@ekassner , http://www.linkedin.com/in/ekassner

The modern business environment is calling for the new services and products which can help companies do four key things: empower employees, engage customers, optimize operations, and transform your product. To make this shift in priorities, businesses need to invest in the talent they need to stay ahead of the competition. This requires a new commitment to retention, to training, and to developing the products that will revolutionize businesses.

I recently spoke about how businesses can take advantage of this opportunity by bridging the skills gap and hiring the right talent on the latest episode of the Microsoft Partner Network podcast. Here’s a look at some key takeaways from that conversation.

Understanding the Source of the Skills Gap

The talent shortage in the tech industry, dubbed the skills gap, is a very real and pressing concern. As technology is changing so rapidly, with innovation in cloud technology, IoT, and even artificial intelligence, universities and employers are having a hard time keeping up.

As I describe on the podcast, it’s a triple problem. First, there are simply not enough skilled graduates coming out of universities and colleges to meet the demand for new talent. This is a real problem because we’re not getting enough new talent on the front end of the pipeline. Secondly, there are not enough mid-career IT professionals who are trained in the technologies we’re using today. And thirdly, there are too many professionals preparing to retire. These three elements are at the core of the skills gap and help explain why companies are struggling.

Additionally, when you think about how an individual builds a successful career, they work very hard for many years to become an expert at something. With the transformation brought on by cloud computing, those areas of expertise are changing almost too fast for even the experts to keep up. Employees are left asking, how do I stay relevant?

The answer is that the definition of being an expert has changed. Now it’s more important to know the value of your experience and to be adaptable enough to learn how you can transmute that experience into a new environment.

What Can Individuals Do?

From a professional’s perspective, it’s clear that staying current on the latest technologies is critical. Employees need to be able to learn the new technologies and even set aside time devoted to learning something new every week. Read, do something new, stay up to date on the changes in the industry. The truth is that these types of activities are no longer an extra, it’s part of your job.

These activities are not impossible and they are not without reward. This IDC study reported that within IT organizations, certified staff members earned 15% more on average than staff without certification. Skilled Azure professionals are highly sought after in the job market. Technical certification gives you opportunities for career advancement, higher salaries, and more interesting work. In a fast-moving economy, professionals need to be prepared to move quickly as well.

What Can Businesses Do?

Businesses can also play a key role in building a solution to their talent challenges. It’s clear, especially for our partners, that businesses need to focus on their ability to hire, detect, build, support, foster, and retain talent. It all comes back to the talent. Being able to see which employees have the potential to grow with the market, then investing in their long-term success is the likely answer.

Companies can do this in these three ways.

1. Invest in Documentation and Resources

The first step toward mastering a new skill is reading. To encourage individuals to expand their knowledge, businesses can help by providing the resources and the documentation that employees can use to expand their knowledge.

2. Encourage Specialized Learning

The second step to bridging the skills gap is for individuals to attend courses. These courses can be in a traditional academic setting or something more flexible like those available online. Our Azure Skills MOOCs are a great example of this. Online courses are great for another reason which is that they are more easily updated. This makes it easier for students to focus on learning the latest and greatest skills the industry requires, and to focus on the learnings that are most relevant to them and their career.

3. Find Value in Certification

Employers who hire professionals with certification or even provide opportunities for mid-career employees to participate in boot camps and certification programs can realize great value from the advanced skills of those employees. These programs allow individuals to really go deep on a subject and even build the new products or optimize the operations that will transform a business.

Tune in to Learn More

To hear the last two ways businesses can work toward bridging the skills gap, listen to the latest episode of the Microsoft Partner Network podcast. Subscribe to the podcast for weekly downloads of our conversations with industry experts and thought leaders on the cutting edge of business and technology. Past episodes are available for download on iTunesSoundCloudiHeartRadioGoogle Play Music, and YouTube.

And don’t forget to leave us a review!

Connect with other partners in the Microsoft Partner Community to share your thoughts on the podcast and share your solutions to this issue.

Rachel Braunstein: Welcome to the Microsoft Partner Network Podcast. Every week, we bring in industry leaders and Microsoft partners to talk about the big ideas shaping business and technology today.

Today, we’re sitting down with Eduardo Kassner, Director of Strategy and Innovation for the One Commercial Partner Group. We’re going to talk about the skills gap and how businesses can make sure they hire the right talent. Hey, Eduardo, thanks for coming in on this Friday. How’s it going?

Eduardo Kassner: It’s a pleasure to be here. Wonderful. Thank you so much for having me here.

Braunstein: Eduardo, you came into the Partner Group probably in, what, the last year or so.

Kassner: Yep.

