How to build the right cloud team

October 31, 2022, 6:00 PM UTC
Explore how organizations can gauge their talent needs for shifting to the cloud—and attract and retain the right people for the job.
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Fiserv is no stranger to working in the cloud, but lately those efforts have taken on far greater urgency.

“Over the last two to three years is when we really started putting our heads down and figuring out a strategy,” says Tom Eck, the fintech and payment giant’s senior vice president of digital transformation.

The goal is a better experience for customers in the U.S. and around the globe, on whose behalf the Brookfield, Wis.–based Fiserv’s 46,000 employees move more than $1.5 trillion a year. “They’re heading superfast to the cloud, and we want to meet them there,” Eck says. “That’s our primary motivation.”

So Fiserv, founded in 1984, has been building out its cloud team. Besides a willingness to move quickly yet methodically, this task calls for concrete steps to lure talented workers. “The talent war is unbelievably tough right now,” Eck says of certain senior roles.

Established companies face an acute shortage of cloud and other software engineering and development talent, notes Marcus Murph, partner and CIO practice advisory leader with KPMG. “What I hear very often from those CEOs and those technology leaders is, they don’t have the tech talent they need for the modern world,” says Dallas-based Murph, who also leads KPMG’s U.S. cloud business. “Because if you think about what we did over the last 30 years with tech talent, a lot of these companies did a lot of outsourcing for cost.”

KPMG’s recent global tech report bears out that observation. For the 2,200-plus executives surveyed, talent shortages were the No. 1 challenge complicating adoption of digital technologies.

Fiserv is a client of VMware, whose services include supporting clients using multiple clouds. “What we’re trying to do is provide a foundation to help customers as they deal with all the different clouds that they have,” says VMware chief technology officer Kit Colbert.

In Colbert’s experience, many businesses adopt a cloud-first mentality: “They say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go to the cloud.’ But oftentimes, they don’t do it quite right.”

One result is what Palo Alto–based VMware calls cloud chaos. Take credentials for logging into a public cloud, for example. “Any reasonably sized organization will have hundreds, possibly thousands, of these cloud accounts, because every little team is going in and creating them,” Colbert says. “That becomes a big governance and security issue.”

Some companies solve this problem by establishing a platform team for the cloud, Colbert says. “Instead of having each of the lines of business or the app teams do it, they try to have a central team to go and build all these tools, and build it once, build it properly.” Things move a little slower at the start, Colbert admits. “But it pays off over time because you get more standardization, and because the lines of business aren’t doing the ad hoc thing, but instead can use standardized, mature, robust tools.”

At a fairly large organization, the platform team could number at least 200, Colbert says. “Usually they don’t try to boil the ocean or change everything overnight,” he adds. “What they do in the best [case] is say, ‘I’m going to pick one or two of these categories, and focus that platform team on those categories and get those categories right.’ Two frequent choices are security and management,” Colbert notes.

Who are the key team members? “You’re going to need people who understand cloud,” Colbert says, stressing that they don’t have to be experts in a specific cloud. “It’s very different from the traditional software development mindset,” he explains. “You need enough of these people that can help infuse the organization, the teams, with that sort of mindset around how to build things incrementally, how to deliver a service.”

In addition to software engineers, another pivotal player is the site reliability engineer (SRE), whose role combines development and operations.  

“They will be hands-on in an operational role if stuff fails, but they’ll also try to make sure that [for] that particular failure, they can automate, so that in the future, they don’t have to be hands-on with it,” Colbert says. “That’s going to be really, really important, because the internal services that platform team builds that are on top of the public cloud—those things have to be highly available.” If a failure occurs, developers can’t work, and customers could suffer.

Although Fiserv began using cloud technologies back in 2013, it’s relatively new to the public cloud. The firm takes what Eck calls a hybrid multi-cloud approach, working on every major cloud while being careful not to overplay its hand. “There’s some applications we have that we’re not ready to move into the public cloud yet, because obviously we’re talking about lots of PII [personal identifiable information]; we’re talking about lots of credit card data,” Eck says. “For those and some other reasons, we’re moving at dual speeds.”

Fiserv’s strategy for building its cloud team, which numbers in the hundreds, has four legs.

