An Honest Approach to Transformative Shifts with Joe Onisick

Episode Summary

Corey has admired today’s guest, a “study in contrast,” for a quite a while. Now, Joe Onisick, a Principal at Transformation CONTINUUM, joins the “Screaming” line up. Joe’s consultancy focus is on helping companies achieve digital transformation, which is a progressively forward looking space. The contrast in said study is that Joe chose to leave Silicon Valley and “go live in the woods,” which is certainly an uncommon combination. Corey and Joe discuss their connection over Joe’s pinned Tweet, in which he states a transformational shift in his own life towards living better. For starters Joe decided to climb Kilimanjaro, leave Silicon Valley, and start his consultancy. He rakes over the nuances of establishing a consultancy in digital transformation, and what exactly that means. Joe’s emphasis on being straight forward and honest with his customers lends a credibility to his work that, sadly, seems rare these days. But with that honesty at hand he dives into multi-cloud, migration, and more!

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Joe
Joe Onisick is a polarizing technologist with nearly 25 years’ experience architecting, building, operating complex IT systems and advising customers on the same. Onisick’s passion is marrying technology to a customer’s real-time business challenges and leading them through the entirety of the adoption curve. Onisick is a Principal and co-founder of Transformation Continuum (, and founder of Define the Cloud ( 


Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

Corey: This episode is sponsored by our friends at Revelo. Revelo is the Spanish word of the day, and its spelled R E V E L O. It means; I reveal. Now, have you tried to hire an engineer lately? I assure you it is significantly harder than it sounds. One of the things that Revelo has recognized as something I've been talking about for a while, specifically that while talent is evenly distributed opportunity is absolutely not. They're exposing a new talent pool to, basically, those of us without a presence in Latin America via their platform. It's the largest tech talent marketplace in Latin America with over a million engineers in their network, which includes, but isn't limited to, talent in Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina. Now, not only do they wind up spreading all of their talent on English ability, as well as , you know, their engineering skills, but they go significantly beyond that. Some of the folks on their platform are hands down the most talented engineers that I've ever spoken to. Let's also not forget that Latin America has high time zone overlap with what we have here in the United States. So, you can hire full-time remote engineers who share most of the workday as your team. It's an end-to-end talent service. So, you can find and hire engineers in Central and South America without having to worry about, frankly, the colossal pain of cross border payroll and benefits and compliance because Revelo handles all of it. If you're hiring engineers, check out to get 20% off your first three months. That's R E V E L

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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud, I’m Corey Quinn. My guest today is someone I’ve really admired from afar for a while just because he’s a study in contrast. By day, he is a transformation—effectively—expert. He’s a principal at his own consultancy that focuses on helping companies achieve their digital transformation. Very forward-looking, very high-level modern technology. But he also wound up effectively leaving Silicon Valley to go live in the middle of the woods. It’s not usually a common combination. Joe Onisick is the principal at transformation CONTINUUM. Joe, thank you for joining me and suffering my fairly ignorant questions.

Joe: Corey, thanks a lot for having me and the brilliant intro there.

Corey: [laugh]. So, I stumbled across you on Twitter of all places, which is where I spend my work time, my free time, my spare time, et cetera. When people say, “Where are you dialing in from?” I say, “Oh, Twitter.” And that usually gets a laugh, but it’s also a little 
unfortunately true.

And your pinned tweet thread talks about how you weren’t particularly happy with your life, where things weren’t serving you and you decided it was time to make a change. It’s the kind of thing that I think an awful lot of people flirt with the idea of, but you actually went ahead and did it. What happened.?

Joe: So, I did a whole series of things. I think the big thing I tried to do was not bite off everything at once. So, the first thing I did was quit drinking. I was a—you know, which it says in the tweet and I’m pretty public about I was an extremely heavy alcoholic. So, I cut that out because I wasn’t happy with it.

