Over the past couple of months, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations around getting young people excited about the data center. After all, the data center business is booming, there are really interesting new developments around data center technologies and, at the last Data Center World conference, I stood on the keynote stage and proudly proclaimed that no, the cloud is certainly not here to replace the data center. If anything, cloud is here to support and complement emerging data center solutions, like edge computing, for example.
Before we go on too much, I have a disclaimer: I’m a millennial who works in the data center industry, and I won’t be the first to say that getting young people into this space isn’t easy. Pretty much every data center leader – from hyperscale to regional data center shops – is experiencing issues getting young people on board.
A recent article here on DCK outlining the findings from the latest Informa Engage 2018 Technology Salary Report asked a simple question: “Would you want your kids to work in a data center?”
Personally, I’d love my kids to get into the space. Knowing the growth potential and the experience they can get, this is an amazing and fascinating field for a young person to grow their career in. The good news is that the data center parent community seems to agree. When asked if they agree with the statement “If my child, niece or nephew asked, I’d recommend getting into IT,” a full 75 percent of respondents generally agreed, with 37 percent strongly agreeing. Similarly, 72 percent of respondents generally agreed with the statement “I love my current job,” while a third strongly agreed.
On the surface, these may sound like strong, positive figures. But for an organization whose job is to place individuals in gainful employment at enterprise data centers, a quarter of people expressing something less than job satisfaction may actually be a danger sign.
“If one in four are not recommending the industry as one to develop a potential career, then for sure, I think that is an issue,” Steve Brown, managing director of London-based Datacenter People, said, according to the article.
State of the Data Center
When we released the third edition of the AFCOM State of the Data Center report, we too wanted to know about employment trends and some of the challenges leaders in the space were experiencing. In the latest edition we introduced a new question, to find out more about the data center workforce. Specifically, we wanted to know if there are new, young, faces, joining data center companies. Here’s what we found:
- Most respondents (70 percent) are seeing more young data center professionals enter the workforce.
- Still, a third find it difficult to recruit qualified young candidates (34 percent).
As it relates to specific skills and competencies, the previous year’s report indicated that cloud was at the top of the chart. However, the report from this year painted a much greater focus specifically on data center cloud connectivity. In fact, the most sought-after cloud competencies are data center, cloud, colocation connectivity expertise (53 percent), followed by cloud architects (41 percent), and cloud security professionals (40 percent). Rounding off the list with about 30 percent are cloud automation experts.
I recently joined the Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council. Currently, I’m the only millennial in the group, but hopefully that’ll be changing in the near future. During our last Global Summit meeting, pretty much every leader in the data center space expressed concern with the challenges in getting younger people both interested and started in the data center space. The problem? Lack of awareness that “data centers exist” from an early point in a young person’s educational progress.
Even during a networking event at AFCOM Data Center World, I saw that many young people were “adopted” into the data center space from places like IT, project management, and even DevOps. To be honest, I fell into that category too, coming from more of an IT and network engineering background.
So, how do you get young people interested in working with data centers (and not just once a data center is finished)? How do we get them excited about working in construction or on new solutions around things like diesel generators or CRAC units? From numerous discussions with the iMasons teams, at Data Center World, and in my own experience, if you’re working to get young and fresh faces into your data center, consider the following:
- Change starts with dialogue and early education. And I don’t mean college. Change has to happen at early stages like high school and even junior high. I was speaking to an IT director for a large California school district. He told me that educating young people around modern data center concepts is a serious challenge. Why? There simply aren’t many (if any) programs out there to make it happen, so districts are stuck teaching kids traditional lessons around things like computer science, basic networking, and basic systems design. To help convert this dialogue into something more productive for the data center industry, we as leaders need to help fund programs, go into schools and create a more sustainable path to data center technology education. Basically, we need to point out the fact that whether it’s a PlayStation, Xbox or a favorite mobile app, all of the stuff that kids do today still needs a home, and that home is the data center. Plus, these environments are really cool!
- STEM programs are really critical for diversity and youth in the data center. It’s not just about getting young people on board. We have a serious diversity challenge in the data center industry. When conducting the State of the Data Center report, we sent out the study to tens of thousands of people. More than 80 percent of respondents were male. Not only do we need more young people in our data centers, we desperately need more diversity. Without it, we lose out on innovation, ideas and amazing ways to push our industry forward. Here’s the other really important part. Working with STEM to get young people excited about the data center doesn’t only mean getting facilities and data center administrators on the team. Remember, data center construction, design, and even utilities all require things like math and science, and we need more young people who understand future design concepts around our data centers to help with efficiency and resiliency.
- We need to change the way young people see and understand the data center. There’s certainly a psychological approach to it. Maybe don’t call it a “data center” while talking to younger folks but instead refer to it as “digital infrastructure.” Remind them what these platforms are hosting, how important they are to everyday life, and create context around data center solutions. Once young people “get it,” they see opportunities to improve the environment and finds ways to help.
- There needs to be a shift to adapt to the way millennials work and are most effective. In the last iMasons meeting, Dr. Julie Albright, digital sociologist and lecturer at USC, discussed her new book Left to their Own Devices: How Digital Natives are Reshaping the American Dream. As a millennial listening to her essentially describe my life, I found her book and findings interesting. Are millennials a different kind of generation? Absolutely. Did we pretty much grow up constantly connected? You bet. Does this mean we’re all snowflakes, entitled, and lazy? Absolutely not. And to be clear, that thought process can be demeaning to the many hard-working young people. That said, Albright pointed out that some millennials feel they have the “right” to work remotely. Sure, in some cases you need to be onsite to do your job. However, working remotely isn’t a bad thing and, as we learned from a few young people attending the iMasons general meetings, your remote workers are often your most loyal and hard-working. The point is that you need to adapt. Millennials use a plethora of tools to stay productive. This means using different collaboration solutions, a few different devices and, yes, even working remotely. Want to attract more young people? Make your work environment “cooler” and understand the tools millennials use to be productive.
- The “untethered” generation still needs “digital anchors” to learn and grow. This is a final and important point. As untethered and remote as the young workforce might be, they still need a place to grow and learn. Organizations like AFCOM, iMasons, and others are so important to helping young people gain experience and knowledge from their peers in the industry. Even if they connect remotely, they need places where there are people who are ready and willing to mentor others and help them grow. There’s nothing wrong with being a digital generation, but we still need those with experience to guide the way and inspire new ideas.
If you’re reading this and are having difficulties getting young people on board, you’re not alone. More so, this is an industry-wide problem. New technology careers around DevOps and cloud development are all pretty cool and seem to be the biggest draw to a younger workforce. However, the data center needs some love, too.
New solutions around artificial intelligence, cloud, cognitive systems, gaming and even data analytics all need a home and a place to process. It’s our job to remind the industry that that home is the data center. To drive change in the digital infrastructures we’re building today, we’ll need the help of young people to give our data centers a brighter future.