How to Become a Cloud Expert With or Without Certifications – with Brian Gracely

by Mirek Burnejko

Brian GrecelyThis is an interview with Brian Gracely, a former Cloud Evangelist in Cisco and the co-host of a popular cloud podcast – The Cloudcast.

We are looking for an answer for the question: Is it a good time to invest in cloud trainings and certifications?

In this interview you will find:

  • How to move you knowledge about cloud computing to another level
  • Are cloud certifications important
  • How to become an expert in the cloud world


Mirek Burnejko: Hello Brian. CCIE (3077), vExpert, Cisco Press Author, former Cloud Evangelist in Cisco, co-host of the best cloud podcast – The Cloudcast. Did I forget about something?

Brian Gracely: Thank you for the compliment on the podcast. I’d add husband and father of two wonderful daughters 🙂

MB: What was your first IT job and what was your first professional certification?

BG: I entered the work force in 1994 with a background in finance, but somehow got convinced that Silicon Valley was cooler than Wall Street. My first job was in technology sales. They asked me if I knew the OSI model. After the blank look on my face, they told me it was “that seven-layer pyramid”. Remembering “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” from a psychology course, I quickly nodded and they gave me the job. I knew how to use computers, but wasn’t “technical”. The systems engineers used to let me pull cables in the labs with them on weekends, so that’s where I initial learned IT technologies. My first certification was Cisco CCIE (#3077, in 1996) when I worked in Cisco TAC. We had to move physical jumpers to do password recovery on routers in the lab 🙂

MB: Which certification gave you the biggest advantage to your career?

BG: The CCIE was the one that really convinced me that I could learn new technologies. Ever since then I’ve been interested in understanding how people keep up with technology change. For some people, certifications are great at driving that process. For others, it’s hands-on work. I respect either form of learning.

MB: 2012 is the year of cloud computing 🙂 Can you tell us what is the best place to understand what is the “Cloud” and how we can use its power?

BG: Yikes! Please don’t put the “Year of…” curse on Cloud Computing. I’d hate for it to become VDI 🙂 Cloud Computing is a very powerful concept, but can be complex. I don’t know of any single “best source” for learnings, but here’s a few I recommend:

  • The Cloudcast podcast – our guests have incredible Cloud knowledge, so check out their sites/blogs/content (linked within our site)
  • The Cloudcast YouTube channel – we tried to take lots of topics (both technical & business) and explain them in short whiteboards
  • Rackspace CloudU – Ben Kepes does a great job explaining lots of Cloud topics [Note from MB: Next week you can read an interview with Ben, the creator of the CloudU program]
  • Cloud Zone at Dzone – broad perspective on Cloud topics
  • Cloud Camp – Great chance to meet others learning about Cloud Computing

MB: We see more and more certifications from neutral companies and vendors. What are your thoughts about cloud certifications?

BG: Depending on whether you’re a certification holder, or someone looking to hire an expert, certifications are a good starting point to determine if someone has the motivation to learn (&/or master) a specific topic. They are a starting point. But with the growth of social media (blogs, podcasts), communities (open-source software) and on-demand business (SaaS services), there are many other ways to evaluate if someone has expertise or is the right personality fit for a project (or a hire). Certifications will always have their place in recognizing talent, but I’d argue that there are many more ways to determine expertise these days. My thoughts on this are here.

I know, I danced around this a little bit. I’m not sure any of them are great at this point for a few reasons:

  1. The automation and orchestration tools are still somewhat immature, and the ones that are good (eg. enStratus, RightScale, Chef, Puppet, etc.) don’t have certifications. I believe the EMC one is fairly complete in terms of teaching a framework for how to look at building Private Cloud, but I haven’t heard a lot of buzz from technologists about it yet.
  2. “Cloud” is multi-layered, but most of the certifications seem to be focused on IaaS environments. Haven’t seen anything around PaaS or SaaS yet, but that’s probably expected since the skilled tested in certifications are essentially hidden in PaaS / SaaS models.

I’m not bashing certifications, I just think that since Cloud Computing is an operational model (not just technology), it’s more difficult to align the previous way of thinking about certifications to this new world. But of course, from confusion comes opportunity.

Maybe the new Cloud certification is right around the corner.

MB: Isn’t the better way to train and pass certifications about networking (Cisco), virtualization (VMware), storage (EMC)?

BG: In my opinion, certifications (and technology knowledge in general) have always been about aligning yourself with healthy, growing communities of smart technologists. Early on, things like Cisco CCIE were the place to learn from the best networking minds. These days, those communities are around transformational technologies like VMware, but also around open-source projects like OpenStack. Smart people attract other smart people, and the truly smart people aren’t afraid to share their knowledge and experience.

MB: You know the cloud industry as no one else. How to become an expert in the cloud world? CCIE + VCDX + EMCCA?

BG: Step 1: Be open-minded. Beyond all the technology, Cloud Computing is about “change” of one kind or another. It might be change through the blurring of lines between technology (eg. virtual servers, virtual switches, virtualized storage), but it’s also about changing how technology is consumed by the users/business.
Step 2: As much as different Cloud “religions” want to tell you they are different, they are really about 80% the same. Pick one approach (VMware, OpenStack, CloudStack, Amazon AWS, etc.) and dive in. You’ll find that many of the concepts are applicable to any of the others.
Step 3: Be active in at least one of the Cloud Computing communities. It’s a great bunch of people who are willing to share. Learn, do, ask questions….rinse, repeat. This is a rapidly changing technology space, so getting actively involved early is important for both your technology and people-networking skills.
Step 4: Show your work. If you only have a certification and they next person has a certification + blog showing details and videos of their work, who do you think will get the job?

MB: I would love to know your prediction about the future. How will the certification world look in 10 years? At this moment we have more than 1700 certifications on the market?

BG: 10 years is an insane amount of time in technology, so let’s bring it back a little bit. My #1 piece of advice to everyone is to get engaged around software. This might be learning basic programming, or understanding APIs, or engaging with an open-source community. This isn’t to say that everything will be open-source in 10 years, but we are already beginning to see the trends with major hardware vendors towards becoming more software-centric (eg. virtual appliances, open APIs, etc.).

So my prediction is that we’ll see the most valuable certifications (or “industry awareness”) be software-centric and the most valuable ones could very likely come from companies that weren’t the most visible 5-10 years ago.

MB: You’ve probably heard about cheating on the certification exams. What is your idea to kill this type of companies that provide stolen questions and answers?

BG: My mother always told me, “cheaters never win and winners never cheat”. I’ve always taken that to heart. I don’t think you can stop cheating. But what employers can do is expect more from “certified experts”. That’s why I was saying earlier that it’s so easier to have a “layered” portfolio of certifications + social media + online resources for them to see that you are more authentic that those that take the easy route. Technology is a meritocracy. It’s not hard to eventually determine who the most skilled are.

MB: What are your professional goals for 2012/2013?

BG: It sounds terrible, but I’ve sort of become obsessed with aspects of reality TV. Technologists have become such a social-centric society that I’m very interested in combining technology, technology learning and elements of social media as a way to highlight the intersection of business and technology. Some of the things happening with reality TV (eg. “Chopped” on FOOD network) have me thinking about some creative new ideas for 2012/2013. So my business-sided goals are all about exploring new ways to leverage media, and my technology-sided goals are all about better understanding open-source software and APIs.

MB: Thank you so much Brian. Tell us what is the best place to read more about you and say Hi.

BG: I’m a Twitter junkie, so @bgracely is always a start. If you have some extra time, we’d love any feedback on The Cloudcast podcast.

[This is part of the Interviews with IT Pros Series]