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Virtualization jobs demand continuing education

Virtualization and cloud technologies change fast, so keep your skills up to date if you want to land your next IT job.

As technology changes, so too do the skills required to be a successful IT professional. Among the fastest changing are server and virtualization jobs. So, this month we're asking our Advisory Board members how they keep their skills fresh and the advice they have for IT professionals looking to land a job. What trends or potential future changes should prospective employees be looking at or preparing for? And, what other skills or traits would be important if you were looking to hire someone?

Brian Kirsch, Milwaukee Area Technical College

The days of server and desktop hardware repair are simply going away, or already gone -- and the hardware-focused IT career paths are going with it. Vendor hardware platforms are a commodity and desktops are disposable -- or replaced by thin clients. Even storage is changing, from the enterprise frames to the hyper-converged platforms.

Virtualization software made hardware a commodity and now software is taking the data center from something unique to a commodity that is exchangeable between on premise and the cloud. With technologies changing so rapidly, the traditional IT job has changed too. While keeping up can be a challenge, virtualization jobs can be very rewarding if you have the right skills.

One of the challenges in IT is to do more with fewer resources. This is where automation becomes so important. Being able to automate tasks and processes with Microsoft PowerShell or VMware Orchestrator are sought after skills with very high demand. With the right automation, a company can be more responsive to customer needs. Being more responsive with less manual effort is a win-win.

With all of the tools in use today, the true advantage comes with how they integrate. Unfortunately, with most tools, this is not as simple as it should be. Having exposure to a variety of operating systems and applications can help give you a step up in getting integrations to work seamlessly and providing true value to your business.

Container technology and other low profile systems are a growing trend. Docker, Nano Server and even Windows Core are all gaining ground and growing. Applications are center stage and the operating system has been pushed to the side. While Windows experts are still needed today, look for the numbers to start shrinking as the number of container experts continue to grow.

Business knowledge is an overlooked critical skill set. Having technical skills without understanding the business need creates a gap that can cause projects to fail. IT and the business need to be in lock-step, and that doesn't just mean the managers.

Be a lifelong learner. IT has shown us is that nothing stands still for very long. Technology and business continue to advance at breakneck speed. Training and more training showcase the desire to learn.

The last piece of the puzzle is the certification or degree question. Making the leap from industry to teaching gives me a unique viewpoint. Certifications show a person's knowledge and mastery of a particular skill set or topic, while a college degree reflects a broader base of knowledge in a topic or field of study. We have all seen the college student with no practical skills or the person who is incredibly good at technology but comes with horrible professional skills. With that being said, get a degree and the necessary certifications for a balanced approach. Computer science or IT management degrees gives you a great base. As far as the certifications, VMware, Cisco, Microsoft and EMC are all solid choices, but if you want to stand out, look at adding a security certification, such as CompTIA Security+. With today's need and focus on data protection everyone needs security knowledge.

Adam Fowler, Piper Alderman

Experience trumps all, and if you don't have some sort of experience around cloud technologies on your resume, there's very little chance you'll land an interview. However, simply having the word "cloud" appear all over your resume isn't the best idea either as it will seem like you're just pushing a buzzword.

If your experience is at the lower end of the scale with newer technologies don't forget about older technologies that still fall under the cloud category, such as email filtering, file storage and Google Apps.

Almost everyone in the general IT industry should have some sort of virtualization experience, with the only exception being candidates looking for an entry-level virtualization job. Even in this case, it can help to have home lab experience that you could mention at a formal interview when asked what you do in your spare time. If you aren't confident, do some training and get credentials. Having an entry level VMware or Microsoft virtualization certification is a lot better than nothing at all.

Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services are the two of the hottest hosted platforms, and you may be able to show some proficiency by completing free training, such as the "Microsoft Virtual Academy" to show an understanding of these key technologies and display your interest in learning.

At the interview

One of the key abilities I look for in an interview is a fundamental understanding of the technologies. A candidate's answers should be reasonably confident and well thought out. Explaining the advantages, and disadvantages, of cloud or virtualization should be easy. If you don't know these, then you don't understand them.