First: “We have a lot of people in operations who know their way around networking and data centers and firewalls and security and all that kind of stuff,” Eck says. Also important: experts in using software tools such as Terraform to create infrastructure as code.

Second: Fiserv is upskilling a group of staff. “They’re really great in a data center environment, used to lots of runbook types of approach to running the operation,” Eck explains. “You document everything, kind of do it by hand. We’re largely switching over to automation.”

Third: Accelerating the shift to cloud with help from partners. “We have relationships with numerous integrators as well as the major cloud providers themselves, and we’re leveraging their expertise as well,” Eck says. “So it’s almost like bringing in an external tiger team to sit next to our folks, work together, get the job done.”

Fourth: The firm is “bringing in some key people from the outside that have done it for real in our industry, preferably at scale,” Eck says. But landing them is no easy task: “Obviously, these are unicorns. They’re not just walking around with nothing to do.”

Colbert’s advice on managing such teams: “You’re going to want to have strong top-down guidance on what I would call the guardrails.” He’s found that app developers want to run ahead—a tendency that could lead to cutting corners. With that in mind, Colbert’s recommendation for companies just getting into the cloud is to make standardization of a handful of services nonnegotiable. “Sometimes you can prioritize two or three or five, maybe, to say, ‘Everyone will use these; there will be no exceptions.’”

But at the same time, the platform team shouldn’t strive for perfection. “What you want is to be moving quickly, to be getting functionality out quickly and then iterating on it,” Colbert says.

For cloud and other tech talent, companies should take a three- to five-year view of their needs, Murph says. Over that time horizon, he suggests deciding what to build, buy, and borrow. “What do I want to build in-house? What do I want to just buy on the market, perhaps through a sourcing or managed services provider?” Borrowing typically means enlisting gig workers and subcontractors.

To build a strong in-house team, Murph warns, organizations must raise their game around employee experience. If they want to keep developers happy, that includes minimizing tasks that don’t involve coding. “Most of those folks, they just love to write code and solve problems,” Murph says. “So how do you automate all of the things that are around their job?”

Colbert offers a couple of recruiting tips. “Number one is that you shouldn’t look just in your own geographic area,” he says. “You’ve got to have a remote work policy.” Otherwise, shelling out big bucks could be the only way to get key hires to move.

Many of those people are looking for a larger challenge, too, Colbert argues. “So being able to show them, saying, ‘Hey, we’ll give you flexibility in how you work, but here’s the bigger thing we’re trying to do.’”

Eck agrees with the latter approach, crediting it with attracting one of Fiserv’s top cloud experts. “It was saying, ‘Okay, I gained all this experience working at Company X. I’d love to come and be a force multiplier at your company and take on some of these big challenges,’” he explains. “That’s the type of person I would want more than someone who asks me about remote work.”

Asked what’s next for cloud teams, Colbert foresees a constant struggle: “There’s always going to be an additional set of services that are getting created, that are coming out, that are going to need some sort of work and support from the platform team.”

The biggest shift today is the move to multi-cloud, Colbert adds. Teams will also need to figure out how the platform they built can work in non-cloud environments. The edge, which spans everything from stores and factories to vehicles and 5G cellular sites, is a huge developing opportunity, Colbert observes. “The platform team is going to be called upon to support apps in those locations as well.”

Companies will learn to accomplish much more with smaller teams, Murph predicts. “When you have really good technology talent, it’s amazing what you could do with fewer people,” he says. “So in some respects, as we figure that out, I think we could see a lot more efficiency.”

Also, where IT used to be in the back office, now technology is moving “to the front lines that really impact the customer,” Murph says. As a result, there’s no longer much of a gap between an organization’s tech strategy and its broader one. “That’s really bright for those who are technologists, because you are the product or you’re very much in the product.”

For his part, Eck sees software providers reducing complexity for Fiserv and other companies that weren’t born on the cloud. “The more simple it is to configure and run and operate and manage the cloud platform, I think is key,” he says. “A lot of the software vendors are definitely making it easier, not just for infrastructure people but for developers as well.”

Eck also wonders how remote work will play out for cloud and other teams. “We’re basically back in the office, and I do see better productivity when we get together with a whiteboard,” he says. “I think there might be a trend toward more RTO than not.”

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