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The 3 most in-demand IT Ops skills

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Ericka Chickowski, Freelance writer

Enterprises are on the hunt for a new breed of IT Ops specialists. They want professionals who can manage complex cloud infrastructure, who are comfortable coding script, who know how to use data science and AI to optimize systems management, and whose skills bring application performance and site reliability to the fore.

Above all else, organizations are looking for IT operations management pros with the flexibility to change and grow as the organization transforms its IT delivery methods, and the mindset to help IT grow more closely aligned with the business to support digital transformation efforts.

Unfortunately, most teams aren't even close to fielding or developing these kinds of candidates in large numbers. A recent study found that 86% of IT pros think their organization lags behind other IT teams in skills, qualities, and knowledge.

And when they're being frank, many IT pros recognize that the lag exists because they haven't kept their skills up with what cutting-edge organizations need to manage multi-cloud, microservices-oriented, DevOps organizations. That same study showed that 45% of IT pros see themselves lagging five-plus years behind the current demand for skills.

As we head into a new year, now is a good time for IT Ops professionals to take a hard look in the mirror and figure out where they need to improve to keep up with how modern IT operations run today.

TechBeacon spoke with thought leaders, hiring managers, and other professionals to get a bead on the most hotly contested skills for IT Ops positions today. Here's what they reported.

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Cloud infrastructure management

Solid cloud infrastructure management skills are "hands down" the No. 1 set of IT Ops skills named by those building out teams today.

Though most businesses have moved to a cloud-based model or a hybrid model, "they still face many operational challenges" around cloud implementation, connecting with legacy and in-house applications, and complying with data privacy regulations, said Gitanjali Maria, an industry analyst for GetApp.

"Without the skills necessary to manage cloud operations, other digitization efforts like automation and self-service models will also get slowed down."
Gitanjali Maria

Even though the cloud world isn't brand new, a lot of the technology around cloud usage is evolving rapidly and requires a new kind of operator to take the reins.

It requires a combination of skills in coding and network management, which typically function as two separate groups within enterprises and which don't historically play well together, said Olivia Rose, director of global enterprise risk solutions for Kudelski Security.

Specialized skills required

In particular, organizations are seeking specialized ops professionals who can handle more advanced cloud infrastructure such as Kubernetes node management.

An understanding of container scheduling and advanced infrastructure is essential in today's operations world, said Matty Stratton, DevOps evangelist for PagerDuty. Finding these skills is a challenge, he added; they are new, and the number of people with real-world experience is limited.

Stratton and others suggested that organizations need to embrace people who have a desire to learn and have an understanding of essential DevOps principles, because finding a candidate with five years of experience in Kubernetes isn't going to happen.

Invest in training and educate your employees on cloud deployment models, cloud application management, APIs, virtualization, and cloud security management, said Maria. You can also partner with cloud service providers and other companies that have successfully adopted cloud models to give hands-on learning experience to your staff.

In the meantime, candidates need to start learning the basics and demonstrating that they're ready to challenge themselves and learn these complex cloud skills and technologies.

Site reliability engineering

Site reliability engineering (SRE) has become more important, said Mike Hendrickson, vice president of technology at Skillsoft.

The discipline is growing quickly within the DevOps world as organizations evolve their ability to deliver software continuously, and with minimal downtime and performance issues.

"[Many companies are] heavily dependent on their digital presence and direct sales. Minutes of downtime can affect millions in revenue for big-brand sites."
Mike Hendrickson

And it's not just customer-facing e-commerce that has application performance top of mind these days.

Application performance becomes an issue when increasing amounts of data are being included in key applications, such as SQL databases, CRM, and electronic medical records, said James D’Arezzo, CEO of Condusiv Technologies.

"Slow performance can become a life-or death-matter when applied to medical, defense, or emergency applications."
James D’Arezzo

Like many cloud-focused skills, SRE demands a unique blend of operations and development know-how, explained Scott Bradley, senior director of technical operations at Skuid.

While the concept of DevOps over the last 10 years or so has helped make developers more aware of operations, it's not a done deal.

"There's still work to be done in education, as well as developing interest in the operational aspects of software development."
Scott Bradley

Good site reliability engineers have a unique blend of skills; they can design and develop code and "also have the ability, and interest, to operate, maintain, and tune for peak performance and resiliency," he added.

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AI Ops

Many IT and business professionals focused on digital transformation believe that enterprises will be seeking AI operations skills in spades come 2019.

Having capable talent to oversee and deploy AI Ops "helps all company operations flow more efficiently, from sales to training and service quality," said Giancarlo Di Vece, president of Unosquare. He views AI Ops as key to effective digital transformation.

AI Ops and machine learning are "beginning to stretch human capabilities, so the new IT talent model requires unprecedented know-how as well as flexibility and a degree of imagination that previously has not been part of an IT professional's job description," Di Vece added.

This is why IT operations professionals should bone up on all things analytics- and data science-related.

Most companies want to deploy data in their organization to become more data-driven, but forward-thinking companies want to use that data knowledge to deploy AI applications that automate or augment repetitive activities, explained Skillsoft's Hendrickson.

That’s the whole point of AI Ops, which not only automates but also develops predictive automation for monitoring, alert management, anomaly detection, and incident resolution.

While AI Ops systems will reduce manual effort and free up time, IT operations executives will need to develop their skill sets to be able to run and supervise these systems, GetApp's Maria said.

This includes knowledge of, and comfort working with, algorithms; basic understanding of analytics and machine learning to properly supervise and vet the products being used or considered; and enough knowledge and understanding to audit the results yielded by AI Ops systems.

Blending skills

Above all else, IT operations pros should be seeking to blend all these types of skills together with greater understanding of the business. According to Gartner, within two years 40% of IT staff are going to be "versatilists," those who are comfortable wearing multiple technological and business hats.

Professionals who can combine those practical skills with business understanding are "truly the most valuable in today's competitive hiring environment,' said Bhanu Singh, vice president of product development and cloud operations at OpsRamp.

"It's clear that digital transformation requires IT professionals who can combine new-age technology skills with a product mindset, strategic thinking, and customer empathy."
Bhanu Singh

Companies need people with an operational mindset, a software engineering toolbox, and the social engineering skills to bring established teams along on the journey, said Beth Long, senior software engineer for reliability awareness at New Relic.

These requirements translate to up-and-coming companies as well, with the need for people who can manage orchestration and can handle lots of complexity.

"Younger organizations are often cloud-native and DevOps by default. They're hungry for people with tangible experience at scale."
Beth Long

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