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Staffing often overlooked during platform migration

Hidden behind technical and fiscal issues surrounding migration lurks a question data center managers face -- What does migration mean to my current staff?

The prospect of a platform migration, with its intriguing possibilities lurking behind buzzwords such as scalability and open source, hang over data center managers like a dangling carrot.

But at the end of the day, data centers are about the people. So despite all the benefits of migration, IT pros will always have one burning question to answer.

What's going to happen to my staff?

Whether the answer is retrain or fire them, dealing with staffing concerns is a critical element of any successful migration in the data center. While a migration is essentially a conversion of the nuts and bolts of a system, the people making sure the nuts and bolts work the way they're supposed to are ultimately the ones most affected by it.

If you show your employees loyalty, they'll respond in kind. You can't put a price on that -- especially in the IT world, where there is so much turnover.
Joe Farrell
Technical support specialistMilton Academy

According to Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Research in Hayward, Calif., the migration's effect on the staff is something IT managers simply cannot afford to overlook. Even if executives care more about the potential cost benefits of a conversion than its current staff, a strategy that doesn't give staffing issues the weight it deserves is one destined for failure.

"If a customer has not considered staff issues before a migration, whether it's retraining or bringing in new people, they need to just stop and rethink exactly what it is they're doing," King said. "It's a critical issue for anyone attempting a significant migration."

The information services department for San Mateo County in California is in the opening stages of a migration, and has recently sent out requests for proposals while searching for a consultant that can help them develop a migration strategy. Advisory systems engineer Jim Wilson, who is on the team trying to hash out a way to convert successfully, points out an example of how another state agency handled its recent migration.

In mid-2002 the data center first pulled off the mainframe and moved over to Dell boxes running Windows. Wilson said the migration saved the data center $500,000 in the first year. The data center then reinvested much of that money back into its staff by retraining current workers and bringing in new people, including a systems programmer.

The county also told its employees exactly what it planned to do, and offered them two options -- take advantage of the opportunity to advance your skill set, or use the advance warning to look for another job more specific to your current talents.

Wilson, who has been in IT for 39 years, said the case was rare because migrations often end up costing IT staffers their jobs -- in part because many companies don't value their employees nearly as much as they should.

"There is no dedication -- you can't expect it from employers," Wilson said. "People are a commodity these days … if you find a place that is willing to work with you, it's highly unusual."

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Joe Farrell, a technical support specialist at Milton Academy, a private high school in suburban Massachusetts with 32 Dell boxes running Windows, said he'd be a bit leery initially if his boss told him they'd be moving over to a new system or new hardware.

But he thinks the positive challenges presented to him by such a move would outweigh most of his concerns.

"It would completely change my job. I would have to relearn everything I know. But I'd be encouraged to learn something knew. It would add to my skill set to my resume," Farrell said.

If you have a strong staff in-house, training them on a new system -- or hardware, for that matter -- isn't a critical issue most of the time. But King said it's important for IT managers to think about and prepare for the differences between the system they are currently running and the one they are moving toward to ensure a smooth transition.

"It really comes down to the similarities of what they are migrating from and what they are migrating toward. It can be a very big deal or a small deal. It varies radically from case to case. But companies need to take that into account when planning for migration, whether the applications their staff are familiar with are going to be available on the new platform," King said.

According to Farrell, migrating IT managers looking to let go of their current staff and bring in new blood instead of investing to retrain the current staff might save a few bucks initially, but may face bigger problems down the line. Because at the end of the day, investing in people is usually just as important as investing in technology.

"If you show your employees loyalty, they'll respond in kind. You can't put a price on that -- especially in the IT world, where there is so much turnover."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Luke Meredith, News Writer

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