WAR FOR TALENT

How Amazon's AWS hires for and develops hard-to-find cloud skills

AWS HR executive Ian Wilson explains the dominant cloud player's approach to talent development

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A man steps onto a conference venue escalator with a giant AWS logo in the background
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Photo: Noah Berger/AWS (Reuters)

In a 2022 survey of US technologists and tech leaders, the area identified as having the biggest skills gap was cybersecurity—no surprise, given the geopolitical climate. But only slightly less concerning to the 700 respondents was the availability of expertise in cloud computing.

The survey, conducted by the online tech education company Pluralsight, suggests the next several years will see a continuation of the mad dash for talent to keep servers, networks, apps, and storage sites running, even if the broader tech industry keeps retrenching after years of headcount expansion.

As vice president of human resources at Amazon Web Services, which is the largest provider of cloud infrastructure, Ian Wilson has a front-row seat to the scramble for cloud skills. We asked him to describe the view for us.

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Quartz: What’s the biggest challenge right now in finding the talent AWS needs for its cloud business?

Ian Wilson: The skills gap remains a challenge for AWS, as well as for our customers and partners. Enterprise adoption of cloud infrastructure continues to grow; Gartner predicts more than half of enterprise IT spending will shift to the cloud by 2025, resulting in $1.8 trillion in spending, up from $1.3 trillion in 2022. This means we need more talent to meet the growing demand in the long term.

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It’s a supply and demand issue, and we have to build the supply so we can continue delivering for our customers, and so they can continue to innovate in the cloud. We do this by launching programs that provide new skills for the public and developing alternative pipelines, or engaging people with nontraditional tech backgrounds. Many of our roles do not require a college degree, allowing us to open up our talent pipeline to an even broader audience.

Is higher education preparing people for jobs in cloud technology? Or are these skills better learned on the job or in bootcamps, training programs, and the like?

Headshot of AWS human resources VP Ian Wilson
Ian Wilson
Photo: Courtesy of AWS
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The answer is not one (relying on higher education to prepare people for cloud jobs) or the other (on-the-job learning). We have to invest in both, and several other areas, to address the challenge.

At AWS, we work with higher ed institutions to prepare students for cloud careers. For example, AWS Academy provides higher education institutions with free, ready-to-teach cloud computing curricula that prepare students to pursue industry-recognized AWS certifications and in-demand jobs. Most recently, we announced a new educator enablement program that helps minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) teach database, artificial intelligence, and machine learning concepts.

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We’ve also been partnering with community colleges across the US to launch the Grow Your Own Talent program, which offers classroom and on-the-job trainings to students, high school or college graduates, current Amazon employees, or cleared professionals. Our goal is to place them in cloud computing roles after they complete the program. It’s been effective at providing new skills for entry-level candidates with nontraditional backgrounds.

What changes have you seen in the past year or more in terms of how people are coming into the industry?

We see that more people are aware of the value of digital skills. According to a recent study by Gallup and AWS, nearly all participants (98%) agree that training in digital skill has benefited their careers. Also, workers with intermediate skills—including understanding of cloud concepts and ability to use tools like drag-and-drop websites—earned 40% more than individuals with basic digital skills, like email and word processing.

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While it’s welcoming news that more people want to pursue a career in cloud computing, we can’t leave it to best intentions. That’s why in 2020, we committed to providing free cloud computing training to 29 million people globally by 2025 and have reached 13 million people since then.

We also notice that employees at Amazon are taking advantage of upskilling opportunities to transition into cloud careers.

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We encourage anyone and everyone to learn about the cloud. It’s never too early or too late to do it.

What else is on your mind these days when it comes to staffing in this sector?

As we build the cloud talent of the future, we must ensure we create inclusive cultures where people from all backgrounds and life experiences can thrive, and develop diverse pipelines to reach underrepresented talent. As a global company, we need diverse teams to help us think bigger, and differently, about the products and services that we build for our customers all over the world.

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We offer more than 500 free, on-demand courses in more than 15 languages on AWS Skill Builder, which is available in more than 200 countries and territories. We also work with organizations around the world to offer AWS re/Start in more than 180 cities and 60 countries. AWS re/Start is a free, cohort-based workforce development training program that helps individuals build cloud computing skills and connects participants with employment.