Data center staffing mindset is changing

The improving economy and changes in technology will force managers to rethink how they staff data centers. Operations people will no longer be second-class citizens.

Over the next few years, IT management will need to help their most talented employees carve out a fulfilling career

path. Otherwise, these folks will have increasing opportunities to head to outsourcing and consulting firms, especially since they are hiring again. By Johanna Ambrosio, Contributor

Assuming the economy's continued improvement, however bumpy, the long dry spell in the data center is coming to an end. A confluence of demographic and technological forces will bring big changes that will begin during the next few years, according to experts.

Traditionally, IT management has not paid much attention to personnel issues in the data center, observers say. "The dirty little secret is that if you're in the operations group, you're a second-class citizen," said Mark McManus, vice president of technology and research at Computer Economics Inc., in Aliso Viejo, Calif. "They've never been taken seriously because they've always been considered people in transition." Operations personnel generally make less money and receive fewer perks than other ITers, in part because the data center folks often have less formal education and are not certified, as other technical specialists.

But that mindset is about to change, and for many reasons.

On one hand are tools like virtualization and more automation in general that will continue to reduce the need for people performing some traditional data center tasks like console management -- watching a screen to see if anything breaks and then reporting it and, sometimes, taking actions to fix the problem.

Gartner Inc. recently predicted that the number of IT operations jobs, including those in the data center, will fall by 50% over the next two decades in large part because of these tools. Most experts agree that although the 50% figure may be on the high side, improved technology means that the number of people needed to effectively run a data center is definitely trending downward and many of the old-school operations types of jobs will go away.

Indeed, McManus said the number of operations jobs has already declined by 15% to 20% over the past 10 years. "But we have to take these numbers with a grain of salt," he said. "We may have gotten rid of console operators, but the number of IT personnel overall hasn't decreased. So where did those people go? They went to the help desk or to some other area.

A couple of other factors play here. First is the server consolidation craze. In many cases the machines that used to live outside the data center are returning with problems. Some of the business users who had taken on server-related tasks no longer wish to take care of infrastructure types of problems, especially with today's increased security and federal regulations. Also, demographics play a large part as the baby-boomer generation gets set to retire; those numbers will start mounting significantly in about five years.

Admittedly, the biggest fallout is still a few years away -- as virtualization and other technology matures and the boomer retirement numbers hit big -- but hiring experts said 2005 is a good time to start preparing. Smart IT managers will want to plan what specific tasks their data centers will be charged with overseeing during the next five to 10 years, and will choose their best-and-brightest data center employees to accomplish those tasks. This will likely mean spending corporate training dollars to help employees acquire new, higher-level skills or expertise in different platforms -- including networking.

The basic idea is that people will still be needed to run the data center, but they'll be needed to do more analysis, and of more and different types of systems, than what they've traditionally done. "You'll still need a cadre of people, but they will be more talented and have more skills," said Maria Schafer, a senior program director at the Meta Group. "You'll need to 'upscale' them into a broader array of dealing with infrastructure issues and then transition out the people no longer needed" in the data center.

One possibility, McManus said, is to combine what are separate specialties today -- take someone who knows about production control and job scheduling on the mainframe, say, and train him or her to perform those tasks across all supported platforms. "It speaks to a need for retention strategies and for IT management to combine specialties to make them attractive for people to want to do production support and server administration," McManus said.

Experts said new technology-related career paths better start opening up in the data center soon, or skilled personnel will explore opportunities elsewhere, most notably in outsourcers. "The consultancies are getting scrappy again," said David Foote, president and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC, an HR consultancy in New Canaan, Conn. "Right now the IT professional services businesses are really booming," and some specialties in particular, including most networking-related skills, are in high demand.

Steve Lock, a branch manager for Robert Half Technology in San Diego, has already helped clients hire more senior-level data center personnel. One of his largest clients was building two data centers and needed senior-level project managers and people to implement some of the new Unix-based virtualization tools. The mainframe skills are most definitely "still relevant" in this world, Lock said. "Someone with a background in mainframe computing is able to pick up new technology relatively quickly." he said

Indeed, Meta's Schafer suggests that the coming data center shakeup needn't be painful. "You just have to take a look at all the issues -- demographics, skill levels and career path. If you focus on all these pieces, you can eliminate a lot of problems before they start. Unfortunately, the data center doesn't get a lot of attention, and it's often taken for granted."
 

This was first published in February 2005

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