Data Center Skill Sets, Keeping It Fresh

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Nov 29, 2007

One would think it pure madness to work in a data center right now. After all, one of the biggest changes in the data center world is automation &# the ability to configure server, network and storage resources without human intervention. Data center automation is clearly set to rise as these software systems become more sophisticated and prices fall. And this can only have one result: a dramatic fall in the number of staff required to operate a data center. Not much future in data center employment, then.

Is automation a harbinger of doom for the data center professional? Not necessarily. Analysts predict jobs will be plentiful for those with current skill sets and an awareness of non-IT issues that impact the data center.

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But appearances can be deceiving. In reality. here's probably never been a better time to work in a data center — if you have ambition and a willingness to learn new skills. That's because demand for data center staff with the right skills has never been higher, and long-term job prospects in certain areas look very bright, indeed.

That's the position AFCOM, a professional association for data center managers, is taking. It believes the number of available senior technical and management data center professionals will fall by 45 percent by 2015. If these numbers turn out to be anything close to correct, then those with the right skills will be pretty much able to walk into the top data center job of their choosing — and name their salary to boot. A pretty attractive career prospect.

But never mind the future. Let's look at the present. Many — perhaps most — data center operations report having unfilled positions, and vacancies for good systems administrators and programmers often take six months or more to fill. Getting people to fill the positions is hard. Getting good ones is even harder.

Mirroring almost all manufacturing processes, automation is replacing the relatively low-skilled jobs in data centers. But the increasing use of data centers is resulting in strong demand for technical, creative or managerial jobs that a few thousand lines of C cannot replace. If you want your employment in a data center to be secure, it's vital to start progressing your career up the ladder before you get swept away by the rising tide of data center automation.

This, of course, begs question, how do you go about doing that? Which skills have a long-term future, and what qualifications will help prove you have those skills?

Sharpening Your Skill Set

In general terms it's true that systems administrators and security skills are always in demand, but it's difficult — and dangerous — to predict which specialist skills will be hot in the future. That's the nature of the IT business: You never know what innovation is just around the corner, waiting to make your specialist skill set redundant.

The key is to build up experience, a track record and qualifications in solid IT areas, like systems administration or programming. "I would say that the most popular thing that an employer looks for is a CCNA certification," said Stafford Carrington, a director at IT recruitment agency ImpactIT.

"In fact, Cisco qualifications in general and Microsoft's MCSE are always valuable," he said. If you play your cards right, getting these won't necessarily cost you a cent, he added, concluding, "Many clients will offer the qualifications training as a way of attracting the best people, such is the demand for staff. This was certainly not something we saw two or three years ago."

A mix of Linux and Windows server abilities is extremely desirable, Carrington said, as is a familiarity with working in large server farms. "Experience working in cluster environments is a very high area of demand at the moment — although that could change very quickly in the near future," he said.

There's another factor that will help you walk into the job that you want — the flexibility to work non-standard hours. "Data centers need people 24/7, and if you can work at anti-social hours, that's a big help that shouldn't be underestimated," said Carrington.

If your career is already fairly well-progressed in the data center hierarchy and you are looking to move up to data center management, then there's no doubt IT skills will hold you in good stead. Ironically, at the very top, the emphasis moves toward a mix of IT, management and other skills. Many managers come from other business areas, although undoubtedly many have a strong IT background, and a few have worked their way up from the lowest data center operator jobs.

The reason for this shift is that many of the key issues facing data center managers have little to do with IT systems directly. Running out of power, coping with the huge cooling capacity required by the air conditioning systems that run in high-density data centers, and the challenges of increasingly important green issues and potential eco-taxes mean that if you are after a senior management job you need knowledge — or at least an understanding — of areas outside of IT, such as facility management, engineering, and probably corporate politics and PR.

It would be convenient to be able to point to a few specialist skills and identify them as keys to a successful career in a data center. The IT industry is not like that, however. If you want a secure and financially rewarding career, pick up core IT skills and qualifications and don't be blind to the non-IT aspects of working in a data center. In five to 10 years you will likely find yourself in very high demand, indeed.

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