The Trusted Liquid Workforce

October 24, 2023

In this short story, I discuss how corporations of all sizes can set-up a secure code development and data science process that allows them to embrace the concept of a (secure) liquid workforce, i.e. one that adapts to changing needs in skill sets, in a cyber-secure manner. An embodiment that enables a trusted liquid workforce is our secure Cloud Development Environment (CDE) platform, that is available to enterprises as well as to SMEs and startups through our public SaaS offering.

The Concept of Liquid Workforce

The concept of a liquid workforce (see for example Accenture’s Technology Vision 2016 for a detailed introduction) is mostly about that, a part of the workforce is not permanent and can be adapted to dynamic market conditions. In short, in a liquid workforce a proportion of the staff is made of freelancers, contractors and other non permanent employees. Today, it is reported that about 20% of an IT workforce is liquid in a significant part of the Fortune 500 companies.

Genies in the Bottle (Photo by Bobby Donald on Unsplash)

Actually, working as a freelancer has been a common practice in the media and entertainment industry for a long time. This model is catching up today in many other industries. From the gig economy, to the increasing sentiment stemming from Gen-Y and Gen-Z’ers that employment should be flexible, multiple catalysts are contributing to the idea that the liquid approach is likely to continue eroding the classic workforce.

Ephemeral Relationship (Photo by Chris Curry on Unsplash)

For corporations, this is actually a “perfect storm” that can be put to good use to adapt to increasingly faster changing market conditions. Indeed, the acceleration of the pace of technology and the issue for corporations to maintain a skill set that enables them to be competitive can be tackled by embracing this concept.

Already in Startups and SMEs

The inceptive impetus for working on Strong Network, i.e. my current business venture, was the observation that every single SME and startup I interacted with actually outsourced parts or sometimes most of its IT workforce.

A key enabler to onboarding a liquid workforce is the democratization, in the world of application development and data science, of the use of only cloud-based infrastructure components (GitHub, GitLab, data buckets, etc) to manage source code and data. Expectedly, this opens to the possibility for (permanent and ephemeral) workforce’s members to work from anywhere because the corporate infrastructure is indeed, available anywhere.

Younger companies are adopting new types of tools and infrastructure faster than corporations and can then be more flexible with regard to enabling remote data access. Therefore the rise of the liquid workforce is more likely to be a bottom-up initiative across the industry in terms of company size.


Somewhere in the Balkans (Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash)

In addition there are hundreds of companies situated in countries where labor cost and skill sets are combined advantageously that provide access to a liquid workforce.

Today, IT business process outsourcing and external application development are all together an USD 92 billion market. If you are openly eager to hire external help on LinkedIn, you will get contacted several times by boutique outsourcing partners, mostly from the Balkans or Asia. Consumers of these services really span the entire set of corporation sizes, across all industries.

I have talked to a dozen of these service companies and sadly, very few have a clear plan of how to effectively protect the data of their customers. Most protective mechanisms hover around legal paperwork. Albeit this approach might be comforting for large corporations, this is mostly a sham for any smaller business settings that cannot really afford to take legal action, let alone in an international context.

How to Infuse Digital Trust

Unsurprisingly digital trust has to catch up with the liquid IT phenomenon. In practice, there are three simple measures that companies of all sizes can put in place to infuse a good sense of security. Ease of adoption is directly dependent on how these measures can be delivered, i.e. cost-effectively and with a minimal impact on operations.

Secure Infusion (Photo by Massimo Rinaldi on Unsplash)

The number one measure is to automate and streamline the onboarding process. In the domain of code development and data science where the set of necessary software components to enable productivity is quite significant, this is a tricky issue. Hence a performant and economically efficient onboarding mechanism to bring on liquid contributors has to be put in place first. Here, cloud-delivered environments based on containerized software stacks are a key enabler.

Once on board, the number two measure is to ensure continuous data protection. This is another thorny issue because of the lack of classic corporate IT perimeter. Yet, as I explained previously, the Cloud is an efficient medium to allow remote access. From a security perspective, public and private clouds, e.g. Google GCP, AWS and more locally Swiss cloud-leader Exoscale, have reached a level of security that keeps most small-time cybercriminals and script kiddies ashore. In effect, this has migrated the attack surface for hackers to the network’s edges. In other words, the danger around data leaks becomes mostly confined around data access points and the developer’s behavior at each endpoint of the network rather than a centralized Cloud storage problem.

Putting it simply, it used to be that your internal servers might be targeted. Now, with a Cloud-based IT infrastructure, it’s mostly your endpoints, i.e. the developers’ laptops that are prey. Indeed in practice it is much easier to steal a laptop than hacking Google. In addition, malicious employee activities, aka insider threats around intellectual property theft such as source code and data are now becoming one of the growing concerns for corporations. This seems to be an outcome of embracing a liquid workforce (too naively), i.e. liquidity seems to erode some employees’ ethics as well!

Hence, digital trust for the liquid workforce must target the corporate edges with technologies such as zero trust access control and data loss prevention.


Who Took my Laptop? (Photo by Bastian Pudill on Unsplash)

Finally the number three measure is setting up a continuous and adaptive audit system that enables the collection of security and compliance events across the entire Cloud-based infrastructure, including in particular its edges. Compliance with information security standards such an ISO 27001 (in particular the appendices) and SOC-2 is a starting point to set up a minimally sufficient protection program. As I mentioned above, technologies such as zero trust access control and data loss prevention, in particular cloud-delivered are some of the mechanisms that are contributing to enabling the secure liquid workforce.

Our platform’s core security is based on implementing these three measures at scale, from startups up to enterprises. Its characteristics make it a so-called Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solution, a term coined by technology research company Gartner in 2019.

Laurent Balmelli