And you know, the whole idea was I thought it was keeping me happy and it wasn’t. So, got rid of that to see how things were and then just started a series of changes, which has, I think, gotten more extreme over time.

Corey: Well, one of the early tweets in the thread was one of your coworkers at the time was planning to climb I think it was Kilimanjaro, and your position was, well, that’s not something I would normally do. May I join you? If that’s how it starts, it seems like well, that seems pretty far on most people’s extreme scale.

Joe: Yeah, that was an interesting one. The idea of starting in a rainforest and ending on a glacier up 20,000 feet was not of any interest to me at all, but it seemed like a life experience I wanted to put under my belt.

Corey: I’m assuming that you’re probably glad you did it because you don’t meet too many people who are like, “Oh, yeah. I climbed a mountain. It sucked. I never wish I hadn’t done it.” It feels almost like it’s writing a book, on some level where no one wants to write a book; they want to have written a book. Is climbing a mountain similar to that, or does it go in a bit of a different direction?

Joe: I think it was very similar to that. We did a ten-day track, but you can do it much shorter. So, we spent about seven days acclimatizing around the mountain and hiking around the mountain. So, it was more a little up and down, but more level. So, the first 15,000 feet was actually pretty enjoyable. It’s the summit day where you go from 15,000 to 20,000, that is—it’s just sheer misery, especially if it’s not something you do every day.

Corey: I thought I had a rough time whenever I visit my in-laws who live in Colorado Springs, and it’s great hanging out in their house and whatnot, and I run up the stairs and I get winded and it’s “Wow, what a tubby piece of crap I am. How did this happen?” It’s like, “Oh right, we’re at 9000 feet; the air is a lot thinner here.” So, I basically spend the entire trip out there, trying to move as little as possible as opposed to at home where I sit in front of my computer attempting to move as little as possible. But it hits in a different way.

You quit your job in Silicon Valley as a part of this journey of—was it a journey of discovery? Was it just a series of changes? How do you contextualize it? How do you describe it?

Joe: I’m trying to learn how to be whoever I am would be the way I’d describe it. I’ve spent my entire life being someone I thought I was supposed to be, and I never stopped to think who I am. So, a lot of this is just trying everything to see what fits.

Corey: And then you make one of the classic blunders as you do this; you decide, “You know, I’m not going to work a traditional job anymore. I’m going to start a consultancy.” That is truly the path of fools, speaking as someone who did exactly that. And looking back at it, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done for sure, but if I had known how much work it was going to be and all of the ins and outs and ups and downs in the managing of my own psychology, I’m not sure I would have the courage to get started.

Joe: Yeah, that's a great way to say it. I look back—my favorite example is one of my mentors started a couple of companies. His wife has had several exits. I mean, he’s just a wealth of knowledge of tech: Tech the industry, and starting companies, and when I brought the idea to him, he asked, “So, you’re thinking of starting a consultancy?” And I said, “Yes.” He goes, “I have one word of advice.” And I waited for him to reply, “Don’t.”

Corey: When you said that to people in my experience, they think, “Oh, they’re trying to hoard all the wealth and happiness for themselves.” It’s yes, that is what I’m trying to do. I view consulting as a zero sum game. There’s only enough room for one of us. Yeah, it never works that way.

It’s just such an up and down thing and when I talk to folks who work at big tech companies and they are asking, “Oh, you know, I want to become an independent consultant because I’m tired of my job and my company and the rest,” don’t do that. It’s going to be a few lean years and it’s going to take an awful lot of trying. And honestly, the hardest part of all of it, at least in tech—this is, to be clear, not a sympathetic problem—is at any point, you can walk away and say, “The hell with this,” and within a week, wind up getting a salaried job somewhere very comfortable, where you don’t have to deal with all the hard parts of running a business and it pays three times your first year’s revenue. And it’s so much easier to go down that path. Fortunately for me, that wasn’t really on the table because I’m an insufferable jackass who, my personality shines through and it turns out, this is not a desirable component in most workplaces.

