#TechTable: Head in the Cloud

On 28th April, I was joined by DevOps engineer, AWS Community Builder and Ladies in DevOps co-founder Pauline P. Narvas and Azure Specialist and Tech Corner founder Hosanna Hali to talk getting into cloud. We answered your questions on why we love cloud and why (we think) you should too!

It was a great discussion that left me feeling rejuvenated and inspired, and we welcomed some experienced listeners to the stage to share their views. I hope our conversation helps inspire you to start, continue or grow your learning journey!

What made you get into cloud?

For Hosanna it all started during her Microsoft graduate scheme. She knew a bit about cloud computing from her university training and was aware that cloud would be a big part of the roles available at Microsoft, but it wasn’t until getting into her new role that she realised how much of an impact cloud would have in her role, career, personal development and the world around us.

“We don’t realise how much impact cloud has on the work that we do – we often think it’s just storing data – a convenient place to back up your holiday pics – but so many of our day-to-day touch points use cloud”.

From the NHS, to central government, Spotify, Netflix and much more, cloud technology is used to fuel most services we interact with everyday. Later, she moved into a specialist role to focus more on the Azure platform and pursue her new-found passion.

Pauline similarly “discovered” cloud computing on her graduate scheme at BT. She didn’t have a computer science degree but as part of the scheme was lucky to rotate into to different teams. Starting in roles more in her “comfort zone” as a developer, she was offered a choice in her third seat to either focus on React/UI development or enter into the “unknown” of platform services and DevOps.

“I could stay in my comfort zone but I jumped and went for it and within 6 months I fell in love with AWS, understanding the cloud, infrastructure – it blew my mind!”

After this, Pauline was offered a role as a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) at BT and later moved to a new company to work as a DevOps engineer and applied to join the AWS Community Builders programme to help others get into the field.

My path was slightly different. As I’ve mentioned on this site, I used to work in broadband infrastructure policy evaluation and advisory. I was fascinated by large-scale public sector investment in tech infrastructure and the significance that fibre deployment, data centre builds and wider cloud investment could have on our day-to-day lives. As Hosanna mentioned, every service we interact with whether public or private touches the cloud in some way, and speaking to people everyday about the impact that this technology – fast broadband, VoIP services, managed cloud storage, databases, and other applications – had on their educational programmes, businesses and personal lives only drove me to dig deeper.

I decided to switch careers because I was driven by the capabilities of cloud. I believe in the power of tech, of data-driven decision-making and innovation and I wanted to be at the heart of it.

We hear a lot about the big three – Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and Microsoft’s Azure, but what’s the difference between them?

There was some great discussion here, so I’ve tried to summarise:

  • To know the difference you have to learn about the founding story of the various “clouds”. For example, Amazon started as an e-commerce site, and AWS was a by-product of this service as they found in running a huge online business, there was rapidly increasing need for robust, safe, innovative and effective infrastructure. From this, they realised they were onto something and began to sell it – and with the advent of EC2, revolutionised the space – exemplifying the the start up mentality of AWS, but also proving that this was a product people would buy, but a product that would change the landscape of tech indefinitely. Microsoft as the market leader in tech at the time, started from their community of existing customers – oftentimes big businesses and organisations using their products but needing more cost effective, managed solutions to their data and server needs whilst ensuring compatibility across their existing hardware and infrastructure. Google, again, took a different path, enlisting the help of academics in the field to build a “server farm for research projects needing both fast processors and huge data sets”. From this they expanded their offering to help identify unique ways to solve computer science problems for the masses. There’s much more to the story than I’ve summarised here (see linked posts above), but to start answering this question – it’s important to note their foundations
  • That being said, for a fundamental user much of the technology appears the same. The key to understanding any of these platforms is to know: storage, databases, security are at their heart and build out from there

For more information and comparisons we recommended spending some time searching (and getting in touch with!) experts on various platforms and figuring out what’s right for you. I’ve personally played around with them all, but would say my “expertise” lies with AWS. I chose to focus my training here as it’s the largest cloud provider in the world and most companies I applied to last year (including my current one) uses their services.

The question on everyone’s lips… are certifications worth the money? Why do I need them if I can do the learning without paying?

