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Hot Storage Skills

As storage becomes more complex and costly, businesses are seeking storage professionals who can architect various tiers of networked storage, document what they've done, and help their business units select the type of storage that best supports their applications' requirements at a price that makes the executive suite smile.

Here are eight storage skills that will top employers' must-have lists in 2008.

2008 will be an exciting, competitive and sometimes confusing time to be a storage professional. It won't be enough to be a great storage tech. As storage becomes more complex and costly, businesses are seeking storage professionals who can architect various tiers of networked storage, document what they've done, and help their business units select the type of storage that best supports their applications' requirements at a price that makes the executive suite smile.

Hiring managers and recruiters say finding candidates who know the ins and outs of storage and have the so-called "soft skills" to talk about business goals instead of just bits and bytes is becoming more difficult. So what type of skills are they looking for? Someone who knows how to design and construct a SAN; knows how to implement and test a disaster recovery (DR) plan; is up to date on the latest Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) best practices; knows how to get business buy-in; has experience with virtualization, deduplication and ediscovery processes; and, most importantly, can talk to nontechnical people in language they can understand.

"It's an incredibly fast-moving field," says Pete Fischer, a 26-year-old storage administrator at International Paper Co. in Memphis. "Three years ago, no one was talking about deduplication," adds Fischer, whose team is starting a data deduplication project.

Fischer has been part of the global paper and packaging company's dedicated storage team for the last three years. While there, he earned an MBA from the University of Memphis, a definite plus at a time when recruiters and industry experts say there's a big push for storage professionals who can work closely with business colleagues, and envision storage acquisitions and strategy as part of an overall business model.

"There's a lot of forecasting and a lot of planning when it comes to data protection, and I have been able to apply some of those MBA lessons to my job," says Fischer. "Also, I think it helped me to think globally and understand the company mission."

"Soft skills are one of three fastest growing requests we hear," says Brian Gabrielson, VP at IT placement firm Robert Half Technology headquartered in Menlo Park, CA. (Virtualization and ediscovery are the other two.) "Technology is, a lot of the time, tied to generating revenue," he adds.

Rod Masney, global director of IT infrastructure services at Ohio manufacturing company O-I Inc. (formerly Owens-Illinois Inc.) and chairperson of the Americas' SAP Users' Group (ASUG), agrees: "It's so important that we hire people with business acumen beyond the technologies."

Actions speak louder than words
"I'd rather hear someone talk about the value of change management as opposed to using the word 'ITIL,'" says Stewart Hubbard, director of technology engineering at Coldwater Creek, a Coeur d'Alene, ID-based women's apparel company that has implemented several Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL)-based processes.

Like ITIL, the phrase "green storage" might be tempting to toss around, simply because everyone thinks it's important. But unless you can demonstrate that you reduced energy consumption and power costs, you could get caught "greenwashing" your conversation, says Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO Group, Stillwater, MN.

The same is true when discussing ILM, says Schulz. "If you are talking about information lifecycle management [ILM], then you better talk about more than just having implemented different tiers of storage, tiered data protection, archiving or HSM [hierarchical storage management]," he says. "If you've done anything with policy or rules-based automated storage and data management, bring that up and articulate what you've done and what you used to accomplish the task."

Schulz encourages his clients to ask interviewees about the nitty-gritty details of their projects. "I want them to be able to show [that] they've got the cuts, the bruises, the burns, the scrape marks from having actually done it," he says.

SAN skills
Of course, storage professionals still need to know more about switches than sales pitches. SAN skills are at the top of any storage job requirement, as well as at the top of Storage magazine's list of eight skills to have in 2008 (see "In-demand skills," below). SAN design and architecture skills include storage consolidation, data placement and security, data provisioning and capacity planning, performance tuning and network knowledge, particularly Ethernet and Fibre Channel.

Alok Shrivastava, director of educational services at EMC Corp., says SAN architecture and design, including backup and DR, is where companies tell him they have the greatest need.

In-demand skills
  1. SAN design/architecture
  2. Backup and disaster recovery
  3. Business acumen
  4. Storage virtualization
  5. Deduplication
  6. Security
  7. Ediscovery
  8. Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL)

Based on interviews with storage professionals, industry analysts, recruiters and hiring managers, backup and DR ranked second on our list of in-demand storage skills. Business acumen ranked a close third. Then two of the hottest new technologies in data centers--virtualization and data deduplication--rounded out the top five skills. Security (data protection), ediscovery and ITIL best practices completed the list, respectively.

It's unlikely you'll find a storage professional whose work has allowed them to get knee-deep into all of those technologies and tools. Hiring managers know this and instead look for a candidate who has shown a capacity for understanding storage as part of a larger corporate framework and is able to strive for efficiency in their day-to-day tasks while planning for growth and new business demands.