Joe: I think we share that. I think I’ve made myself fully unemployable now, so I don’t have that parachute, which makes the consulting a little easier.

Corey: You also have an additional challenge that, for better or worse, I don’t, which is I fix the horrifying AWS bill, which means that I could demonstrate ROI with, more or less, basic arithmetic when people say, “So, why should I bring you in?” It is one of the easiest enterprise sales—not that there’s an easy enterprise sale—that’s possible because it’s, “What are you selling?” “Money.” The end. You advise on digital transformation, which is inherently a sticky concept itself. What is it that you do for companies?

Joe: So, I’d say we started out with probably the stupidest business model you could ever come up with. We decided we were going to address Fortune 100 technology companies at the same time as addressing the largest value-added resellers in the world, and at the same time, driving adoption services on behalf of them for their customers. So, we have three customer bases: The end-user of technology, the reseller of technology, and the vendor of technology, and we’re helping them all adapt to the transformations happening in the industry. So, off the bat, we were already crazy because everyone would tell you pick a segment and focus, right? Not just technology vendors, but a specific hardware or software.
But to create the value chain we do of getting their products to market and making sure they fit that market, we have to have visibility into all ends of the spectrum. So, we tackled the hard challenge to be able to be successful with what we wanted to do.

Corey: It sounds an awful lot like you are taking a more… I’ll use the term ‘honest’—I think honesty is the right word here—a more honest approach to getting companies to their desired outcomes. There are a lot of folks who specialize in, “Digital transformation,” quote-unquote, and that’s very much a thin veneer over, “So, what do you really do?” It’s, “Oh, we do cloud migration, specifically into this one cloud vendor.” And that journey of their digital transformation generally involves writing a very large and very specific check to a third-party company. And that’s the end of it, and it’s rinse, repeat, go all-in. You have an established track record of very much not doing that. Was that something that you did originally, or was that how the practice wound up evolving?

Joe: So, I’ve kind of worked in all components of it. I’ve built giant channel practices within some of the world’s largest VARs; I’ve worked on the—or started my career on the end-user side and then I got kind of drafted into the vendor side for a while. So, I’ve got exposure to all of it. I think the honesty piece has been—to a fault, integrity is a thing that for me, right? It’s a trigger. I always tell people, I’m opinionated; you’re going to get my opinions, but you’ll never get anyone else’s opinions. So, they might be subject to change, but they’re always mine.

Corey: There’s an idea of you could buy my attention, but not my opinion, and that has been something of a guiding star for what I do just because people look at it and say, “Oh, that’s this bold moral stance, and that’s just inspirational,” and no. Absolutely not. It’s that I suck at biting my tongue. When I look at something and I find it ridiculous, I can only go so long without, more or less, asking why the emperor is prancing around naked in front of everyone. And contrary to popular opinion, in corporate life, this is not a particularly valuable skill, in fact, just the opposite.

But it does lend itself to a certain perspective on the larger industry. When you talk to companies who are looking for digital transformation, how does that conversation go? It seems like, for better or worse, it is a nebulous problem, and companies are generally not the looking for things via Google ads, for example? “Yes, hello. I’d like to buy one digital transformation, please.”

Joe: Yeah, so it starts in several different ways. A lot of our business starts with a vendor with a new product that they know fits the market and fits where things are going, but they can’t get it to move, right? They can’t get it to sell, they can’t get customers to adopt it, they can’t get sales teams to understand it. And so we come in and try and fit it into the bigger picture while tying it to what people already understand and know.

You can call it, like, chunking learning, right? I’m not going to be able to learn astrophysics if I don’t have a baseline in math. So, we try and tie the future to today so that people can grasp and understand it. And the same ends up at the opposite end of the spectrum: You can’t go in and talk to a laggard customer about how machine learning and AI is going to transform their business operations if they’re still wondering how to manage what they’ve got today.

