Saturday, October 17, 2009

Anatomy of a Cloud Consultant

Earlier this week I was asked to participate in a cloud panel with a group of so called cloud experts. The panel focused on the state of the cloud industry. I have been on many of these cloud panels in the last year and have found it to be pretty vague what defines a "cloud expert".

So what is a cloud expert/consultant? First let's go to wikipedia. According to the site, in the broadest sense, "a consultant is a professional who provides advice in a particular area of expertise. A consultant is usually an expert or a professional in a specific field and has a wide knowledge of the subject matter. A consultant usually works for a consultancy firm or is self-employed, and engages with multiple and changing clients. Thus, clients have access to deeper levels of expertise than would be feasible for them to retain in-house, and may purchase only as much service from the outside consultant as desired."

So a Cloud Consultant is basically an "expert" in the realm of cloud computing. Someone who has a deep and broad level of experience and understanding of the problems introduced by moving to a cloud based environment. This sounds straight forward enough.

So how do you qualify a cloud expert? This is where things start to get complicated. First of all, unlike other areas of IT there is no professional certification for "cloud consultants". So choosing a professional cloud consultant or service firm is a matter of doing your due diligence. To help, I've compiled a brief check list of things you may want to look for when selecting your cloud consultant.

1. Experience - As in any profession, experience solving real world problems is probably more important then anything else. Has your potential consultant done anything of consequence? What other companies has your consultant worked with, what major obstacles have they solved and how? On the flip side, if they claim 10 years experience as a cloud consultant, dig deeper, how did this obvious previous experience related to what more recently has been referred to as the cloud? Some possibly answers may include experience in Grid or Distributed computing, building large multi-location data center architectures, load balancing schemes, web server clustering or other elastic methodologies.

John M Willis is prime example with extensive experience in related areas of expertise such as Enterprise Systems management. Using this related experience Willis has been able to transfer those skills built up over decades into a thriving cloud consulting operation.

I'd also keep in mind that cloud computing isn't something new, but instead the intersection of several existing technologies. Make sure your consultant has the right mix of experience in the areas that are of most concern to you and your business.

2. Code - Often consultants do very little more then make recommendations that others must implement. This can be useful, but more often running code is more useful. One of the best and easiest ways to find great cloud consultants is look for those consultants who have taken it upon themselves to create open source cloud related Projects. The Boto Project by Mitch Garnaat is a perfect example. Garnaat is a longtime AWS consultant, a doer who is an active community member on the AWS community discussion boards, he proved his worth by his actions in the community and producing a project that helps thousands around the globe. It also helps that he's been working with AWS since 2006.

3. Community Engagement - As I mentioned previously, community involvement is another great way to gauge experience. Places like the the AWS discussion boards, or various other discussion groups are ideal places to find those hidden gems. They also provide valuable insight into the capabilities of the given consultant in a public setting. Is your consultant a troll who picks fights or are they a helpful member of the community? A quick Google search and you'll have your answer.

4. Blogs & Whitepapers -Blogs have also become very useful ways to determine a cloud consultants vision and capabilities. Although they may not shed to much light on their actual experience they do provide a potential channel by which you could find a consultant.

Randy Bias a well regarded cloud consultant provides what he describes as a StrengthsFinder Report to help potential consumers in their selection. The report provides a review of the knowledge and skills acquired and can give a basic sense of your consultants abilities. According to Bias, the report provides insight into the natural talents of the consultant and can give true insight into the core reasons behind their successes and why you should select them.

5. Interview - Like any job, interview your consultant. Ask them questions that would gauge their qualifications. Start off by asking them the ultimate trick question, "what is cloud computing?". Good answers avoid the specifics of the technology but instead focus on the opportunities. Bad answers are things like saying "Salesforce" or "Virtualization" or "VMware".

Keep in mind if you ask a 100 people what cloud computing is, you'll probably get 200 answers. So if you are wondering how would I answer, the question? Here you go, this one is on the house. "Broadly I see cloud computing as a new method to market, management and deploy software and or infrastructure using the web. Or more simply -- web centric software and infrastructure."

You may also want to refer to specific definitions use things like the wikipedia definition or the NIST definition as your benchmark. If your consultant says according to NIST or uses other well regarded "cloud luminaries" that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Just make sure you agree with them. For instance, according to Larry Ellison may be good if your getting a job with an Oracle shop, but no so good for a Google App Engine gig.

6. References - Your only as good as your last job. So make sure to do your homework and ask the right questions. What did the consultant do, what problems did they solve, what technologies and platforms did they use and why was it a cloud project?

In closing, I do believe that a major obstacle to cloud computing consultants is the lack of accreditation. One possibly solution is to create an official professional cloud certification. One model could be similar to the IT Architect Certification Program provided by the Open Group. The Open Group certification program provides a framework for accreditation of third parties to establish IT Architect certification programs affiliated to The Open Group. The framework of accreditation and certification is specifically intended to standardize the process and criteria for IT Architect professional certification and establish a foundation for the required skills and experience necessary to achieve such a distinction. Basically, the Open Group has created a basic way for you to select someone with a standard level of knowledge required to preform the job of a IT Architect. Similarly, this could be applied to the job of a cloud consultant / Architect.

Good Hunting.
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