Podcast

SolarWinds IT Trends Report Insights With Keith Townsend—SolarWinds TechPod 027

May 19, 2020

The SolarWinds® IT Trends Report 2020 explores the evolving role of technology in business and the tech pros in charge of driving business performance. This year shows there’s less focus on emerging technologies like AI and edge and more focus on cloud computing, hybrid IT, and security. Tech pros also report increased responsibilities but decreased resources. In this episode of TechPodHead Geeks Chrystal Taylor and Leon Adato are joined by The CTO Advisor himself, Keith Townsend, to explore what this latest survey means to IT professionals and the businesses they help support. 

The focus transition from physical infrastructure to cloud based apps and services is expected to continue to increase with a skill focus on APM and security and compliance rising in tandem. In addition, tech pros are expected to develop non-technical skills to operate within cross-functioning teams where business-level communication is critical. 

This episode of TechPod is brought to you by the SolarWinds IT Trends Report 2020: The Universal Language of IT. Explore the priority areas tech pros manage in a world where roles have converged, and the reality of how it’s affecting skill sets across IT departments and non-technical areas. Visit it-trends.solarwinds.com

Related Links

Episode Hosts
Leon Adato 
SolarWinds Head Geek™ 

With over three decades in IT, Leon has held an alphabet of certifications including Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), MCSE, SolarWinds Certified Professional® (SCP), and WordPerfect Certified Resource. His 30-plus years of IT experience includes working in financial, healthcare, food and beverage industries, and more. 

Chrystal Taylor 
SolarWinds Head Geek 

Chrystal has nearly a decade of experience in IT utilizing the SolarWinds tools to troubleshoot, handle technical escalation for a global engineering team, provide break/fix and augmentation support, capacity planning, and performing as the SME for SolarWinds Orion® Platform and Security Event Manager (SEM) products.  She holds multiple certifications including several SolarWinds certifications, NeverFail certifications, and SCRUM Master. A THWACK® MVP since 2011, she understands the power of community and the SolarWinds commitment to its users. 

Guest
Keith Townsend 
Principal, CTO Advisor 

Keith Townsend is a technology management consultant with more than 20 years of related experience designing, implementing, and managing data center technologies. He holds a BA in computing and a MS in information technology from DePaul University. Follow Keith on Twitter @CTOAdvisor. 

Episode Transcript

This episode of TechPod is brought to you by the SolarWinds IT Trends Report 2020: The Universal Language of IT. Explore the priority areas tech pros manage in a world where roles have converged and the reality of how it’s affecting skill sets across IT departments and nontechnical areas. Visit it-trends.solarwinds.com to learn more about key findings.

Chrystal: The SolarWinds IT Trends Report 2020 explores the evolving role of technology in business and the tech pros in charge of driving business performance. This annual report encompasses a broad range of tech pros to uncover the landscape realities of their roles, change drivers, needed skill sets, and perceptions about their place within larger business and technology context. The study covers on-premises and cloud environments and application management, security, and MSP functions to provide a broad overview of the effects of modern complexities.

Chrystal: This year’s survey shows there’s less focus on emerging technologies like AI and Edge and more focus on cloud computing, hybrid IT, and security. With technology constantly evolving, tech pros are reporting responsibilities increased while resources for new personnel or training has decreased. The focus transition from physical infrastructure to cloud-based apps and services is expected to continue to increase with a skill focus on APM and security and compliance rising in tandem. In addition, tech pros are expected to develop nontechnical skills to operate within cross-functioning teams where business-level communication is critical.

Chrystal: I’m Chrystal Taylor along with my fellow Head Geek, Leon Adato.

Leon: Hello everyone.

Chrystal: With us today to discuss these trends and how we might overcome some of the obstacles is CTO advisor, Keith Townsend. Welcome to TechPod.

Keith: Thanks for having me on. Hi, everybody.

Chrystal: Welcome. It’s great to have you here, today. Let’s kick this off with a little shameless self promotion. Let’s start with Keith. Where can our listeners find you and what is your latest project?