Corey: There’s an underappreciated skill in meeting customers where they are, and very often that can express itself as a perception of being condescending in some cases, and I think that’s where a lot of people get it wrong. The hallmark of a terrible junior consultant is to walk in and say, “Oh, what moron built this?” Invariably to said, quote-unquote, “Moron.” People don’t show up at work hoping to do a crappy job today. There’s a reason that things exist the way that they do.

Yeah, maybe it’s because they just didn’t know any better, but maybe there’s a constraint or context you don’t have. And generally in my experience, failing to respect that context is just the kiss of death because, think, it’s the only thing that separates software from being able to do your entire job.

Joe: Yeah, and it’s a lost art, right? It’s one of the things I do and love doing is training engineers how to be consultants, or salespeople how to be consultants, and it tends to be a lost art. We have these products or solutions that we’re positioning or that are our favorites and we try to shoehorn them in every hole. One of my favorite examples was, I was asked to go into a California government agency and buy them and sell them SDN, they wanted to know why they needed to adopt SDN. And instead of coming in and preaching SDN, which was what I was theoretically getting paid to do, I started asking some questions and immediately realized these people don’t want Software-Defined Networking at all.

They want, you know, to be on the command line whenever they can, and not have to touch the gear other than that. So, I started to dig a little more and eventually find out, they hired a new CTO, and that CTO had SDN-ified their last network, and so they thought it was going to get shoved down their throat. And they were trying to figure out how to get around that. And so instead of selling an SDN, I gave them the 15 reasons why their operation wouldn’t benefit from it and found another problem to solve for them.

Corey: There’s really something to be said for having the courage to deviate from the engagement plan. I find that there’s a certain type of consultancy that as soon as they realize the facts on the ground are not as described or things have changed, they keep trying to get back on track for the thing that they believe they’re there to do. But I’ve always viewed it as being there to help customers, and sometimes that means that it’s a bit different than what you expected. There are times I have actively advised customers to spend more on AWS. It’s, yeah, you could not have backups for those incredibly important things over there, but I [wouldn’t 00:13:12] generally recommend that. And I always get these strange looks. And it evolved my business practice a bit away from, for example, guaranteeing that I’d achieved a certain level of savings just because that it got people focused on the wrong outcome.

Joe: Absolutely. I draw some analogies, I do some woodworking as a hobby, and occasionally I’ll go out and buy a tool like a router or a bandsaw because I want that tool, and then I design projects around that tool. That’s great for a hobby when you have some spare income to blow. That’s a terrible way to run an IT operation.

Corey: That’s a lot of fun as a hobby, but if you’re a professional carpenter, that’s probably the wrong [laugh] direction to take things in. It’s a different approach to things. Your background is fascinating, and I would argue makes you incredibly well-suited for the role you’re in. You’ve been a principal engineer, you’ve been a CTO, you’ve been a VP of Sales and Marketing, you’ve sort of done, more or less, every major business function out there. The one I don’t see on your background listed is accounting and finance, but yeah, turns out you run a business, you learn real quick how at least the important moving parts there are.

What was it that made you decide to take that background, that eclectic group of skills and say, yep, consultancy, first off, and then it’s going to be aimed at solving these expensive existential questions that companies are wrestling with? Because it turns out the world increasingly runs on computers and that’s not something a lot of our customers are great at out of the gate.

Joe: So, some of it happened just by opportunity and chance. My first sales engineering role pulled me out of the customer side, and when the hiring manager called me to interview me and explain a sales engineer role, I told him, you know, “This isn’t for me. I don’t want to sell.” And then he ended up calling back the next day and explaining this training certification knowledge and growth path he put me on, and I changed my mind real quick because he was going to invest in me. So, some of it started by accident, then I realized the value in the diversity of knowledge.

I mean the human brain is a pattern-matching machine. The more data sets it has to match patterns on, the more powerful it gets, so the more diverse my job roles and the more diverse my education, my reading, my study become, the more I can help any given job I have by finding parallels to other things I’ve experienced.

