IT career roadmap: Cloud engineer

The global transition from traditional IT to cloud platforms makes cloud engineering an incredibly solid career choice. Here's how one cloud engineer combined education and on-the-job training to get to where he is today.

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For many companies, the shift to the cloud has been sudden and all-encompassing, and it's left their IT departments with a cloud-skills gap. That gap ensures that cloud engineers are in high demand.

Training as a cloud engineer could be a smart move for people in traditional IT roles, says staffing firm Robert Half, even if it means pursuing cloud courses and certifications on their own. Transitioning from a traditional IT role to a cloud-based system requires a change in mindset for many developers. For example, there is more focus on automating infrastructure in the cloud.

To prepare for the move, professionals should focus on learning more about areas such as cloud platforms, APIs and web services, software configuration management, and agile development.

Cloud engineer Casey Phillips IDG

Casey Phillips is a cloud engineer at TLM Partners.

“Because some organizations are only now making their first foray into the cloud, they need skilled IT talent who can help solve problems and innovate as the company migrates to the cloud,” says Robert Half. “That’s why candidates vying for cloud jobs must be able to demonstrate that they’re capable of providing that type of support—even if their professional experience is deeply rooted in traditional IT.”

Cloud services will continue to expand and evolve, creating new challenges and opportunities. “To be a successful cloud engineer, you need to combine a willingness to learn with a dogged determination to make things work,” the firm says.

To find out what’s involved in becoming a cloud engineer, we spoke with Casey Phillips, cloud engineer at computer games company TLM Partners.

Education and early employment

Phillips attended Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, studying management information systems. He traces his interest in technology to 1985, when his family received a Nintendo Entertainment System console as a Christmas gift. “I’ve been enthralled with games and the related technology since then,” he says. He had a keen interest in computers and networking when he started college. “There was really never any doubt that I’d be doing something in the technology field,” he says.

For his first job after college, Phillips worked as a technician for MTC, a company that provided a custom point-of-sale (POS) system to restaurants. “I'd travel around to the restaurants that were set to open soon and install our POS systems and their back-of-the-house server,” he says. “During the install, I'd put in a small business network to connect all the devices, install all the machines, and then make configuration and menu updates as needed.”

In this position, Phillips learned a lot about Microsoft Windows Server, Microsoft SQL Server, and networking in general.

Next came a position as a computer consultant with the technology solutions provider DataPerk. “We mainly supported small and medium businesses in the local area,” Phillips says. He was responsible for about eight clients during his time at the firm, and also ran a fleet of Datto backup devices for some of the company's larger clients.

Among the main takeaways from this experience were continuing to learn about Windows-based domains, SQL Server, and related technologies. Phillips also gained hands-on experience with firewalls and routers during his time at DataPerk.

The making of a cloud engineer

In 2012, Phillips began a three-year stint at commercial printing company American Printing, where he ran the IT department. “Great job, that really let me spread my wings into more managerial type activities,” he says. “All IT decisions were run through me, and I had a few contractors I managed for small code deployments and applications.”

In this role, he oversaw multiple large software rollouts and worked to integrate new businesses as they were purchased. 

Next, Phillips joined Adtrav, a travel management company, as a network administrator. He worked in the IT department supporting a large and active development team. “I got a lot of experience working with source control and learned about the correct ways to build software in a modern environment,” he says.

This led to what Phillips calls his most important role, a position as director of IT with StrategyWise, a global data science and artificial intelligence (AI) consulting firm. The firm quickly grew to service large enterprises across the Southeast US.

“Working with data scientists was a real pleasure and challenge,” Phillips says. “Most deployment methods in use on data science deliverables were not defined very well at this time. This role allowed me to get very deep into the engineering of these unique solutions. I learned to program in Python, how to work with containers, a ton about Azure cloud services.” He also gained experience in complex container workflow automation via Kubernetes.

In 2021, Phillips joined TLM Partners, working as a cloud engineer for its newly created devops team. In this role, he is working to automate AWS-based infrastructure rollup functions. Much of this is related to preparing fresh accounts to be used for remotely building gaming titles.

A day in the life of a cloud engineer

“As TLM is a new and growing company, my typical day normally consists of setting up cloud-based infrastructure for the organization, as well as working with my peers to establish best practices and solutions for the challenges of developing games with a completely remote workforce,” Phillips says.

Cloud training and certifications

“I think in this field self-training is mandatory,” Phillips says. “I normally hit up a few select YouTube channels for more casual upkeep on the latest tooling and methods. When I want to go a bit deeper, I’ll look at one of the great online learning platforms like Udemy.”

Memorable career moments

One moment that stands out took place a few years ago, when a new manager was brought in after Phillips had joined the company. “This guy had a lot of traditional experience and was convinced that the cloud computing craze was just a phase,” Phillips says. “Whenever I’d bring up the topic he’d tell a story about how a lift-and-shift to AWS in his former role had ended in a catastrophic bill, and thus we’d never use it in this new role. This was all I needed to start looking for a new gig that embraced what I saw as the future of infrastructure and industry innovation. The next role was one that really supercharged my career and one that happened to also fully embrace cloud computing.”

Learning to think critically

“My grandfather, who was a photographer by trade, really had a huge impact on me as a child,” Phillips says. “He had a real artistic sensibility when it came to how he would inspire me to play during the many weekends spent at his home. While I always had a more engineering mindset, he would always embrace whatever crazy new contraption I’d be nailing together in the shed as he passed by, always taking time to ask interesting and probing questions. [It] was only years later that I realized that he was teaching me critical thinking in a graceful and wise way. Those kinds of questions have served me my whole life, and his honestly questioning technique is something that I find myself often employing.”

The value of soft skills

One of Phillips’ first managers in the technology field taught him the power of soft skills. “He and I still chat semi-daily via a group Slack server that my buddies and I share,” Phillips says. “I certainly learned a lot of valuable technical info from him. But the biggest thing he taught me was the value of soft skills when working with people in the technical field. There are always things that go wrong, servers that will crash, and software updates that go sideways. But what makes a really good technical resource during these kinds of high-stress events is one that is able to explain to everyone involved what is going on, and what is happening to correct the issue, and in a way that everyone can understand and feel satisfied with. Being able to communicate well to your managers and peers is a skill that often doesn’t get enough credit in the technical fields.”

Advice for others seeking a similar path

Being a self-starter is extremely important, say Phillips. “The tools are out there and almost free, there are so many places where you can learn for practically nothing,” he says. “The only real thing holding people back is their commitment and time.”

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