Braunstein: Created the Cloud and Data Services Solution Architecture. So, you really understand that development and that side. Tell us a little bit more about you so the audience knows who Eduardo is.

Kassner: So, I started working in Mexico. I studied in the U.S. And the really fun part is that when I started, IT was just taking off in the outsourcing world. So, I spent a lot of years imagining environments and outsourcing. Then I came to work for Microsoft and worked in virtualization, datacenter optimization, a ton of really fun projects. But what’s really cool about five years ago started to work in a company to define what a cloud architect was. So, obviously a lot of people called them Cloud Architects, Solution Architecture, etc., data architecture but it was a really exciting time because the cloud brought a couple of really interesting problems. There were a lot of moving components, a ton of innovation. Even now, I mean, the amount of stuff coming out of the pipeline is really hard to keep up with. So, it stretched the skills, the talent, the ability, the definition of what an expert is. So, about four or five years ago started to define what is an architect? What are the different types of architecture? Then, how do you hire somebody to help a customer? Help somebody envision what they could build in the cloud? We did that; we hired about a thousand five hundred of them worldwide. Really, really interesting project. They created one of the largest communities of cloud solution architects in the world which still today is really one of the top generating solutions and patterns engine that I’ve seen in my life. It’s incredible the amount of innovation coming out of this group. So, I was there for a couple of years and then I moved here to the Partner Group. And I’m super excited to now help our partners develop the same muscles.

Braunstein: You know, we hear and we listen to our partners and you read about this talent gap. There’s not enough people coming out into the workforce, younger people that have the right skills for the kind of jobs that are going to be in the future. It’s a real problem. What do you think some of those biggest challenges are in the industry and how partners can start to think about that?

Kassner: Well, there’s some really interesting studies. In fact, yesterday I was reading a study about Australia. Three months ago, I’m not kidding, I was reading a study about Central and Eastern Europe. And the U.S. has done several studies. And they all hinge on pretty much three or four ideas. The first one is we don’t have enough people going through university in the careers that would land them on an IT skills job that the industry could use. So, that’s a real problem because we’re not getting enough people to work from the front end of the pipeline. In the middle you say there’s not enough people in the IT labor workforce today with the necessary skills to develop on the new platforms that we’re building. So, that’s the second one. And the third one is there’s a significant amount of the workforce that is retiring as well. So, then you have a triple problem, right? But the talent skills gap is also, I would say—and that’s why I said there’s a couple of angles to this. It also comes from two more angles. If you will, the fourth angle is a lot of people build their careers on being the experts on something. And that something, anything, if you say on ERP, if you say building Line of Business applications, managing a large computer environment, whatever—that’s changing with the cloud severely. And so some people are questioning what am I going to do now? Am I going to be out of a job? How do I reskill myself? How do I retool myself? But I think the fifth side to this is what really becomes interesting. People are successfully navigating, are successfully developing skills, are finding that the definition of being an expert has actually changed. It’s not so much that you’re an expert at one thing is that you know, have enough experience—I’ll give you an example—of managing a professional grade, enterprise, production ready environment. Example—a hospital. Example—an airport. It’s not just oh, yeah, if it falls down I don’t sell anymore whatevers. No, this is very serious stuff. You have that experience and it’s invaluable. Everybody wants that. So, a lot of the workforce has these really valuable skills that they’re not seeing as critical but everybody needs them. And then second, to be mutable enough, to be changeable enough, to be adaptable enough to say now I have to learn new technologies. I have to learn them faster. And I have to embed learning into my own week. Not as part of a special event in my month or in my six months. It’s in my week. It has to be a continuous development.

Braunstein: It’s literally updating and changing every single moment. You have to be learning constantly.

Kassner: And if you do that—which is not impossible. I’ll give you an example. I set myself apart from my week a probably a good chunk of hours. I mean, I don’t know if I would tell you two to five hours a week that I read, that I view, and that I practice. So, I try to balance those three things. I try to do a lab every now and then at least once a week on something that interests me. I try to read a couple of really interesting articles or books or whatever it is, just dedicate some time. Professional—and at the same time, I like to see what’s happening in the industry, stay up to date, and do some analysis. So, it’s important to see that that’s not an extra. That is part of your job in any role that you are in.

Braunstein: Right. Doesn’t matter.

Kassner: No. In fact, the more specific you are, the more you need to do that. Let me take you on a small journey. There’s something that people don’t associate with talent and I’d love for you to let me take you on this visualization.

Braunstein: Take me on the journey.

