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Wanted: Next generation of data center pros

Downsized salaries and a negative perception are pushing college students away from data center management. IT execs say it's time to show potential IT hires who it is that really holds the keys to the kingdom.

The data center manager holds the keys to a $15 -million facility loaded with hot-and-risky server and networking technologies, not-so-hot-but-reliable old technologies, and generations of customer data and company secrets. That's responsibility in the grown-up, corporate world.

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Data center manager wanted: Communication skills required

Tight job market for data center managers

Yet, the hot jobs are on the other side of the wall in IT. May's college graduates strive to be the next hot Java developer; and the best job in America -- according to a recent magazine survey -- is software engineer. You know them, the t-shirt crew in the back cubicles, swilling energy drinks. It sounds like the data center managers may have to get the word out that theirs is the job everyone should want.

"One thing that has to be done is more education, and changing the reputation of the data center manager is a big part of it," says Jill Eckhaus, president of the Afcom, the association of data center managers in Orange, Calif. Now, when there are so many eyes on outsourcing initiatives, data losses and continuity planning, is a good time to change the perception of data center management, according to Eckhaus and others close to the job.

For corporations, the failure to make data center management an appealing career track appears to be having a negative impact already. Afcom and its Data Center Institute research arm recently released a survey that shows that almost half of companies surveyed said that it takes more than three months to fill senior-level technical and management roles in the data center, and that 47% of companies expect that filling such jobs will become even more difficult during the coming five years.

What is unlikely to help recruitment efforts is a downward trend in data center salaries. David Foote, president of Foote Partners, LLC, an IT compensation research firm in New Canaan, Conn., says that pay for jobs in the data center sector showed annual growth of up to 8% in recent years, thanks in large part to corporate efforts to comply with government regulations. However, in the past six months, compensation levels have slipped into negative growth numbers, Foote reports.

According to Foote, IT infrastructure and data center jobs were seeing strong annual pay growth more than a year ago when many companies were putting the finishing touches on projects, such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance. ``Companies are investing less in infrastructure now from the point of view of staffing and skills, and more in customer-facing stuff. This definitely affects the data center,'' Foote says.

Data center manager profile

So, what experiences and talents should the next generation of data center managers possess?

New data center managers may make their mark based on how well they prepare for and handle crises. "You've got to be able to take charge, accept responsibility and get things done. Businesses are looking for someone who is able to think outside the box, and to recognize all of the components that need to be considered," says Cal Braunstein, CEO and research director for IT consultancy Robert Frances Group Inc., in Westport, Conn.

Braunstein likens the characteristics of a data center manager with that of a battalion commander in the army. That field officer has an assigned role in an overall strategy but must make crucial decisions on their own and quickly, often without having all of the facts and without approval from top commanders. Similarly, it's the data center manager who must make a decision as to what point to shut down the servers as a hurricane approaches.

In short, but no short order, the next generation of data center manager must be a leader, a decision maker, be able to take the heat and be able to stay abreast of new technologies, Braunstein says. Dawn Sawyer, operations manager for Guidestone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, supports this line of thinking. She says a working knowledge of multiple technologies and knowing how a single technology fits into the big picture are key assets for data center leaders

One way to prepare managers for a key data center role is to have them work the second shift (the evening hours), in the data center, Sawyer says, whose organization is the financial and insurance arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. That will put them in a position where key business processes are running, and the new manager, as point person, will "get a feel for the frustration of the users." She also recommends that they have project management experience. "If they don't have project management, I'd look for someone with mainframe skills," she adds, noting that hers is largely a Microsoft Windows shop, but that mainframers have the necessary experience in areas such as upgrades and patch management.

Communications skills are critical

Each expert and manager interviewed for this article cited communication skills as a key asset for the next-generation data center manager. And this means both written and verbal skills.

Data center managers must understand the business needs of their users, and come up with technologies that fit into those needs so they can the company in the long range. They must use "non-tech talk" when dealing with the business side and provide "customer service that an outsourcer can't match," Sawyer says.

"You have to be able to write up an ROI (return on investment) document in such a way that your board of directors will understand that a new machine has value. If you work in IT, you can understand that value, but the people upstairs may not see the savings as easily," says Kathleen LaBarbera, manager of operations and Resnet for Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Always a new challenge

LaBarbera, whose users include future data center managers enrolled in the school's Institute for Data Center Professionals, says that what she loves about her job is the constant change in technology and responsibilities. Implementing new server or cooling technologies is both a challenge and an opportunity, she notes. The other new challenges that she would expect a new data center manager to be prepared for are the IT side of compliance with new government and industry regulations, and preparation for potential disasters.

With all of those changes, the data center manager has to understand how everything works together, and has to be a mediator, the go-between in the midst of the conflicting demands of developers, server administrators, business managers and directors, LaBarbera says. It's the data center manager who has to consider everyone's needs in assigning maintenance windows that users hate but IT needs, and communicate with end users when servers are down.

LaBarbera summarizes, ``You're in the middle of it all. You're in the middle of changing technologies. You're in the heart of the corporation, because the data is the most important thing. You control it, and unless that data or the service is missing, people don't notice you,''

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, Site Editor

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