The deepening data center skills crisis

Companies are forced to put projects on hold due to shortage of IT pros with the right skill sets

With a state-of-the-art data center recently opened in Atlanta, PricewaterhouseCoopers is on the prowl for a few good people. The challenge looms just about as large as the 80,000-square-foot building housing the IT infrastructure.

With a state-of-the-art data center recently opened in Georgia, PricewaterhouseCoopers is on the prowl for a few good people. The challenge looms just about as large as the 80,000-square-foot building housing the IT infrastructure.

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PwC is looking for IT professionals to fill vacancies on its network operations, security and facilities staffs, for example. Some positions are suitable for those with just a bit of experience while others require a much richer IT background, says Rick Ancona, deputy U.S. CIO and CTO at PwC, a professional services firm with U.S. headquarters in New York.

"The problem is, not that many people out there right now are versed in the data center of today," he says.

By "data center of today," Ancona means a highly automated, dense and virtualized IT infrastructure that relies on the most advanced electrical and mechanical components for ultra power efficiency.

The modern data center demands that IT professionals understand multiple disciplines as well as the facilities infrastructure — and that's one of the big issues giving rise to the hiring difficulties.

Applicants flooding the resume pipeline don't have the exact right mix of expertise for the rapidly changing data center environment.

Virtualization vacuum

"One might think in today's economic climate with such high unemployment and what-not that we'd be able to find VMware, Cisco networking, EMC storage skill sets. But these are the people who are working, and we’re finding it more difficult than ever to hire appropriate resources," says Michael Bullock, founder and CEO of Transitional Data Services, a data center consulting firm.

Virtualization experts are especially hard to come by, Bullock adds. "It'd be awfully nice to find people available who are skilled in multiple disciplines, but it's hard enough finding anyone who knows how to work with virtual servers or storage alone," he says.

Data Center Resume

It's not that these folks don't exist. With nearly every company deploying virtualization, there simply aren't enough experts to go around, points out Andi Mann, vice president of research, systems and storage with Enterprise Management Associates.

Joanne Kossuth, vice president of operations and CIO for Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., attributes the talent shortage to the rate of technological change coupled with the way computer scientists are trained. "This has made finding people who are flexible and adaptable enough for today really difficult," she says.

The situation is exacerbated because IT folks who have lost their jobs during the downturn tend to have held specific jobs at large corporations. "They may have a wealth of expertise in one particular area, but they haven't been trained in how to be good team players, communicators and agile learners," Kossuth says.

It hasn't always been this way, she adds. "When I was coming up, you had to be a generalist. We crimped our own cable, we had to know the operating systems, we had to be able to do a whole lot," she says. "But we've gone through a long period of time where people have been able to come in and say, 'OK, I do Windows or I do Linux. I do this type of desktop or this client."

Today, the pendulum is swinging back, Kossuth says. "We need expanded skill sets, and we haven't been able to easily find folks who want to multitask and who are willing to lead a team on one project but be a follower on the next."

Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice president with Nemertes Research, also chalks up hiring problems to IT's constant state of change. "The skills needed are changing faster than the ability to train or hire people. So on the most cutting-edge projects, with new technologies being implemented, there's a shortage of skills," he says.

Results of a 2009 benchmark study of 120 IT organizations bears this out, Antonopoulos says. In the study, 60% of organizations reported trouble finding IT personnel with the right skill sets. Drilling down, 45% of respondents said they ran into shortages of IT talent in application development, while 30% couldn’t fill positions in storage and networking, he says.

The most startling statistic from the study was that at 37% of the organizations, IT executives reported having put projects on hold because of the skills shortage.

"That's your business impact right there," Antonopoulos says.

Complex skills sets required

PwC knows the frustration of not being able to find people with the right balance of skills, says John Regan, the company's director of data center services. (See related story on skills needed.)

"If we're looking for an engineer, for example, it's easy to get degreed electrical and mechanical engineering professionals. But engineers who have actually worked on building out complex data center environments are few and far between. Then couple that with our desire for someone who has an IT background intermixed with those types of engineering skills, and you've got a real challenge," he says.

When it comes to IT and facilities, New York-based Citigroup makes sure it gets this balance of skills at its world-class data centers via a position it calls data center planning and critical systems engineer, says Jim Carney, executive vice president of data center planning for the global financial services firm.

"The planning engineer has one foot in real estate and the other in technology and articulates the projects and priorities of each organization back through the other and helps forge a collective agreement on the path forward," he explains.

The people filling these roles are split 50-50 between IT and facilities and internal and external hires, Carney says. "The most successful of them," he adds, "are those who have worked in the network world, and so understand networks, and in the rack-and-stack world, installing the physical servers and equipment on the data center floor and have a background in electrical or mechanical engineering. They have had those dual roles."

No doubt, data center professionals need to think strategically, Kossuth says. "You really need to be able to think at a higher level about the bigger picture, or architecture. Before we'd say, we'll hire someone to do architecture and someone to do storage, but now those skill sets are overlapping."

Dwight Gibbs, senior vice president of technology at Input, a Reston, Va., market intelligence firm on government business, agrees. "This isn't just about crimping cable, installing OSes and racking and stacking IP anymore," he says.

Gibbs holds data center technicians he hires to "higher-level thinking," he says. "They need to know the actual applications in the lines of business, and know them well because they have to balance these things across a bunch of VMware hosts. They better make sure applications aren't peaking at the same time."

With this goal in mind, Gibbs divides a job seeker's characteristics into qualifying and winning. With qualifying characteristics, you're eligible for an interview. Those are the basic building blocks, he says. "Do you know how to run a data center? Can you estimate power? Can you crimp cable? Do you understand a chiller, and UPS?"

But winning characteristics are the real differentiators, he says. "What I'm looking for right now with developers and infrastructure technicians is the ability to understand and work with the business, and that encompasses a whole lot of things, like financial savvy and communications skills."

And gumption. "I don't want to have to ask my folks, 'Hey have you guys checked in with sales and marketing and product management?' I want people who are proactively asking how they can better address the needs of their internal clients, who go out on their own to figure out the business need," Gibbs says. "If that has to be pushed down, that makes me and my management team a bottleneck, and that's not good."

And Gibbs, like others, is finding it tough to hire these multi-talented IT professionals. Despite the plethora of unemployed techies, finding and hiring the last data center recruit took four and a half months, he says.

"The folks you want aren't on the street," Gibbs says. "The best people have jobs and their bosses are trying with all their might to keep them employed and on their job."

True enough, but people looking for jobs ought not get discouraged or let data center opportunities pass them by, Bullock says. "We're in hiring mode plus the demand we see for our services tells us that many companies are looking to hire for these skill sets. There are still opportunities for folks to get skilled up, find jobs and do well in these new areas of the data center."

Indeed, hiring demand is starting to pick up for higher-level, hard-to-find skills, confirms Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm. "And there's plenty of potential skill building and growth in the data center," he adds.

"What clients are looking for are individuals that who not only can maintain the current environment, but are willing and able to take on more as it comes along," Willmer adds.

That's the eye-catcher on the resumes Olin's Kossuth looks at, she says. "If someone spells out up top that he or she is a top information services or technology manager who's looking for opportunities to be part of a good team, to learn and bring to bear multiple skill sets, then that gets my attention."

Schultz is an IT editor and writer in Chicago. You can reach her at bschultz5824@gmail.com.

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