APM Skills in a Cloud-First World

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Click to learn more about author Thomas LaRock

As we kick off a new year, it’s time for a new — or at least, an evolved — you. The growth and maturity of the cloud require tech pros to manage an increasingly complex web of applications spanning on-premises, hybrid, and multi-cloud environments.

For many, the changes in application deployments make traditional monitoring techniques difficult or even impossible. After all, the business always expects greater performance. Worse, the same decision-makers pushing us to cloud hybrid operations will not let go of the traditional metrics they trust.

This means tech pros must begin to evolve tactics to embrace modern application performance management (APM) strategies. We’ll need to take more abstract KPIs like user experience into consideration alongside the usual utilization and “green status” dashboard metrics. Echoing this reality is a finding from the 2019 IT Trends Report, Building Confidence for Tech Pros of Tomorrow, which revealed application performance management skills as among the top skills tech pros want to develop in the coming year.

Ultimately, customers are fast to leave when you’re slow — it’s imperative for all businesses (and all tech pros) to understand APM and its ability to deliver continuous visibility into how an application is performing and answer the lingering question, “is there a problem with my app?”

The good news is many of the skills we already possess are sufficient to manage the new realm of integrated solutions. To achieve this shift, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Look Back to Move Forward

First, it’s important to remember how traditional infrastructure metrics still matter greatly. Certainly, the nouns have expanded — from “server” and “virtual machine” to now include “containers” — but the verbs remain focused on optimizing performance, ensuring availability, and planning capacity.

Even in the age of the cloud, things will break. If end-user metrics indicate slow delivery and correlated infrastructure data reveals high database wait times, you’ll still need a DBA or an ops engineer with query chops to identify root causes. But for day-to-day and planning purposes, back-end details aren’t particularly helpful when answering key questions like, “Is there a problem with my app? What can we do about it? Are our systems generally working as expected and promised?”

Your existing skillset still has value, but remember to think of these infrastructure metrics in the larger context of your application. A user may report an application is slow or performing poorly despite green lights across your dashboard — what comes next?

Sherlock in the Data Center

One of the sharpest skills tech pros have in their toolkit right now is the understanding of how many different layers are involved in modern application infrastructure and the subsequent knowledge that you must look in a few different places for the root cause of a performance problem. By focusing your insight into how applications function (as opposed to getting lost in the myriad of technical jargon and metrics), you can more confidently walk in and out of different specialties and begin to dabble in APM.

As a production DBA for seven years, if a problem didn’t reside in the database, I didn’t have observability anywhere else. And the hard truth was I didn’t care. Those bottlenecks were someone else’s challenge for the day. That mentality won’t fly today — things are too interconnected. Today, DBAs need to say, “All right, if the issue isn’t in the database, let me go help find where the issue really is and go talk to the expert who can address the problem.”

You should embrace a detective’s mind to ensure you’re troubleshooting the breadth of your application’s infrastructure and know collaboration across teams in the age of cloud and application management is key.

It Counts to Tool Up

There will always be things you don’t know. And much of our lack of confidence in the data center stems from a dearth of knowledge. Even if you identify the root cause of this problem, can you help solve it? As you bolster your current skillset, consider investing in a comprehensive APM tool or set of tools to help bridge the knowledge gap. APM tools have been available since the 1990s, but they’re still among the most underappreciated tools in the technology industry.

As businesses continue to prioritize customer-centricity and end-user experience in the year ahead (and beyond), IT teams can use APM tools to evolve, innovate, and reach broader business goals. This will result in increased implementation and corresponding skill development.

Future-Proof Your Skills

It’s never too soon to invest in your career (consider it your New Year’s resolution). If your environment demands more granular, technical APM skills, start small and set aside manageable, realistic amounts of time to invest in personal development. Learning can happen in short bursts of 15 minutes, and 15 minutes twice a day adds up fast.

Take advantage of different avenues available when it comes to training — from free, vendor-sponsored programs to convenient online courses or even the library — to further reduce barriers to skill development. By investing in learning as a lifestyle, common challenges such as finding time to sit down and complete a training module are easier to overcome. We’re at a critical inflection point in application performance management as organizations increasingly see the real business value in deeper insights and begin to pivot towards more comprehensive measurement and monitoring. For generalist tech pros and ops engineers, now’s a great time to begin catching up with the needs of changing usage and new platforms, and it all starts with the skills you already have.

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