Corey: You started your consultancy right around the time of the pandemic if memory serves, and that the running gag has been for a while now—it’s one of those haha, only serious type of jokes—is the global pandemic has done more to accelerate your company’s digital transformation than your last ten CIOs combined. And there’s something to be said for necessity forcing the issue in some cases. How have you seen it evolving?

Joe: So yeah, the pandemic definitely accelerated digital transformation and in fact, it was part of our first-year revenue success was that. There were some challenges that came with it. Large companies didn’t know what the financial market would look like, so they locked down spending and budgets quite a bit, so you got some good and bad there. But I think it accelerated a lot of things.

I think the maybe the disappointing part to me is that a lot of the things that the pandemic accelerated, were things that should have been happening anyway: Expanding remote work, building out better hybrid models to be able to secure SaaS, Infrastructure as a Service, and on-premises properties together, those types of things. They were things that we should have been doing, but nobody was forced to until the ‘oh, crap’ happened.

Corey: It’s one of those areas that is always felt like companies approach strangely. I’ve worked for a number of large companies over the course of my career who effectively decided to one day wake up, plant a flag in the ground and declare it we’re not a finance company—or whatever it is that they did—we’re a tech company. And in practice, I find that the execution of that vision doesn’t tend to extend much further beyond just putting a sign on the wall. Is that something you’ve seen and is a common trope, or do I just have really interesting luck in picking employers?

Joe: No, I think we see that a lot. I think we see a lot of large, intelligent organizations see a shift happening in the world and they decide they have to address that or do that, right? You saw a lot of this in the early days of cloud. They didn’t figure out a business problem or financial problem to move to cloud; they just saw all their peers doing it, so they put a stake in the sand and said, “We’re going to cloud.” And I think that’s a bad way to design the business operations. If your core isn’t a tech company, then, “What do you mean by that?” would be the first question I ask.

Corey: One thing I want to talk about because I don’t get to see it very often. I am almost always brought in to companies when they’re already running in the cloud—specifically, AWS since that is where I start and stop professionally these days—and they’re already there, and surprise, it costs money. You’re there earlier than I am; you are helping them get there in the first place. I’ve viewed for a while the idea that moving to cloud to save money is a losing proposition. If you ask me in good faith to say, “All right, in five years, will we make money or lose money on this journey?”

It really comes down to what answer do you want because I can make an extremely strong good-faith argument in either direction, but my honest opinion is that it’s a capability story, not a cost savings play. That is how I’ve come to view it, but given that I’m viewing it after the fact, and I’m only seeing a very specific example of it, I’m curious to know how you see it.

Joe: I would not recommend to a client to move to the cloud for the purpose of saving cost. If there’s something else leading it, scalability, elasticity, operational flexibility, whatever you’re looking at, that should be the primary goal. If you can also build it to save some costs, that’s fantastic. And there’s really two reasons I look at that. One is, IT should be a business enabler if you’re doing it right, and if you have something enabling your business driving revenue, why would you want to starve it of funding? Why would cost be your primary goal—cost savings?

And the second piece is, in my life, I always find that the success of a decision is 20% making the right decision and 80% making it the right decision after it’s made, right? It’s the effort afterwards to make it work that’s going to show you whether you’re getting the cost savings or not. It’s not easy to jump to cloud and create the new operational model that’s going to be the cheaper operational model, so if you’re not willing to do that work, once you’re in cloud, you’re not going to save money on it.

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Corey: You have a, I would say, unpopular opinion on taking multi-cloud as an action item in the direction to go in. The reason I don’t call it that unpopular is because it echoes a lot of my own thinking on these things, and Lord knows, I have suffered the slings and arrows over the years for advocating such a thing, but what is your position on adopting multiple clouds?