Keith: So, I tweet a lot. You can find me on the Twitters, because it irritates my family members when I mispronounce it like that, @CTOadvisor, and my latest project is we’re actually having a hybrid IT conference virtually. You can find that on ctoavc.com, the CTO Advisor Virtual Conference.

Chrystal: Awesome.

Leon: Okay. So, I’ll do the next one. This is Leon Adato, and as Chrystal mentioned, I’m a Head Geek. That’s actually my job title. I work at SolarWinds. You can find me on the Twitters @leonadato and also you can find me on our thwack.com community with the handle @adatole.

Chrystal: Awesome. And once again, I’m Chrystal Taylor, I’m a SolarWinds Head Geek. My Twitter handle is @chrystalT87, or you can find me on thwack.com as @chrystalt where I’ve been a long time MVP.

Leon: If you’re scribbling that down, stop it. You don’t need to because we have a resource page where we’re going to list out all of the different links and things that we talk about throughout this entire program. And as part of that, we’re really focusing the conversation around the IT Trends Report that Chrystal mentioned earlier on. You can find that report at it-trends.solarwinds.com. So, you can find it there and play along at home as we’re talking through things.

Chrystal: Awesome. Thanks, Leon. So, let’s go ahead and get started. During our review of the IT Trends Report, we found, surprisingly, that AI and machine learning was lower on the list. The report cited only a collective 26% of the IT pros polled named these emerging technologies as the biggest influencers for staffing needs. To quote the report, “Only a collective 26% named emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, Edge, microservices, and containers as the biggest influence staffing needs. The top three technologies influencing organization’s staffing needs by weighted rank are cloud computing, i.e, SaaS, IaaS, PaaS, at 55%, security and compliance at 52%, hybrid IT at 34%.”

Chrystal: So, Keith, where do you think the disconnect is coming from between tech pros and businesses such as C-suite wanting to talk about emerging technologies like AI and Edge, etc?

Keith: I’m not exactly sure, because when you talk to the businesses, these technologies, AI, machine learning, etc, are driving a lot of the differentiation, i.e, the grocery stores that put sensors into fridges so they’d know when the refrigerators would break or when they need to replace produce, vending machines where you know how much to stock. So, I’m not sure why tech pros aren’t doubling down on learning these technologies or investing in these technologies from a skillset perspective. I thought AI and ML would rank higher, but mimicking what I’ve heard, seen and talked about, the focus has shifted to hybrid IT. It’s one of the things my virtual conference is focusing on.

Leon: Okay. So, that’s interesting, and I think there’s a clarification that we’ll get to later on about why tech pros might not be focusing on AI and ML as much as you might expect. But I want to keep on focusing in on those numbers. There’s the MSP number. That number, how did you feel about that?

Leon: So, just to catch people up if they’re playing along at home, the quote I’m looking at is, by 2022, which is not the start of a dystopian young adult novel, as many as 60% of organizations will use an external service provider’s cloud managed by service offering, and then another quote, by 2020, 75% of enterprises will experience visible business disruptions due to infrastructure and operations skill gap. And so I’m just curious what those numbers say to you from, like I said, the MSP side of things.

Keith: So, the MSP piece was not surprising simply because the talent isn’t there. Companies want to go internally for this hybrid IT capability. I think we’ve gotten to a point where companies like SolarWinds have enabled the average engineer administrator to take on-premises into the public cloud, but looking at these multi-site multi-cloud capabilities, that talent just isn’t out there. I think we see a huge skill gap internally for being able to accomplish the technical aspects of a job for multi-cloud versus hybrid IT, and executives are just jobbing that function out.

Chrystal: To catch up our listeners, you’re referring to this quote from the report. “In fact, 78% of respondents manage hybrid IT in house or with Managed Service Provider, MSP, whereas multi-site and multi-cloud is managed in house or via MSP by 45% and 25% of respondents respectively. What does that mean to you?

Keith: Yeah. If we had those numbers from just a few years ago, I think they mimic the MSP number. I think what it says to me is that if we could do the job internally, we would do the job internally.

Chrystal: So, is it a decision to train internally?

