How to become a data center top dog

It's not where you started from; it's how many skills you pick up along the way

Top dogs in the data center come into their positions from all sorts of starting points.

The deepening data center skills crisis

John Regan, director of data center services for PricewaterhouseCoopers, started his career in networking with the professional services firm 16 years ago, then got involved in the engineering and facilities side of the operation.

Jim Carney, executive vice president of data center planning at Citigroup, has a background in marine engineering, public utility infrastructure and a TV broadcast network. Even at Citi, he first worked within the real estate group before jumping two-feet first into IT and the data center. (See related story.)

And, then there's Rick King, CTO at Thomson Reuters, Legal. After teaching high school math for six years, he moved into management at an educational software and hardware company and then an HR payroll business before an acquisition brought him into his current role, which includes executive responsibility for several data centers.

The takeaway? If you're in IT today, no matter what level or discipline, you can set your sights for top-level data center management and, with the right career moves, achieve your goal.

So where to begin? These and other data center experts share their advice.

One skill after another

First, you've got to have a broad skill set — or be willing to develop one — and be comfortable with that, King says.

Increasing your skill set is one sure way to prove your worth in the data center, agrees Rockwell Bonecutter, data center technology and operations lead for North America at Accenture, a technology services consulting company.

top dog

"It's important to gain a skill set within a certain discipline, but the more you can branch out from there to understand how your specific area of influence affects other areas in the data center and how those systems or capabilities can collaborate with each other in order to deliver a business outcome, the more likely you are to move up in the pecking order, and the more respected your opinion on such things can be," he says.

If you're the storage expert, ask to do a stint as a manager of a server or telecom group, King suggests. "If you desire to progress to management and get into a director-level position, you've got to have experience with multiple disciplines," he says.

And it's not just about doing the time. Even in the absence of deep domain expertise, a manager has to be able to make smart decisions, especially when under duress. "If something goes down or isn't working quite right, the expectation from everybody is that it will be fixed — and fast," King says.

Helping data center professionals grow their skill sets is an organizational goal at PwC, Regan says. It's an imperative, adds Rick Ancona, deputy U.S. CIO and CTO at the firm. "It's the on-the-job experience that makes someone the correct choice," he says. "Not everybody has the unique background and depth of experience to be the director of data center operations for an $8.5 billion firm."

Business acumen

Turning into a top dog often starts with an understanding that the data center architecture is more than just about technology, says Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice president with Nemertes Research. Rather, it's about understanding the business impacts of those technologies in light of the organizational needs of today and tomorrow.

"That requires a certain amount of professional maturity and expertise," Antonopoulos says. "This isn't just about picking the best virtualization vendor or the best storage strategy or the correct network convergence strategy, it's about understanding how this fits into culture of the business and the expected rates of growth and change, down to the merger and acquisition plans."

Anybody in or aspiring to a senior management position in the data center has to be well grounded in the financials of their operation, agrees Citigroup's Carney, who has his MBA.

"They need to be able to articulate their costs so they can get that buy in to why the team does certain things and why processes work a certain way, and they need to understand costs so they can control and measure those, and look for continual improvements," he explains.

Being people people

Last but not least, a data center honcho needs to be a people person, Carney says.

"When we talk about data centers, we're usually thinking about the networks and pipes and wires and generators and all those other things. But, in reality, with a position like mine, a lot of work goes around making sure there's a collaborative effort on all parties involved," he says. "No one person can operate on his or her own. We need a collaborative, team approach on how things get done and how they move forward."

Schultz is an IT editor and writer in Chicago. You can reach her at

Learn more about this topic

The deepening data center skills crisis

10 recession-proof IT skills

From sea to shining data center

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.