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Jun 7, 2018

How You Can Start Bridging the IT Skills Gap Today

INAP

By the numbers, the IT skills gap seems easy to understand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be nearly 4.8 million computer-related positions by 2026, a steady increase of 13 percent over 2016.1 Add in the fact that only about 60,000 people are graduating in the U.S. each year with a computer-related bachelor’s degree of any kind, and it’s no wonder why there’s so much talk about the IT skills gap.2

But it’s not just about a lack of people. Companies and individual employees alike are being constantly bombarded by the ever-increasing pace of technological development, making the task of playing catch-up a constant challenge for IT professionals at any level. In a 2017 survey by CompTIA, there was near consensus among respondents about the IT skills gap, with two top concerns: 1) Too many workers lack advanced skills, and 2) segments of workers are falling behind.3

Part of the solution to the IT skills gap may lie in educational institutions updating their curricula more quickly to match the pace at which technology is evolving. In the meantime, there are things both companies and IT professionals can do to help bridge the IT skills gap.

What can IT professionals do to set themselves up for success in the IT industry?

Think outside your IT job title
IT is moving at a fast pace. Case in point: Amazon Web Services released 497 new services and features in the last quarter of 2017 alone.4 Companies need professionals well-versed in these kinds of skills and able to keep up as they quickly evolve. There currently aren’t enough, and the data shows that competition is fierce: Of the top 15 highest-paying IT certifications in 2018, five are for the AWS platform. These five certifications all earn above-market rates, with the average salary being a little more than $125,000.

At the same time, organizations are increasingly expecting IT to be a trusted, strategic partner to the rest of the business. These two seemingly opposing trends mean that IT professionals are best positioned when they have both specialized, in-demand skills as well as generalist chops. The latter is not merely for executives or managers; at any level, IT professionals seeking an edge should be looking for ways to align IT’s day-to-day practices, systems and processes with the entire company’s strategic goals.

Take ownership of your own career path
In an ideal world, we would all know exactly the skills and knowledge that will be most in-demand now and forever. Here in reality, you must be and should be the person most invested in your own career growth and training. Take an active role in trendspotting and researching what will be most useful for you in your field and specialty. If you work for a company that provides a development budget and opportunities to learn new skills or technologies, use them! If not, budget the time and money to invest in yourself. Or if you are currently looking for new opportunities, explore what certifications and trainings will help you signal to potential employers that you are being proactive and doing what it takes to stay ahead of the game.

What can companies do to meet the IT skills gap head on?

Develop a plan to identify and address your IT skills gap
At the risk of stating the obvious: Any organization that doesn’t know its own talent and skill needs cannot expect jobseekers to know either. Yet among respondents to CompTIA’s survey, only one in three organizations had a formal strategy to address their IT skills gap; the rest had either an informal strategy or none at all.5 But no matter where your organization is or what it needs, it’s never a bad idea to start with the basics. A key part of this process should be keeping track of the going rate for new IT skills. Where supply and demand meet for the hottest skills may not work with your budget, so consider your options, whether hiring, outsourcing or finding another way to gain the capability.

Remember that one size doesn’t fit all
Many companies have development budgets and allowances for employees to keep current with trends and learn new skills. Employers can use these to both reward motivated talent and incentivize continued learning, chipping away at the skills gap in the process. But keep in mind that people have different ways that they learn best, whether through traditional classes, independent study or hands-on workshops, so a little flexibility can go a long way.

Extend your team with a service provider
Even for organizations with robust strategies for meeting their particular IT talent needs, it can be difficult to stay on top of it all. Partnering with a trusted IT service provider can bring you the capabilities, knowledge and experience you need but wouldn’t necessarily be able to acquire through hiring or professional development without great cost and effort. For instance, organizations dipping their toes into the cloud for the first time may not want to invest in net new head count or certification training. Yet they still need their hyperscale, multi-tenant cloud environments to be deployed and managed without a hitch. Enter Managed AWS and Managed Azure service providers, who can act as an extension of your team, ensuring all your environments are optimized for the needs of the workload.

Patience, patience, patience

Whether you’re an organization trying to meet seemingly ever-shifting talent needs or an IT professional just looking to get a leg up on the competition, being patient is just as important as being proactive. Aligning budgets and resources takes time—even when everyone is on the same page—and so does learning new skills, even if you know which ones to focus on. No one company or individual can “solve” the IT skills gap, but there are things both can start doing today that will make a tangible difference in the future.


Links

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational projections and worker characteristics,” Retrieved May 2018.

2. National Center for Education Statistics. “Bachelor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study,” Retrieved May 2018.

3. CompTIA. “Assessing the IT Skills Gap,” May 2017.

4. ARN. “AWS released 497 new services and features last quarter,” February 2018.

5. See note 3.

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Apr 10, 2013

5 best practices for successful system administration

Ansley Kilgore

system administration best practicesFor successful system administration, you need more than just the required technical skills. Below is a list of five slightly non-technical abilities that should be developed in order to become the best system admin ever.