Kassner: So, I believe that the way that customers, people buy today has changed dramatically. I believe that it’s changed because we’re all now very resilient to hey, can I go pitch you for an hour? You’re like no. You see? It’s immediate. It’s like anybody would tell you no, I don’t want to hear about that. But, yet, if you say hey, I know you have this problem. Can I show you how I solved it with somebody else? You’re intrigued. And then I have the permission to go pitch you, to go show you. But I can’t show you generically how my solution will solve whatever, right, the cosmos. It’s more of an oh, so you understand the problem that I might have.

Braunstein: Well, it’s telling a story.

Kassner: There you go. And it’s going to tell me how somebody else solved it. So, that’s called envisioning. That’s called visualization. And in order to visualize, you’ve got to be able to listen and build a sample, not build a presentation. That’s where skills come in. So, it’s no more be able to just tell the story—that’s very important—it’s being able to tell the story while showing success, visualizing it. Being able to then get permission to build a plan. Nobody has patience anymore for three, five, ten year projects. So, you’ve got to be able to deliver within a year. Which remember, three years ago or five years ago doing a three-year project was not that alien, was not that strange. You’re like hey, I’m doing a massive replatforming blah, blah, it’s going to take me multiyear. People got it. Well, now you say that and they’re like okay, how many months? And last but not least, be able to replicate success. Not be a one-time wonder. With that said, that creates tremendous pressure whether it be for internal organizations or mostly for our partners to hire—so be able to detect—build, support, foster and retain talent. See, I’m coming full circle now. But if you don’t—if you can’t detect talent—and talent is not out there. We just said there’s a deep shortage. So, how do you detect what is the basic skills, the basic experiences, the basic traits that somebody has so that then you can invest on them, they can invest in themselves, and grow the right skills to be applicable for whatever task is at hand in the cloud or whatever and be able to turn that into a profitable model that is replicated and optimized so that you don’t come back out of every project with your tongue out and going like oh, I made it. And so it all falls on talent. It all falls on there’s a really deep shortage of talent and if we don’t learn how to detect it.

Braunstein: So, how do you detect the right talent or nurture the right talent? Develop them into what we need them to be?

Kassner: So, it starts with—I love it when people tell me, so, where’d you get a thousand five hundred cloud architects? I didn’t. I found a thousand five hundred amazing IT people with deep consultancy skills with coding experience, with infrastructure experience, with virtualization experience, with scripting experience. Those skills that are out there that had the desire to grow. That had the desire to learn. That had the desire to develop. And then what we did is we created, and in fact we just launched this, a very large campaign where we did a seven step process. We recognize that there’s a journey that people go through in developing their talent. So, this is where you start saying well, you’re talking about the learner, not the company, not the customer, not the project. Well, if the person doesn’t have this journey, they’re not going to continuously learn and then, again, everything else is hindered. So, it starts by—and think to yourself—when you want to go deep in something, like how did you become professionally so good at what you do? Well, at some point, you start by reading. And this is not at some point back in college or back in—no, no, no, no. Any topic that you’re doing right now. You start by going somewhere and reading. So, you have to have a good platform of documentation. The investment we’re doing in Azure is an example, in Office 365, for documentation is massive. So, you can go and read and research. The second step is attending courses and here is a problem. The structure of courses today if you think only about on premise courses, they’re really hard to keep up-to-date versus the huge amount of innovation that’s coming out of platforms like the cloud, like Azure. And so we went to online courses. But even online courses have different formats. And again, people don’t talk about this. There’s the two-hour let me show you a video and some people run through slides which, think of a nurse. You don’t learn how to be a nurse by doing that.

Braunstein: No. You’ve got to do it.

Kassner: So, that will just take the curiosity out of you. That will just get you started on the journey. It’s an introduction. Then we created and worked on MOOCs. Massive Online Open Courses and we just delivered a massive amount of them. 30 something—they’re all free. Each one can go from 6 to 18 hours. The beauty of the courses we deliver is that we don’t make you go through the 18 hours. You can navigate through whatever part of the content that is relevant to your job. I’ll give you an example—you’re a network engineer. You can grab the Azure Networking Course and you don’t have to go through the 18 hours. You can see the two reading assignments and a lab. You can do two hours. You can do five hours. You can just go straight to the exams. It’s up to you. It’s depending on the task that you want to achieve versus what I want you to learn and I will need you to pass through everything.

Braunstein: Very customized.

Kassner: It’s up to you.

Braunstein: Which you need. You need kind of those specialization moments.

