Datacentre managers on how to address the shortage of women and young people entering the industry

Anglia Ruskin University invited Ahead in the Clouds along to their recent boot camp to lead a two-way discussion with its Datacentre Leadership and Management students about how to address the industry’s skills gap. Here’s all you need to know about what got discussed.

Datacentre managers are facing an uphill struggle when it comes to filling engineering roles, and a unified, industry-wide approach to closing the skills gap is urgently required.

That was one of a number of views put forward during a panel session Ahead in the Clouds (AitC) spoke at on Friday 16 June, as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s annual Datacentre Leadership and Management boot camp.

The boot camp gives people taking part in the university’s three-year, distance learning course in Datacentre Leadership and Management an opportunity to meet in person, share best practice and collaborate, as they work towards completing their Master’s degree.

The course itself is pitched at people already working in the industry, and is designed to give them access to “essential new learning, centred around leadership and management within a datacentre environment,” as the course brochure puts it.

CNet Training, who deliver the course in tandem with Anglia Ruskin, claim the course is the first and only qualification of its kind in the world, with representatives from Capital One, Digital Realty and Unilever among the list of participants.

The panel session AitC participated in touched on the recruitment challenges senior leaders face in the datacentre industry, particularly when drawing in people from diverse backgrounds. A topic this blog has covered a number of times before.

You can’t be what you can’t see

One of the biggest blockers to recruitment is that, outside of the IT world, the general population has little understanding or awareness of what datacentres are or the important role they play in keeping our digital economy ticking over, AitC argued at the event.

And so it follows, if people don’t know the industry exists, they won’t be aware of the wide range of potential job opportunities datacentres give rise to.

There is also the fact that, as one of the course participants pointed out during the Q&A part of the session, a lot of the people who work in datacentres today “fell into” the industry. Few – if any – deliberately set-out to work in it.

For this reason, you often find little in the way of consistency between the career paths of datacentre managers, for example, making it difficult for people to follow in their footsteps.

Establishing a consistent, coherent and repeatable career path for new entrants joining the industry might help here, it was suggested.

Age-old questions

The conversation also touched upon how best to market datacentre career opportunities to young people, and at what age this should begin?

Dr. Theresa Simpkin, a senior lecturer in leadership and corporate education at Anglia Ruskin University and the session moderator, said targeting undergraduates (and those on the cusp of leaving university) would be a tough sell.

Because, as she put it, many people at this point in their lives have already decided what direction they want their future career to take, and convincing them to junk those ideas and do something completely different would be hard.

This is why there are so many STEM initiatives aimed at encouraging school kids to take an interest in technology, and adopting this approach for datacentre-related careers could be the way to go.

School children, however, are likely to be just as clueless as most grown-ups (and their teachers) about what datacentres are, so this is an area the industry should be looking to take the lead, by engaging with local schools and setting up out-reach programmes.

Given how many of the big colocation companies have facilities located within industrial parks that neighbour residential areas, getting out into the local community to talk about what their companies do isn’t really a big ask, when you think about it.

They don’t necessarily need to share the exact coordinates of where their facilities are, but opening up about the contribution their companies make to keeping our digital economy ticking over would go some way to demystifying the datacentre industry.

Peppering that conversation with details of how these sites prop up the YouTube channels kids watch or the messages they send via Snapchat may just help make the concept of datacentres a little more relatable too.

Datacentre red tape stops play

Another course participant talked about how an attempt to hold an open day at their datacentre for local school children was quashed on health and safety grounds, putting paid to their attempt to lift the veil of secrecy the industry operates under.

A modern datacentre, with its iris scanners, man traps, and server rooms packed with space-age looking equipment, are exactly the kind of things kids need to see to get excited about technology, they argued, but it was not to be.

The discussion touched upon the issue of what needs to be done to make the datacentre industry an appealing employment proposition for women. And – for the ones working it in already – what must be done to make them stay .

On the latter point, the importance of creating empathetic working environments was touched upon. In any male-dominated company, there is always a risk the needs of female employees in some workplaces maybe neglected or overlooked.

Industry-wide problem solving

It quickly became apparent the people taking part in the bootcamp are keen to do what they can to address the datacentre industry’s skills shortage, but where should they be focusing their efforts and support?

There is no single body (made up of stakeholders representing the interests and views of the whole datacentre industry) working on this at present.

What we do have is some standalone organisations and a few groups (some more formalised than others) working separately to address these issues, and (in many cases) would very much prefer to stay that way. For competitive reasons, predominantly, a couple of the course participants told AitC privately.

Working in this closed-off way to address the datacentre skills gaps seems daft, for want of a better word, given how many examples there are of how taking an open, collaborative and group approach to solving problems has the potential to speed up progress when it comes to solving them.

An Open Compute Project for people?

As Riccardo Degli Effetti, head of datacentre operations at television broadcaster Sky, so eloquently put it during the session: what the industry needs to do is create an “Open Compute Project (OCP) for people” to tackle the skills shortage.

In OCP, you see industry foes set aside their differences to collaborate on the creation of open source server designs because they know they would struggle to achieve the same rate of innovation if they tried to go it alone.

The rest of the industry needs to apply the same kind of logic to closing the skills gap, because one group can’t do it all alone.

After all, it’s an industry-wide problem that needs solving, so it makes sense to take an industry-wide approach to tackling it.