This was by far the most asked question in my inbox. And as someone working towards their certifications, it was a question I had definitely thought of myself. Some of our reflections:

  • When working for some companies – and definitely if you work for one of the major providers above it will be a requirement. For example, at Microsoft if you work in a role that “touches” cloud you will be required to complete the AZ900 Fundamentals. At AWS many roles require completion of the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam upon entry and could go up to requiring Associate or Professional level exams within the first 12-18 months depending on your technical level and job role
  • We all mentioned our observations at how much employers and recruiters look for certifications when prospecting or in job descriptions. Once Hosanna and Pauline completed their Associate-level specialisms they recognised a change in the opportunities offered to them internally and externally.
  • Hosanna: “I did it for job opportunities. I knew this would be what hiring managers were looking for and would continue to look for. The Cloud space is growing” and so too is the importance of certifications
  • Money. We spoke candidly about how certifications can help increase your salary – even double it! There’s lots of data out there, but one good blog post on this cites that you can boost your salary by 20% (up to USD $20k) compared to those without Professional certifications.

Where should you begin with learning?

At first it can seem very overwhelming. The space is massive and opinions various. But we all mentioned a few resources that have helped us on our journeys in the cloud:

I’ll also take this opportunity to my excellent speakers’ resources:

When starting out, our biggest tip was to focus your learning with your main objective for this learning in mind. I started my cloud learning with the aim of mastering databases because I use them everyday and they align with my interests in tech, I admittedly don’t know as much about AWS Amplify (sorry Ali, Nader!) but starting with that objective helped me feel motivated, organised and better able to branch out into new areas once I started with those fundamentals.

Equally, if you’re really starting out as a newbie and have no idea where to begin – start with the fundamentals. Across all technology areas there are foundational aspects of the cloud you will need to know. Once you have a grasp at what servers are, what is meant when we talk about migration, why there are varying database structures and what these look like, everything else starts to click into place.

What have been the challenges in your cloud learning journey?

There were various answers here from my speakers and those in the audience, but ultimately we all admitted that failure is normal but less well advertised than “success”. In the tech world you’ll often hear the phrases “fail fast” or “fail better”. This also applies with learning. I don’t know about you, but I definitely remember the mistakes I’ve made, why they were mistakes, what the solutions were and how not to do them again very quickly. Without mistakes, without failure, you wouldn’t be human, but we also wouldn’t innovate as well or learn as quickly.

On her site and on Twitter, Pauline shared very openly about failing her AWS Solutions Architect Associate (SAA) exam first-time round and how sharing about that experience – whilst very difficult – helped her build her community, pick herself up, learn better and pass the exam second-time round with much more confidence.

This discussion, again, led us back to the theme of community building (my next #TechTable topic!) and all the speakers encouraged that learning with others – geeking out with people – helped making the learning process less difficult and more fun. Some other tips to overcome learning challenges or feelings of loneliness or failure creeping in: build projects on what you’ve learned, build with others, focus on the sector and clients you’re interested in to help to apply the tech and stay connected to the bigger picture, share publicly, and explain your learning to others who ask. “When you explain something to someone you’re learning more yourself than the person you’re explaining to”.

What sorts of jobs are there in Cloud? Do I have to be a Solutions Architect?

Absolutely not! As with the tech industry in general there are varied roles working directly and indirectly with the cloud. Even those working on infrastructure – such as Solutions Architects – couldn’t do their job without Sales teams, Business Development, Engineers, Marketing teams, Researchers and many more.

That being said, there are a few common roles that are cloud-focussed to be aware of should you wish to work in this space:

  • Cloud/Solutions Architects: responsible for system design, adoption initiatives and strategies, developing new deployment mechanisms and working closely with clients to ensure cloud requirements suit organisational needs
  • Security Engineers: experts in providing integrity, safety, availability, and confidentiality of cloud systems and the data and products stored on them
  • DevOps Engineers: developers tasked with building, maintaining and optimising systems and processes that support scalable and oftentimes automated software
  • Data (or DataOps) Engineers: similar to DevOps engineers, data engineers in this space will work to support and build databases, data pipelines for data transformation and ensuring systems are scalable and reliable for data scientists and analysts
  • QA Engineers: responsible for reliability of the infrastructure and pipelines including designing and implementing regular mitigation tests to safeguard systems
  • Network Architect: a specialist area focussing on ensuring availability needs of applications are met (usually those who get out of bed in the middle of the night when Instagram stops working!)

Equally, there are many other traditional tech roles that are increasingly focussed on cloud skills and crucial to the advancement of cloud tech such as full-stack engineers, back-end engineers, skills managers, engineering managers and developer advocates.

Thank you to everyone who took part in #TechTable. The next session is on Wednesday 12th May at 6pm (BST) and we’re talking 🤝 Building Communities.

Make sure to ⬇️ follow ⬇️ so you don’t miss out!

For more of my TechTable summaries, head to the category on this site and please get in touch on socials or 📧 contact@rkulidzan.com with your questions and ideas for future topics and speakers.

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