Becoming indispensable in the workplace

Industry insiders define the irreplaceable employee with 10 key qualities and skills needed in today’s data center.


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In today’s volatile IT economy, data center workers must demonstrate value to their organizations like never before. Budgets are being painstakingly scrutinized. No position is safe from downsizing, outsourcing or reorganization.
“To be successful, IT workers should make themselves as valuable as possible to hiring companies, make themselves the stewards of their own careers and understand the trends and directions shaping the IT workforce,” says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.
In short, you need to make yourself irreplaceable. Following are 10 key skills and qualities demanded in today’s data center as identified by insiders in the fields of enterprise management, career consulting and recruitment:
No. 1: Get Passionate
If you are bored and lack passion about your job, your tenure and value to the data center is limited. Conversely, employees who are excited about a career in operations possess a contagious enthusiasm that drives them to do and learn more.
Data center teams need to remember that they are not just reporting to work; they have the unglamorous but noble mission of protecting and managing the vital data of their customers.
“These are serious positions,” said Chris Dolan, president of 365 Main data center in San Francisco. “We’re passionate about the business and the industry. That’s really key to us. I eat, sleep and drink data centers, and so do my key employees. Finding those key employees who see the vision is important.”
No. 2: Get Diversified
Beth Ross, a New York City-based executive and transitional coach, believes you become invaluable as an employee when you develop “multiple profit centers within yourself.” That means doing more than one thing well.
Lee Howdyshell, assistant manager of Data Center Services at Honda of America in Marysville, Ohio, agrees that it is important for personnel to receive cross training.
“Learn other areas of the business,” he said. “You don’t want blinders on to only fields in your area and nothing else matters.”
Doug Palmer, data center operations manager at Maritz, Inc., also echoes the same sentiment. Some of the skills he finds necessary in management have little to do with technology. He lists budgeting, customer service and vendor contract negotiation as among those abilities essential for success.
“You’ve got to know a little about everything and not a lot about one thing,” shares Palmer.
No. 3: Get Flexible
Data center workers who long for the status quo may find themselves shelved.

Shirley Sunday, a business analyst with Axciom in Chicago, says the complexity of today’s environment requires flexibility.
“In this day and age, I don’t care what job it is, you have got to be versatile and willing to accept change," she said. "Not that the mainframe is going away, but there are so many other components now that convolute it. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m just a mainframe person.’ You have to be open, receptive and willing to change.”

Palmer agrees: “You have to be at least versant on all the new technologies. IT changes daily.”
No. 4: Get Educated
No one doubts the importance of continuing education in the data center, but follow-through is another thing.
“Getting into a rut is the worst thing you can possibly do,” said Ross.
Recruiter Jim Auld said formal education is growing in importance when firms seek senior level data center managers.
“Some of our clients are putting a lot more emphasis on education,” said Auld, president of Data Center Agency in Carbalas, Calif. “Now they are looking for business or computer science degrees.”
Balance is fundamental when building your skills. Some formal education is vital, but other skills must be learned on the job. Online learning, reading and conferences are all means to further your education. Palmer takes advantage of a ubiquitous resource in the data center: his employees.
“I never miss an opportunity to sit in on a project meeting so I can understand what my folks are trying to do,” he said. “You learn from the people who work for you. They know more than you do.”
If you are forced to work on outdated systems and software, take personal initiative to learn new skills, said Mark J. Carsman, a career consultant and president of the Career Counselors Consortium in New York City.
“Even if it has to come out of their own pocket, they should try to strategically keep up-to-date with a course or two,” he said.
No. 5: Get Connected
If you are only as proficient as what you know now, your skill set will become quickly outdated. Interact with peers inside and outside your organization to expand your knowledgebase. Participating in a local AFCOM chapter and national conferences are two ways to do so.
“I think AFCOM offers a really solid opportunity for motivated professionals to get a glimpse of other companies with almost identical business problems,” said Howdyshell of the Central Ohio chapter. “We’re all trying to be the best companies and do the best job we can. Everyone has limited resources. It’s very valuable to see what other people see and do.”
No. 6: Get Business Savvy
To their detriment, IT workers often do not understand how their job impacts the bottom line.
“The classic struggle with information services is to be received as the business partner, not just the techno geeks out there,” said Howdyshell.
Auld says firms he serves find a business mindset indispensable.
“The managers now need to be able to look  at technology and say ‘I can save this company money by doing this,'" he said.
"That’s having that vision and not just equipment. They are looking for business people and not just those who work their way up the ranks technically. That goes beyond being a supervisor or technician. They’re looking for that overused word ‘proactive.’ It’s not broken, but how can it be better?”
Ross recommends telling your supervisor that you want to develop business skills. This helps them view you as someone with untapped potential for growth in new areas.
“It’s not just a body in front of a computer,” she adds.
No. 7: Get Communication Skills
Although there are many exceptions, IT workers are not known for their communication skills.
“In the technical industry, it’s sometimes hard to find that,” Dolan said. “A lot of IT technical professionals were kids playing video games at age four and building their own computers by age eight.”

Yet communication is vital to any business. Failure to grow in verbal and written skills can stifle a career. This may be most important in the area of customer service. Opportunities abound for personal development in this arena, ranging from classic books such as "How to Win Friends and Influence People" to seminars on interpersonal relationships.
“Our key employees have the professional skills but also have the personal skills,” Dolan said. “It’s very important that a person can communicate well with customers and other departments.”
Palmer found that his management role also required public speaking, which has become an acquired taste.
“I never really had good presentation skills,” he said. “But they want me to present our technology. That was hard for me because I’m a techie and not a presenter. It took me awhile to learn how to do that.”
No. 8: Get Recognized
Carsman recommends keeping a journal of your work accomplishments and routinely informing your supervisor of what you are doing. Sharing this information with your boss isn’t bragging; it is good communication.
For example, send your supervisor an e-mail when you finish a project. Then let her know that you are ready for the next one.

“Many times people in technology are invisible,” Carsman said. “That’s the kiss of death frequently when they have to decide who stays and who goes.”

You can also enhance and maintain relationships with supervisors and team members by volunteering for company-sponsored causes and by simply being sociable.
No. 9: Get Professional
Carsman also recommends dressing according to the standards of your office, and possibly even exceeding them. At minimum, avoid a sloppy appearance: “Look professional."

Show up for work on time and don’t make a habit of being the first one out the door. Make sure your is attendance impeccable and your work product is on time and on budget.
No. 10: Get Current
If you possess knowledge and skills on subjects that are hot in the data center, you may be sought after. Those topics vary from firm to firm.
Auld says major talent areas sought for senior data center managers are security, business continuity and disaster recovery.
“They all seem to focus on those skills verses the more traditional operations skills,” he said.

According to Palmer, knowledge of the physical structure of the data center, including heating, cooling and electricity is important.
“Infrastructure management of a data center has become a very complicated business,” he said. “I’m just as concerned about disaster recovery and data security.”
A Journey Worth Taking
Attaining these skills does not guarantee job security. Most often, downsizing decisions have nothing to do with the merit of the individual employees who are let go. But being proactive does improve your chances of being someone who is sought after and not passed over. These skills enhance your value to your department, organization and industry.
Gaining skills and knowledge requires a plodding approach and cannot be done overnight. And it is certainly not easy.
According to Palmer: “You have to be ready to do just about anything. You have to work in all different areas and you have to have thick skin.”