's security, the compliance, the best practices, the architecture, the consumption model for the developers, the tools. All those sorts of things that you need to be able to pull together to create this tip of the spear. So that's the first ‘do not pass go and collect $200’ without this concept of a cloud center of excellence.
RD And I think a lot of that is that it is just easier on a single server. It's hard to move away from that.
DF Yeah. I mean, you really need to establish this program layer, and they're also responsible for figuring out, because they're being asked every day, “Well, are we there yet?” So they have to provide some level of measurement and return on that ROI. But I think that that's where the next step comes in, which is, who the hell is going to do the work? And you get in this echo chamber of these experts within the ivory tower of a cloud center of excellence, and you have to be able to transition a cloud center of excellence to a cloud center of enablement. Ultimately, that group needs to become the dumbest organization in the enterprise and move from the 50 people that get it to 5,000 people that get it, and ultimately curate from what they're doing versus kind of dictating how to do it. So that takes a lot of thought within the enterprise level to think about it a little bit more programmatically. We're seeing more and more organizations do that. Most often though they're kind of disconnecting the skills from the technology program, and that's really an antipattern. As part of building your cloud program office, you really need to integrate the concept of skills development within it, because ultimately you're going to be learning AWS out of the box, but you also want to learn how to apply AWS to your business problem. So it becomes a little bit more integrated versus just sort of outsourcing it to an HR department that cares more about LMS integration or reporting on number of hours trained. That's not the goal. The goal is to be able to operate in this new paradigm.
BP Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is you do at Pluralsight, and for folks who are listening, whether they're individuals who need to work on a cloud transition project or want to bone up on some new skills, or they’re organizations like you said, who are struggling with some of this. What is it you do at Pluralsight and in what ways can folks learn from your organization what opportunities are available for them to upscale on the cloud side?
DF As you can tell, I have a little bit of passion around this topic, and that carries over from my prior work at Capital One where I really felt that individuals that were part of our data center and ‘legacy’ technology stacks, they have the talent. It's just being able to provide them the bridge to get there. So I wish I had spent more time at Capital One migrating talent to the cloud as we were migrating applications to the cloud. I joined A Cloud Guru in the early stages and that was our mission– to teach the world to cloud. We want to democratize education and make cloud computing and the concepts of cloud computing really a commodity so that everybody can be able to contribute, whether it's a startup or an enterprise or your own idea, whatever it happens to be. We just knew that that's really where things were going, and the more people that knew cloud, the more opportunities individuals would have to be able to contribute and probably level up their own career and their own opportunities along the way. So A Cloud Guru’s on demand cloud based training does everything from certifications to hands on experiential learning to deep dives on all the different cloud services, Azure and GCP and AWS, and even goes into cloud adjacent stuff, Kubernetes and then things like Python, a whole bunch of really cool instructors and courses to be able to really guide you through there. And we have a pretty strong cloud community of cloud gurus that are consuming those courses as well. The Pluralsight acquisition is pretty exciting. So Pluralsight is a much broader set of digital transformation courses, so well beyond cloud. So if you almost look like a T-shaped individual– you’ve probably heard about how developers are looking to be T-shaped, with broad technology skills at the top, horizontally from left to right, and then go into some depth in a particular topic like cloud. Pluralsight has that really broad technology training, on demand training. They actually have instructor-led training, they have advisory services. It’s a much larger organization, and A Cloud Guru is being integrated to provide the depth on cloud. So our goal is really to be able to provide individuals with the right training to be able to improve their skills, to help with not only achieving outcomes in organizations, but people want better careers, they want better pay, and skills is a great way to do that. So our goal is to make it very clear to them and very efficient that, “Hey, here's some of the skills that are valuable. Here's how you get those skills. Here's the fast pass to get those skills. Here's some ways to get some credentials or certifications so you have some authenticity and credibility and validation when you go in and talk to folks.” And more importantly the labs, the hands on sandbox environments, because certs by themselves are just certs. We'll talk about maybe this idea of cloud literacy– like I know the language. But cloud fluency– being able to operate in that language and build something, now you're cooking with gas. That's the goal. And that's our goal, really to democratize skills, development, make it accessible, help organizations get to the next level. And certainly it's all about individuals putting in the work and the time to make it happen.
RD So if somebody is staring down a big cloud transformation project, what do they need to learn first?
