Even before the emergence of a global pandemic that disrupted and catalysed modern workplace IT, IT professionals were under pressure. In a few years, many have learned to deliver more new technologies and advanced services than perhaps in the previous decade.
Todays’ hybrid, distributed tech environments already pressured even senior admins to equip themselves with new skills to adapt to these changes and manage systems confidently.
As the events of 2020 unfolded however, IT pros found themselves in an all-hands-on-deck IT management scramble. While upskilling to support the new normal was critical, time became a luxury. Skills gaps—which had been trending better in 2019—unfortunately again began expanding. A few teams even reported training needs closer to a yawning chasm.
Here, we look at what impact the year of COVID has had on the IT skills gap, how IT pros are bridging it, and how businesses can prepare for what comes next.
A year of acceleration
2019 and 2020, pandemic aside, were already years in which we saw a significant acceleration in cloud and SaaS adoption. Businesses looked to rid themselves of constrained physical servers, became more interested in letting someone else worry about the details, and sought predictable OpEx. Herding hundreds or thousands of galvanized steel server chassis is increasingly less attractive.
To be clear, cloud can produce amazing results when the goals are increased nimbleness and transformation. However, these changes come with a price: as soon as these models are adopted, a business is committing to hybrid IT with no foreseeable alternate solution on the horizon. As a result, teams need to understand cloud in far more detail than commands in a runbook. It’s not enough to have an expert or two, because nearly everyone on the team will be working with the new infrastructure in once capacity or another. Everyone needs to understand not just cloud, but the unique details and challenges of their unique operations.
Monitoring is a great example of well-established technology and process significantly evolved by the acceleration of cloud and challenges of 2020. Modern hybrid IT and SaaS monitoring is powerful and available, but experience of how and where observability and visibility must be extended isn’t universal. Even the basics like keeping the lights of existing apps blinking and verifying ROI objectives require new understanding. How can IT pros prove they’re both operating existing infrastructure more cost effectively, while reliably introducing new functionality worth high-profile expenditure?
End-user performance monitoring
End-user performance monitoring is a good technical example of how established IT tools evolved in response to the challenges of 2020. With traditional infrastructure monitoring, operations engineers could—within a couple margins of error—largely intuit the experience of end users simply by monitoring the intrastate of an application stack. Changes were limited, storage and compute were co-located, and user diversity was limited. When everyone is in an office building using hardware supplied by the company, variables are limited and within human cognition.
However, in 2020, the sudden shift to remote work, new requirements for flexible integration with new suppliers and partners, and waves of customer behaviour changes redefined what “app stacks” are. Many organizations found themselves unable to easily monitor and understand what the digital experience of even typical users was. Worse, the very idea of “typical user” was disrupted, requiring every interaction to be monitored in addition to the infrastructure, now including cloud and SaaS. End-user monitoring was brought out of the lab where it had primarily been used to tune and test new applications and front-end development. Today, IT pros are beginning to incorporate end-user monitoring as a primary performance and troubleshooting tool because it closes the app performance visibility gap as applications are migrated and every user connects from unique endpoints and network links.
There can also be a skills gap in terms of support and human interaction. Where engineers have been accustomed to supporting workers who may simply walk down to a physical service desk, now they’re spending much more time understanding home wireless routers, VPNs, virtual desktop ecosystems, SSO interactions, and more. And they’re taking those calls with kids playing and dogs barking in the background, requiring a new level of support professionalism.
Such circumstances require an almost consumer level of support, with IT pros having to support a remote workforce by ensuring users’ home or temporary office IT as smoothly as the office that set user’s original expectations. The level of patience and understanding required for this approach doesn’t come overnight—and is something IT pros must cultivate through time, training, and more than a few false starts.
Learning how to instrument
Finally, the events of 2020 demanded a high level of creativity and experimentation from monitoring professionals learning how to instrument off-site, on new cloud-native platforms and without root access. While creativity is the heart of operations, forging those new applications and platforms into dependable ops takes time. IT pros were simultaneously bringing proven troubleshooting tools outside the firewall and untangling new incidents and novel user behaviour in real-time. But once again, adaptability is the foundation of IT and their success was remarkable, regardless of the circumstances.
2020 might have been more of an obstacle for IT pros were it not for 2020’s clarity of urgency. From C-level executives to managers to development and front-line ops support, the business approached IT teams with unusually clear requirements: send everyone home, re-imagine sales and services, and save the business, whatever it takes. IT was allowed to prioritize projects largely without much of the political, budgetary, and reporting silos that tend to get in the way of execution.
This may be the best takeaway from an unprecedented tech challenge. As IT pros, it’s easy over time to believe our value to the origination is what we’re building or fixing in the moment—we’re as good as what we know Right Now. Instead, 2020 once again highlighted our abilities to adapt and learn, to make the most out of available resources, and our creativity keep the business moving. While the skills gap widened a bit overall, organizations were also better about skills development and (more) time for research. With the exception of a surprise Giant Meteor 2021, IT pros should be able to not only close the reaming skills gap but leverage what they learned to tackle digital transformation initiatives more effectively than ever before.