Unless you're going for a highly-specialized role or providing direct services to clients, I am not fussy about what certifications you hold. Having a sound understanding of the technologies, showing that you have great troubleshooting abilities and the capacity to learn quickly are more valuable in my eyes. Communication and interpersonal skills are always highly regarded and just as important as technical skills. If you're a VMware guru, but don't tell anyone what you're changing, I would consider you a risk to the business. Everyone is part of a team, and having a lone wolf will usually cause issues for the rest of the team.

A level-headed approach to problems is another trait I regard highly. Although many people cringe at ITIL, it offers a troubleshooting methodology that I agree with and it should be used in most scenarios.

As long as you show an interest in technology and can answer questions about where you think technology is heading in a sensible way, I don't think there's a particular technology to focus on. Technology is always changing, which is why it's important to keep your finger on the pulse of what's new.

Rob McShinsky, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

If you are thinking about an exciting 9-to-5 job in the virtualization or cloud field, you should stop and think of something else. If you are looking for a career in a field where you want to be constantly learning and updating your skills and are comfortable knowing that every five years or so you might be working with something completely different, then pull up a seat. So how do you get there? Gaining and updating knowledge, for me, comes down to three main areas.

Education: Books, classes, whitepapers and blogs are all great resources. There are many free training opportunities with hours of instruction, including YouTube and more structured training, like the Microsoft Virtual Academy or Channel 9. Those online resources, combined with classes focused on certification goals and rounded off with expert blogs will give you a good base to follow the technology. Start your own blog too, and document what you're learning. This will solidify your skills and help others. I do believe certifications are important in this field and all of the major hypervisor and cloud providers offer a certification path. While not a new technology, virtualization may still be new to many managers, and having a virtualization-related certification will earn you some points on your resume.

Home lab: Lab environments are critical to testing and gaining experience. Lab environments can do so much more these days, now that ESXi 6.0 and Windows Server 2016 allow you to nest VMs under a single physical host. This allows for some advanced scenarios that you were previously never able to replicate. Get something as small as an Intel NUC, give it some RAM, and maybe an external hard drive and you have a powerful learning tool.

Connections: Find your local or regional virtualization and cloud groups and get involved. Like any profession, it is more who you know than what you know. Make those connections. People you meet at networking events and user groups are like-minded people in your new career that may help you find new opportunities.

I do not know one successful virtualization/cloud engineer whose work is not also his hobby. If the virtualization/cloud field is where you want to be, you cannot be afraid of change or new technologies and philosophies. Virtualization jobs require constant learning and self-improvement, but it's a great ride.

Jim O'Reilly, Volanto

IT has lost a bit of its luster as a place to find a secure, high-paying job. With more organizations standardizing on off-the-shelf gear, the cloud and automation taking hold, the future of IT administrators is looking much different.

What is happening is rapid change. While some classes of virtualization jobs are going away, others are opening up.

We are about to see a revolution, as software-defined everything takes over the data center. There will be a good growth market in software-defined storage and networking and skills will be in demand.

Cloud experience is going to be valuable for a while. Moving data, managing data lifecycles and building automation are skills that will grow in demand. Containers, rather than traditional hypervisors, are the next wave and a valuable skill to learn.

There are niche expertises for more advanced coders. Speech recognition will finally make inroads in many markets in the next decade, while, based on patent activity, video will be a hot area.

The end of legacy IT should drive a large job pool, while transitions to the cloud and to software as a service will create work for system administrators with experience handling those technologies. Overall, the emphasis from the CEO down will be "agility," and learning how to respond to market forces, changing environments, and department demands. Being up to date on trends and new technical approaches is generally a good bet, especially if tied to practical value improvement. Even CIOs can increase their value by being on the ball and relevant.

Another trend to consider is that the demand for COBOL skills is rising, because we are starting serious migration of legacy code to standard systems. Combined with good C-skills, this will be useful in a career converting and modernizing the 400 billion lines of COBOL that's still in use.

If we look a bit beyond purely programming skills, big data can generate some interesting skills and experience profiles. The highest paid IT people in big data will be compute unified device architecture coders with strong math skills and expertise or experience in marketing, psychology, analytics and fuzzy databases.

Next Steps

Should I get a virtualization certification?

Virtualization cost saving approaches to help you do more with less

The next generation of virtualization job skills

This was last published in December 2015

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