Keith: I think it’s a problem that we can’t train fast enough. Let me give you an anecdotal story. A couple of years ago, I interviewed for a senior manager job at Comcast where I was going to manage the OpenStack team that was building a really great functional capability for Comcast. The team was extremely happy with their compensation, with the projects that they were working on. One year later, just one year later, wholesale, that team was at Walmart doing the exact same thing. So, typical life cycle of adopting new technologies. We train, we plan, we deploy, we manage, and then it goes to steady state. This is the explore a model where we get explorers to turn up, implement the thing, and then we hand it off to the sellers to continue the operations model. We just can’t train enough explorers.

Leon: Okay. And I see that idea and I love the Simon Wardley, that pioneer, explorer, settler kind of model of how projects go, but I’m struggling with that. So, what you’re saying is that we’re not going to train explorers within our company, we’re just going to keep hiring them and then we’ll train settlers to do some of it because it’s easier. I mean, help me and everyone who’s listening, help them understand what the value proposition is to not having your own internal band of explorers.

Keith: So, I think internally, we would love to have our own brand of explorers, but if you think about the nature of explorers, how many of our organizations have explorers that are there and they’re satisfied for five, 10, 15 years? Unless you’re in a dynamic, constantly growing industry, maybe energy discovery, or media where there’s constant change, you can give explorers the types of projects that keep them satisfied and in place. We see this across disciplines, from the early days of VMware, ESXi, and ESX where we needed explorers to deploy it, and then it finally went to a technology maturity that there was enough explorers to operate the technology. This isn’t simply a challenge of enterprises not wanting to hire explorers, it’s, “Can I afford to hire the explorer for the time period that they’ll be here and will there be enough time to transition this to steady state?” These are some big scary numbers, Leon. We’ve seen companies pay Kubernetes experts in excess of $300,000 a year, not just because Kubernetes is hard, but because Kubernetes is hard and there’s very little talent in the open market.

Leon: Okay. So, it’s your typical supply-and-demand situation as far as that goes, and as IT professionals who’ve worked in the business for more than 15 or 20 minutes, we’ve been on both sides of that environment. But I’ve also been places where the organization has said to me or to some of my team members, “Look, we are going to train you up but it comes with strings. It comes with basically golden handcuffs. We’re going to train you up and then you agree to stay with us for X number of years or else you’re going to have to pay us back all this training.” Are you saying that’s not working anymore?

Keith: Well, again, let’s look at some of these numbers. I threw out that $300,000 number. If you think Kubernetes or “insert technology here” AI, is going to really make the difference in your industry, would you think twice about paying $50,000, $60,000 as a signing bonus to get that talent that’s going to really make the difference in your industry? If you’re a vendor and you can sell more 150 million dollar storage arrays, will $50,000 in RSU’s really stopping you from hiring that talent?

Leon: Got it. So, what you’re saying is that an organization has to really pay top dollar, and even if they’re paying top dollar, if they’re not paying top dollar and giving top excitement at the same time, there’s no keeping these leading-edge, sometimes bleeding-edge positions filled.

Keith: Yeah. How many times have you talked to someone and it’s not about the money? The job move wasn’t about the money. I was in an organization where healthcare wasn’t all that great, the pay wasn’t all that great, but the work was so challenging and so rewarding. There’s a reason why the not-for-profit landscape have employees and they stay there for years, if not decades. It’s not just about the money, it’s about how fulfilling the work is.

Leon: Okay. So, I can accept all that, except there’s another line in the study that sort of speaks against this or I’m not putting into context. And the one I’m talking about is that these things, whatever they are, “Are exacerbated by flat budgets and a lack of qualified personnel.” So, I’ve seen this before where there’s a budget for these massive digital transformation, i.e, AI, ML, blockchain, you name it, right? It comes with ice cream and sugar on top and it’s puppies, we’ve got a budget for all that, but we don’t have a budget to train staff, just to give them the basic skills that they need to keep the joint running. And I just have to ask—I’m going to ask you to put your CTO Advisor hat on—what’s going on in their mind to the C-suite, these huge budgets are for big projects but not budget for training existing staff or hiring to support those projects even? It’s just like, “We’re going to fund the project but not the people who are going to be stuck with the project once it’s done.”

