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National Australia Bank cashes in on AWS training and certification

Structured training got nearly 1,000 National Australia Bank employees certified on AWS, while AWS-honed tactics such as two-pizza teams can help enterprises build up cloud know-how.

LAS VEGAS -- Enterprises could create hundreds of certified AWS engineers inside their IT organizations relatively quickly if they follow the right playbook.

National Australia Bank's (NAB) directors decided in 2017 on a large-scale move from on-premises systems to the cloud, said Paul Silver, manager engineer, who spoke in a re:Invent session here last week.

Part of the plan was to hire 2,000 cloud-savvy engineers, but the talent pool in Melbourne was far too thin to support that lofty goal. In fact, NAB had only seven AWS-certified employees at the time. As a result, NAB launched a structured AWS training and certification effort.

Silver began to run lunchtime training sessions, with the idea that participants would get various AWS certifications after 12 weeks, and found a substantial latent demand. "It was very, very clear early on that people wanted to learn," he said. "They just needed to be enabled to learn."

Still, NAB had mixed results by March 2018, with 150 people trained but only 15 certified. Part of the problem was the somewhat ad-hoc structure in place.

Backed by the bank's CTO, Silver developed an AWS training and certification program that would certify 3,000 people -- 10% of the bank's 30,000 employees. It uses training resources such as the popular A Cloud Guru online platform. Within two days of the program's launch, 3,000 workers had signed up. Today about 4,500 have been trained, with nearly 1,000 certified on AWS.

People are becoming self-learners. That's what we need in the organization.
Paul SilverManager Engineer, National Australia Bank

"What we found that if you get certified, you go and get other certs," he said. "People are becoming self-learners. That's what we need in the organization. It's become organic."

NAB now has 7% of all AWS-certified individuals across Australia and New Zealand on staff, and hiring skilled technical staff has become much easier thanks to the bank's improved image among the community, according to Silver.

He also decried a dogmatic view held by some enterprises around AWS training and certification "Everyone says if you teach them, they'll leave," Silver said. "But what if you don't teach them?"

Get tasty results from two-pizza teams

Hiring the right people can be difficult for companies just starting out in the cloud, said Jonathan Allen, enterprise strategist and evangelist at AWS, who spoke during the same session. Prior to AWS, he worked at Capital One, including as U.K. CTO. While Capital One is now famous for its large-scale move onto AWS, it was rough going at the start, according to Allen.

"I remember writing this unicorn job specification for new engineers and actually being met with profound inbox silence, because we weren't known for running on the cloud," he said in a re:Invent session this week. But Allen soon realized that the people he already had could be trained and organized, AWS-style.

AWS is known for its use of two-pizza teams -- the idea that no meeting or team should have more people than can be fed by a couple of large pizzas, lest it lose focus or succumb to groupthink.

Two-pizza teams should include some critical job roles, such as a product manager who has both technical and personal communication skills. They also require a lead architect who can think holistically about all the project's requirements.

But those who may fear for their jobs in a cloud-centric world -- on-premises infrastructure engineers -- are hugely important as well, Allen added.

"Yes, in their previous life they may have been racking and stacking hardware," Allen said. "In my experience, though, they're very familiar with command-line. They're very familiar with things like cron jobs. It's not much of a leap to understand how to develop CloudFormation code from that."

Initial two-pizza teams for cloud projects should involve the most talented engineers available. "I know that sometimes they're assigned to very important parts of your business, but they work best when they are dedicated resources, not a side-of-the-desk activity," Allen said.

The initial two-pizza team's goal should be to get to production in 90 days on AWS, Allen said. Once that is accomplished, the team should be split. An enterprise can mimic cellular mitosis, pairing experts from the first team with cloud novices to create new ones, and repeating the process over time.

AWS certification, particularly to the Solutions Architect level, is also important for team members to achieve along the way, Allen said. But a company's goal should only be to get 10% of its technical workers certified, much like NAB did, according to Allen.

"When 10% of a population have a passionate belief about something, the majority will always adopt," he said. "Suddenly everyone else goes, 'I'm being left behind. I want to get into this.'"

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