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Datacentre operators must "open up" to close industry skills gap, claims IO

IO business development director Andrew Roughan said more must be done to encourage a wider range and higher number people into the datacentre industry

The datacentre industry needs to do a better job of communicating the vital role its facilities play in keeping the digital economy going to attract the right people to work in them.

That’s the view of Andrew Roughan, business development director at modular datacentre operator IO, who said the industry needs to simplify the way its facilities are marketed if it wants to entice more people to consider pursuing a career in the datacentre world. 

For example, it is not uncommon for datacentre operators to focus on the electrical and mechanical aspects of their sites, whereas most end users are more concerned with the business problems colocation can solve and the benefits it can bring.

“Datacentres aren’t attractive to young guys and girls as places to qualify to work in, whether you are an engineer, a telecoms specialist or a salesperson,” he told Computer Weekly.

“They’re not particularly seen as sexy careers to go into because I don’t think they’ve very well understood at all.”

The veil of secrecy many providers seem to operate under may not be doing the cause any favours either, as large swathes of the general public have no idea about the contribution the datacentre makes to their every day lives.

“The datacentre industry, for very good reason, has historically been very secure, with hidden and bunker-style datacentres the general public would never even know were there, let alone go in,” he said.

“But the whole virtualisation movement is changing all that because the physical threat is much less, and it is much more of a machine-led challenge that we’re facing now.”

IO recently invited a group of University College London PhD students for a tour of its modular datacentre facility in Slough, which opened in June, with Goldman Sachs as an anchor tenant, to get an understanding of what goes on inside its walls.

As part of the visit, which Computer Weekly attended, students were treated to a presentation outlining the vast array of every day processes – such as Oyster card transactions and Facebook interactions – that datacentres are responsible for.

Roughan said one of the event’s main aims was to try to help the firm come up with some new ideas about how to market its datacentres in a different way, by garnering feedback from people who have no real prior knowledge of what goes on in one.

“We tend to be on the more open side of the spectrum from a datacentre operator perspective, and we’re certain that people who look at these things from a fresh perspective will generate some really good ideas,” he said.

“The best thing we can do is get footfall in and get people talking about us, because it could develop into a wider commercial interest in what we do and how we do it.”

Also, by fostering these types of links with academic institutions, the company gets to see first-hand the pipeline of talent coming out of UK universities, which could be a bonus from a recruitment and product development point of view later down the line.

“Getting people from different walks of life, with different skillsets and different capabilities, to comment on what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and what the future might look like, is really important,” he said.

“Once you’ve got that diverse view, these guys are brighter than me – they are going to end up in important roles in the future, either working for themselves or in big companies, and they’re going to shape the next generation of enterprise.

“We’ve got to listen to them and get involved with their line of thinking, as that group will be tomorrow’s customers,” Roughan added.

In a similar vein, he said the company is considering potentially sponsoring a PhD student to carry out research into datacentre-related areas, and working on how best to run similar events in the future.

“The whole point of the first tour was to see if it would work and how we could we get an interest going within that group of people, and roll it into something more interesting,” he said.

“There is potential scope to expand on it with UCL, or across a series of universities, and start a process for that community to challenge us, and for us to challenge them.”

Read more about datacentre skills

  • Datacentre operators in Europe are having real difficulties finding suitable new employees for positions in what is possibly the least known but fastest growing area of the economy, according to the industry body Data Centre Alliance.
  • IT infrastructure and operations (I&O) skills, including capacity planning and performance management, which are widely valued in datacentres, are no longer sufficient to meet business needs in the digital economy era, analyst firm Gartner has warned.

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