Keith: Yeah. This is where you got to get creative. I’m a firm believer that flat budgets mean nothing. If you’re running a digital transformation project, if you’re one of these organizations that’s spending multimillions of dollars on digital transformation, there’s money in there for staffing. I’ve always aligned my career the past few years with SAP. It’s not the most attractive technology, but that’s the cash register of the world. I think something like 70% of the world’s transactions go through SAP. So, I’ve always been able to get staffing, whether it’s contract staffing, regular full-time employees, training, etc, by aligning my budget or my projects with the SAP efforts. I want to upgrade the core network stack, you know what, we need that for the move to SAP HANA. It’s a line item in some of these bigger projects.

Leon: Okay. So, follow the money isn’t just a quote from the Nixon era, it’s actually something that IT pros should remember to keep in mind also.

Keith: Absolutely. Align to whatever the business initiative is of the day.

Leon: Got it.

Chrystal: Good. That all being said and assuming that they can convince management that there is budget to get training, do you have any recommendations for tech pros that are entering or reentering the workforce on pivoting skills during this unexpected slowdown?

Keith: So, I’m biased. One, I went back to school for an advanced degree in IT Project Management. My son is now in his second year after graduating with a CS degree, a computer science degree. And when you look at our two use cases, these are kind of the traditional ways of entering any profession, you either go back to school and get an advanced degree or you start off at the bottom with a bachelor’s and work their way in. That’s a really expensive way to get in. But if you look at the core capabilities that we’re offering employers in these parts of our career, it is the ability to impact the bottom line. We can align ourselves with the business. I wouldn’t look at the infrastructure path any longer to get into enterprise IT or break into enterprise IT. As much as I love enterprise IT and IT infrastructure, it is all about the soft skills and adding to the bottom line and business capabilities. I look at stuff like the technologies such as software as a service from HR capabilities, Workday, etc, or from CRM capabilities such as Salesforce.

Chrystal: I’m curious then about the real skills that IT leaders are looking for. Citing the report, tech pros think that they need to develop nontechnical skills to operate within the universal language of IT reality where cross-functional and business-level communication is necessary. So, the IT pros think that they need project management, interpersonal communication, and people management were the top three that they cited. These stats are showing what they think they need to learn to communicate with the business and business leaders better. Speaking as a CTO in the voice of the CTO, what do IT pros get wrong in terms of communicating with business leaders?

Keith: So, project management skills, absolutely, I agree 100%. Again, I’m biased. I have a master’s in IT Project Management, so we need more project managers out there.

Leon: Okay, fine. Just be like that, be tribal about it. Okay.

Keith: So, what’s missing is the ability to tell the CFO why he should buy a new switch or a new server versus a forklift. As he or she is answering their email or approving purchase orders in SAP, the system works perfectly fine for them. When they go to the dock and they can’t ship those components to realize the revenue for this quarter and the GM tells them, “Because the forklifts keep breaking down,” it’s made real for them. They can see and understand that problem. You need to be able to explain to the finance folks, in words they can understand, why investment in technology matters, especially in the technologies that they just don’t see. They don’t see a core network switch, they don’t see a change management system being implemented. You have to tie back that value to the business. You need to understand the whole budgeting process.

Leon: Right. That’s an interesting point, and I think what IT practitioners need to remember is that every other part of the business is putting their work in those content. The manager of the forklift operators is going back every time and can tell them in dollars and cents what not having one more forklift on the floor means to them. Having one more out of rotation because it’s got a service cycle, that person can tell the CFO or whatever, what that’s going to cost them in terms of lost opportunity or in terms of what added benefit it’s going to give. So, even though I think in IT, it’s really hard sometimes to talk about what that load balancer is going to give you in terms of real business value, you have to do that work, right? I mean, that’s part of it.

Keith: Yeah, you have to learn the language of your particular business, not just the language of business, but the language of your particular business. What are the key terms and concepts that your business leaders understand? We gave the example of the forklift for manufacturing, if you’re in retail it may be some metric around profit per inch of store space or whatever the metrics, you need to understand those KPIs and connect the technology investments back to those results.

