Data center manager wanted: Communication skills required

Data center managers with technical backgrounds need to pick up soft skills like communication and business competence to manage IT systems in the on-demand environment.

NEW YORK -- You've spent your career pursuing computer science and technologies, but what if those skills are no longer enough to effectively manage an IT infrastructure? In an on-demand computing environment, experts say communication and business expertise are equally important.

According to Rob Schafer, an independent consultant from Granite Springs, N.Y., an on-demand data center environment will require IT workers to transition technical aptitude into business skills. In his keynote presentation at the Data Center Decisions 2005 conference this week, Schafer said understanding financials and business processes are no longer strictly the realm of executives.

There are a lot of areas where data center managers need to be able to evaluate business needs and explain them to other decision makers in the organization:

  • Expressing return on investment (ROI). IT needs to be able to describe short-term gains from infrastructure investments or on-demand initiatives. The shorter the cycle for ROI is, the lower the risk to the business, and it's more likely IT projects will be approved.
  • Determining if on-demand is right for the organization. If your organization is growing at 40%, Schafer said those organizations can perform on-demand type practices in-house. Companies growing at that rate can absorb excess IT infrastructure purchases. At the same time, slow growth -- less than 5% -- is also easy to manage computing capacity in-house. In between is the sweet spot for outsourced on-demand. Data center managers need to be able to determine that situation for the organization.
  • Attaching business value to abstract ideas. Technical concepts related to on-demand like virtualization, consolidation, policy-based management and provisioning can affect business processes, but without an interface to explain them to non-technical staff, the business needs cannot be addressed.

According to attendee Todd Gills, a data center supervisor with New York-based Bloomberg LP, a lot of data center managers don't have the business background to address these issues. That's why Bloomberg has an administrative interface to communicate between IT and financial and business sectors.

But Gills admits that IT people who excel in communications will be going places. "You have to explain IT to a lot of different people," he said. "Communication skills are part of Basic Management 101."

It's not enough to understand servers, storage or networking. Data center managers also need to understand the financial impact of their initiatives. That's why many IT executives are coming from the business sector rather than the computer science field.

Ernie Frechel, a data center manager with Irving, Texas-based Christus Health, came from a technology background, but also earned a business degree and spent 10 years as a consultant. According to Frechel, understanding business is key to managing IT. His business background helps him understand how to deal with the procurement of infrastructure equipment.

Yogesh Shah, a New York-based systems engineer in the financial industry, recommended that data center managers take project management courses if they hope to adapt.

He also said it's important to communicate through the proper channels. "You ask the financial department about your budget and you need to talk to the facilities department about your physical infrastructure. You have to communicate to the right people," Shah said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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