Good help is hard to find

How the shortage of qualified data center professionals is a challenge not just for the data center industry, but also for the economy as a whole…as so many businesses expand their dependence on data center infrastructure. CIOs and their companies should take a number of steps to address this skills gap in ways that meet the needs of their own companies specifically, and the economic growth more broadly.

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Whoever said, “It’s hard to find good help today,” must have been a CIO. Not that the world of IT has ever been static, but in case you haven’t noticed, things have been moving pretty fast lately, and it’s exacerbating the disparity between the escalating demand for data center personnel and the less than escalating pool of available talent.

A 2017 study by TEKsystems reported that 81% of IT leaders said it was difficult to find quality candidates, and almost 50% with open positions didn’t expect that they would fill them within the anticipated timeframe. This rather bleak assessment of the state of available candidates for CIOs seeking people to support their data centers, design their cloud architectures and implement effective security solutions isn’t alleviated when you consider that everyone from an enterprise with a single data center to the largest cloud providers are competing for the occupants of a scarce resource pool.

In one sense, the current shortage of available talent is understandable when you consider the environment that characterizes the data center industry today. The volume of information generated seemingly increases geometrically—video makes up over 70% of internet traffic and the Internet of Things will soon tell us what we need from the store and the common element that connects all of these examples is that they require a lot of compute and storage gear and moreover, places to put it. As a result of our evolving into an information-on-demand society, the need for data centers—and the people to operate them—borders on the insatiable.

Since human resources are finite, CIOs have been forced to look inward to address their personnel requirements. AFCOM’s recent State of the Industry Report found 60% of their respondents anticipate having to make increasing investments in their existing employees in the form of more certifications training and higher salaries to retain key performers. In their attempt to do more with less, IT departments are currently filling the skills gap void by broadening the capabilities of their existing personnel in areas like operations and process management, cloud operation, facilities management and security. Oh, and let’s not forget cultivating staff to support an increasing number of edge and remote locations.

The need to adapt to changing circumstances is not exclusive to CIOs. From a career perspective, data center personnel must continue to acquire new skills requirements or to avoid being left behind, or worse, unemployable at a time when opportunities have never been more plentiful. Naturally, if you guessed that the primary driver of this need to cultivate new occupational expertise is being driven by the continued growth of the cloud, particularly in the areas of cloud architecture and security, you’d be right. Increasingly, CIOs are looking for professionals with certifications either with specific cloud offerings (AWS, Azure, and Google) or the ancillary technologies such as virtualization and networking. 

While the cloud-centric world is driving the need for expanded technical and operational knowledge, it also necessitates that support staff develops competencies in areas that historically would have never shown up in even the most complete Monster ad like emotional intelligence, adaptability, and alliance-building. The introduction of cloud vendors into the corporate data center landscape means that the days of the stereotypical technical curmudgeon — ‘Oh, that’s just Bill’ — are over. Data center and IT personnel need to become proficient at coordinating both the requirements from multiple internal groups within the organization and the vendors providing cloud functionality, to ensure that both are in alignment.

One of the ways to address this skills gap is with degree and certification programs that effectively teach the multi-disciplinary body of knowledge that data center professionals need today. SMU was the first university to establish a post-graduate degree program in the data center discipline, with guidance from my colleague Chris Crosby, who is the CEO of Compass Datacenters. That has been followed by a variety of other degree and training programs that treat data centers as a discipline unto itself separate from general computer science. Marist University in New York offers a Bachelor’s Degree in data center science. GSX is putting a major focus on training data center professionals. And there are many other examples.

But those degree and certification programs are not enough. The size of the current “skills gap” will also require CIOs to re-think their historical approaches to talent acquisition and development. In other words, determining new ways to broaden the scope of prospective data center personnel. We’ve all read and heard about the comparative lack of women and minorities within the technical realm, and their inclusion is essential if organizations are going to meet the accelerating demands for the people needed to support the current level of unprecedented data center growth. Achieving this goal is as much about outreach as it is education.

The goal of an outreach program to non-traditional resources is to create an awareness of opportunities that are available. Indeed, efforts targeted to generate more interest on the part of women and minorities in STEM careers is a good start, but prospective members of the IT organization don’t necessarily have to be found in the technical areas of the organization or sitting in a computer science class. For example, Electronic Data Systems, there’s a name from the past, specifically targeted liberal arts majors for its system engineering program. In fact, they specifically avoided the technical disciplines. EDS believed that based on their broad-based educational background, liberal arts graduates possessed the interpersonal skills they’d need for their assignments and they could teach them the technical disciplines. By using this approach, they were vastly able to expand their talent pool to incorporate those outside traditionally technical areas by educating them on the career possibilities that they otherwise would have never considered.

The battle for talent will also inspire CIOs to become better marketers. Salary and title are no longer the only enticements—although they still help—drive the prospective security specialist or cloud architect to your door. More than ever, hiring managers will need to have “sellable answers” to the “what’s in it for me” question. Potential employees, especially those within the non-traditional talent pool, are looking for clear career paths. They need to know the projects they’ll be working on and how they will acquire the skills they need to advance.

Corporate leaders are often required to wear multiple hats, and CIOs are no exception. The continued need for personnel to support new corporate initiatives means that being a technical visionary is not enough to be successful. Building and staffing a dynamic IT organization adds terms like mentoring, marketer, and salesman to your job description. While closing the skills gap in your organization may sometimes seem like a daunting challenge, no one can ever say a CIO is a slave to routine.

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