AFCOM Names Data Center Manager of the Year

Michael Cunningham has overseen construction of a new University of Texas at Austin data center and built a culture of disciplined data center management

Jason Verge

April 21, 2015

2 Min Read
AFCOM Names Data Center Manager of the Year
AFCOM President Tom Roberts presents the Data Center Manager of the Year Award to Michael Cunningham, University of Texas at Austin, next to the other two finalists: Bryon Miller, SVP of Operations, Fortrust (second from right), and Brian Smith, Director, Critical Facilities, Cerner Corp.

PARADISE, Nev. -- AFCOM named Michael Cunningham, of the University of Texas at Austin, Data Center Manager of the Year. The organization of data center professionals announced the award Tuesday at its 35th annual Data Center World Spring conference in Las Vegas.

Cunningham is credited with shoring up the data center facility and, more importantly, the data center culture at the university. The other two finalists were Brian Smith, director of critical facilities at Cerner Corp., and Bryon Miller, senior vice president of operations at Fortrust.

Cunningham first joined UT five years ago and tasked with building a $32 million dollar Tier III data center and developing a professional data center culture at the institution from scratch. The data center serves more than 50,000 students and 20,000 faculty and staff.

Before he joined, the university's IT infrastructure was a piecemeal collection of legacy hardware and software across three data centers. The infrastructure was a reflection of the culture and vice versa.

As director of university data centers, one of the first steps was building a proper culture. A good facility means little without good practices to accompany it. The team was “just trying to keep the data center running,” Cunningham said.

Procedures were kept in a three-ring binder augmented with sticky notes and hand-written updates. Organizational knowledge passed through word of mouth, and there was no service catalog. There were no standard practices and very poor documentation -- something Cunningham he had to turn around.

They developed some new positions and made some critical hires. The 23-person data center staff now includes a critical systems team and project manager, along with console operations, customer liaison, and Tier I and Tier II support, among other functions.

The philosophy behind his approach was that competence under pressure is built by repetition when the stakes are low. This way, staff members are confident and know how to react if an issue does arise.

“Most failures in the data center are caused by human error,” Cunningham said. Therefore, he advises developing robust processes and then training the team to follow them. “We go back and pull small events, so staff can practice resolving them informally in a non-threatening environment.”

Prior to his current role, this year's award winner spent 10 years at Dell and close to 20 in multiple management roles at IBM. At Dell, he expanded the data center portfolio worldwide.

“Today’s data center managers have responsibility beyond the data center, too,” said Cunningham. “They also must manage the steadily increasing automation from customer-facing services that rely on the data center to operate efficiently and with high availability.”

Karen Riccio and Gail Dutton contributed to this report.

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