FotolEdhar - Fotolia

AWS careers benefit from skills, not certifications

Cloud computing positions increasingly demand AWS expertise. While the particulars may vary, job seekers need to get their hands dirty in the field to land their desired position.

If an IT job seeker has his head wrapped around the cloud -- instead of stuck in the clouds -- his odds of landing...

a job are quite promising.

AWS careers and cloud skills are on the rise, and IT professionals seeking a new opportunity will find no shortage of prospects.

Job postings requesting cloud skills have seen consistent year-over-year growth, according to IT and engineering jobs site Dice. The number of job postings increased 38% from January 2014 to January 2015, and rose another 37% year-on-year into 2016, making it one of the fastest-growing skills employers desired, according to Dice.

Increasingly, AWS is synonymous and representative of the cloud market. AWS' top-dog standing among infrastructure as a service providers means those in search of AWS careers must know how to operate in that environment. Considering AWS has been a prominent cloud player since its launch in 2006, many of today's young IT professionals have undergone a thorough Amazon cloud indoctrination.

"AWS has now been around long enough that an entire generation of developers has grown up on it," said Carl Brooks, an analyst at 451 Research. After five or six years, it's achieved semimainstream use, he said, which is "enough time to go through a full computer sciences course and do some job training as an undergrad." Now, graduates "not only know what AWS is, [they] basically marinated in it," he added.

AWS skills, accordingly, are in increased demand. "It is a de facto lingua franca at this point," Brooks said. At the same time, other in-demand skills closely mirror the AWS suite of services.

In LinkedIn's list of "Hottest Skills of 2015," published in January, "cloud and distributed computing" was ranked the No. 1 job skill sought by global employers. Other high-ranking areas of expertise -- such as "statistical analysis and data mining" in second, "mobile development" coming in sixth on the list and "storage systems and management" at eight -- can be managed with AWS products.

As the cloud grows to encompass other areas of the business, AWS has been all too happy to nurture that evolution by introducing services to analyze data, track Internet of Things objects and perform other business functions.

AWS careers are available to be had for those willing to put in the effort. If you have expertise in AWS, "you can basically punch your own ticket right now," Brooks said.

Partner up with a consultant

The diversity and confluence of AWS products has cultivated an entire partner network that numbers in the tens of thousands. As enterprise IT staffs shrink, or simply tread water, they turn to the AWS Partner Network (APN), where numerous consulting and technology partners are at the ready. This feeds the AWS coffers -- partners must reach a revenue threshold to remain in the APN -- and the job market alike.

"This cottage industry of managed services providers, consultants and AWS specialty shops has sprung up like mushrooms," Brooks said. "They're all AWS partners, and they all focus on effectively using AWS and being able to demonstrate that to other people. They sit between enterprise consumption and AWS itself."

Enterprise users aren't as actively hiring cloud-savvy IT pros, because they're looking for managed service providers to provide that middle step, according to Brooks. Instead, "there's an awful lot of growth within that particular niche, the layer that [communicates] between AWS and the development shop."

Brooks mentioned a specific partner that planned to grow its staff to 45 members after employing just 15 last year. The company's CTO was so busy with technical requests from clients that he had no time to interview job seekers.

Joe Emison, CTO of BuildFax Inc., based in Asheville, N.C., illustrates the trend toward hiring consultants -- his business has gone seven years without an in-house IT professional.

"I think it's hard to hire talent -- I know it is -- in this climate, and I think you'd be better off hiring a firm," said Emison, who recommends ThoughtWorks, Pivotal Labs and Originate among higher-end firms. "I think it's well worth bringing in firms like that at the beginning to help you set up the practice, and then arrange for check-ins every once in a while to make sure you're not drifting too far off course."

With a glut of AWS partners, job seekers can tailor their training to match a particular opening -- or create a niche as an expert in a particular type of AWS deployment.

It isn't enough for IT pros to just read blog posts, scan through Stack Overflow discussion threads and attend conferences.  They need to get their hands in the mix.

"I think this is true, in general, about new technology -- there is not any good continuing education in IT," Emison said. "Most people learn whatever they learn in whatever school they're in, then they go to a company and learn practice, and they simply rarely learn any new skills. Any time you have a new skill that comes along, the vast majority of people implementing it are implementing it badly and wrong."

Ultimately, it's a matter of trial and error for developers and other IT pros -- but employers also want to see that experimentation. Core AWS competencies -- storage, compute and networking -- are beyond necessary, and can even be seen as common IT parlance.

"It's a part of basic systems understanding as much as being able to know what the parts inside of a computer do. You have to know what's available and possible on platforms, such as AWS and Azure" Brooks said.

The glut of job openings means broad demand for a variety of skills. Developers should gain competencies with AWS Lambda, Docker containers and microservices architectures, but also explore new cloud services when released. Programming experience and an understanding of Linux system administration are helpful, as Windows is not an ideal environment for orchestration.

AWS has more than 1,000 potential API calls -- compared with around 300 for Microsoft PowerShell -- which speaks to the wide-sweeping compatibility of the AWS framework, according to Brooks. The more proficiencies an IT pro can list, the more opportunities will become available.

Emison typically derides job requirements in any form, but he said he wants to know that a collaborator or employee is, above all, nimble-minded and self-challenging.

"You want to continuously improve yourself," Emison said. "The best practices way of [deploying in the cloud] in a year and 24 months will have substantial changes. You have to be willing to believe whatever you're doing right now in cloud will be thought of as a [poor] way to set up the cloud in 12, 18, 24 months. If you don't have people with that attitude, you are going to get stuck. It changes so rapidly. You've got to be willing to continually change."

Skills rule the roost in AWS careers

Amazon offers five options for AWS certification: Associate-level certifications for solutions architects, SysOp administrators and developers; and Professional-level certifications for solutions architects and DevOps engineers.

AWS certifications are viewed by many as a benchmark for qualified candidates. They are not, however, golden tickets to a new or better job.

If you are an organization, and your goal is to change what you are doing now, then you really need to have high talent and real subject matter expertise. It can't just be certifications.
Joe EmisonCTO at BuildFax

"I think the right way to think about certification is that it might be a low bar," according to Emison. "In the absence of any other ability to vet candidates, it would be good to [evaluate certifications]."

Vendor bias can contribute to poorly executed cloud deployments. In some cases, an AWS- recommended approach may not fit a business' needs.

Amazon certifications aren't really a good indicator of best practices, Emison said. "If you are an organization, and your goal is to change what you are doing now, then you really need to have high talent and real subject matter expertise. It can't just be certifications."

Still, at an affordable price for many job seekers, it's likely a good idea to get certified, as employers have a hard enough time evaluating candidates' abilities.

"[Employers] don't have a good way to judge those skill sets yet," Brooks said. "[Certifications] show that you have the ability to show up and pass a written test. It's probably not a bad idea to pick up a few, if you can pass a test and gain those basic skills."

That's no guarantee, however, that a candidate can actually perform their necessary job functions. Emison said he asks conceptual cloud questions when evaluating potential employees, and many businesses conduct a technical challenge to make sure a candidate possesses the necessary skills.

The ultimate motto for a candidate might be summed up bluntly by Brooks: "The ultimate expression of cloud computing is, 'Put up or shut up.'"

David Carty is the associate site editor for SearchAWS. Write to him at [email protected] or follow @DCartyTT on Twitter.

Next Steps

Certifications, labs build better clouds

Fast track your career with an AWS education

Cloud career opportunities growing for job searchers

Dig Deeper on AWS support, licensing and SLAs