Feds’ cloud adoption failures are a warning for the private sector

Washington, D.C., might be a very different place than an average enterprise, but its cloud adoption struggle still has teachable moments for us all—starting with age

Government building with greek columns
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Sure, the federal government has some pretty unique aspects when it comes to adopting the cloud. Don’t let those obscure the key lessons that apply to all of us. Let’s first focus on people.

Anybody remember Vivek Kundra? Back in 2009-2010, as the first CIO for the entire federal government, he launched the Cloud Computing Initiative. It was a powerful concept: By embracing cloud technologies, agencies could lower the cost of government operations while spurring innovation.

Back then, I participated in an industry sponsored task force that created a guide for agencies to navigate these new waters. So, how are things going? Today, not one single agency has met a governmentwide target that 15 percent of IT spending in 2016 be on cloud computing services—not one.

Go ahead and pick your forecast or favorite pundit. You cannot escape that outside of the feds, cloud adoption is roaring ahead while the traditional IT shop shrinks. What goes on here and are there lessons for all of us?

Slow, bureaucratic, sclerotic—those are the nice words people use when it comes to the federal government and IT. We see legacy systems more than 50 years old, a Kabuki dance for a procurement process that gave us Heathcare.gov, huge spending just to keep the lights on (never mind something new and innovative), and of course a cloud initiative with little to show in improved IT cost of performance.

Good thing you don’t have to live in that world. You’re in the private sector where you got to deliver results.  But be honest! You don’t have any legacy systems? Buying IT services in your shop is fast and efficient? Your budget goes mostly to new initiatives advancing your company’s competitive position? And, how is that cloud imitative working out for you?

Let’s take a look at the federal stumbles and fumbles with the cloud and what they can teach us, starting with people.

The basic demographics of the US is no secret: The nation is getting older. A study by Politico shows that for the feds, the situation is worse. It has grown significantly older than the American workforce overall. Today, just 17 percent of federal workers are younger than 35 years old. (In the private sector, almost 40 percent are.) And more than a quarter of federal employees are now older than 55.

In some agencies, the upward age shift is even starker: 69 percent of NASA’s workforce is more than 45 years old. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it’s 70 percent. At the tiny Government Publishing Office, it’s even more extreme: 80 percent. And when it comes to information technologies, the federal Office of Personnel Management reports that the challenge is even worse: For every federal IT worker younger than 30 years old, 4.5 are older than 60. These folks came up in the days of mainframes, then minis, and then client/server. Remember: The cloud is only ten years old.

An excellent example comes from DoD, which is about to embark on a huge cloud procurement worth potentially many billions of dollars. Organizations across the Defense Department are preparing their IT staff to move to the cloud as part of the agency’s plan to use big data analytics. Here is where the demographics kick in.

Mario Roberts, the Army’s cybersecurity chief for the Office Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence (G2), tells FCW: “It’s a struggle, I’ll be honest.” Roberts cited a skills gap and stubborn culture as some of the major challenges with the cloud migration. Cloud migration skills are “new, so we don’t have the folks with the right mentality, the right skill sets to do it.”

To compensate, he said he’s been sending IT staff for training and certifications so they can understand how platforms and applications work differently in the cloud environment. “The Army doesn’t have an MOS [military occupational specialty] for cloud. The Air Force doesn’t have skill set for cloud. You’re an IT guy and you do router switches; there’s no cloud guy,” Roberts said.

Pretty candid, but isn’t the same is occurring in private enterprise? A recent study by the London School of Economics reveals that two-thirds of companies are reporting losing money due to poor cloud skills. Companies struggle to find cloud-savvy candidates. We just aren’t producing enough. So where are we going to get them?

Do you know the fastest growing segments of the workforce? Two age groups—65 to 74 years old and 75 and older—are projected to have faster annual rates of labor force growth than that of any others, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the decade from 2014 to 2024, the labor force growth rate for 65- to 74-year-olds is expected to be about 4.5 percent annually, and about 6.4 percent annually for those 75 and older. Everybody moans about the skill shortage, and the labor market continues to tighten. We need to reconsider our human capital strategy to reflect the real world.

Here is the lesson for us all: The feds, for a variety of reasons, are dealing with overall workforce demographics—particularly in IT—earlier than the rest of us. Nonetheless, we are all going to have to come to terms with it. Just like the feds, we will need to consider retraining and reskilling. We are barely started in overcoming gender biases in tech; overcoming age bias is going to be brutal, but recent studies show surprisingly positive trends. We just do not have enough talent, so along with gender discrimination we will also need to overcome a pervasive ageism.

We don’t have a choice.

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