Demand for Systems Experts Grows Along with Managed Services

For years, managed services providers (MSPs) have been regarded as something akin to the tech world’s plumbers: They installed and maintained the basic office infrastructure for small- and medium-sized businesses that couldn’t afford much (or any) technology staff. They provided help desk services, kept networks up-to-date, and made sure their clients could make full use of the applications needed to run their business.

But the concept of managed services is quietly evolving. With the cloud now touching almost every aspect of business, customers want someone to manage more than basic infrastructure, said Carolyn April, senior director of industry analysis for the trade group CompTIA.

Notably, the rate of companies transitioning from on-premise implementations to managed services has slowed as more businesses adopt cloud-based solutions from the start. “Customer expectations are that they’re going to consume technology in this way,” April said. “They like having their infrastructure taken care of so that their internal IT staff can deal with more strategic issues.”

Much to Manage, Not Enough Tech Pros

With demand for their services growing, MSPs are scrambling to find tech pros who can handle client-facing roles, particularly systems engineers, said MJ Shoer, director of client engagement for 1Path, a national MSP based in Atlanta.

“System engineering is where the project work gets done,” he explained. “We have a big gap, with more work and fewer resources.” Arguing that schools at nearly every level focus their tech education on programming and software development, he added: “We need more people on the infrastructure side of things. Networking is remarkably complex, is constantly evolving, and needs constant tweaking.”

Traditionally, many MSPs hired for entry-level positions on the help desk, then moved people up the ranks as they gained experience and earned certifications. “Our approach was to hire people with a basic aptitude but the right attitude, and help them grow,” Shoer said. While that’s still an often-used approach, it doesn’t fill the immediate need for the systems engineers who design, build and maintain the networks.

Successful systems engineers are “demonstrated problem solvers” who understand the intricacies of today’s networking technology, such as virtualization and protocols, Shoer said. They also have to be creative thinkers who understand the idea of cause and effect: “They need to think beyond the core technology to understand the ramifications and impacts of everything they do.”

For example, if a new security strategy calls for adding a strategically placed camera, the engineer should consider all of the possible consequences. “You can’t just slap cameras on the network,” Shoer noted. “You’ve got to look into whether or not you’ll open up an entirely new security hole.”

New Positions as MSPs Widen Their Role

Meanwhile, the MSP landscape is evolving. In turn, the type of roles in managed services is widening among solutions providers and traditional MSPs. More vertical software companies—especially in telecommunications and accounting—are offering their products through a managed services approach, while traditional MSPs are looking for ways to expand their roles or redefine their focus.

For example, many firms are taking a harder look at verticals. “Some are shedding clients that don’t fit with the industries they want to focus on,” Shoer said, while others are already ensconced in their chosen space. As an example, Shoer pointed to Proactive Technologies, a New York MSP that concentrates on hedge funds and other investment firms.

April said the manufacturing and retail sectors are of particular interest to MSPs right now, so in some instances, candidates with matching backgrounds could have an advantage over others.

MSPs are also exploring ways to expand their services, April said: “We see an across-the-board shortage for a host of jobs” as providers look for experts in the Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics and artificial intelligence. Demand for those skills will increase as MSPs move beyond simply monitoring data to analyzing it and identifying actionable business insights. Being able to offer such services would give companies a competitive advantage and allow them to take on a more consultative role. However, she added, “We’re not there yet.”

Some MSPs are also beginning to create roles for software developers so they can create their own solutions to various infrastructure issues, April said. Repeatable processes are important to the MSP business model, and a small but growing number are evaluating whether having their own tools would make good business sense.

Prove Your Accomplishments

When considering candidates, MSPs usually look at the candidate’s work experience and credentials, as well as their cultural fit. Shoer prefers to review tech pros with vendor-neutral training, which focuses on concepts and how core technology works. Once you know that, he said, “You can layer on manufacturer-specific information.”

Expect hiring managers to focus on projects you’ve been involved with, and be ready to discuss your role on the team, what went well, what didn’t, and what you’d do differently. As Shoer emphasized, “references are important.” After you’ve talked about your work, the interviewer will want to verify what you’ve said by speaking with previous managers and colleagues.