Cloud computing is such a standard part of IT at this point that you might think you already know what cloud architects do. If you're considering whether cloud architecture is an IT career path that might interest you, it helps to talk to people who are doing this job.
To find out more about this role, I spoke to several cloud solutions architects at Red Hat and Microsoft. They shared how they got started, the advice they'd share with aspiring architects, and the state of the field now. As you'll read, their personal convictions play a huge part in their role in designing solutions for their customers and advocating for equal resources for all, no matter where they sit on the map.
We're publishing this article in February in honor of Black History Month in the United States. Olu Oteniya from Red Hat and Arsene Nsaha and James Genus from Microsoft are not only experienced cloud solutions architects and leaders but are also Black IT professionals. While February is designated on the calendar as a celebration of the history of Black American and African culture and the breakthroughs of the civil rights movement, history is still being made.
Let's look at how these three cloud architects are making their mark.
What is a cloud solutions architect?
As the name suggests, cloud solutions architects specialize in the architecture of different cloud environments. But they also act as a bridge between building the architecture and interacting with the customer.
This entails much more than just leading a transaction between the customer and the vendor. It's about being able to connect with the person sitting on the other side of the table in a way that resonates best with them specifically.
How did you get started in cloud architecture?
Olu Oteniya, Senior Architect, Red Hat: I learned early as a young child that to be successful, one must be willing to work hard to accomplish their goals. Becoming a cloud architect takes time and a lot of hard work. It's also essential you have a mentor who is willing to guide you; there are so many things to learn in the technology space that if you are not careful, you become a jack of all trades and master of none. I was fortunate to have good mentors who guided me on the right path early in my career.
I have a strong background in application development and now specialize in container applications. Aside from my technical skills, a soft skill that I take incredible pride is in my love for supporting other people. Being able to meet people where they are is an incredible attribute to have, especially as a cloud architect, because it makes it easier to help your customers get the most out of their investment in adopting cloud infrastructure. For so many organizations, adoption is a huge step. It's my job to take my strong technical background and help make their transition easier.
Arsene Nsaha, Cloud Solution Architect, Microsoft: One of my first roles was working as a software engineer at a startup I founded with a few close friends, where I focused primarily on developing software. After growing my skillset there, I soon moved on to other software-focused endeavors. Now that I am in my current role as a cloud solutions architect, I can truly see the value of having a background in engineering and software development, because they both play such a crucial role in architecting solutions for the cloud.
I started at Microsoft as a customer engineer. I quickly discovered I could combine my background in development to supplement my work as a cloud solution architect because it allowed me to create good technical solutions for customers. A cloud solution architect is responsible for strategy, sales motion, and driving consumption and adoption.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my role as a cloud solutions architect is that I'm in constant motion—just like the world we live in. I have to work efficiently and build fast. To be a cloud solutions architect means you have to design flexible solutions with the expectation that business goals could change at any time.
James Genus, Cloud Solution Architect, Microsoft: When I was mid-career, I had a neighbor who told me I'd make a great sales engineer—a typical first step for many solutions architects. I was a system administrator at the time and didn't know a thing about sales engineering. But I was curious and liked to learn, so I went for it. It was a great experience and gave me an early taste of thinking in solutions.
As a father with young children, I realized that technology was one thing and my family was quite another. Being with my family is where I wanted to devote my energy. I appreciated what technology can do. I liked to solve problems and automate as much as possible. I discovered the more I automated, the more time I was able to spend with my family. So, over time I moved from system administration to consulting and finally to solution architecture. I've been growing in this role ever since.
What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a cloud architect?
Olu Oteniya: As more and more organizations adopt the cloud as their new datacenters, there is a high demand for professionals who understand cloud architecture and the tools and techniques to enable full adoption of secure cloud-native deployments. For instance, one of the significant challenges the financial services industries (FSIs) have with the cloud is security. So, cloud architects and security analysts have an important role to play. I recommend that anyone interested in getting involved with the cloud equip themselves with a thorough understanding of security and its essential place within every technology process, not just the cloud.
James Genus: Helping people understand what cloud technology can do for them was my professional calling. Understanding your calling, and what gets you out of bed in the morning, is the first step in exploring a career in cloud computing. Then research where the demand lies. Even in something as vast as the cloud, there will always be a human need. However, remember to not neglect your own needs as a human being.
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Arsene Nsaha: Take advantage of the resources, workshops, and certifications your organization offers. Also, don't be afraid to explore certification opportunities external to your company. Having a variety of certifications not only reassures your customers and your IT decision-maker colleagues that you commonly work with that you know what you're doing, but it also helps you keep your skills sharp and relevant to current technologies. In an era of constant digital transformation, and with cloud computing leading the way, cloud architects are expected to be one step ahead of innovation.
Communication is key for succeeding in the architect role. You have to adapt your communication to your audience. When I'm talking to executives, I'm presenting competitive analyses and discussing long-term visions and strategies. When I'm talking to marketing people, I'm trying to tell a story and paint a vivid picture. When collaborating with my architect and engineer peers, I can be as technical as I want. What technical language you speak depends on what kind of person you're talking to.
What do you think is most valuable about cloud architecture?
Olu Oteniya: Cloud is all about cost optimization and agility from business perspectives. Cloud architecture has empowered organizations to adapt and respond quickly to ever-changing business environments. However, organizations need to understand that technology is not the only way to drive value. Achieving cloud adoption also involves organizational change management, people, process, and cultural perspectives. Unfortunately, organizations often pay too much attention to the technology aspect and focus less on the need to reengineer their existing practices to suit effective cloud operations. It is like putting new wine into old bottles.
James Genus: My father used to say computers are meant to serve people. If you appreciate technology for the way it can transform lives, working in the cloud is pretty gratifying. Because of the cloud, anyone with an idea can go from idea to expression in a way that was not possible in the past. You used to have to be pretty well off to even afford a computer. Now, the barrier to entry is lower; it's not zero, but it's low enough that if you put in the work, you can pursue your ambitions.
The cloud also puts resources in the hands of people in places such as Africa who historically have been disconnected from technological innovation. Thanks to the cloud, people who may not ordinarily have had access to technology have access to it in a way they never have before. To me, that is powerful.
Arsene Nsaha: I often refer to the cloud as the great equalizer. The person who owns a tiny shop can have the same access to cloud services and quality of service as a large corporation. That is the powerful story behind the cloud: it empowers people and gives everyone the option of using what they need in a way that best suits their needs. The cloud is something that's financially viable and gives everyone the opportunity to expand and grow at their own pace and in a more efficient way—and my role allows me to be a key part of that.
Representation is important
As a Black woman working in the technology space, I know what it feels like to not see very many other people who look like you in the room. Meeting with Olu, Arsene, James, and other Black IT professionals reminds me that I, too, can be anything I aspire and work hard to be. By sharing their impact on the industry and their organizations, I hope to encourage the next generation of architects to understand the plethora of options available as they pursue their dreams.