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Storage skills in the age of the cloud and convergence

Storage skills was a discrete area in the IT jobs market, but that’s being eroded by the cloud, hyper-convergence infrastructure, and virtualisation. So, what are the key storage skillsets today?

The volume of data that needs to be stored just keeps on increasing, which means potential employees with storage skills are always in demand.

But in-demand skillsets change over time. In storage, skills that were mainstream 10 years ago have all but disappeared and new disciplines have emerged.

So, what trends are driving demand for storage and what skills are necessary to get a job in this ever-changing sector?

Storage skills and convergence

Storage has changed a lot in recent years. In terms of jobs and skills, the idea of storage as a discrete discipline has been eroded by virtualisation, hyper-converged technology and the cloud.

And often, IT roles have converged. There are fewer roles for IT professionals in traditional, specialist areas such as storage. Instead, IT professionals must become generalists to successfully manage on-premise, cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) infrastructures.

“This change has been heightened by the pandemic, but even beforehand, the lines between IT responsibilities were becoming blurred,” says Sascha Giese, head geek at SolarWinds.

“IT convergence has also been exacerbated by flat to shrinking budgets, but in all, it has added complexity for IT pros, making it difficult to know what skills should be focused on.”

The situation is that siloed roles in storage or compute have been broken down to make way for a new type of IT professional who can cover multiple disciplines and is central to keeping IT environments operating at full capacity.

Drivers for change

Data has evolved in its use over the past decade. The explosion of analytics has presented an enormous challenge in how data is stored and processed.

Meanwhile, the cloud has been instrumental in moving storage away from on-premise systems, with a consequent need for fewer on-premise storage specialists.

The rise of hyper-converged infrastructure – which bundles compute, storage and hypervisor – has also had an impact on the storage skills landscape, with logical unit number (LUN) design becoming a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, provisioning storage for a new virtual machine (VM) has for some time no longer been done in the storage array console, but from the hypervisor, and that had a knock-on effect on roles.

“This greatly simplified operations and allowed infrastructure and operations specialists to diversify their responsibilities and take on additional areas,” says Robert Rhame, director of market intelligence at Rubrik.

Other features of the storage landscape are also changing, with the rise of object storage, software-defined storage, and non-volatile memory express (NVMe) flash and its networked, over-fabric iterations.

In-demand skills

According to IT JobsWatch, the top skills in storage engineer job roles in the first six months of 2020 were Windows, storage area network (SAN), VMware/VMware infrastructure, Linux, Windows Server, and infrastructure engineering.

But according to Thomas Harrer, chief technology officer (CTO) for IBM Systems hardware sales in Europe, demand in storage skills is not a matter of specificity, but extended scope.

He says IT professionals that interact with or manage storage environments need to broaden their technology skills to fully understand the impact, connectivity and optimisation potential of these environments as a whole.

So, for example, storage specialists may need familiarity or proficiency with DevOps or cloud to be more attractive to potential employers and command a bigger salary.

“They equally need cloud knowledge – public and private – and application development knowledge to achieve an ideal balance between flexibility, cost efficiency, quality, security and cyber resiliency when implementing or upgrading their storage environments,” says Harrer. 

His view is that understanding the application and objective, as well as supplier-agnostic options to achieve these objectives – whether storage, cloud or app development-related – are critical.

“Ideally, we are talking about skilled professionals who have developed architectural or strategic storage skills to fully understand the impact of supplier or environment components that storage might be a part of,” he adds.

Mixing things up

In a recent survey – IT trends report 2020: the universal language of IT – IT professionals were asked to cite the non-technical skills they saw as most valuable to their role, and project management (69%), interpersonal communication (57%) and people management (53%) were the top skills listed.

Core storage skills are crucial for designing, building and maintaining the infrastructure needed to store and process data, but the soft skills of explaining and demonstrating the value of storage systems to C-level decision-makers is also essential. So, building up interpersonal skills is vital.

“Sometimes interpersonal skills are relegated to the category of ‘soft skills’, which is misleading, considering their overall importance in leadership and management,” says Giese at SolarWinds. “Ultimately, interpersonal skills are human skills that help teams break though jargon and better address business challenges by relating to other people and speaking in a clear way.”

He adds that it is worth remembering that IT professionals don’t just speak to other IT professionals. They’re increasingly talking to customers, cross-functional teams, and other business stakeholders. “Good communication and personal understanding are the mastery of any of those domains,” he says.

The job market and you

For many organisations, storage is more strategically important than ever. So, it is not just about putting together all-purpose storage systems; specific solutions are key now. This means designing systems and infrastructure that focus on privacy and security, or systems that enable data analytics via artificial intelligence.

People with storage skills can go for roles such as infrastructure automation engineer, DevOps engineer, and cloud engineer, to name a few. Rubrik’s Rhame recommends job seekers should search for terms such as Kubernetes, Terraform, Ansible, Chef, Puppet or other tools to see what jobs come up.

“My advice for someone seeking a job in these areas is not to get hung up on not having the necessary skills that are being requested. These are scarce commodities right now, and those who have them are not looking for jobs,” he says.

He adds that people should showcase their other skills, technologies and programming capabilities that remain relevant in this changing world and focus on demonstrated cases where you picked up a new skill. “This is emerging and has a good future indeed,” he says.

For those who want to stay in the datacentre, there is a future here as well, and the role to look for will likely have “infrastructure and operations” or simply “operations” in the description.

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