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Data centers seek creative skills to drive innovation in IT

Now more than ever, data centers need creative employees to adapt and outwit problems for a more efficient, reliable IT infrastructure.

Data center teams placed increased importance on creativity and innovation in 2015 in search of new ways to achieve traditional goals.

As expected, reliability of IT services, on-time project completion, achieving a business goal, improving service delivery and meeting productivity goals topped a list of measures for success in TechTarget's 2015 survey* of systems administrators, IT managers and executives, and those who work with the data center.

But those surveyed put a higher premium on creativity and innovation in IT in 2015 than last year, ahead of achieving returns on investments and coming in under budget.

Creativity and innovation were defined as important measures of success by 18% of respondents, up 3% from 2014. Coming in under budget fell in importance by 6% from 2014 to 2015, landing in the single digits.

"I think [creativity is] critically important -- I wouldn't hire someone if I didn't think they had it," said Jamie Rabenstein, information technology manager at Victor Community Support Services (VCSS), an agency that delivers mental health and family support services, based in Chico, Calif.

With more dynamic data centers meeting IT demands, deep technical expertise is still valuable, but so is the ability to adapt to a new approach and work with different groups of people.

"You need to think about your job," Rabenstein said. "You can't do more with less unless you have creativity and innovation. And we're in the do-more-with-less phase in data center technology."

You need to think about your job. You can't do more with less unless you have creativity and innovation. And we're in the do-more-with-less phase in data center technology.
Jamie Rabensteininformation technology manager, VCSS

Creativity and innovation have more to do with the hierarchical, logical IT world than people may think, said James Stanger, senior director of products for CompTIA Inc., a nonprofit IT industry association involved in training and certifications.

Innovation and creativity enhances an IT pro's ability to troubleshoot, design architectures and optimize performance to meet traditionally important metrics, such as reliability, stability and efficiency of IT operations. Stanger calls it the ability to make an informed choice.

Combine an ability to see "the spaces between the systems" -- how everything interconnects and works in your environment -- with a deep knowledge of the protocols and procedures in use, and the IT worker can create the best architecture and operations possible for their business, he said.

"Without creativity and innovation, [IT pros are] going to overlook something," Rabenstein said. "They could have increased server performance, bettered [service level agreements], prevented downtime. You can't do that if you just follow."

Rabenstein experienced this over the past year, as VCSS replaced Dell servers with Cisco Unified Computing System blades, and added Nimble hybrid solid-state drive and hard disk drive storage with Condusiv Technologies' V-locity I/O reduction software. It requires a different approach than the old way of doing things, but he sees performance and space utilization payoffs -- especially as VCSS moves about 1,000 end users onto virtual desktops.

Creativity saves companies money, Stanger said, which is why CIOs and directors should seek it out. Small and medium-sized businesses especially look for creative IT people to solve problems within the available budget, he said. 

"Especially in the education field, a lot of creativity and innovation is required, due to resource constraints," said Ross Eberle, technical support supervisor at the Rockford School District in Illinois. There is no budget available for turnkey new products to meet a requirement as IT demands change, he added, but end users must be supported nonetheless.

A new relationship is also forming between IT and the business. The IT services sector hiring is strong, with a concentration on IT-business hybrids, such as software engineers, analysts, architects, and program and project managers over traditional tech infrastructure jobs, according to research from Foote Partners LLC in Vero Beach, Fla.

"You need an entrepreneurial spirit in the back end," said Jeff Einhorn, group manager of rAPId Infrastructure Services at Target.

Service managers should be empowered to make changes, with stability and efficiency in mind. Otherwise, business units might seek the autonomy and short-term payoff of shadow IT on public cloud services, Einhorn said.

Innovative and creative traits also increase satisfaction with the job. Innovative thinking was the second most cited reason for upbeat data center leaders. A total of 33% of data center respondents said the mood in their organization is optimistic. Of those, 45% claimed innovation is encouraged in their organization.

How to inject innovation into IT

IT organizations can increase the creative energy and interest in innovation around the data center through rewards, selective hiring and strong leadership.

"You can't turn people into something they're not. People who need to write databases can't whiteboard in front of CEOs," VCSS's Rabenstein said. But you can seek out the "sales personality" in engineering types during the interview process, using Myers-Briggs or other personality tests. Then, place those people in positions where they can step up with ideas.

"If you leave them alone for a few hours, maybe they'll design something you've never seen before," Rabenstein said.

Target uses short-term challenges, hack-a-thons and other activities to encourage employees to work with "strangers" in the IT organization, according to Einhorn.

Time for "structured play" in a pilot lab will pay off, Stanger said, whether it's simply evaluating a network router or setting up a Raspberry Pi server to test its limits.

Eberle looks for technical skills, as well as a desire to learn and take on new tasks, when bringing an employee along on his team.

"In the IT industry, everyone's got to learn on a constant basis," he said. As a manager, Eberle's role is to keep these creative people engaged and supply the information they need to make decisions.

"They're part of the solution," Eberle said. "A lot of times, we overlook that. We expect technicians to go out and get it done."

In addition to encouraging free time, reward IT workers with conference attendance and trainings where they can cultivate ideas alongside peers at other companies. It may be easier to give a cash bonus, Stanger said, but the best companies foster curiosity through "education vacations."

"They come back and their creativity goes off the charts."

*Editor's note: This report was created from findings of TechTarget's 2015 Annual Salary and Careers Survey, an online survey of 1,783 IT professionals in North America, fielded from June to September 2015. Sample sizes may vary by individual question, depending on previous responses, or exclusion of errors or outlier data. The 265 data center-related respondents selected data center and server management as one of the top-three areas that occupy their time. They were allowed to choose multiple options in response to what they considered measures of success.

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