Leon: Right. Okay. I want to go back to those stats about the perceived value of AI and machine-learning skills versus hybrid IT for the IT practitioner, and it’s important to point out that the IT Trends survey went out to it practitioners, people who are the boots-on-the-ground kind of folks. If I contextualize it like that and say that relative value, that AI, ML is not as important to me as a hybrid IT is because this is what I do all day, I’m wondering again, as a CTO, do you have a flag to throw down on that? Do you have something to say, “Hey, wait, you need to rethink this,” or, “Oh, now that makes sense.” How do you take that now?

Keith: So, this is as a broad technologist. If you think about the CTO role and you think about CTOs you’ve met throughout your career, some have been super technical. I’m no longer a super technical CTO. If you get the drift so far, I talk a lot of business speak, I talk about aligning the technology to the business. You don’t need to know how to write an AI, ML algorithm. You need to understand how it impacts your business. So, if your business is going to use blockchain for logistics, you need to understand from a IT practitioner perspective, what’s the impact on me and how do I provide value to these technologies? Are these technologies I’m going to build and make consumable on-prem or am I going to outsource them to a cloud provider and manage that relationship? Where’s the value and where am I in that value chain?

Leon: Okay. And I think this also circles back to what you were saying earlier about having to know the business. I think that IT folks, as much as we resist it, “I’m agnostic in terms of what business I’m in. I just work the technology. I’m a route-and-switch guy and I always have been, and it doesn’t matter, packets are packets.” But I think what you’re speaking to is that you really do need to have a sense of what your company is in the business of doing or else you’re going to be constantly speaking in foreign terms to the people who can say yes to your project.

Keith: Yeah. I’d like to pick on the DNS administrator. There’s really not any DNS administrators anymore that that’s their dedicated job, but I like to pick on that concept that, you know what, I could be a DNS administrator 20 years ago and focus on the discipline. I could go from job, to job, to job, didn’t matter industry, and I was a DNS administrator. That’s the value I brought. I understood DNS and I could manage DNS. Today, we need to understand what it is that our company does. If we bake and sell apple pies, I need to understand, I need to trace back how is changing a DNS address or managing DNS helping my company sell more apple pies or bake more apple pies more efficiently? I need to go to the CFO and explain to them why my job exists.

Chrystal: So, that being said, how do I, as the IT practitioner, get invited to the table?

Keith:
So, this is going to sound a little crazy and extreme, just you got to people. I know as technologists, this can be hard because we have our cliques. The storage guys hanging out with the storage guys, this whole concept of firewall busting where the storage guys are now hanging out with the networking guys, where now we’re hanging out with VI admins. We need to go further than that. We need to not just talk to our fellow techs, we need to invite folks from marketing out for lunch, people from finance.

Keith: Career tip; make friends with people in finance. It’s really, really helpful for getting attached to the budgets that one, who has budget and who hasn’t spent budget by the middle of the year, just talking to the finance people so they can understand that you understand or at least are interested in their problems. Just like we look at the leaders that we like in our career, we like them because they were vested in our interests and it wasn’t just about them, we need to make sure that we’re not doing IT just for the sake of doing IT, but we’re learning how IT serves our business.

Chrystal: So, stop ignoring all the people that you don’t want to talk to in sales and marketing and accounting and whatever that don’t speak your language.

Keith: Yeah, take those headphones off every now and again.

Leon: Okay. I’ll bring a story. It’s the opposite side of it. I used to work at a major food manufacturer. I’m not going to name names because they haven’t offered to sponsor the podcast, but if they want to, if anyone wants to sponsor the podcast, they should let us know. Anyway, there was Andy. Andy was a test chef. Now, the food manufacturers typically employ chemists. A lot of the food that you get made is more of a chemical process than it is a cooking, baking process, but they did have chefs on staff who would come up and help the chemists brainstorm new recipes and new ideas. He would basically cook it for real and then they would say, “All right. Well, here’s how we make 100 of these a minute.” So, fine.

