Using the Cloud as a Career Development Tool

Photo by Kevin Dooley
Photo by Kevin Dooley

This year, I presented at a session at the NTEN NTC designed by Idealware blogger Peter Campbell called Earth to Cloud: When, Why and How to Outsource Applications. The room was packed. I know “the cloud” is a buzz term right now. What particularly surprised me, though, is one of the topics we talked about the most at the session: email.

There was a mix of people in the room from organizations that ranged in size very large (50-100 or more users) to very small (5-10 users). I assumed that the small and medium-sized orgs would all have moved their email to free Google Apps by now. When we asked who was still running an in-house mail server, about half the room raised their hands! Whoah. Why?

What emerged in discussion was that though many techies themselves had been sold on migrating to the cloud, they had come up against logistical and cultural challenges that have kept them from doing it thus far. Peter shared that for him, the technical logistics of migrating about 175 users at Earthjustice is part of what’s held him up, but that he is interested in Google Apps and continues to evaluate when and if it might be feasible to make a move. For all sizes of orgs who had not yet moved their email to the cloud, session attendees reported other barriers that included (both valid and exaggerated) fears about data privacy and ownership, and cultural attachments to on-site servers and desktop email apps like Outlook.

In some cases, the overloaded techies just didn’t have the time yet to make the shift to the cloud, even though they wanted to. And this was an a-ha moment for me. Yes, outsourcing to the cloud can create efficiencies that give you more time and therefore increase your staff capacity. But in my experience, moving certain things to the cloud was actually a key to my own professional development.

At my last org—where we had 6-10 users at any given time—I first (pre-Apps) moved our email server onto our virtual server with our web site. We had an on-call server admin to help us run it. But even that level of cloud needed a lot of my attention. Spambots would take our server down. V1gara blither blather would annoy my staff, and some of the explicit emails that made it past our filters were actually upsetting. I didn’t enjoy babysitting my mail server and worrying about spam. Server management is not the best use of my skill set. It ate time when I could have been learning about and trying new tech things that were a better match for my abilities.

I used the opportunity to move to Google Apps as a way to shape my job responsibilities and get rid of the ones I didn’t want. I didn’t like having to be the one to draft bulk emails, either; ConstantContact was in the cloud, affordable, and had a UI that most of our staff could use, so I got rid of that task, too. What did I gain? More time to do things that the org really needed and that also interested me—like researching social networking trends and fundraising; planning and strategizing about how best to use tech to get our mission work done; re-building us a newer, better Drupal site. I know I was lucky that I had an Executive Director who gave me the room to run and let put the time in to manage migration to the cloud and the office changes that came with it. Even though it can feel like a Faustian bargain to use the cloud—with a lot of unanswered questions about privacy and ownership—my org's programs gained an innovative edge because we had time to put energy into mission work instead of just infrastructure.


Career development is double edged

A common theme with cloud based solutions is they tend to lower the requirements for IT resources (staff, budget, etc.). When you're a single IT staffer with three full time technology jobs and 25% of the budget you need, cutting that down to two full time jobs and 75% of the budget you need is very attractive.

When you've taken all the NTAP advice of the past decade to heart and have three staffers and a fully funded budget to maintain your on premise solutions, moving to the cloud might mean cutting an IT staff position. Sure saving money is good, but if the IT staffers are making that decision, they might not be as jazzed about letting someone go.

Though techies always need to keep up with technology, this is yet another reason that folks at the board and executive director level also need maintain "management awareness" of the cloud.

Clarification re earthjustice

Johanna - you're going to get me in trouble! :)  

I did talk about the challenges of moving an organization like mine -- ten offices, 175+ users (we swell up with interns in the summer), and the type of technology that integrates with MS Exchange -- versus those of a very small org.  And I did say that i'd love to see my org move to cloud solutions.  But I didn't say I have a plan to move us to Google Apps!  My exuberance for the idea, which smaller and/or less complex organizations can do, might have confused things.  But I am certainly advocating at work for cloud solutions, and waiting to see if Microsoft-compatible options grow up to an extent where we could take advantage of them.  And I'm taking on the bigger challenge of educating key constituents of my organization as to the benefits, as many of them, as we saw at the conference, still live in the "at my office - safe; in the cloud - at risk" mindset.

My take, as you know, is that we're at risk of hacking everywhere. And we're at risk of bad vendor contracts everywhere. And the cloud providers, once well-vetted for their backup and business continuity plans (as in, what happens to our data if they go under) might offer serious enough safeguards (redundancy/24/7 maintenance/more security expertise) to make them a clear choice.

I love making trouble for you, Peter...

...but I altered my sentence a tiny bit to be more accurate. Sorry! I know it's complex and there are many, many factors at play. I more wanted to say that your situation is complex but you have enthusiasm for the concept of the cloud... and cloud-filled dreams for the future, perhaps.