Top-of-Mind for Data Center Leaders: The Biggest Challenge of All is People
Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council members discuss their biggest challenge of all: bridging the data center talent gap.
This is the first in a series of eight blog posts reflecting the top-of-mind issues discussed during the most recent Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council meeting. Among the fourteen Advisory Council members there are five end users and eight partners. They are infrastructure leaders at hyperscale tech companies, colocation providers, mission critical equipment providers, and mission critical facility engineering, design and operation firms.
“How many people can you trust to ‘just get done’ 100 MW?” asked one Advisory Council member. “That’s a people development issue.”
All of the Advisory Council members agreed that there is a shortage of age- and gender-diverse talent in the data center pipeline. One partner said, “When I think about the explosive growth in compute, storage, and network I wonder, ‘Who are the people who are going to make this happen?’ ‘Where are they coming from?’” End users alike reported challenges attracting the talent they need. One said, “I have four recruiters trying to get different levels of talent – from the executive level to the entry level – and it’s hard.”
Of all the challenges the data center industry faces, the biggest challenge is people. – Click to tweet
“We might be part of the problem,” suggested one end user. Another explained, “How many people can you trust to ‘just get done’ 100 MW? That’s a people development issue. We want to create people who can do the whole package at scale but we don’t want superheroes (that’s not scalable). How do we round out skills in construction, infrastructure, etc. with financial skills and all the other ‘plus 1’ skills? How do we do that when we’re so busy getting things done? Looking back over the last 15 years, if I had the time I could have developed 20 people but I developed four, mostly by accident, because I was busy turning wrenches.”
On the data center talent gap: “I could have developed 20 people but I developed 4, because I was busy turning wrenches.” – Click to tweet
Another end user said, “It’s not just about finding and developing people but making sure they’re in alignment, communicating, pulling in the same direction.” He added, “My team is at 600+ full-time employees now (and many more non-FTEs). The bigger we get the more I am abstracted from it. The leadership team has to follow the commander’s intent, so I’m trying to teach wisdom, which is actually really hard to do.” In addition to finding people, he said, it’s a challenge to “get them on-boarded and create connectedness across the team.”
“The key characteristic I look for in a prospective employee is whether the person is a learner.” – Click to tweet
“How do you airlift in a person who has good judgment?” asked one end user. “How do you develop those key people you can trust, given that good judgment comes from experience but experience is often the result of bad judgment?” Another end user responded, “The key characteristic I look for is whether the person is a learner.”
Bridging the talent gap
What is the solution to these people challenges? Simplifying the job, perhaps. One end user explained, “We’re looking to productize what we do so we’re not reinventing the wheel every time. So we can follow the same recipe or playbook. But how do we do that when what got us 20x growth in the past won’t be what gets us 20x growth in the future?”
In the Advisory Council and elsewhere, Infrastructure Masons have suggested that part of the talent attraction problem is the data center industry brand. The solution, then: “We need to be educating people about our industry. The perception is that we’re all a bunch of dorks. We have to make data centers cool.” The challenge may only intensify. Asked one partner, “How will we be able to attract new talent when the kids figure out that the clean white ethereal cloud is actually a big box that drives carbon emissions?”
Is part of the data center talent attraction problem the industry brand? – Click to tweet
Education and training are a necessary part of the solution. One partner said, “I was talking to some university people, and I asked about graduation rates and career pathways for the data center industry. Not everyone knew what a data center is. They certainly don’t have clear career pathways for, for example, electrical engineers coming out of school going into data centers. We know the electrical engineers get to the data center, but there’s not a clear line.”
So what can be done to fill the pipeline? “As Infrastructure Masons we can reach out to communities and schools. Provide mentoring programs. Provide guidance to curriculum development.” People are going to school to be electrical engineers, mechanical engineers. Are they being shown that their skillsets are necessary in and applicable to data centers? As one end user said, “Students need to understand the demand in the data center industry and the fact that there is a pretty good paycheck.”
“Students need to understand the demand in the data center industry and the fact that there is a pretty good paycheck.” – Click to tweet
“The problem is that universities are not in a position to satisfy industry demand,” said one end user. “They’re in the ivory tower. The balance between STEM degrees and non-STEM degrees is out of whack with what the industry needs. That’s why we’re trying to get H-1B visas. I don’t know how we actually solve that problem. Who’s advising these kids? Art history? My parents told me to learn a trade and sent me to be a mechanical engineer. Yet when kids do apply to STEM programs there aren’t enough seats.”
One partner countered the idea that universities are not responsive to demand. “We don’t necessarily have to change curricula,” he said. “When I started talking to SMU [which developed a master’s in data center systems engineering] they couldn’t care less about mission critical but identified it as way to have competitive edge. We collectively should go to other schools and do the same.”
“Just getting more visibility is important,” another partner added. “Talk to community colleges and high schools. We need to build awareness so people can envision their path to a career in the data center.”
Infrastructure Masons educating the next generation
There was broad consensus among the Advisory Council members that Infrastructure Masons has a role to play in bridging the data center industry talent gap. Funding scholarships was one idea. “Imagine if there was an iMasons scholarship and you gave recipients the opportunity to intern during college with our companies,” said one partner. “You’d be flooded with applications. Then people would learn about data centers. You could open it up internationally.”
Another partner said, “The world needs better infrastructure. There’s a huge opportunity to move the needle on making infrastructure degrees more sexy, ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ style.”
Infrastructure Masons staying learners
Advisory Council members agreed that Infrastructure Masons is unique in its potential for cross-disciplinary, open knowledge sharing and collaboration. Consensus was that one of the benefits of iMasons is that it brings people from across disciplines together. It’s not solely IT focused or facilities focused, but “makes an effort to combine the two” which is something that “hasn’t happened effectively with other groups.”
Historically, knowledge has not been disseminated well through the data center industry. There are a variety of reasons why, including that companies don’t like to talk much about IT and data center operations because of IP concerns. One partner said, “The confidentiality that pervades the industry limits solutions. It creates barriers to innovation and efficiency. Of course, confidentiality agreements exist for a reason, but there should be a balance.”
The atmosphere within Infrastructure Masons is different. One partner said, “Members are more open and sharing, which isn’t common in this market. iMasons is encouraging people to share – and then everyone gets better.” He added, “The amount of knowledge in the collective group is amazing. There’s a ton of information that can be shared. It’s a forum where people can go beyond their company and express their personal opinions as specialists, engineers, architects is of great help to shape the directions for this industry.”
“Infrastructure Masons members are more open and sharing, which isn’t common in this market. iMasons is encouraging people to share – and then everyone gets better.” – Click to tweet
To cultivate that knowledge sharing beyond the iMasons leaders, one partner suggested asking members what areas they’re subject matter experts in and feel comfortable to talk to others about. “Let’s build a peer-to-peer networking capability.” That network could be based on topic. “Maybe we even build small communities around topics (cybersecurity, energy, cooling, etc.) and we know to reach into those communities and pose questions.”
The Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council members see great opportunities, and great challenges, ahead – but that’s par for the course in an industry that has had the kind of unprecedented growth that the data center industry has. These titans of industry are clearly confident in their ability to solve the challenges and realize the opportunities that will arise – as long as there’s a fresh generation of infrastructure leaders waiting in the wings.
Come back next week for the 2nd installment in our top-of-mind series and hear from the Advisory Council on data center leaders’ environmental responsibility and how to make a difference on sustainability while there’s still time.
Infrastructure Masons was established to provide infrastructure executives and technical professionals an independent forum to connect, grow and give back. If you’re not already a member, learn the benefits of joining at https://imasons.org/join/.
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