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How Many People Should You Train?

Matt McDougall
Matt McDougall

How many people should you train? It’s one of the most fundamental questions to ask as you’re spinning up a skills development program.

And with cloud and cloud migrations, the answer is simple. Everyone.

Cloud is a people challenge

“The cloud is a huge enabler of innovation, efficiency and increased reliability that can transform your business,” notes Justin Brodley, host of the podcast and VP Cloud Ops at Ellie Mae, “but getting stuck behind buzzwords and legacy operating models can keep you from meeting your transformation goals. Building cloud fluency across your company can help you avoid falling into those traps.”

Sure, cloud has its share of technology challenges, but not in the same sense as on-premise systems. There’s no upfront capital expenditure, no lag time to increase capacity, none of that. All you need to get up and running with cloud is a laptop and an internet connection. And there’s no real limit to what you can do in the cloud. For most businesses, the limiting factor is people. You need the “who” to do the “what”.

By limiting your training, you’re ultimately limiting your “who”. This limits your capacity to build, deploy, and execute, and also puts strain on the system. Instead of focusing on building, innovating, and creating customer value, your small squad of cloud pros will find themselves stuck translating basic concepts and selling ideas internally. It’s hard to innovate and do cool things in the cloud when you’re constantly having to explain, persuade, and play cloud help desk for the rest of the organization.

Lost in translation

Translating and explaining everything can grow tiresome. People want to be understood. It’s a natural social phenomenon, and it certainly comes into play at work. Every profession, every specialization, develops its own culture and its own language over time. Pilots, doctors, bridge inspectors, and yes, cloud engineers. Cloud is both a culture — a way of thinking, planning, and executing that’s different from what’s come before — and a language.

If someone were to say “we need a VPC with IGW with ELB, ECS, EBS, and RDS”, anyone fluent in the language of cloud would be able to follow along. And those who don’t speak cloud would be lost.

Expand that across an entire company, and you can start to see the problem.

“Cloud is built on a lot of interconnected services,” says Kellie Crowthers, a Senior Customer Success Manager at A Cloud Guru. “If you know how all the pieces work together, it’s really smooth. But if you’re just fumbling around, it’s going to be a bumpy mess. Ultimately it’ll cost you more time and money to fix down the line.”

When only a few people understand a language, it doesn’t stand a chance. Your core cloud team can only drag so many people and projects along with them. At some point, deployments begin to suffer. Deadlines slip. Inefficiency leads to cost overruns. Poor or contradictory architectures lead to needless complexity.

“We see it so often,” Crowthers continues. “People come to us saying ‘we moved to the cloud, but it went off the rails because no one knew what they were doing. Now we have to redo everything, and this time we want to get it right.’”

While plenty of companies reach this conclusion, plenty more grow discouraged with their cloud efforts. Enthusiasm wanes, and the status quo reasserts itself. It’s no surprise that 6 in 10 UK businesses feel that the cloud overpromises and underdelivers.

Without a functioning cloud culture, cloud pros can find themselves feeling like strangers in a strange land, unable to make inroads and left to toil in the periphery of a business. And when that happens, they’re the most likely to get disenchanted or disenfranchised, and leave.

Inertia is a powerful thing, noted Drew Firment, SVP of Cloud Transformation at A Cloud Guru, in a recent episode of the Voices in Cloud podcast with David Linthicum. “There are a lot of folks stuck in legacy infrastructure, in this legacy mindset, and in order to break through that and get to the sustainable transition, you have to achieve critical mass. And that means training everyone.”

Cloud fluency — the key to cloud culture

In order to be successful, everyone needs at least a foundational level of cloud fluency. Or, as close to everyone as you can get. IDC measured “comprehensively trained” organizations — organizations that provide both broad cloud fundamentals training for a wide range of employees and advanced training for key technical teams — and found they were 80% faster to adopt cloud and nearly twice as likely to move beyond limited cloud deployment. These same organizations are also 3.8 times more likely to meet cloud ROI requirements and 4.4x more likely to overcome operational and performance concerns.

The upshot? When everyone gets it, you can start building a vibrant culture of innovation.

“How do you build cloud fluency?” Brodley asks. “A great way to start is to connect simple, familiar concepts with a cloud equivalent. Instances are VMware Virtual Machines. ALB/NLB is your F5 load balancer, Security Groups your Cisco Firewall, and EBS (Elastic Block Store) is the equivalent of a NAS device. From there you can begin layering in core cloud concepts like Multi-Region, Availability Zones, Least Privilege Access, and Instance Roles.”

For better or worse, adults bring their past experiences along when learning new concepts. “Un-training” people with a career’s worth of experience can be problematic. By connecting new concepts to ones they’re already familiar with, you can provide a bridge that lets them bring all that experience along and apply it forward in interesting, novel ways.

It’s a lot of work to get an organization comprehensively trained, but once you reach a critical mass where cloud culture becomes self-sustaining, a virtuous cycle kicks in. Without the language barrier creating friction and frustration, ideas are embraced. Your best cloud pros are more likely to stay, and more likely to attract the like-minded.

They become teachers, guides, and ultimately, fellow-travelers. With the bottlenecks loosened, the help desk shackles removed, and a broader base able to take on more of the day-to-day cloud load, they can explore the way ahead, test new services, and push the boundaries of innovation.

And that’s when the flywheel of cloud innovation really starts spinning.

Learning the language 

As remote work takes an increasingly prominent role, a common language and clear communication are more important than ever. So how do you go about establishing a broad base of cloud fluency in your organization? Train your people. Organize study groups, carve out dedicated time for learning, and get them taking courses with a goal of earning cloud certifications.

Once that foundational language is in place, you can look ahead to more advanced certifications and specialized career learning paths, but first make sure everyone is fluent enough to understand each other. Otherwise your cloud transformation may well turn into a Tower of Babel.

How many people should you train? Wrong question.

You should train everyone. But that may not be a realistic option. In any organization, there’ll be pressure to get it done faster, get it done for less, with the minimum number of people necessary.

So while you should train everyone, the real question you should be asking is — how many people can you train?

“It’s all about scale,” Firment explains. “Until you can get critical mass, until you can spread cloud fluency throughout your organization, you’re never going to be able to effectuate change at scale.”

What’s the ROI of cloud training?

Is cloud training worth it? What kind of ROI can you expect? Our handy infographic breaks it down.


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