Man with blue pinstriped shirt looks at the camera against Aon backdrop.
Alan Hayden. Image: Aon

What does a career in cloud management entail?

20 Jun 2019

Alan Hayden from ACIA gives us an insight into his work as a cloud product owner.

Cloud technology is only becoming more widespread. Some of the largest cloud providers have massive amounts of cloud infrastructure all around the globe and lofty plans to expand into regions such as Africa and the Middle East, which have previously been underserved in terms of data centres.

If you’re interested in career in cloud technology, check out our conversation with Alan Hayden, a cloud product owner at the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA), about what his role demands.

What is your role within Aon?

I work as a cloud product owner responsible for managing ACIA’s Amazon-hosted estate through multiple regional and global technical teams. Our cloud management teams perform multiple IT-type functions including operations, engineering (via infrastructure as code [IaC]), automation, DevOps, security and database admin.

Through these technical teams we provision, configure and manage ACIA’s large and complex infrastructure estate via code, which is tracked and stored in our IaC repository.

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day in the job?

Aon is a global organisation and ACIA has offices in Dublin, Kraków and Singapore. Because of Aon’s global presence, I usually start the day checking for any new incidents as well as the status of existing incidents. I try to prioritise progression of existing efforts while resisting the temptation to move to something new.

After checking incident status, I usually validate or update the status of the multiple projects and project tasks being tracked across our cloud engineering Kanban board.

My days can be varied but are usually a blend of planned activities – such as meetings and stand-ups – and unplanned activities, which are usually driven by the number and type of issues and incidents the teams are dealing with.

What types of project do you work on?

The spectrum of projects covered by our cloud teams is extensive and can vary dramatically in size and complexity. Projects can vary from provisioning a single server up to an entire application stack.

ACIA projects follow Agile principles, which allow us to carve up our projects into multiple smaller tasks. Dividing work into smaller chunks gives team members some autonomy to choose the task they wish to work on while allowing teams to work on multiple projects simultaneously.

One of the software applications that we use in the centre to help us perform at an Agile state is Jira, which delivers an overview of projects for each team. The cloud engineering Kanban board on Jira provides a single pane of glass where all project-related tasks can be seen across all teams. It allows the team and myself to keep track of projects and complete our objectives.

Another interesting element of my job is helping to align how teams provision and support infrastructure in cloud across multiple accounts and global regions.

What skills do you use on a daily basis?

Aon’s cloud-first strategy, coupled with ACIA’s desire to innovate, has resulted in rapid growth and early adoption of new cloud-hosted services. The role is extremely technical in nature, but my previous role as cloud engineer has provided me with an ideal foundation for managing our cloud-hosted estate.

As I regularly engage and interact with our senior leadership team here at ACIA, business stakeholders, product owners, team members, vendors and potential hires, communication skills are also an essential part of the role.

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the working day?

Keep a task list and update it frequently, at least daily. Regardless if your preference is scribbling in a notebook or typing into a text file in your favourite text editor, a list can serve as an invaluable reminder and help with personal prioritisation.

I also find listening to music while doing certain tasks can be a great way to focus. For me, electronic music is ideal as I find lyrics can be distracting.

What is the hardest part of your working day?

Aon has 50,000 staff with a presence in 120 countries. As we work more and more with our global colleagues, it can sometimes be difficult to pick apart our complex IT organisation structure to identify the correct person to talk to.

When you first started this job, what were you most surprised to learn was important in the role?

The varied nature of projects, issues and incidents, coupled with the wide range of technology in use in ACIA’s environment, can generate peaky workloads and contention. This in turn can drive frequent priority changes. While this frequent context-switching is challenging and can sometimes be disruptive, switching between multiple tasks and completing them successfully and on time can be extremely satisfying.

From a technical perspective, a basic understanding of Linux is essential when working with cloud, IaC and data processing tools.

How has this role changed as this sector has grown and evolved?

Historically, as computer or system engineers moved through their careers, they would inevitably reach a point when they must consider moving away from their technical role and into management to progress beyond a certain level or salary scale.

However, the current movement away from traditional hardware into IaC – and the increased implementations of DevOps – affords more opportunities for engineers to progress as engineers, which I believe is extremely positive. ACIA supports this type of technical career progression, which has allowed me to advance my own career while continuing to be technical and bring value to the company.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

Accelerating and keeping up with the rapidly changing world of cloud technology can be tricky, particularly when working for the IT section of a highly governed, global organisation as large as Aon.

However, in the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics, we frequently find ourselves provisioning and supporting the latest cloud technology, services and tools – albeit in Dev – in order to provide testbeds and proofs of concept to simplify, improve or speed up ACIA’s data processing capabilities. I’m still a techie at heart, so working in a company that requires me to keep with the rapidly changing world of technology is a real bonus.

While some of these proof-of-concept projects never make it to production, rolling out and temporarily supporting these technologies can help make the job interesting for me and the many teams involved.

I also value the diverse workforce here in ACIA. I work with some extremely talented individuals who are experts in their respective areas, which helps me to be both effective and efficient in my role. The culture is open and friendly here, too, which can make my job easier.

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