Joe: So, if I was going to put it in the least objective possible terms, it would be, I want to be single architecture—single cloud in this case—unless. Right? I should be architecting for the simplest environment, I can build given my requirements. And so when I see clients try and jump into multi-cloud because it’s the buzzword or it’s something that a vendor is trying to sell them, multi-cloud is not a solution, it’s a necessity, in some cases.

Corey: My perspective has been to pick a provider—I don’t care which one—go all in until you have a reason to do something different. Multi-cloud is, in my experience, something that happens to you rather than something that is an intentional choice. But where your data winds up living is fundamentally where everything else is going to wind up centering around as well. The old-school procurement story of not wanting to be tied to one particular vendor because they’re going to soak you is a good piece of advice and I apply it in almost every IT decision, except when it comes to cloud. Because the pattern is different, the model is different, the way the discounting works is radically different.

And maybe that’s just because I haven’t done a lot of this work in traditional IT, but is this also the wrong approach, going back to the world of data centers and networking vendors and server vendors and the like, or is it really a different world?

Joe: No, I think it’s very much the same world. I’m religious about standardization wherever possible because it reduces the operational friction across the board that gets ignored in a lot of these costs. And that operational friction can end up in headcount and salary and cost that you see, but it also ends up in frustration for those teams, complexity of what you do, and another form of lock-in that prevents you from modernizing that infrastructure. So, anywhere you can find a standard single vendor that works—and it’s going to have some caveats, like everything—I would. And that’s not to say you should always standardize on everything; it’s standardize in less.

Corey: One of the things that I tend to see as far as a multi-cloud pattern that just doesn’t work is in no small part, very much an intentional choice—I believe—on the part of the cloud providers, where inbound data transfer is free; outbound costs an awful lot of money. And that, if for nothing other than basic economics has acted as a brake on the adoption of those patterns, in many cases. Is that something that you experience as these companies are moving to cloud is something that they need to become accustomed to? Is that something they know going in and they just intrinsically accept it? How does that awareness play out?

Joe: So, I think you’re hitting on the biggest problem of multi-cloud is how do I get access to the data sitting in one cloud? Every cloud provider wants to give you cheap storage because once your data is there, you’re going to use their compute, their bandwidth, everything else. And so when I am working with a client that is looking at multi-cloud, the first thing we want to solve for is, where’s the demilitarized zone we can put your data that can serve it effectively to any cloud you’re using? Because most of the time, your apps aren’t going to work in isolation. And that tends to be a solvable problem, but one of the harder problems to solve, and one of the things I don’t see a lot of people thinking of first when they start to put apps in different clouds.

Corey: For me, when I was advising—lightly—on Cloud migrations and digital transformations as such, the problem wasn’t the technology or even the budget or the rest, it was the growing awareness that people were going to have to think about things in a different context. Tying it back to economics, for example, when you ask someone who’s in a data center and looking to move to cloud, “Okay, great. How much data per month are your app servers sending and receiving to the database servers?” And the answer? “Why on earth would I have to know that? Why would I care?”

And it’s oh, you’re very much about to care. There’s a reason I’m asking this. It’s a cultural transformation, much more than it is a technical one, in my experience. Do you find that that comes as a surprise to folks or by the time that they get serious enough about digital transformation to bring someone like you in that they’ve already checked the basic boxes?

Joe: I think we’ve improved a lot over time. I mean, I think there were great horror stories of they’re ready to flip the switch on a cloud migration, and then they talked to the CFO who has no desire to deal with an OpEx model, or something to that effect, right? So, I think we’ve moved a lot past that. But I think people are still very naive about the overall dependencies, the data transfer. I used to say you can ask any given customer how many applications they have, and if they can give you a ballpark, that’s amazing. So, to know what the dependencies are, what the data transfer rates [crosstalk 00:24:49]—

Corey: [crosstalk 00:24:49] start counting on it, and it’s like it’s one of those, “Yeah, don’t bother giving me specific count; just give me breadbox sizing. Are we talking dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions? At least give me an order of magnitude here.”

