AWS Storage Blog

From zero to AWS Community Hero: My journey to the AWS Cloud

Recently, I was honored to be recognized as an AWS Community Hero. Few people receive this award, and there are some big names on the list. I am deeply humbled to have been nominated, let alone chosen, to be part of this elite community. The thing is, while I’ve been working in IT for over 20 years, I’ve only been building cloud architectures for the last three. Still, in this short amount of time, I have become passionate about the benefits of the cloud. I love sharing my journey from being an engineer who had never used the cloud to earning AWS Hero recognition.

For the majority of my career, I’ve focused on data storage and protection. Over the years, the industry has found new ways to extract value from data, and because of this, I helped my employer through a 30,000% data growth spurt. Towards the end of that growth spurt, the third generation of storage infrastructure I’d implemented reached the thresholds that would normally trigger a lifecycle initiative. If you know anything about petabyte-scale lifecycle initiatives in a data center environment, you know they are often long, complex, and expensive projects. If there was a time to make a move to the public cloud, this was it. There was just one problem—I knew nothing about building and working in the cloud.

Early beginnings to the cloud

I will never forget the night I first experimented with AWS. I set up a free account and vowed to stay up hacking away until I had a server running in the cloud. 8 minutes later, I was logging in to my newly-deployed Windows instance. In those 8 minutes, I realized that the world had changed. To stay relevant, I had to change too.

For me, the thought of becoming a cloud engineer was intimidating. So much of my professional identity had been built on my successes in the data center, and I wasn’t sure if my skills would be relevant. My peer network was largely centered around physical infrastructure. Would I be leaving friends behind if I step into a cloud role? Would I be able to develop new skills quickly enough to stay relevant to my employer? Having supported their mission for 15 years, the thought of becoming irrelevant was terrifying!

3 years ago, I had never heard of the AWS Hero program. I never would have dreamed I’d be asked to contribute content to the AWS Storage blog, or that I’d be asked to present at major cloud conferences. While I can’t overlook the role that being in the right place at the right time has had on my career trajectory, there are several key things that I did to help me go from zero to cloud hero in three years.

If you’re in a position to reinvent yourself, or maybe you’re leading a team through a transformation, perhaps these tips will help you in your journey as well.

Tip #1: Managing change

First and foremost, you have to accept the fact that your work is going to change. For me, acceptance came in the first 8 minutes of my cloud experimentation. It was no longer a matter of if I would learn to work in the cloud, it was a matter of when I would learn to work in the cloud. Since my next project was going to be helping build our cloud landing zone, I knew the when was going to be as soon as possible.

Accepting change doesn’t mean that all your fears are gone. Accepting change means that you’ve made the decision to adapt and grow to support the thing coming next. It’s normal to worry about the unknown future. Personally, my biggest fear was not knowing how my role was going to shift. I sought out people who had successfully transitioned from the data center to the cloud and learned about their experiences. For instance, our Amazon Solutions Architect, Scott Hewitt, spent an afternoon with my team talking about how he made the transition into a cloud engineering role and helping us understand the changes we’d have to make. Figure out the people with whom you can connect to ask your questions and discuss your fears.

Tip #2: Training

One of the great lessons to come out of my cloud journey is that I’m now more aware of how I learn new concepts and skills. I’ve also learned that the training methods that work well for me aren’t guaranteed to work well for my peers. Cloud training is available in many formats and from multiple sources. Personally, I have found online training courses and experimentation to work best for me. I was given access to the entire training catalog that one online vendor provides, and I’ve used that repeatedly to develop new skills.

A cloud migration depends on application- and process-specific knowledge that falls outside of cloud-specific skills. If you lead a team familiar with your environment, recognize that your people are instrumental in supporting your cloud migration plans. An investment in your team’s personal and professional development is an investment in the success of your cloud strategy. Science supports the idea of making training and certification a part of a team’s culture. Studies show that as little as 10% participation in training and certification programs will start encouraging others on the team to pursue their own training.

Tip #3: Building relationships

At the start of our cloud migration, my employer put me on a team with five other senior engineers with backgrounds in both traditional infrastructure and software engineering. Combined, the six of us had 85 years of experience with our company! Having spent so much of my career in the data center, I was out of my element when it came time to start building infrastructure as code. My new engineering peers were able to teach me critical coding skills, and similarly I was able to teach them how to approach building infrastructure. As a team, we learned to rely on and learn from our strengths; we didn’t spend time calling out each other’s weaknesses. Understanding what I bring to the table was important in helping me develop a sense of belonging.

As my cloud skills and my self-confidence grew, I started reaching out to local user groups and connecting with cloud engineers from other companies—again, my Amazon Solutions Architect, Scott, was able to help make a few introductions on my behalf—which helped me further connect to the cloud community. Eventually, I started talking about the platforms my team and I were building, which led to my first presentation at the Midwest AWS Community Day in Chicago. I learned that there were others in the cloud world who were interested in learning about my work. I shared a couple of automations I’d built, and word of my work bubbled up to some of the engineers at AWS. As those relationships grew, I mustered the courage to ask about presenting at official AWS events, and I was given the chance to show off my work to a much broader audience.

Consider the rate at which the cloud is changing, expanding, and improving. Every week there are dozens of new features and service announcements that bring new capabilities and complexities to building in the cloud. If you find a way to leverage a new service to address a challenge in your migration, it’s almost guaranteed that there are other cloud engineers who could benefit from your lessons learned. Sharing a few lines of automation code or your techniques for implementing a complex cloud environment help you quickly become regarded as an expert.

Tip #4: Leadership throughout organization

My organization’s leadership was key to my success at growing into my cloud role. Leaders throughout the organization were aligned with the cloud strategy and plans to migrate. My direct managers were instrumental in making sure that we had the tools, training, and resources to successfully work in the cloud.

Management never stepped in when a new technology or pattern didn’t deploy as I had expected. Instead, I was encouraged to learn from the things that hadn’t gone well and try again. This “fail fast” mentality helped me feel comfortable experimenting with new technology and trying to solve problems that fell outside my traditional sphere of expertise.

If you are building or leading a cloud team, make sure that your team has the resources they need to be successful. Work with the team to set clear goals, and celebrate their success. Support your team by being cloud-literate and making it a point to understand what they’re working on. Encourage and help them to make connections with your AWS account team and local cloud user groups. Challenge them to experiment and to work outside their comfort zone.

Tip #5: Rinse and repeat

In order to stay relevant as a cloud engineer, I know I have to continue investing in my personal growth and development. I’m keeping up with training, following cloud-related blogs, participating in local meetups and attending national conferences. Every chance I get, I look to build relationships with peers and share my cloud knowledge far and wide.

I’d love to hear about your challenges and successes while reinventing your career to succeed in the cloud. Have you built something great? Share it! Is there a training resource that really helped you launch your career? I want to hear about it. Has a peer helped you make the leap to the cloud? Give that person some recognition for what he or she has done for you. And if you’re struggling, that’s OK too. How can I help? How can the community help?

The content and opinions in this post are those of the third-party author and AWS is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this post.

Dave Stauffacher

Dave Stauffacher

Dave Stauffacher is a Chief Platform Engineer at Direct Supply. With a background in data storage and protection, Dave has helped Direct Supply navigate a 30,000% data growth over the last 15 years. In his current role, Dave is focused on helping drive Direct Supply’s cloud migration, combining his storage background with cloud automation and standardization practices. Dave has showcased his cloud experience in presentations at the AWS Midwest Community Day, AWS Re:Invent, HashiConf, the Milwaukee Big Data User Group, and other industry events. Dave is a certified AWS Solutions Architect Associate.