Smart career moves

It's a good time to be working in storage, but no matter what your background or training, gone are the days when you could count on your company to have the same concerns about your career that you do. Here are some steps you can follow to take control of your storage career.

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Can a career in storage be a springboard to the CIO's office?

It's a good time to be working in storage. Since the dot-com bubble burst in 2000—just about the time companies were beginning to build storage groups—jobs have been scarce. But today, storage is increasingly viewed as the cornerstone of IT and prospects for advancement within IT are increasing.

THE ACCIDENTAL TECHNOLOGIST
Bob Shinn, director of service delivery at State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) in Boston, took a serendipitous route to a technology career. With a BA in history, Shinn began teaching at the secondary level and then became involved with not-for-profits, running after- and preschool programs, adult sports and fundraising for the YMCA. It was at the YMCA that he was introduced to IT as a career. "I did things that needed to be done because a lot of people didn't have basic PC skills," he recalls. That willingness to step up, and the drive to stay ahead of users' needs, has shaped Shinn's career.

Most recently SSGA's storage manager—he built the organization's first storage team—Shinn has experience in large-scale data conversions, data mapping, project management, and process and workflow development.

"Being in storage didn't pigeonhole or trap me into a role," he emphasizes. Most of his IT experience has been at large financial services organ-izations that put a premium on data integrity, project management, process and methodologies.

In his career, Shinn has earned storage certifications, taken MIS classes and completed an MBA "to get a better understanding of what metrics provide both quantity and quality," he says. But he credits much of his success to the people he has worked with and understanding the business value of his technical knowledge. "My co-workers have made me more passionate about what I do," Shinn says.

Shinn's three keys to success:

  1. Pay attention to people.
  2. Enjoy learning and growing.
  3. Work with enthusiasm and passion.
But possessing storage skills and an improving economy don't guarantee career advancement. Storage specialists are faced with difficult questions: Will I be stuck in the role of storage or backup administrator forever? Should I specialize or become a generalist? Will an advanced technical degree win points, or is an MBA the better bet for earnings and professional growth? And how, between making sure backups run and the storage environment supports business demands, can I find the time and energy to take a run at the CIO's office?

While not all jobs lead to the CIO's office, there's room for advancement for motivated, technically astute individuals with communications skills, broad technical skills, business knowledge and flexibility.

"Folks in storage jobs can aspire to the CIO's office," says Paul Tallon, assistant professor of information systems at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, Chestnut Hill, MA. "But they need to get out of the bunker, put themselves in the shoes of the customer, take business and finance courses and, most importantly, take risks." (See "Profile of tomorrow's CIO".)

As data management and storage become increasingly important to a company's survival, "storage is a good place to get the connections and expertise in business that has been the bailiwick of applications-focused people," says Richard Scannell, senior vice president of worldwide delivery at GlassHouse Technologies Inc., Framingham, MA.

Scannell advises those starting out in storage to "get the broadest technical experience possible and then begin to specialize." He says it's possible to follow this track in a small company, where you'll be forced into everything, or in a big company that moves you into many different jobs and responsibilities. The most critical "skill" for advancement, says Scannell, is political know-how, backed with a strong knowledge of budgets.

Big company vs. small company

PROFILE OF TOMORROW'S CIO
"Really good, successful CIOs stick their necks out and make bold moves," says Paul Tallon, assistant professor of information systems at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, Chestnut Hill, MA. Tallon has interviewed more than 200 CIOs while studying risk management and the organizational impact of IT. "You need to recognize [that] technology is an enabler and use it to solve problems. If you wait for a business user to come to you with a problem, it's too late," he says.

"A CIO well-versed in business terminology, coming up through the ranks, pulls technology into place," Tallon notes. He says it's possible to begin in storage and become CIO, but you'll need a broader skill set. "Pursue an MBA or take business courses, and put yourself in a position to be rotated into other parts of the business," he says.

Tallon says companies use technology in two ways: for exploration and exploitation. "IT departments tend to exploit technology. Someone who comes from a different part of the business is more likely to favor exploration, and will tend to be more willing to accept risk," he points out. He urges advancement-minded storage experts to throw off the "bunker mentality" to see the bigger picture. "Increasingly, CIOs will be boundary spanners, bridge builders. The job requires someone who can take information at a technical level and translate it into information that business users can use," he says.

What skills are today's CIOs looking for in the people who will succeed them? "A computer science student who knows biology would be worth her weight in gold," he says. "Part of the reason we don't have more candidates with that profile is the way universities are organized into stovepipes. We train people with a natural focus in a specific discipline, but opportunities are at the intersections of disciplines." This is the opportunity for storage people. "It will be folks in the IT department who will reach out to customers, who will understand the issues and solve problems," he says.

You don't necessarily need an MBA. "[They] may be too highly focused," says Tallon. "Think about a Master of Science degree that cuts across technology and business. Accounting and technology, life sciences and technology, financial services and technology are skills for advancement."