Joe: Right. And if you don’t know how many apps you have, how do you know how they communicate and how much data they transfer, and the rest? And oh, by the way, 
figuring that all out is an expensive exercise.

Corey: Very often, I tend to view hybrid as something that no one intends to do, but they get there almost by accident where they start migrating some workloads, and it goes super well, then they realize, “Huh, I have a mainframe over there and there is no AWS/400 I can migrate it to, so we’re going to give up, call it hybrid, plant the flag, declare victory, and the end; we’re a hybrid now.” I feel like that is in many cases, what a multi-cloud… pattern might evolve to be. I think we’re still early enough in the cycle that moving from all-in on Cloud Provider A to all-in on Cloud Provider B isn’t an exercise most companies have undertaken. But it feels like that might be something that gives rise to a multi-cloud world, just because that is the pattern that people fall into turns out to be more of a trap than anything.

Joe: Yeah, I think we’re always more willing to spend $10 a month for eternity than $100 right now on a problem. So, we get this idea of we’re not going to take that legacy, monolithic app and re-architect it for the cloud; we’re going to leave it and run in a hybrid model. Over time you’re over-engineering; over time, you’re spending more money; over time, you’re not solving the problem. One of the things that, you know, here on my ranch I try and do is never do band-aid fixes because as soon as I go put a bandaid on something, it’s going to stay there until it breaks on me again. If you’re not going to fix it right the first time, you’re going to have challenges with it all the time.

Corey: It’s the idea of buying the best tool that you can find on this, when you buy the most expensive–or best tool—which is often the most expensive—it’s one of those you cry once, whereas if you’ve buy the crappy tool, every time you use it, it irritates you, but you can’t justify replacing it. It’s the same model. One thing that I keep smacking into, it on some level, makes me feel like a bit of a fraud because I’m here talking to companies about their AWS bill, where it starts where it stops, but regardless of how big or how small that bill is, it is always dwarfed by payroll expenses. And the hard part of cloud migrations and modernization is not, “Well, how do we move all the applications from the data center into the cloud?” Compared to, “We have 5000 employees who are working in the on-prem environment and know how that works, and cloud is something they find in the sky when they go outside once in a while. How do we get those people upskilled?” That seems to be the challenge of the age, right now. I am bounded to only the computery bits, as far as what I tend to explore. You’re not. How does staff upskilling and staff expertise point of impacting your work?

Joe: That’s a huge point, right? Your operational costs around your staff, staff tooling, and operations are always far exceeding any of your infrastructure costs, cloud or not. And I think one of the biggest hindrances I see to that is companies have this fear that if they train people and upskill them that they’re going to lose them. And, you know, I take a pretty hard stance on that, if you’re that worried about losing your people because you’re training them a little bit that, maybe you should fix your culture or your paychecks, or both. That’s a huge hindrance to it.

You have to train your people because they’re costing you more not knowing what you need to know. If they do leave, that happens, that’s business, that’s how things work. It’s more expensive to you over time to not be investing in the knowledge they need. And wherever you can carry your existing staff forward, you’re going to save a lot money over hiring that new staff, especially in this current market.

Corey: There is a reality as well—and I want to challenge you on this one a little bit—that if you have a team of people who are working in your data centers on various things, and let’s say their market rate is $60,000 a year—to pick a number arbitrarily—upskilling them to cloud-first is hard. And I want to be clear, not everyone either has the capacity or the desire to, “All right, I’m going to basically become a cloud developer now.” But for the folks who do and are able to make that transition, they’re making $60,000 a year but they’ve just learned a new skill that has a going market rate of perhaps $120,000 in that market. On some level it’s a well, I could go work somewhere else and double my pay. It’s you’d have to convince me that there was a strong compelling reason for them not to do it. If they were asking me for advice, like, why wouldn’t you? That’s one of those obvious type of answers in most scenarios. How do you square that circle?

