IT career roadmap: Cloud engineer

The shift to the cloud has been so pervasive that it has left a lot of companies with a skills gap they are struggling to fill with professionals who have cloud experience. That makes it a great time to be a cloud engineer.

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The rise of the cloud as a major IT component for many organizations has led to a dramatic increase in demand for all types of skills related to cloud computing. One of the fastest-growing positions is cloud engineer — a key member of any cloud computing team.

Because the shift to the cloud has been so sudden and all-encompassing, it has left a lot of companies with a skills gap they are struggling to fill with professionals who have cloud experience, according to technology staffing firm Robert Half. That includes the role of cloud engineer.

“Across the country, this demand has created a large number of cloud engineer jobs and cloud-related positions,” the firm said. Robert Half’s latest State of U.S. Tech Hiring research shows that three of the top five positions were cloud security, cloud architecture and cloud engineer.

The firm said traditional IT roles that can translate to cloud careers include systems engineer, network engineer and database administrator.

Cloud engineers are responsible for many of the technical aspects of a cloud computing infrastructure and strategy. Their tasks might include designing, managing, maintaining and supporting cloud initiatives together with other team members such as cloud architects and security engineers.

Many cloud engineers are involved in network design, data storage, virtual machine (VM) resource allocation, cybersecurity and other areas. Someone in this position might take on several of these tasks or just focus on one or two, depending on the size of the organization and the scope of the cloud initiative.

Given the possible range of responsibilities, cloud engineers should be familiar with the cloud service offerings and environments from major cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google and others. They also need to have a good grasp of software development, systems engineering, web services, and a variety of programming languages.

What does it take to become a cloud engineer? To find out, we spoke with Christopher McGowan, senior cloud engineer at Stark & Wayne (S&W), a cloud technology consulting firm.

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Education/early life

When McGowan attended the University at Buffalo (UB) in New York in the early 1990s, the concept of cloud computing did not yet exist and the internet was nothing close to what it is today. So, it’s easy to see how he couldn’t possibly have foreseen where his career path would take him.

Initially McGowan aimed for a career in electrical engineering, which he had developed an interest in during high school. “Once I started the base engineering courses, the ‘weed out’ courses as they were called, I realized that electrical engineering at the time was more about theory than hands-on electronics, he said. “And I realized I needed to change direction as I did not have interest in classroom theory.”

He did however have an interest in computing. During his childhood McGowan had taught himself BASIC programming on the family’s home computer. In high school he took another BASIC course and an AP computer science course.

At UB he was introduced to large-scale computers and networking, and that led him to change majors to computer science in the middle of his sophomore year. Unfortunately, being three semesters behind he was not able to complete all the requirements for a B.S. degree in computer science within the four years he had budgeted for tuition.

“Knowing that most skilled jobs required a college degree, I focused on sociology as my primary major, as I could meet those core requirements while still working on focused computer science classes,” McGowan said. He graduated in 1996 with a B.A. degree in sociology with a minor in computer science.

While at UB, McGowan gained invaluable experience that would help shape his career. He was invited to be a beta tester for a Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) dial-up project at the university, which gave him his first exposure to the World Wide Web and browsers. “It was not uncommon to be dialed in back then for days on end doing coding projects and browsing the Web,” he said.

Another highlight was taking a computer science course in systems administration, which taught students about hardware, TCP/IP, network services, file systems, and other aspects of IT. “This laid a solid foundation of knowledge that jump started my career,” McGowan said.

Job history

McGowan’s first job after college was customer engineer at value-added reseller Western New York Computing Systems, where he began as a support agent for various customers. While at the company he was able to train and learn about Microsoft and Novell technologies from some of the senior experts. He also learned how to apply his systems administration knowledge to each of those vendor’s products.

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Next McGowan worked as a senior systems engineer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York from 1998 until 2006. During his time at the company he gained experience in deploying a

new gigabit networking infrastructure, working with Lotus Notes, and laying the groundwork for a VMWare virtualization implementation.

