How to beat the Kubernetes skills shortage

While Kubernetes container management is key to digital transformation, Kubernetes talent is in short supply. Follow these 4 strategies of successful companies to fill the gap.

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Microservices and containers are foundational technologies for digital transformation efforts, and many companies have rushed to adopt Kubernetes and container management to support them. But Kubernetes is extremely complex, and there is a scarcity of Kubernetes talent. It’s a situation that calls for creative thinking.

A September 2022 Evaluator Group survey of Kubernetes adoption found that the shortage of Kubernetes and container management skills is a major challenge for companies looking to modernize their application and operations infrastructure. More than half of the surveyed companies were struggling to maintain the expertise to adopt the new technology with current staff, and 35% were having difficulty acquiring the talent from outside.

And yet, more than 61% of these companies were succeeding with Kubernetes in production, running multi-cluster container environments with more than six workloads or applications. 

What are these companies doing to bridge the Kubernetes talent gap, and to make their Kubernetes rollouts successful? In follow-on interviews, we asked the successful adopters to share their secrets to acquiring and building expertise. Four winning strategies emerged.

Strategy 1: Leverage an outsourced expert to build in-house expertise

Many large enterprises start their Kubernetes production with the help of global systems integrators (GSIs). But rather than outsourcing the entire project, the successful ones contracted to have a GSI expert act as the project application or infrastructure director, but with a mix of GSI and customer staff.

These “dual-badged” director-experts were charged with delivery of both project success and knowledge transfer. Several experts we interviewed said this practice is becoming more common. In addition to bringing technical skills to each project, they also brought their on-the-job learnings of best (and worst) practices from other large clients.

Strategy 2: Capitalize on ‘open source’ culture to foster skill growth among internal staff 

A director at one Global 500 energy management company developed an innovative approach: using open-source culture to internally crowdsource both deliverables and a talent pipeline. This solution architecture executive encouraged existing staff (assigned to legacy architectures) to join his devops and platform engineering project review meetings, first to listen and learn, and then to take on smaller projects to be performed in their spare time. These individuals submit their work to the project team for peer review, edit, and acceptance, and those who show aptitude are considered for permanent assignment to future projects. Thus the director is building a talent pipeline, and the employees are investing in their own new career track.  

For employees who feel they need a more formal introduction to get started, the good news is that a number of the major market vendors (VMware Academy, IBM Skill Network, etc.) are providing free training—not just on their own products, but on the general concepts. Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) provides a certification program for interested developers and operations staff who want to demonstrate their new aptitude as certified Kubernetes application developers or administrators.

Strategy 3: Amplify human talent with automation

A Kubernetes consultant working at a large global bank said services such as Terraform and Ansible, and pre-packaged container management templates from companies like SUSE and D2IQ, can be valuable tools for alleviating talent scarcity. Automating repetitive tasks eliminates the need to hire (as many) skilled resources, and paves the way to an easier transition when inevitable employee turnover happens. The consultant acknowledged that automation requires its own training and financial investment but argued that focusing this investment on the right places can deliver substantial productivity gains.

Strategy 4: Use a managed Kubernetes container service

The ultimate solution to the talent shortage: Let someone else handle it. Over half of the customers interviewed by Evaluator Group were using at least one container management service, most often from AWS, Microsoft Azure, or Google Cloud. Turning to a managed cloud service lessens the need to build in-house expertise, particularly in operations, and can deliver embedded automation and governance to help newer application developers become productive faster.

Just be aware that what’s easy today may create a larger problem for tomorrow. For example, a large media and communications company shared that while their initial applications fit well in AWS, when they subsequently needed to deploy Kubernetes for a frequently disconnected edge use case (with large data sources), they needed to deploy a brand-new architecture. That forced a re-do in training.

Considering that the majority of surveyed companies indicated they would be rapidly moving to a hybrid and multi-cluster architecture, taking stock of your skill requirements both for today and for the future is a must. A leader at one of the largest enterprises noted that—with Kubernetes in production globally both on-premises and across six different cloud services—his executives settled on using (and training) their team on Red Hat OpenShift because “it runs everywhere.” 

Don’t forget to focus on the future

One of the key issues for talent management is going to be the extended co-existence of virtual machines and containers. Balancing talent investment across the two disparate architectures will not be just a short-term problem. While adoption of Kubernetes and containers is coming on strong, our customers say they expect virtual machines will remain a major part of their infrastructure for years.

The good news is that managed services for on-premises infrastructure and applications is becoming widely available, both from local service providers and from major vendors like HPE and Dell. Customers can outsource the past, and focus in-house talent on the future—i.e., the microservices and containers supporting digital transformation.  

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