Datacenter skills discussion sparks debate

A panel discussion at Interop found that datacenter managers are looking for enthusiasm and teachability over expertise when it comes to hiring

With a shortfall of available IT jobs, recent discussion regarding a trend toward hiring less experienced individuals in today's datacenters caused many high-tech professionals to cringe, as veterans claim a lack of knowledge will ultimately hurt IT organizations.

Datacenter managers speaking on a panel at Interop Las Vegas 2009 told session attendees that they look for energetic, passionate, and eager-to-learn candidates to fill current positions, rather than IT professionals with specialized skills. Among the reasons cited by the two panelists were a greater need for a broad set of skills, including facilities and IT know-how, and business acumen.

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Tim McLaine, global functional manager for datacenter services at Perot Systems said: "The majority of people we bring in are entry-level, and I don't care if they have datacenter or tactical experience. I more look for behavioral traits, such as enthusiasm, passion and energy because we can teach technical skills very easily. The deep technical experience from the past might not be applicable in our datacenter now.”

Readers responded to statements like that online with mixed feelings. Some said it's expected that many skills can be taught on the job -- but only if the candidate has a good technical foundation. Others felt the lack of specialized skills could hinder datacenter operations.

"Specific skills can be taught and learned right on the job, but this is provided that the candidate [already] has a solid and broad base of skills," one reader commented. "You can make anyone a specific specialist after a few years on the job and a bunch of courses in a specific area (for example, a Microsoft network administrator), but this does not mean that that person suddenly became an IT professional."

Others agreed that while some skills can be taught, datacenter managers looking to hire only entry-level staffers might be more concerned with cutting costs than adding talent to the organization.

"While it may be true that skills can be learned on the fly, it does not take the place of competent IT professionals," one individual wrote. "IT generalists know a lot, but just not enough. [This is] typical rhetoric from an IT manager looking to cut costs by any means while still expecting to run a respectable IT center."

It's not unusual for datacenter managers to seek those with a broad knowledge and solid foundation for entry-level positions, but still find the need for specialists in IT organizations, others said.

"It is fallacious to argue that because new technologies are constantly arriving, experienced and specialized talent becomes irrelevant," one online comment read. "In most IT shops, the opposite is embraced and new technologies are usually tested and modeled by the most experienced specialists in the areas that closely map to the business challenges addressed by the new technologies."

Those commenting online also said there seems to be an issue with semantics, that a generalist with years of experience would be a great hire, but that an entry-level candidate couldn't offer that general knowledge out of the gate.

"There's a difference between a generalist that has industry experience and one that does not and the article really fails to make this distinction," the commenter said. "Industry experience is gained through graduated steps through different IT specializations, not through being an experienced generalist. Certifications may demonstrate subject matter expertise, but they rarely demonstrate experience."

For some, hiring to fill a high-tech position comes down to skills first, attitude second.

"I'm about to hire a network analyst. If candidates don't have experience in VoIP, MPLS, advanced protocol analyzers, BGP, OSPF, RIP, spanning tree, etc, their resumes will make their way very quickly to the shredder," one high-tech manager said online. "Yes aptitude and passion are important, but let's get our priorities straight. First hire for proven ability to learn complex technologies, then narrow down to right attitude."

For his part, Paul Clark, data center manager at The Ohio State University Medical Center, clarified online a few of his statements made during the Interop session, saying he believed them to be taken out of context and misunderstood. He noted how much his organization values its student interns who might get assigned to less exciting tasks in the data center.

"Our students are very valuable to our organization and we often give a multitude of tasks to student staff to provide real-world experience. In many cases our students will become a full-time staff members because of the training they received on the job. Sometimes the real world involves 'crummy' work, and as a business you should utilize the best resources to do the work," Clark wrote in response to critical comments. "That being said, there have been many times that I have spent long hours doing boring, but very important work, because it needed to be done. ... So it is not below any of us."

This story, "Datacenter skills discussion sparks debate" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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