According to Tallon, if you're a storage manager, in five years you need to do the following to be seen as credible and to be considered for the role of CIO:
  • Educate yourself about the business side of the house.
  • Understand the issues your customers are facing.
  • Become more service-oriented.
  • Put together solutions that solve business, not technology, problems.
  • Take advanced courses, especially accounting, accounting systems and business law.
There are differences in how a storage group will be assembled in a small- or medium-sized business vs. a large enterprise. Experience in a demanding, regulated environment—a public company, financial services or insurance—is a plus for storage experts looking to grow their role. Smaller or privately held companies may not benefit from a dedicated storage group. In these organizations, system administrators, network administrators and their managers may assume responsibility for data at various points in its lifecycle.

Whether a storage team is built from the beginning to manage storage, or is an assemblage of IT and storage experts, those tasked with storage management are responsible for (at least) the following activities:

  • Performance planning
  • Maintaining storage architecture alignment
  • Capacity planning
  • Provisioning storage
  • Day-to-day storage operations
These activities span the management of data and resources across four storage subcategories:
  • Primary disk storage
  • Backup and operational recovery, including compliance
  • Disaster recovery
  • Tape vaulting
It's been a good path to job security to specialize in one of the above storage areas. However, while some degree of specialization may seem like a good career move, it can ultimately limit your growth toward the CIO role.

"Organizations are now building groups that focus on storage, but storage roles are also starting to converge," says Jim Geis, director of storage solutions marketing at Skokie, IL-based Forsythe Technology Inc. "Backup, restore, recovery and replication skills are merging with archiving. If you specialize in a specific technology or concept, you're doing yourself a disservice," Geis warns. "Being able to understand the big picture is more valuable for many companies."

Training and certifications
"Technical training is poker stakes. For career growth, success is about the ability to engage with business clients, consult, and fill the gap between 'what' and 'so what,'" says GlassHouse's Scannell. "You have to have the ability to draw conclusions; it's not about baselining or installation—it's about identifying possibilities."

WORKING FOR A VAR
Vinny Choinski, backup practice manager at Daymark Solutions Inc., North Billerica, MA, has been in storage, in one way or another, since 1985. "It's a career that's sustained me and has longevity," he says. "No matter if you want to be director of IT, CIO or a subject-matter expert, for people who know what they're doing, there's always more work than bodies."

Choinski's electrical engineering degree led him to a career in satellite imaging, which "gobbles up storage. It sent me down this path, and as things started to convert to more open systems, I followed from there," he recalls.

As a VAR, "it's like starting a new job every day. You work with different clients week to week." While "it's not the right job for some people, it's a very dynamic environment with a lot of change for people who like that. You get exposed to a lot of different products and technologies at a fast pace," he says.

John Echaniz is the director of the Solution Center at storage consultant NovusCG in Manassas, VA. He believes engineering skills can be learned, but adds, "the differentiator is being able to collaborate. It's not enough to solve a problem—you need to be able to defend it and socialize it with business users." Novus, like many consultancies, has two tracks—one for technologists and another for consultants who demonstrate an ability to deal with the company's clients on a business level.

Certifications are becoming more stringent as vendors and industry groups like the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) push for meaningful measures of expertise. "Certifications are great to have if you're going to stay in the industry—it makes your experience and commitment clear for employers and interviewers," says Larry Roberts, owner of the Jobstore.com Web site. "Project management certification is on the Top 10 list. But as you move toward the business side, certifications become less important."

But Echaniz cautions that "people sometimes mistake certifications for expertise. We still view certifications as a demonstration of competence, not superiority."

The company you keep
Large organizations may offer the greatest number of opportunities, especially for people who are still in the early stages of their careers. Bob Shinn, director of service delivery at State Street Global Advisors in Boston, has spent much of his career in large financial services institutions.

"Don't be a drone," he advises. "To advance in storage and beyond, you need to find ways to work within the system, [but] don't just accept what happens." Shinn believes advancement comes to those who focus on adding the greatest value to their company and co-workers.

The type of company you come from is less important than what you've done. Once you've been at a large company for five years or so, it's time to think about your next move to a startup, small company, VAR or consultancy.

"What I like about the VAR side is the exposure to tools and problem-solving," says Vinny Choinski, backup practice manager at Daymark Solutions Inc. in North Billerica, MA. "VARs need to react, analyze and solve problems quickly. If your intention is to be CIO, it helps [to be] exposed to other people's challenges."

John Russell says consultants need to know the technology, understand processes and be familiar with the apps that need support. "Look for opportunities to interact with the part of IT closest to business units," advises Russell, a senior associate at Darwin Partners, a Wakefield, MA-based IT consultancy. He encourages storage experts to participate in the full lifecycle of projects, beyond implementation and support, and into requirements gathering. "You'll be able to work with business-unit clients to define need, develop the architecture and implement a solution," he says.

Reinforce your resume
In addition to technical competence, other skills are required to advance your career. You need to communicate and translate business needs into technical solutions, and be willing to lead or participate in teams.

Other important skills include:

  • Business, accounting and financial management coursework—MBAs have more value for CIO aspirants than do advanced technical degrees


  • Project management certification


  • Business law, especially contracts
Most important is the desire to advance. No matter what your background or training, the days are past when you can count on your company to have the same concerns about your career that you do. As one storage consultant put it: "To be an IT leader requires that you have the people skills of a Dale Carnegie, the negotiation skills of Henry Kissinger and the political ruthlessness of Karl Rove."

This was first published in December 2005

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