Joe: There’s going to be some risk involved either way, so I’m not trying to shy away from that. But I think if you have people that generally like their job and what they do, people tend to not want to switch jobs as much. We all experience inertia and complacency, right, at some level. I think the second piece is, using the numbers you’re using as an example, if I’m making 60 today, and you train me for a $120,000 job, and somewhere along that line, when I showed the aptitude and have the skillset, you bump me from 60 to 80 or 90 without me asking, you just bought a level of loyalty for $30,000 a year cheaper than you would have bought my replacement. And that doesn’t mean I’m going to stay forever, but I’m really going to like where I’m at when I get a giant bump without coming into your office and demanding it.

Corey: I think that there’s a misunderstanding across a lot of sectors of the economy that employment is not strictly about the numbers. And I know that because in my 20s, I was in crippling credit card debt, and every career decision I made was around what had the biggest number on the paycheck. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it also didn’t serve me super well, in some scenarios. If I’m chasing—even now—the thing that pays me the absolute most money, yeah, it turns out that running a boutique consultancy is not the answer to that question. I could do a lot of things that are considerable more ethically dubious; I’d be miserable, but it would make more money in some respects.

Employees are in a very much a similar boat. It’s yeah, I could go make 10% more somewhere else, but I like what I’m working on. I like the people. I like the culture, I like the baseline level of respect the company has for me, and I like the fact that it’s not just empty words when they say that they invest in their people. And I think that is one of those things that really hits and convinces people that, yeah, is this place perfect? No, no place is, but that’s why I stay. And that counts for an awful lot and I think that gets overlooked.

Joe: I agree completely. And I think, you know, I want to be careful because there’s a level of money that shifts at, right? At some point, you got to pay the bills, you got to pay off the loans, you got to pay the mortgage. And so the more money to get to that level is extremely important. And probably the most important thing in your career choice. Once you hit comfort and normalcy—

Corey: Oh, yeah. Going from between 30,000 and 40,000 is very different than debating between 170 and 180. It’s a percentage thing, and there are certain steps at which point it is a dramatic lifestyle improvement. At other points, that same amount of money is more or less, it looks suspiciously like a rounding error. And it also depends on people’s individual situations, too. I want to be very clear, this is not in defense of underpaying people in any respect. I’m a huge fan of charge market rate and get more money if you possibly can.

Joe: Absolutely. And I think it’s a combination of those things. And you have to remember, it’s going to be different to different individuals, right? A single person with no intent on a family might be one hundred percent okay, with 80 hour weeks for the right money because they don’t have a whole lot of other commitments, right? Whereas it’s somebody else in a different set of boats is going to care more about a four-day work week or the rest.

So, I think two things would help companies maintain the talent, especially in a market like this, and that’s having a rounded out package that includes great salaries along with benefits, and probably providing some choice so that the individual can get what they’re really looking for within the big picture of the benefits package.

Corey: I really appreciate your spending the time to talk with me about all this today. If people want to learn more about what you’re up to and how you think about these and many other things, where’s the best place to find you?

Joe: I’d say so is probably the best place. I’m on Twitter, but I’ll warn you I’m a bit of a porcupine, so I’m not for everybody’s tastes.

Corey: A lot of that going around on this [laugh] conversation today. Thank you again for your time. I really do appreciate it.

Joe: This was fantastic. Thank you, Corey.

Corey: Joe Onisick, principal at transformation CONTINUUM. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice along with an angry, insulting comment that I will only accept if you send it from 20,000 feet above sea level.

Corey: If your AWS bill keeps rising and your blood pressure is doing the same, then you need The Duckbill Group. We help companies fix their AWS bill by making it smaller and less horrifying. The Duckbill Group works for you, not AWS. We tailor recommendations to your business and we get to the point. Visit to get started.

Announcer: This has been a HumblePod production. Stay humble.
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