Wanted for hire: generalists, not IT specialists

Wanted for hire: generalists, not IT specialists

Data center managers today need general skills, broad technology knowledge and less experience than in years past

High-tech professionals with fewer skills could land more IT jobs, according to Interop speakers who argue that specific high-tech training and IT certifications could be detrimental to a career in next-generation data centers.

"The times we hire specialists to fill a gap we might have in a technology area we plan to embrace are few and far between," said Tim McLaine, global functional manager for data center services at Perot Systems. "The majority of people we bring in are entry-level and I don't care if they have data center or tactical experience. I more look for behavioral traits, such as enthusiasm, passion and energy because we can teach technical skills very easily."

With more than 30 years experience working in data center management first at EDS and now at Perot, McLaine said the changing environment requires IT pros to focus less on specific certifications and more on adopting a broad knowledge of existing and emerging technologies. Hiring managers aren't seeking specific experience in potential candidates, he said, because previous knowledge of data centers could actually hamper progress in today's environments.

"The deep technical experience from the past might not be applicable in our data center now," McLaine added during a panel at Interop that explored the technical skills needed to manage next-generation data centers.

Paul Clark, data center manager at The Ohio State University Medical Center, agreed that candidates need to be able to learn a broad set of technologies, becoming generalists in essence, and then apply the high-tech know-how to business scenarios. Unlike in the past, the data center team is not in a "vacuum" and needs to fully interact with the IT department as well as business managers, he says.

"We have to become very versed in multiple areas, not only in facilities and operations, but also the IT side," Clark explained. "We have to bridge that gap because in the past we leaned heavily on facilities. Now we must understand infrastructure and IT demand and get ahead of the curve to be able to support technologies as they come into the environment."

One area, green technologies, seems to be of interest among data center managers, but not because it's new to these veterans. The practice of saving space, being energy conscious and driving out inefficiencies has long been embraced by data center managers.

"Most data center managers were green before green was cool," McLaine said. "Finance was our motivation before. Now it falls under a new title and that is green."

The financial driver highlights another area that data center managers deal with today: cutting costs. According to Clark, his group is challenged to keep up with technologies that might be embraced earlier at private companies. Being associated with education and healthcare, he said, keeps technology adoption behind the curve and potential data center managers need to display a willingness to stay on top of emerging technologies such as virtualization.

"We have been challenged in the past with new technologies landing on our doorstep before we knew about them," Clark said. "Data center staff has to be able to get out and engage with vendors, understand what's coming down the road and have both tactical and strategic ideas on how to apply the technologies to our environment."

And despite the greater demand on data center resources, hardware refreshes are becoming less routine and fewer staffers are being put to work in maintaining assets. For instance, Clark said his organization's budget has been "flatlined for many years prior to the downturn," and while his group remains a cost center, some technologies assist in keeping expenses lower.

"Our server refresh budget is basically our virtualization budget," Clark said. "We have set the policy that if resources are needed we go virtual first. Unless there is some reason we can't, typically we push everything onto the virtual platform."

With virtualization, cloud computing and automation technologies gaining traction in the environment, data center managers need to find proactive staffers they can delegate day-to-day operational tasks to while they work to become more enmeshed in the business and savvy about signing contracts with vendors.

"My role is changing in terms of getting more out of the operations side. I look for energetic people to delegate day-to-day tasks to," Clark said. "Being a university, I have the advantage to leverage students to do crummy work such as inventory server racks and pay little money."

Yet even with an uptake in resources and demand on data center staff, the trend is toward fewer people to take on even more generalized work.

"The number of people associated with the size of the environment will also continue to decrease," McLaine said. "And the age of specialization will also diminish. Data centers will be an environment in which people are more generalized in multiple disciplines."

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