Changes in data center jobs and economy: Advisory board Q&A

The outlook for data center jobs is cautiously optimistic for those with the right mix of skills.

The economic challenges of recent years have tremendously affected data center jobs and IT employment. Budget cuts slashed IT staffing and put a stranglehold on new hiring. At the same time, management and process automation tools have evolved along with virtualization, and today’s skeleton staff are doing the work of a staff that’s several times larger. Thankfully, corporate wallets are slowly opening again, and organizations that delayed important projects are re-evaluating data center jobs and the staffing needs for new infrastructure and technology deployments.

So how is the current IT employment picture shaping up? Is this year promising to be a year of opportunity, or will it be another bust for IT job seekers? What are the current trends in IT compensation? And what kind of advancement opportunities are available in today’s data center? The Advisory Board addresses these questions and gives insight into the kind of education and experience that is most relevant for entry-level IT professionals in today’s data center.

Robert Crawford, lead systems programmer and mainframe columnist
IT hiring may be even slower than in the general economy, and the road back to exciting IT employment will be a long one. This year’s graduates have to compete with offshore talent. Laid-off veterans will have to convince potential employers that their skills aren’t rusty. However, the companies who escaped the recession relatively unscathed, and there were a few, will be ready to hire. Employers will be doing their best to keep compensation flat as the economy revives, although they may be willing to pay more for specialties that are important to the business.

Career advancement should always be available, especially in companies that look toward contactors to do the low-level jobs under employee supervision. The catch is a technician may find himself doing more design and management work than heads-down programming.

I advise college students to avoid graduating as a commodity Java programmer. Offshore companies have plenty of those. Instead, develop a specialty, such as database administration, networking or security. If you don’t mind hanging around with old people, you might develop some mainframe skills, which are rapidly becoming rare as the baby boomers retire.

Michael Coté, analyst, RedMonk
There's more hiring going on, and Indeed is tracking an uptick in IT-related jobs. I see a fair amount of hiring growth at technology companies looking to add staff for building products and providing services. The uptick in hardware buying that some vendors report would also seem to indicate that there's more IT spending. Even with all of this on the table, I'm not sure yet if it's "getting better," but at least it's not getting worse.

A new fiefdom has been created with virtualization. It exists right alongside database, security, server, application, Windows, Linux and Unix. If you can wangle yourself in there, you have a lot of empty space on the organization chart to start winning points and advancing. There's all the usual ways of advancing of course, but I'm also seeing a new path emerge -- managing a company’s [Software as a Service] (SaaS) offerings. For example, some companies provide SaaS versions of their software, which entails a lot of operations assistance to deliver and maintain. Being part of your organization’s mobile offerings is, more or less, another face of that. IT, as always, is ever-changing, and if you get typecast into one silo, once that silo is "optimized," you're in trouble. Always seek to learn new things that your organization can use to make new money, or at least be an active part of saving money, not a consequence of cutting costs.

Education and experience are always dependent on the environment you work in. If it's an all Windows shop, you want to be [knowledgeable] on new Microsoft technologies and licensing [changes] that can drive down costs if applied (or avoided) correctly. Can you migrate to [Microsoft’s] cloud offerings to save money and deliver better services? IT vendors are in a frenzy over new offerings. For example, Cisco Systems now sells an all-in-one server, Oracle Corp. now sells Solaris boxes, IBM has conjoined a mainframe to power blades in its z196. Vendors are clamoring for you to "change or die" when it comes to cloud computing. Ultimately, look for what [technology] will actually work, be easy enough to install, and hopefully, help you become part of generating new money for your organization.

Bob McFarlane, president, data center design expert, Shen Milsom Wilke 
So far, I see relatively little indication of job growth. Reports indicate an increase in IT spending, but the probability seems to be that the same people will be expected to do whatever increased work comes with that. The only thing I see possibly improving the picture is the large number of new data centers being built – as long as they're not all "lights out" hosting sites, they could increase the need for people to staff them.

I also see small pay increases to retain good people, but no increase in benefits, and possibly even the national trend toward reducing benefits, or at least having employees pay some of health care in particular. I don't see IT [personnel] being treated a whole lot better than anyone else unless they're deemed "valuable" to the operation.

With the increased emphasis on energy savings and both virtualization and performance measurement touted as major elements to achieving it, there should be significant opportunity for advancement for those who pursue increased or expanded knowledge in these areas. But it will probably be necessary to do more for some period of time without benefit of title or compensation adjustment in order to gain the recognition necessary for the promotion.

The important thing is to have broader range. We certainly need true "experts" in a number of specialty areas due to their complexities, but the quickly-changing nature of IT can quickly render that expertise useless. Understand how one area of expertise relates to others to avoid professional "tunnel vision." It's also necessary today to have some facilities knowledge along with IT expertise, particularly if you want to move up to data center management someday. That doesn't mean you have to be a facilities expert, but know how the equipment fits into the overall organization and the facility that supports it.

Robert Rosen, CIO, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
In the government, the picture is bleak for the short term. Depending on congressional action, there may be freezes or additional downsizing. There may be some special areas of IT hiring, but they will be very targeted.

There are opportunities for [career] advancement, especially as the pace of retirement speeds up, but the economy must also recover to a greater extent before that becomes more noticeable. Even then, truly qualified candidates are getting harder to find. For example, most candidates today fall short in people skills and business process knowledge.

Bill Kleyman, director of technology, World Wide Fittings Inc.
Overall, the IT job market is strong and certainly growing. Individuals with a solid background and good experience stand a strong chance of landing a nice IT administrator position. I've already hired two new people this year and look to expand further in the coming one to two years.

The average pay for an IT engineer entering the market is around $45,000. With more experience and more certifications under their belt, junior engineers are able to command a higher starting salary. Benefits will vary as some companies are lowering their coverage. However, an engineer can look to have medical, dental, 401K and one or two weeks of vacation to start. One of the major determining factors [for opportunity] will be the size and type of the company hiring. Consulting firms compensate and reward their employees with good benefits, however, the training and hours can be grueling. Small shops may have very few benefits, if any. Medium- and large-sized corporations will usually employ some mix of pay and benefit packages.

Virtualization, disaster recovery planning and storage management are becoming more important [for data center jobs]. Individuals with that experience, coupled with a solid understanding of facilities management, can advance quickly within an organization. One of the most important traits I look for in any candidate is their ability to communicate. I've met extraordinarily talented IT engineers who are unable to communicate the simplest of tasks. They do their job well, but are sometimes unable to explain what they did in a coherent manner. The ability to switch the "techie" brain on and off is very important for long-term advancement. Sometimes, an engineer or programmer must explain their current project to the CEO. I need to have full confidence in their ability to speak clearly and allow a non-technical person to understand what they're saying.

Entry-level IT professionals need to have a good understanding of all new technologies in their field and should have some certifications. The CCEE for Citrix and the MCITP for Microsoft are great certifications to have when entering the job force. These can be achieved while in school, make the candidate look better and allow them to have a much better starting knowledge. The worst thing that an up and coming engineer can do is cheat on their certifications to try and get an edge. It'll look horrible during the interview and more than likely they will be [quickly] found out.

Perspective is everything
Clearly, the IT employment picture and opportunities in data center jobs depend on a variety of factors, including the business vertical, the organization’s size and the individual’s ability to be comfortable with both technological and interpersonal skill sets. It’s a challenging mix of requirements, but the jobs and the opportunities for advancement are out there.

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