The datacentre industry's "identity crisis" and its impact on recruitment

The datacentre industry operates under a veil of secrecy, which could be having a detrimental impact on its ability to attract new talent, fear market experts.  

When you tell people you write about datacentres for a living, the most common response you get is one of bafflement. Not many people – outside of the IT industry – know what they are, to be honest.

Depending on how much time I have (and how interested they look), I often try to explain, while making the point that datacentres are a deceptively rich and diverse source of stories that cover a whole range of subjects, sometimes beyond the realms of traditional IT reporting.

For instance, I cover everything from planning applications to M&A deals, sustainability, data protection, skills, mechanical engineering, construction, not to mention hardware, software and all the innovation that goes on there.

But, while it means there is no shortage of things to write, it makes the datacentre industry a difficult one for outsiders to work out what it’s all about.

Clearing the datacentre confusion

This was a point touched upon during a panel debate on skills at the Datacentre Dynamics Europe Zettastructure event in London this week, overseen by Peter Hannaford, chairman of recruitment company Datacenter People.

During the discussion – the core focus of which was on how to entice more people to work in datacentres – Hannaford said the industry is in the midst of an on-going “identity crisis” that may be contributing to its struggle to draw new folks in.

“Are we an industry or are we a sector? We’re an amalgam of construction, electrical, mechanical engineering, and IT,” he said. “That’s a bit of a problem. It’s an identity crisis.”

To emphasis this point another member of the panel – Jenny Hogan, operations director for EMEA at colocation provider Digital Realty – said she struggles with how to define the industry she works in on questionnaires for precisely this reason.

“If you go on LinkedIn and you tick what industry you work under, there isn’t one for datacentres. There is one for flower arranging, and gymnastics, but there isn’t one for datacentres,” added Hannaford.

Meanwhile, Mariano Cunietti, CTO of ISP Enter, questioned how best to classify an IT-related industry whose biggest source of investment is from property firms.

“The question that was rising in my head was, [are datacentres] a sector of IT or is it a sector of real estate? Because if you think about who the largest investors are in datacentres, it is facilities and real estate,” he added.

While a discussion on this point is long overdue, it also serves to show the sheer variety of roles and range of opportunities that exist within the datacentre world, while emphasising the work the industry needs to do to make people aware of them.

Opening up the discussion

This is ground Ahead In the Clouds has covered before about year ago.  Back then we made the point that – if the industry is serious about wanting more people to consider a career in datacentres – they need to start raising awareness within the general population about what they are. And, in turn, really talk up the important role these nondescript server farms play in keeping our (increasingly) digital economy ticking over.

When you consider the size of this multi-billion dollar industry, it almost verges on the bizarre that so few people seem to know it exists.

According to current industry estimates, the datacentre industry could be responsible for gobbling up anywhere between two and five per cent of the world’s energy, putting it on par with the aviation sector in terms of power consumption.

The difference is it’s not uncommon to hear kids say they want to be a pilot who flies jet planes when they get older, but I think you’d be hard pushed to find a single one who dreams about becoming a datacentre engineer.

At least, not right now, but that’s not to say they won’t in future.

Looking ahead

One of the really positive things that really came across during the aforementioned panel debate was the understanding within the room that this needs addressing, and the apparent appetite among those there to do something about it.

And, as the session drew to a close, there were already discussions going on within the room about coordinating an industry-wide effort to raise awareness of the datacentre sector within schools and universities, which would definitely be a step in the right direction.

Because, as Ajay Sharman, a regional ambassador lead at tech careers service Stem Learning, eloquently put it during the debate, this is an industry where there are plenty of jobs and the pay ain’t bad, but it is up to the people working in it to make schools, colleges and universities aware of that.

“We are not telling the people who are guiding engineering students through university about our industry enough, because when you talk to academics, they don’t know anything about datacentres,” he said.

“We need to do that much more at all the universities in the UK and Europe, to promote the datacentre as a career path for engineers coming through, because there are lots of jobs there and it pays well. So why wouldn’t you steer your students into that?” Well, quite.