Kassner: And you need to go deep. Because, let’s be serious, at some point, somebody says enough, right? I mean, I’ve gotten it. They got the intro. I actually have a task and I need to get guidance on it. This sequence is not necessarily for everybody. It’s not that everybody goes through every step, right? The next is the certification and we’ve invested massively in trying to keep updated our certification. We’re investing quarterly on that. We reduced the cost of our certification significantly and build packages for, again, Azure, data platform, etc. Then we’ve created events. Events as in there’s Ignite, there’s regional events. There’s regional boot camps or regional airlifts. And there’s a boot camp that we built for people that want to come to Redmond and spend the week with engineering. Quite deep. It’s based on engineering presenting. So, sometimes it’s introductory; sometimes it can go deeper. But the point is there’s a lot of hands on. There’s moments where people do whiteboard design sessions and design solutions with somebody from engineering alongside. And they do hackathons where they build some of these solutions out.

Braunstein: Do you think some of those labs and hackathons are some of the best ways to get your talent to learn and try?

Kassner: You know, it’s awesome. Everybody says yes. I would tell you that it’s a journey because if you don’t read before, if you don’t prep before.

Braunstein: You need to get the basics.

Kassner: If you’re at that stage, yeah. Somebody that’s very deep, they’re going to say just hackathon me out. Just do hackathons from here until Friday. Awesome that we’re on Friday but yes. But you have to balance it out. Because how do you then get the strategy and the thinking of the person that’s building the direction? You see what I’m saying? So, you need a little bit of balance. In fact in that event, as an example, we also have a lot of Q&A sessions. A lot of people say well, Q&A—well, if you ask really interesting insightful questions, a Q&A session can be even more impactful than a structured presentation because you can really go deep in some of the aspects. A presentation is linear. It’s whatever the presenter wants to assign importance to the topic versus you can take Q&A a lot of depth. So, all these sessions depend on the type and the depth that you invest in it as well. Last three steps are for me something that some of the communities have invested on, some haven’t, but the most important because I hope you agree with me that that’s when you call somebody an expert. You see, the next one would be participate in a community or lead a community. Then it’s teach somebody or support somebody.

Braunstein: If you can teach somebody that’s the best form.

Kassner: But see how immediate that was. I mean look how you reacted. Immediately. It’s like once somebody helps you do something, you’re like wow. That person really knows.

Braunstein: And it helps me because if I can teach you, I know what I know.

Kassner: Well, when you have to go teach somebody, the preparation you give yourself is very different. And it goes way deeper because then you’ve got concern about all kinds of directions on the topic. I used to have a professor in the university that said something really interesting—you don’t come to class for me to teach you the subject and get homework. You do the homework before the class. You learn the subject before the class. You come to class to discuss. And he actually made it so and it was really hard but you know what? It made me learn that you don’t know until you’re able to teach and then/or do a job. So, it’s not necessarily to teach but if you can do it professionally, that’s the last grade. Now every method I told you, it’s not for everybody. Some people say you know what? I don’t like events or I don’t like exams or my method of learning is reading.

Braunstein: I’m thinking of like a small business. If you are a small business, maybe you have 10 people, how do you—if you have 10 people or five people or eight—how do you support them through that journey? Is there certain angles on that or certain skills that if you’re a smaller business that you should think about? Or every single person in the technical, this is the kind of journey that is ultimately going to make your business thrive?

Kassner: A lot of the journey is led by your success. So, let me a little pragmatic by my answer versus being generic. If you’re a super successful software development house that’s building a data warehousing solution, a visualization, guess which technologies you’re going to go deep on and then guess what you’re going to need, right? But if you’re a company that’s having tremendous success on migration of virtual machines to the cloud, then you’re going to be very infrastructure focused. If you’re a management services provider and then what you do is you manage environments for somebody else and the automation of environments, the operation and SLA, etc. So, I think that number one, you detecting that niche on the market where you can build your success. I’m going to give you an awesome example. I was talking to a partner of ours. They told me we actually invest in some projects. As in we go to the customer and we say you know what? This project is super cool. We want to pay for it. So, we’ll pay for our services and you’ll get it for zero but we keep the IP. And then what they do is they package the IP and then resell it.

Braunstein: Resell it, yeah.

Kassner: I’m not saying that this is an equation for success but I’m trying to tell you that then that would mean that the vertical industry knowledge is key on that one. So, you see, I don’t want to bound my answer to tell you this is the equation because it’s really bound on what’s your specialization. Sorry, you just reminded me, there’s another really cool example. I was talking to a partner who’s been doing security as in penetration testing and firewalls and identity intrusion and a lot of the auditing and a lot of the really forensic interesting work in that space. And they went super deep on data and analytics. Super deep. And you would say, well, that’s a spin off. No, it’s such a natural progression once you think about it, right? But what they’re doing is they’re automating a log analysis and threat analysis to the maximum degree through data scientists and mathematicians. They’re actually doing some really interesting work.