McGowan left the company when the entire network services team was outsourced to a third-party provider.

In 2006, McGowan joined financial services firm First Niagara Financial Group as network administrator. He quickly rose to the role of network unit lead overseeing networking, Active Directory, email, mobile devices and backup/disaster recovery.

In the fall of 2010, the bank announced a large scale IT transition that included outsourcing basic IT support and the data center to a third party. McGowan moved over to the software support side of the company, where he was a lead engineer before being promoted to manager of one of the largest software support groups at the bank.

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“During this time we implemented a bankwide check capture solution, migrated a data center, and supported check processing, finance, and fraud systems as the bank’s branch footprint doubled in size,” McGowan said. His final role at the bank was as an infrastructure architect, in which he helped deploy new IT systems for the bank.

“I ultimately left the bank as I felt my time in ‘classic’ enterprise IT needed to end,” McGowan said. “I wanted to try something new, something fresh, and was at a good point in my personal and professional life that I was willing to take a chance.”

McGowan joined his current employer, Stark & Wayne, in 2015. “Starting at S&W was a major shift for me both in culture as well as tech,” he said. Using cloud providers, microservices, containers and cloud-based applications was a major departure from what he had been doing.

But McGowan has been able to apply his background in networking to help bridge the gap between traditional IT and the cloud, and at the same time help his team and customers with a variety of what he calls “classic IT problems” with networking and hardware. “At S&W, I work with some of the largest customers in the industry, supporting Cloud Foundry, Kubernetes and microservices on various customer platforms ranging from a few hundred apps to one customer with over 50,000 apps.”

Memorable moments

Two key career moments stand out for McGowan. One is the data center migration at First Niagara Financial Group. With the outsourcing of IT and data center services to a third party, the bank was moving all of its hardware and services from its original location

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that it had outgrown to a shared data center halfway across the country.

“After months of discovery and [preparation], we migrated various systems over with little to no impact to customers at the bank,” McGowan said.

The other was taking a leap of faith to the cloud. McGowan admits that after his first day at S&W he went home and questioned the wisdom of the move. “It was a trial by fire, with a ton of information delivered into my lap,” he said. “I began to second guess why I left the comfort of enterprise IT that I have known for so long. Turns out change is good.”

Within a few weeks he had connected all the dots and grasped all the concepts to the point that co-workers were saying he took to the job like a duck to water.

Skills and certifications

McGowan said his various positions and current role of cloud engineer have not required any specific certifications.

“Over the years I have taken various classroom and online courses in the technical and managerial space, but I learn best by watching, doing, failing, doing it again until I understand it and can speak proficiently about it,” McGowan said. “I have always been leery of certification exams to some extent, due to the nature of online question pool dumps and camps that turn out ‘certified’ people with little to no relevant experience.”

Best career or life advice received

“Be cognizant in all that you do and those that you work with,” McGowan said. “Be truthful in everything you do. It’s always better to respond ‘I don’t know but I can find out,’ rather than try to sell something you don’t know. Own up to your mistakes. We are human, we make mistakes.”

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Overall, “be a good person, it will take you far,” McGowan said. “Great words of wisdom from a former boss/mentor that I still follow today.”

Short-term and long-term goals

McGowan said he would like to keep expanding his knowledge in the cloud space.

“Every day I learn more and share more with the people that I work with and work for,” he said. “Within this last year I was promoted to a senior engineering role leading some of our largest customers’ projects. My goal is to always keep learning and growing in new, evolving technologies and make this the final chapter in my career path until retirement.”

Advice for others taking a similar path

“A career in IT is going to have its ups and downs,” McGowan said. “Expect a lot of hours and low pay at the start of your career. Always be learning; never turn down the chance to pair with someone to learn something new and/or help that person out on a challenge they are facing. Being able to pair with someone who can bring a second set of eyes and insight is worth more than any tool in your toolbox.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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