1. Monitor, measure, and record.
Yes, you know what the swap usage is today because there’s a problem with the disks thrashing and it’s causing the server to go slow. But your users are complaining to management that it’s an ongoing issue and now management is asking you for data. What, you haven’t been documenting this, so it’s now your word against Sales and Marketing? Guess who wins that argument by default? You’re responsible for the system, so they will make this your problem. So get/build/buy a system to monitor, measure, and record that data so you can build pretty power-point slides for finance next time you need to ask for hardware upgrades, or to prove that the issues are caused by bad software rather than your perfectly functioning servers. Even if you are just running a single server for an employer, a client, or even yourself, it’s good data to have for some unforeseen reason someday.

A shortlist of things to start monitoring/recording/charting/graphing:

  • Load average
  • Memory usage
  • Disk I/O (transactions per second)
  • Network throughput (in Mbits/sec)
  • Network throughput per virtual host/site
  • Transfer (in GB/month)
  • Transfer per virtual host
  • Disk storage (monthly in GB) and also daily rolling average if files are uploaded and deleted regularly)
  • Average response time of test URI under your control (in milliseconds)
  • Average response time of a PHP (or Ruby/Python/etc.) page under your control that does not change. Testing real web pages gives you a consistent baseline that you can use to narrow the problem to the server, the OS, or the web code itself.
  • SSH logins per day/month by user and IP address
  • Anything you feel is necessary, or will get questions on later

Once you have consistent information, you’ll start seeing patterns and can look for things out of the ordinary. It’s also good for correlating data to behaviors when you’re troubleshooting issues and aren’t sure where to start.

2. Develop project management habits.
Even for small, one-person projects. Write up a small scope of work, write requirements, get sign-off from stakeholders on their expectations, plan a schedule, and record your activities. Write up a postmortem document at the end. Even if it’s just for yourself. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it certainly doesn’t have to be formal PMBoK activities. It may seem bureaucratic managing all that paper and it may seem like you’re spending more time on paperwork than sysadminning, but it helps keep you organized when your boss hands you random high-priority assignment that strays you from your task. It’s also handy when you build a new system and users complain that it doesn’t do what they wanted it to do. See? You got their sign-off on the requirements document right there…

Even if it’s just for yourself, one day you’ll ask yourself, “now why on earth did I install Acme::Phlegethoth on this server? Oh yeah, it was for that weird commune who needs it for their application code…”

3. Develop a system for day-to-day work.
Again, this may seem bureaucratic, but if you spend your days just “doing stuff” without a To-Do list, you may find it difficult to explain to your boss next week exactly what you’ve been doing with your time. I’ve become a fan of Kanban boards lately because it’s a visual device that your boss (or anyone who assigns you work) can interact with. Let’s say I’ve got three items I plan to work on today that should fill up my 8 hours. “Oh, you need me work on this other item instead? Yes sir! Here is what I planned to work on today. Which one should I deprioritize in favor of this one? Oh, so it’s more important than this one, but not as important as these two? That’s fine, I can requeue that lower priority one and get to it later.” This helps set expectations. I know of one graphic designer who used it to coordinate her work between three competing project managers. If one asked her to prioritize something, she’d show him her board and send him to the other project managers to negotiate the conflict and coordinate their deadlines. Even if no one else looks at your board but you, it helps to keep you organized.

4. Develop communications skills (sales, presentation, etc).
It took me a while to really understand why this is important. Yes, today you just want to sit in a server room, keep things running, and look at Lolcats. But tomorrow, you may have other people assisting (or working for) you. You need to be able to communicate expectations. You need to propose and advocate your ideas (great ideas never stand on their own merit unless and until they are properly communicated), to your peers or to management. Maybe you need to convince someone that they need to upgrade the web server. Maybe you need to explain your new server proposal that will fix all their problems. Maybe you need to convince the developer that his code is really causing those memory leaks, but you need to present it in a non-accusatory manner. I’m personally a big fan of Toastmasters for this, as it’s the cheapest and most effective way to improve your ability to communicate.

5. Start preparing for “what if” scenarios.
Your servers will crash. Your servers will be hax0r3d. Your backups will be corrupted. So start figuring out how to react when that happens. One of the unhappiest days of my life was when my personal server was r00t3d. I did all the right things, but the attackers were more dedicated to getting in than I was in keeping them out. How do you remove a rootkit after it’s discovered? I didn’t know then, because I never asked the question (remember? I thought I did all the right things to prevent it in the first place). You can bet I certainly know now! What happens when the server drops off the network because of a power outage, and now it’s saying “kernel not found”? What happens when your client or internal user asks for you to restore a backup, and the backup is corrupted? You may not get all the answers to these until you actually experience them first-hand, but it’s better to start asking the questions now and not when you have angry people yelling at you. Also, once you start asking the questions, you can start setting up “self-training” scenarios to test it. Set up a test box and remove the kernel. See if you can get it back to operational. Try and get someone to install a rootkit on it, or at least do a bunch of stuff that you have to troubleshoot and fix. By asking these questions now, you’ll be in a much better position to deal with them later.

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