Leon: But Andy was brilliant. He would call us up. We were a building away. Getting over to his area was really difficult. He’d call us up and he’d say, “Guys, I’ve got a problem.” “What is it?” I said. “I baked too many cheesecakes.” “You did?” He said, “Yeah. I actually don’t have fridge space for it, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I said, “We’ll be right over.” So, of course, a whole IT crew comes over to help him with his cheesecake problem, and while we’re there he says, “Okay, so my email’s a little slow.” And it was like you knew it was coming and you didn’t mind. But here’s why I bring up that story, is that in IT, we’ve got the cheesecake. We’re the ones who have the solutions. We are the ones who know how the sausage gets made, to mix metaphors.

Leon: So, if we’re hanging out with the finance people and we say, “Yeah, let me help you speed up your machine. Let me show you some tricks to get your work done faster,” all that stuff, and then we turn around and say, “All right. So, I’m having a problem. I got this project and I just can’t get the CTO to say yes. What do I do?” They’re probably going to have a hint for you. They’re probably going to know… Now, do they know you’re pumping them for information? Absolutely, they know you’re pumping them for information, but at the same time, you are building a friendship. It is sort of a quid pro quo, but it’s a business based, “Look, I’ve got some information that helps you. I need to know some insight on a skill I don’t do well.”

Leon: Keith, back to your point, you need to know how to people better and the people I need to people really good are the C-level executives. So, those folks in finance, those folks in sales, those folks in marketing probably know how to people the people that you need to people fairly well, and you can trade ideas that way.

Keith: And during that whole process, trust is built. These non tech people learn that, one, you’re just not the guy that has always told them no, or when quarter end is here, you’re always getting in the way of them doing work. You really care about the business and you care about their work.

Keith: Then in the course of all this, they realize that, wow, you’re actually pretty bright. You’re a systems guy and a lot of the problems that they face… I wouldn’t go into the situation trying to solve their cash-to-order problem, but I go in and I listen, and then maybe a couple of days later after the meeting, I offer some interesting anecdotes from a systems perspective. Because at the end of the day, these business processes are just systems, and who understands systems better than systems engineers?

Leon: Right.

Chrystal: Awesome. Well, that was enlightening. Do you have any final thoughts that you can share with us?

Keith: Well, I think the only thing, if you haven’t noticed, I’m really big on nontechnical skill, developing nontechnical skill. Get a mentor in a different area of business. And you start to do that by just having lunch or just having a listening session with someone that has complained about technology. Get out of the office, do something other than IT, show them that you care about things other than just your job, and I think you’ll find that it pays dividends in your career.

Leon: Okay. And I’m going to add onto that, which is that right now we’re recording this in March of 2020, and people are working from home who never thought that they were going to be working from home, and I don’t want to get into that, that’s a whole other topic. But what lots of organizations and a lot of individuals are realizing is that not only can they get their work done from home or a coffee shop, they could do it on the moon as long as the internet bandwidth was there. So, there’s no reason, Keith, to your point, of getting out of the office, taking off the headphones, there’s no reason you can’t put yourself one day every couple of weeks in the finance section, you can’t sit yourself down in a corner of the sales floor and just listen to the conversations that are going on, listen to the problems that they’re struggling with.

Leon: There’s a company near where I live that is fairly famous for making every single employee move their desk every six months. And it’s not the whole team. They actually shake people up. They take two from this team and they move them over there, and three from this team and they move them over there, so that this six months I’m sitting next to a couple of people from accounting and next six months I’m moving from a couple of people from facilities, and so on and so forth. And they do that because they want people to get to know folks from other disciplines and other areas. But you don’t have to wait for your company to initiate that kind of program. You can do it yourself. As IT practitioners, you’ve got the ability to sit yourself down anywhere and listen to this problems. You might find out that there are improvements that really do affect the business that you never knew about and they weren’t going to tell you because they didn’t think it was solvable but you know it is.

Leon: So, Keith, one more time for folks who might’ve jumped in here in the middle. Can you tell us where people can find out more about you and the work that you do?

Keith: You can find me on Twitter @CTOadvisor, and on the web, thectoadvisor.com.

Leon: Great. On behalf of Chrystal and myself, thank you so much for joining us.

Chrystal: Yes, thank you for joining us.