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Q&A: Creating continuity in a crisis

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Peshkova)

We’re only just starting to unpack the long-term implications of the global pandemic, which has completely pulled the carpet out from under enterprises worldwide. The rapid migration to work from home has spelled greater demand for cloud-based technologies, increased video conferencing and spikes in e-commerce—without a doubt, IT teams have given several industries a fighting chance for survival. However, with the new work from home environments IT teams are switching up their priorities to accommodate for the future of work.

In this interview, Chrystal Taylor, the newest Head Geek™ at SolarWinds, discusses how IT pros are the unsung essential workers in a world stuck in crisis. Together, we explore the skills they should prioritise to maintain business continuity in this new normal.

1. Tell us a little bit about your background. What was your journey to becoming a Head Geek at SolarWinds?

Sure thing. Let’s take a step back. It’s 2010 and I’m at a furniture store doing office administration. I work with and I find satisfaction in my job daily by solving problems and helping people. I have no idea how much my life is going to change in one year. I’m 23, have a newborn, and have no idea what I want to do with my life. Just a year later the company I invested so much time in filed for bankruptcy.

Not the most thrilling start, but one unemployed month later, my brother-in-law who worked in sales at a tech startup wanted me to talk to an engineer about doing some work with SolarWinds software. I ended up working there for the next nine years. The leap into tech (with no previous experience other than I really love video games and computers, mind you) was both terrifying and rewarding. By the second or third week, I was teaching others how to do admin tasks in SolarWinds® Network Performance Monitor (NPM).

The startup I refer to is Loop1 Systems, Inc. By the end of my tenure there, I was leading a team of engineers with many years of experience in various sections of IT in optimising and assisting with SolarWinds environments. Over those nine years, my desire to learn and grow was never satiated, and even now I continue to expand my repertoire by immersing myself in tech every day, which explains why I pursued the Head Geek path.

2. As an IT professional with a non-traditional career background, what skills do you think are most sought after in the industry right now? Is it changing?

There’s a lot of talk about next-generation technology like AI and edge computing but for many businesses, this is the vision, not the reality. There are plans to harness these technologies in the immediate future, but very few live deployments would make these skills necessary.

Emerging tech is taking a back seat while hybrid IT and cybersecurity remain the most sought-after skills. They’re the ones the press picks up on frequently and it’s for a good reason. The last few years have seen hybrid IT take centre stage and now, more than ever, IT pros not only ‘have the floor’ but are pivotal to a company’s business continuity plans amid the health crisis—successfully managing on-premises, cloud, and hybrid environments.

In its latest IT Trends Report 2020: The Universal Language of IT, SolarWinds explores the new reality for tech pros and looks at what skills modern IT pros should be prioritising within the new landscape we find ourselves in. The pandemic has accelerated trends already underway such as the adoption of cloud technologies and remote working and has brought with it a challenging period whereby entire operations needed to put in place overnight. Ultimately, this has put the burden on IT to keep global organisations operating at full capacity.

The research findings suggest the top three technologies influencing organisations’ staffing needs are cloud computing, security and compliance, and hybrid IT. Advances in these areas has created a scenario where supply is unable to meet demand. Currently, 48 per cent of IT pros entering the workforce today don’t have the necessary skills to manage modern, distributed IT environments—outnumbering those who believe they possess the skills (28 per cent) nearly two to one. As a result, this has created a need to retrain existing staff, increased on-premises responsibilities, and increased work week hours.

3. Hybrid IT and cybersecurity are well acknowledged as priority areas across the industry. What are the challenges and barriers to upskilling in these areas and more widely?

No matter how many free or cost-efficient tools are made available, if IT pros don’t have the time or aren’t granted the time, learning new skills will drop to the bottom of their agenda.

IT pros cite time and availability and cost as the biggest barriers affecting their current ability to participate in IT skills training and career development programs. The findings of last year’s report showed more than eight in 10 IT pros (83 per cent) said their day-to-day IT tasks extend into time earmarked for career development. 28 per cent said this always happens.

The truth is, the pandemic is pulling IT pros in different directions. They’re fighting fires they may not have needed to before. Training isn’t going to be a top priority right now, but IT pros who identify specific gaps shouldn’t shy away from making these needs known. It’s about being comfortable speaking the language of business and explaining how and why particular requests relate back to core business KPIs.

4. How has the pandemic affected the role of IT?

Over the last couple of months, Covid-19 has thrust IT teams into the spotlight for the first time in many organisations. Often overlooked or forgotten, now business continuity plans are being tested on a global stage, forcing IT pros to find and fill gaps quickly. The need for collaboration systems such as Cisco Webex®, Microsoft® Teams, and Zoom has been emphasised, resulting in potential system capacity and performance overloads and a greater need to monitor performance and availability.

The centre-stage position IT pros are finding themselves in is one they couldn’t have anticipated. Although they’re performing in front of bigger audiences than they ever have before, seeing and predicting what can happen to their systems has always been a significant part of the job for IT pros. It’s a role for which they’ve been practising for a lifetime. Some will be used to manually monitoring data across their systems, and others will have automated models, systems, and practices capable of identifying issues before they occur, predicting possible performance problems, and ensuring they’re equipped to stay one step ahead.

Chrystal Taylor, Head Geek, Solarwinds