Braunstein: What matters here is that you focus in on what you think your business needs.

Kassner: And you focus on your target audience.

Braunstein: Right. Where can you thrive? What is your customer need? Where skillsets need to go?

Kassner: And you foster them and you invest in them and you see them as part of the business. You see, I think this podcast for me is not only very near and dear to my heart, I believe in investing in people. And I believe in listening to people. That sounds like yes, everybody would say yes to that, but you know what? There’s some people that learn better one way, the other. Be flexible. There’s some people that need more time, less, be flexible. Learn what’s the investment that you need because before it was a location, an automation, and machines and people came second; I’m talking about industrial revolution. Now you’re saying, why did you go so far back? Because right now it’s all about people. I mean, three people with incredible ideas change the world and how many examples do we have of that? Tremendous amounts. So, it’s all about investing in them but that also means that you have to listen and see styles and so it’s fastening that this has taken front and center. Your ability to—and this is the main topic—your ability to convert the tremendous amount of innovation that’s coming at everybody which is too much, too hard, too difficult. Your ability to digest it, converting it to a practical solution will be the difference of you being successful. And that can be on a vertical. That can be on a horizontal technology. It can be on a combination. But it is that ability to decode all the stuff coming in and build a solution for the problem that we face. Rolls Royce example with engines for airplanes, building them and doing predictive maintenance. Uber—I mean, you can grab any example. So, I grabbed two from both ends of the spectrum. Any which one you have. I was seeing one last week which is near and dear to my life and close to tears. So, detection of cancer is really hard because you have to do pattern image recognition. So, the doctor’s see the MRI data and they see a thousand pictures and they have to put them together and place them and see them one by one and do pattern recognition on each one of the pictures to understand what’s a tumor, what’s not, what to work on. And a machine today can do that recognition and provide a tremendously accurate model and it’s just fascinating.

Braunstein: Yeah, it’s incredible.

Kassner: And some of the things you’re like I get it. It doesn’t sound that hard. I’ve seen other scenarios that are—you know—so, really cool stuff. Some of it is also not so hard and yet tremendously impactful. I’ll give you another really cool example. We helped a company build an application for surgery environments where the patient, everything that gets near to them, has to get scanned in. And so that when the surgery is over—this sounds like a joke but it’s absolutely tremendously not—everything leaves, right? I mean, it makes sense that everything that got close to the patient, whether it was a cloth, a sponge, or any cutting device, then gets scanned out. Well, the application on the web that this is running on—it’s running locally on a tablet with a scanner—on the web it’s essentially a website, some databases, and a ton of protection, a ton of security. The architecture is not that hard. You need to know how to build it for resiliency. You need to understand how to build it for offline. And so hence, the experimentation of this, the ability to churn it out fast, the ability to learn how to do it—it all takes talent. It all falls down back on somebody seeing the problem, saying hmm, I can solve that differently. And having that vision—if you can see, I’m coming full circle to the more talented your people are, the more they’re going to be able to envision the problem, understand how to build a cool sample of a solution so that we can show everybody out there this is how we would solve it. They get excited and then you get to build it.

Braunstein: So, Eduardo, partner walks away today and they’re really motivated—I need to go help my talent. What is your recommendation? There’s so many resources. What would you say to do?

Kassner: So, along the journey that I described, the first thing I would say is allow people to embed and coach people and mentor people to embed their learning as part of their day. It’s not even their week; it’s part of their day. Second, we’ve built a lot of really cool assets. So, if you go to Partner.Microsoft.com and you look at the training and you go to the Azure skills, massive open online courses, the MOOCS, I mean there’s some incredible depth that we’ve developed there. Invest in people getting certified if that’s a method that works for them. I highly recommend that you do A, B, and C and then you rule out the one that didn’t work for you. But try to explore all the venues, all the avenues. Go deep. Enable them to participate and create local communities. Share patterns. Share best practices. Learn from others. Teach others. And when somebody knows how to do it on the job, make them a mentor and make them mentor other people.

Braunstein: Create a mentorship program.

Kassner: Do apprentice program. Do shadows. Share knowledge. Value sharing as much as you value developing because the more people share the more it sparks cooler development in others.

Braunstein: That’s super helpful tips, Eduardo. Thank you for coming in today. We really appreciate your time.

Kassner: Thank you so much. I absolutely appreciate this. This is a deep passion of mine and it was a pleasure to be here.

Braunstein: Thanks for listening today. Don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes and please rate and review if you like what you hear. Also, follow us at @MSPartner on Twitter and Facebook. Tune in next week for more great insights from business leaders and innovators shaping the tech industry today.