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Preparing Government Employees for Cloud

3D render inside the supercomputer, the concept of computing, the motherboard spike, bright flashes against the background of the supercomputer in a blur

While cloud environments have plenty of moving parts — and hybrid ones even more so — government technology leaders must focus on an element with even greater numbers: their workforce.

While cloud environments have plenty of moving parts — and hybrid ones even more so — government technology leaders must focus on an element with even greater numbers: their workforce.

Government leaders “should view getting employees ready for the cloud as a critical part of the solution,” says Center for Digital Government (CDG) Senior Fellow Deborah Snyder, who previously served as chief information security officer (CISO) for the state of New York.

Doing so involves a combination of technical and non-technical considerations. Among the key strategies:

Assess in-house skills. The good news is that many of the technical skills required to manage on-premises systems — networking, database skills and systems administration among them — also apply to managing cloud and hybrid cloud environments.

“The way you do it is different in the cloud, but [the skills] are still out there,” says CDG Senior Fellow William (Bill) Rials, who is also an IT professor at Tulane University. “The essential skill gap is expertise in different cloud platforms.”

Identify training needs. Building cloud-specific expertise requires a combination of general knowledge and skills specific to a particular cloud service provider.

For example, creating a virtual server may require general skills in scripting, followed by more detailed training for the specific scripting language, parameters and requirements of each cloud provider.

“The syntax can vary with each service provider,” Rials says.

Cloud providers — and third-party trainers — offer training and certifications in their specific methodologies. At the same time, government IT leaders also need to focus on more holistically broadening the skillsets of their employees to support a wider range of responsibilities.

Rials says these two types of training can be divided conceptually into the “how” and the “why”— with provider-specific details serving as the “how” and the broader concepts driving the “why.”

“It’s tough with a finite number of resources, but you have to do both,” he says. “Then when you’re turning the knobs, you’re doing it with purpose for the overall enterprise.”

Break down silos. A key challenge is that cloud requires holistic skillsets that were once siloed in different job titles or parts of an enterprise IT organization.

For example, scripting and application programming interfaces (APIs) were once largely the domain of application developers, not the networking team. “With cloud, it all merges together,” Rials says. Network administrators “don’t have to be full-coders, but they do need to increase their coding and scripting skills,” he says.

New development methodologies like Agile and DevOps can help support this changed mindset, as they break down barriers between applications and infrastructure staff to help rapidly develop and deploy cloud solutions.

Promote cloud literacy beyond IT. Along with training IT staff, it’s vital that “cloud literacy” is promoted throughout government agencies and organizations, according to Rials.

This may start with the leadership of business units, who need to learn about cloud’s potential and constraints to develop realistic proposals that align with their own priorities. “They need to have some level of cloud fluency to drive what the IT solutions will be,” Rials says.

At the same time, IT leaders must identify employees across all lines of business who will be working with new cloud applications, according to Snyder. “That drives who needs to be trained on cloud solutions and what specific training they’ll need,” she says.

Emphasize security training and awareness. Cloud security remains one of the biggest skill gaps within traditional IT organizations, Rials argues, pointing to research that almost all cloud security breaches can be traced to mistakes on the part of customers. “Cloud makes it easy to stand up the systems, but cloud security is different — there’s a whole different mindset and thought process, and that’s a skills gap that needs to be bridged.”

Key among those new skills is “using a risk-based mindset” to determine security controls depending on the sensitivity of different discrete sets of data regardless of where they reside, according to Snyder. Security staff will also need training to respond to security threats and breaches in new ways. And beyond the IT department, all employees should receive training on cloud usage policy, Snyder adds.

Leverage external skills. The complexity of hybrid environments can tax even the largest IT organizations. That’s why it’s important to tap external partners as needed, including multiservice cloud providers and integrators, according to Rials.

Doing so “frees you up to run the functions of government vs. what knob to turn for three or four different service providers,” he says.

Address staff concerns. CIOs and other technology leaders must proactively address more personal concerns that often arise among IT staff. These tend to fall into two main buckets — fear of losing jobs due to cloud migration and resistance to learning new skills. Neither should be surprises to veteran technology leaders, according to CDG Vice President Teri Takai.

Both “were ongoing issues with technology even before the cloud,” she says. “It’s a very delicate dance a CIO plays whenever they move to newer technologies.”

It’s important to communicate to employees that cloud services and the automation they often bring with them can free up in-house IT staff to focus on higher-value priorities, rather than “flipping switch A or B,” as CDG Senior Fellow Brenda Decker puts it.

“We want to make you a knowledge worker,” she says. “Your message is that we’re going to become a more efficient organization vs. one with switch flippers, for lack of a better term.”

While IT leaders must consider employment policy, union contracts and other legal ramifications, they should also take a more personal approach. Rials differentiates between what he calls “vanguard” and “traditional” employees, urging different strategies for each group. While vanguard employees are eager to implement new tools and learn new skills, more traditional employees may resist change. That’s why it’s important to support them by stressing their role in building systems and processes to date and the importance of their help in shaping new ones.

“They want to know what they’re doing is meaningful and has purpose, and we don’t want to go into this new world without their expertise and it cannot be a success without them,” Rials says. You flip the script, and they see the purpose in it.”