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IT managers must prepare the next generation of data center staff

Human, not technical, challenges dog data center staff and IT managers as virtualization and UCS platforms break down traditional barriers.

As data centers get facelifts, new wrinkles arise with data center staffs. Requirements for technicians are evolving from "one-trick techies" -- network managers, storage specialists, server experts -- to Jacks and Jills of all trades.

However, IT managers run into challenges when they try to oversee the transition. In order to smooth out the process, businesses need to address employees' concerns, empower them to lead the transition and develop their business skills.

Anticipate anxiety

With the spread of virtualization and the movement to integrated computing systems, corporations are breaking down the walls among server, network and storage support teams. But the change can feel threatening. "When IT staffs hear about reorganizations, they often associate it with layoffs," said John Rivard, research director at Gartner Inc.

Employees then spend a lot of time and effort worrying about what the new organization chart will look like and how it impacts them, leaving less energy for keeping data center systems operational.

Consequently, IT managers must be proactive. They need to address the fear and convince employees that rather than an elimination of jobs, the change will provide them with an opportunity to work on more interesting projects.

Understand changing data center skills

IT departments are under siege. With the pace of change increasing, business units request alterations to applications more quickly than ever before. As a result, data centers find themselves swamped: too many requests and not enough staff to implement them all. In many cases, the data center staff spends the bulk of its time troubleshooting problems and fine-tuning the infrastructure.

Now, the challenge is to develop a staff that has the breadth to examine a range of issues but still has the depth to solve a complex technical problem.

With movement toward integrated IT solutions, corporations can now automate many of the more mundane tasks of configuring and troubleshooting their systems. Deploying a server now requires a few keystrokes rather than a complex set of commands, and the IT infrastructure now comes with the ability to identify -- and in some cases fix -- problems. Consequently, the time needed for routine tasks has been cut significantly.

"Organizations can allocate their IT staff to important tasks, like rolling out new updates rather than just trying to make sure the system is running," said Robert E. Cloud, executive director of IT infrastructure services at the University of Alabama.

Recognize achievers on your data center staff

Rewards motivate employees. Tom Rath, a researcher at The Gallup Organization, surveyed more than 4 million employees in 10,000 business units and more than 30 industries, and found that individuals who regularly receive recognition and praise function more efficiently than those who did not. They were more productive, engaged colleagues more, were more likely to stay with their organization, received higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers and had better safety records and fewer accidents on the job.

So, it becomes important for IT managers to praise staff members who are willing to evolve their skill sets. Managers should recognize and -- if possible -- financially reward employees who take classes, find and use supplementary materials, and work with coworkers throughout the transition. By taking such steps, departments can unleash the enormous power of peer influence and reset a department's culture so it embraces new cross-training and cross-system approaches.

The rise of the versalist

Traditionally, data center staff members have risen through the ranks because of their expertise in certain areas. After attaining certifications, such as Cisco Certified Network Engineer (CCNE) or Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA), their career paths open up. That is no longer the case. Now, the challenge is to develop a staff that has the breadth to examine a range of issues but still has the depth to solve a complex technical problem.

Gartner developed the term "versalist" to describe the new skill set needed. A specialist has a deep but narrow set of skills. A generalist has a broad but shallow area of expertise. A versalist blends the depth of the specialist with the breadth of the generalist.

"To solve problems today, individuals need to understand how to troubleshoot a number of different elements, not just one," Rivard said.

Emphasize business skills

The IT department's role is evolving. "Technical skills are still important, but IT technicians now need to understand how the business functions," said Cloud.

In addition to their technical training, IT staff members need to take business courses in areas like financing. With the rise of analytics, their role now often involves generating and interpreting various reports, so an understanding of statistics has become quite important.

With the advent of new technologies like virtualization and cloud computing, IT roles are changing. Maneuvering through the changes can be difficult, but there are steps data center managers can take to ease the transition and ensure that data center staff members have the necessary skills.

Paul Korzeniowskiis a freelance writer who specializes in data center issues. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at

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