DF Yeah, I think I'm going to just talk a little bit about cloud literacy. There is a paradigm shift that is going on, and interestingly enough, we found in our State of Cloud report that it takes about three to six months longer to learn cloud than other legacy technologies. And so if you kind of double click on that, “Well, why?” It's a paradigm shift. I mean, people talk about this mindset shift and different ways of thinking. Cloud is different. This concept of infrastructure as code, I'm just literally coding my server in there, I'm coding my security, I'm coding my compliance in there in Terraform or Cloud Formation or whatever, and it's ephemeral. It’s like a light switch, you know? I can just turn it off when I'm not using it and then turn it back on when I need it. That's how it should be, not just from a cost perspective, but it's infrastructure as code. You want to go ahead and put it in your Git repo and be able to leverage it later and use the right tools for change management to be able to update that and redeploy it. It's a different way of thinking and it requires developers to become more systems oriented, which is why you hear more emphasis on solution architects that understand a little bit more of the holistic approach in terms of developer and operations, in some cases security as well. So it's kind of like the amalgamation of DevSecOps which is happening these days. But the very first starting point is this concept I would say of cloud literacy. I'll give you an example. When I was at Capital One, we had three applications that we selected to move into the cloud when we first started. We had a few war rooms set up with full stack teams in there, and everybody was working to move those applications from where they were to the cloud and trying to do it in a cloud native way. We were all figuring that out at the time. Well if we said in that room, “Oh look, we need to spin up a VPC with an IGW with EC2 and EBS and we'll front end it with an ELB and use RDS”
BP You lost me.
DF Well at the end of the day if you didn't know what I said, we don't need translators. That's just creating friction. We need people that can speak cloud. And really all I asked for was, “Hey, I just need a private data center with a server and storage and database.” That's pretty much it. So there's just this language barrier that exists. I mean, AWS doesn't make it easier with their naming convention, but at the end of the day, there is a language that is spoken there. So the very, very, very first step is to be able to go in and understand that language. It's like any other culture– if you want to participate, if you want a seat at the table, if you want to order a beer when you're at Oktoberfest in Germany, “Ein bier, bitte,” right? That literacy. Fluency is actually your ability to get the beer and be able to interact in that language. So people can say all they want about certifications, but these cloud certifications do have some inherent value to them in the marketplace. They're not the easiest to get so they do have a little bit of a litmus test and value. I think the cloud providers are doing a very good job with the certifications. The AWS cloud practitioner certification is like the beginning one for AWS. It's almost like the GED of cloud. That is a great starting point for anybody just to go in and spend about a month, just a few hours a week, kind of going through the course, use a lab to kind of break through the console to actually experience, “Oh, I'm going to build a website on S3. Oh hey, I did that in 10 minutes. Wow, that's pretty interesting.” And so you get a little taste of it and then you have a little bit of that value. That's the starting point. Ideally, you want to go to the solutions architect, the associate level certifications. That's like the Liberal Arts degree of cloud computing. That's like understanding enough liberal arts about the sciences, the religion, the humanities. That's the same way of the liberal arts of the compute, the storage, the network of cloud computing, with the goal that once you get that certification– Ben and Ryan, I would consider you an expert once you got that associate level certification. Now there's a lot of people on the phone that are calling BS on me when I say that, but here's the thing. An expert is when you know how much you don't know. That's the goal of getting that associate level certification in cloud. Because right now you have too many hazards out there of people that think they know more than they know when it comes to cloud. And not only are they a hazard to themselves, but ultimately their team and their customers. When you get that associate level certification, just like a liberal arts degree, I would consider you woke on the cloud. I mean, now you have that level of expertise where you can consume the thousand changes that are going on on a yearly basis because you have that context or that framework to consume the content. So that's really I would say the key way to really get your foot in the door with that. Get the basic certification and then go and build something. Build a resume out there on the cloud, or go build some fun little project and experiment. And that's a great way to get started.
RD I'm Ryan Donovan. I edit the blog here at Stack Overflow. If you want to check out the blog, it's stackoverflow.blog. And if you want to find me on Twitter, I'm @RThorDonovan.
DF I'm Drew Firment. I'm Chief Cloud Strategist at Pluralsight. You can find me on Twitter @DrewFirment or on LinkedIn. You can also hit us up at pluralsight.com, which is your cloud guru headquarters. And thank you very much, Ryan and Ben, for allowing me to join the community today. I appreciate it.
[outro music plays]