The day may come when data centers are self-maintaining, but until then, you’ll need personnel to operate and maintain your company’s data center. Properly staffing your facility is a juggling act of staying within budget, providing sufficient hands for the task and ensuring that employees are competent. Regardless of whether you are hiring staff to man a new data center or are simply wishing to implement better hiring practices as the need arises to replace or expand your workforce, the following are some considerations that can help you make better staffing choices.
The Good and Bad of Employee Hiring for the Data Center
If you need to hire a sizable number of individuals to operate your data center, then your facility probably contains tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of dollars of equipment, or more. The people you hire to run and maintain your data center thus have control over all that equipment. Your hiring choices do not simply determine whether you’ll have a facility that operates at peak or near-peak efficiency; they also determine whether you’ll be facing more outages owing to human error. In addition to preventing you from getting the most out of your data center, a lack of competency or professionalism among your staff can lead to expensive service outages, which can quickly mount in cost to dwarf the yearly salaries of one or more employees. Thus, competence is—as in any hiring decision—important, but it is doubly so in the case of data centers, owing to the large financial stake. Here are some considerations in the area of competence.
Education—This is first on the list, but it is by no means foremost. Almost anybody can get a university degree, and many can do so with what look like excellent credentials. Don’t be fooled by degrees, though—although they provide some measure of competence, they cannot and should not be used as a sole measure of competence. Indeed, with the ubiquity of computing resources, individuals with virtually no formal education whatsoever can still be masters of IT. Don’t ignore education, but don’t let a graduation or two stand between you and a less educated individual who could be an outstanding employee.
Certifications—Certifications are a means for IT professionals (and those looking to break into the industry) to prove competence without necessarily jumping through the academic hoops of a university or college. Needless to say, however, don’t let a string of certifications on a candidate’s resume fool you; determine first what you need for the particular position, then compare with the candidate’s expertise.
Beyond the formalities—Okay, so what happens when you’re faced with a “computer whiz” candidate who knows his or her stuff but doesn’t have any formal education or certifications? First of all, for goodness sake, don’t turn that candidate away. Some individuals are more entrepreneurial, being able to master subjects and skills on their own. In such cases, you may have to resort to unorthodox means of evaluation (i.e., something other than just looking at academic credentials), but it could well be worth the extra work. Does the candidate have a website? Does he or she develop apps? How about custom-built computers that put PC manufacturers to shame? Do you want extraordinary individuals working in your data center? Then don’t rule out extraordinary backgrounds and paths to expertise.
Experience—Give work experience its proper place: don’t overemphasize it, but do give it its due consideration. Perhaps you once felt the frustration of being locked out of the job market because you didn’t meet some arbitrary (and often irrelevant) number—five years’ experience, for instance. If you are building a new data center and you’re a company executive that doesn’t know much about running one, you would probably do better to hire those who have demonstrable expertise. But if you’re just looking for one or two new hands to supplement your existing staff, consider hiring an eager candidate who’s willing and able to learn quickly. In some instances, attitude trumps knowledge.
Given the current rampant unemployment—which hasn’t entirely spared the IT/data center sector—you may have a number of applicants for some position, all of whom have the expertise to do the job. Remember that expertise isn’t everything. You should also consider personality traits and how they might affect an employee on the job. Data center operations can be a stressful and frustrating job, with users demanding more or faster services, outages potentially occurring at all hours of the night and, in some cases, with staff being overworked, possibly because of being undermanned. The data center crucible can bring out the best—and the worst—in your employees, so look beyond just expertise.
Leader, follower or somewhere in between—Your employees are your employees; to some extent, you want them to follow your instructions. But a purely “yes, sir” approach can lead to indecision or an inability to (perhaps forcefully) propose alternatives when management is taking a poor approach. On the other hand, you don’t want someone who chafes too much against authority. Look for good balance in this area: you want someone who is able to think for him or herself but still willing to obey management.
Take pride, but set the ego aside—Someone who invests himself in his work will likely produce higher-quality results, but be on the lookout for candidates whose egos can get in the way of reaching the goal (helping the company succeed). And some self-effacing character can be more than helpful in a stressful data center environment.
Mindful, but not trapped, by rules and regulations—Your company has rules and procedures for a reason: to keep things running smoothly and to prevent hazardous situations. You want employees to be mindful of company procedures, but not to a fault. Data centers are complex systems, and your company’s rules won’t ever cover every contingency. An employee should be able to think beyond standard procedures and even be willing to violate a rule that would otherwise stand in the way of personnel safety or (legal and moral) company profitability.
Jack-of-all-trades—Most companies have data center staffs that are either just the right size or that are understaffed. If you fall into this category—particularly the understaffed segment—your employees will likely have to tackle a number of different jobs. Extreme specialization is going out the window of today’s data centers: employees must often tackle a variety of jobs. Consider whether candidates are able to handle multiple types of tasks rather than a single isolated area.
Data Center Budget Considerations
Last, but not least, you need to hire within your company’s budget. This requires you to consider a number of factors in light of available funds: the quality of employees, potential for overworking and thus burnout, the number of employees needed to adequately maintain and operate the data center, and so on. Your company’s budget may be tight these days, but don’t skimp on data center staff—particularly if your IT resources are critical to your company’s operation (which they probably are if you own or are building a data center). Remember, an incompetent, lazy or inattentive employee can easily cost your company far more than that employee’s salary through a single instance of human error. Mistakes happen from time to time—that’s the nature of the human experience—but some mistakes can be avoided through attentiveness and care. And getting these qualities in your staff may take a little more money than you had hoped. Consider your employees an investment: put in just a little, you probably won’t get much return. Put in an amount that’s fair to both them and your company, you will reap the rewards of a data center operating at its best.
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