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What’s the top barrier to cloud maturity?

March 18, 2022

Where is your workforce in its cloud learning journey? Are they just getting started (crawling)? Or are they pretty comfortable (walking)? Are they experts (running)? Do you even know?


Pluralsight’s Drew Firment, who holds a patent for measuring cloud maturity, notes that skill gaps are a key blocker to realizing return on technical cloud investments. In this interview, he offers insights on what’s required to overcome this obstacle.

How does talent fit into the cloud maturity discussion?

DF: When people ask where you are on your cloud journey, they typically lead with questions such as:

  • How much have you migrated from on-prem to the cloud?
  • What’s your approach to architecture, compliance and controls?
  • How cost-efficiently are your workloads operating in the cloud?

The conversation has been notably quiet around talent transformation. Yes, employers are bemoaning the tech talent shortage. But it’s hard to fill open reqs when competing against more mature cloud-fluent organizations. Job applicants are evaluating your learning programs, not just your compensation package, when weighing an offer.


Here’s the bottom line: You can’t implement a cloud transformation unless you have people with the right skills to pull it off. That means the talent discussion needs to be front and center in your cloud strategy.

You talk about cloud as a language. Say more about that.

DF: Sure. Let’s say I want to learn German. Basic literacy would involve knowing individual words and being able to communicate in a rudimentary way. If I went into a bar, I could say “ein Bier” and the bartender would know I want a beer.

Fluency involves the ability to have a conversation about the beer. The bartender could ask my preferences, and I would understand the question. We could have a back-and-forth dialogue about what’s on tap, and I could let the bartender know my thoughts about the beer after drinking it. If I’m fluent, I have a much better chance of getting beer I’ll actually like.


In a cloud context, you create literacy (not fluency) with cloud certifications. Certifications help you learn the vocabulary and principles of cloud computing. You gain a broad enough understanding and context to avoid being a hazard to your organization, but you also become keenly aware of how much you don’t know.


Many organizations mistakenly think that cloud certification equals cloud fluency. It doesn’t. Employees need to apply the “cloud language” toward your specific business outcomes through hands-on experience to gain fluency.


Back to the language metaphor: I’m not going to become fluent in German by reading a textbook. I need an immersion experience among German speakers to learn the nuances of the language and how to apply it in daily life so it becomes second nature.

Do lift-and-shift projects create cloud fluency?

DF: I often point people to a Gartner article that says, “Today’s cloud migration strategies tend more toward ‘lift-and-shift’ than toward modernization or refactoring. However, lift-and-shift projects do not develop native cloud skills.” Worse, these projects tend to create technical debt that eventually overshadows initial wins.


This is why it is far more critical to lift and shift the mindsets of individuals and organizations from legacy approaches and instead focus on the strategic value of cloud computing. If you want to get to market faster or innovate more effectively, what cloud strategy do you need? And what skills are required for implementing that strategy? That’s a different conversation than “how many applications do you want to migrate?” And it typically involves a broader knowledge base than a certification curriculum. Perhaps you’re moving to AWS, but what adjacent skills will your teams need to accomplish the cloud transformation?

As organizations gain cloud maturity, how does the talent conversation evolve?

DF: When starting the cloud journey, organizations often set up a cloud center of excellence. This group serves as the experts as you’re defining the guidelines for operating in the cloud.


Once you’ve established these initial guard rails—and you’ve started to adopt cloud at scale—the center of excellence needs to transition into a cloud center of enablement. Instead of having expertise centralized among a small number of people, you want to drive the right skills and knowledge into the hands of federated teams.


A center of enablement curates and distributes best practices while housing “shared services” (for example, on-call experts to help with specialty questions or when teams get stuck). The center also monitors and troubleshoots barriers to workflow.

How do mature cloud organizations decide their talent investments?

DF: Organizations that are just getting started on their cloud journey often look at skill development as a “necessary expense,” not as a strategic investment. In contrast, cloud-mature organizations ask questions such as these:


  • If I could accelerate my cloud transformation by three months, what’s the financial benefit to my business?
  • If I could harden cloud security, how much faster could we deliver innovation to customers without incurring additional risk for our enterprise?
  • If I move this workload to the cloud, how will our customers benefit and what does the improved customer experience mean for our bottom line?

They view talent decisions through the lenses of business opportunities and lost opportunity cost. If upskilling your teams could get you to market faster with a new product, and getting to market faster could add one million dollars of quarterly profit, what would you invest to make sure your employees can deliver this result? When viewed through lenses like these, cloud skill development becomes a high-ROI activity.

You advocate for building a “cloud culture.” What does that mean?

DF: A cloud culture means “cloud is spoken here.” By everyone.


Back to the language metaphor: “Cloud culture” is Oktoberfest in the corporate cafeteria. Everyone is enjoying beer, talking about it excitedly in German and celebrating. It’s comfortable—a community with a mutual vocabulary and understanding. People enjoy the camaraderie and energy that come from being part of a collective.

How do you create this Oktoberfest?

DF: Earlier, I talked about cloud certifications as pathways to cloud literacy. They also serve an important role in building cloud culture. You want to create a critical mass of cloud literacy in your organization, because literacy helps remove fear, uncertainty and doubt around cloud transformations. It gets people onboard and personally committed to your organization’s cloud success.


Investing in certifications at scale is a great way to create momentum to break through any existing inertia that may be holding you back from cloud success. Cloud certifications also provide your employees a “what’s in it for me” since there is inherent value associated with the achievement.


Consider building and supporting cohorts where individuals work together toward achieving a certification. There are many ways to design a group learning journey that establishes accountability partnerships and positive peer pressure. You can have hundreds of individuals going through the journey simultaneously, which helps seed and incubate learning communities that become both scalable and sustainable—and ultimately create the cloud culture and skills to deliver on strategic business outcomes.


Fostering a cloud culture requires creating fluency in multiple teams so that many people take ownership of cloud outcomes instead of having ownership concentrated in a center of excellence. The faster you create fluency across the organization, the sooner you achieve a true cloud culture.

Any final words of wisdom?

DF: Author Geoffrey Moore talks about “crossing the chasm” between early adopters and the early majority. His model shows that you need to reach an inflection point in order to cross the chasm, and if you don’t, your product will fail.


In a similar manner, enterprises must reach a critical mass of cloud fluency at scale in order to create enough momentum to cross the chasm between the early adopters and the majority. Critical mass is what enables you to break through the historical inertia of legacy mindsets. You need cloud fluency at scale to achieve the return on your cloud investments.


If you invest as much time in migrating talent to the cloud as you are investing in migrating applications to the cloud, you maximize your overall cloud ROI.

Do you have an actionable and programmatic plan to upskill your workforce to meet your cloud goals?

Drew Firment has been in technology leadership for 25 years. Prior to joining A Cloud Guru, a Pluralsight Company, he was enterprise director of cloud engineering and operations at Capital One. Drew helped build their Cloud Center of Excellence, spearheaded the initial migration of applications to AWS and earned a patent for measuring cloud maturity.