Ken Gehring, data center manager at Alberta Finance, where he's on assignment from CGI, a Canadian IT services company, says the most important SAN skill in today's complex environments is intellectual curiosity. Without it "you are never going to be able to move ahead." Gehring adds that CGI's most recent hire didn't have a long list of SAN skills. "He's actually a Windows person. But he's like a sponge. Feed him information and he'll soak it up."

"Long-range vision" is on Beth Cohen's must-have skills list. As director of technology operations at Broadleaf Services, a VAR and services provider specializing in virtualization and data protection for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), she says that "there are a lot of people who can install EMC systems, but they don't understand the complexity of how the storage fits into someone's infrastructure ... when I hire people and I see a certification, all that really tells me is that they have passed the exam."

The importance of documentation
Documentation is a skill so fundamental and obvious that many storage professionals fail to emphasize these skills on their resumes, ignoring their importance while playing up cutting-edge experience instead. Documentation skills--logging and recording changes to storage systems and the steps taken to make them--are highly valued by hiring managers.

"I hear about good documentation for storage all the time," says Brian Gabrielson, a VP at Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm based in Menlo Park, CA. "I can't tell you how many times I have heard from a client 'I brought in a contractor; he did a bunch of work and left, and now I can't figure out what he did.' You better be able to document your work so that others can understand it."

"I think documentation is one of those things that can be taken for granted, but really is needed for success," says Ken Gehring, the data center manager at Alberta Finance, where he's on assignment from CGI, a Canadian IT services company. "Without good documentation, you spend too much time trying to figure out what was done, rather than working on what should be done."

Evolving skill sets
When storage administration lead David Dulek began working at Fastenal Co. Purchasing, a Winona, MN-based manufacturer and distributor of construction supplies, no one was talking about Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP). A decade later, networking interoperability skills are all the rage, he says. "We're looking at extending our SAN to a data center in Indiana," he says. Dulek's team helped buy the equipment going into the Indianapolis site. "On our end, we're doing the FCIP and learning on the job about the interoperability between the storage and networking group," he notes.

When Steve Davidek arrived as the computer operator for the City of Sparks, NV, nightly backups took about two hours, and he worked on a single Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. HP3000 server with 256KB of memory, four 120MB disk packs and tapes for backup. That was 23 years ago; Davidek is now operations and systems administrator for the City of Sparks, and part of a 12-member IT team that oversees a dedicated SAN with two HP EVA arrays in separate locations and approximately 20TB of storage. They also have 39 servers (15 physical and 24 virtual). In the last five years, new virtualization, as well as DR and ediscovery tools and strategies have dominated his work.

"In the last five years, ediscovery has become a nightmare for us," says Davidek, who's also a member of the board of directors for Encompass, HP's 15,000-member IT user group. "I say it's a nightmare because it's not easy to do email discovery and document discovery, and it's usually for a legal case and they usually need it yesterday." The city has been exploring and testing ediscovery software products to automate and simplify this process. Says Davidek: "The question is where do you keep it and how long do you keep it?"

Storage virtualization experience is the new tiebreaker for storage jobs, according to some IT recruiters. "I just had one guy, a good candidate, who simply didn't have enough virtualization experience," says Jason Wilson, a resource development manager at Modis, an IT staffing firm headquartered in Atlanta.

"A lot of companies are keen to have [people with] experience working with VMware," states Aidan Newman, who specializes in storage placements at Foton IT Recruitment Ltd. in the U.K. "A year ago, they didn't really care and now they're asking for it."

Virtualization is on Harold Shapiro's hot skills list, too. As director and technology architect, management information services at Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Shapiro says that knowledge of data deduplication is also vital. Storage pros "need to understand what data deduplication is and master it now," he adds.

Wanted: ITIL, encryption experience
The time is right for ITIL, plenty of storage professionals agree. With Version 3 released last May, many storage managers are concentrating on the underlying principles of ITIL, formalizing change management in a way that increases productivity and eases technology adoption.

"If a person has exposure to ITIL, and you're implementing processes based on ITIL in your organization, then that's of value to us," says Stewart Hubbard, director of technology engineering at Coldwater Creek Inc., a Coeur d'Alene, ID-based women's apparel retailer. The retailer credits ITIL methods (and service management products from BMC Software Inc.) for drastically improving its service desk ticket system. That being said, it's not going to disqualify someone if they don't have that knowledge. "Once they get here, they definitely need to understand the importance of change management and subscribe to the policies and procedures that we have in place," says Hubbard.

Hubbard also places a premium on storage professionals who have worked in a publicly traded company and firms that accept credit cards, making them subject to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard. "Encryption is really important to us," he notes.

Storage professionals have to be more concerned about data protection and security than ever before, says Jon Oltsik, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, MA, who began his career at EMC Corp. and worked in storage before focusing on networks and security. "For a long time, there was simply no knowledge of security in the storage domain," he says. Now, says Oltsik, storage professionals must focus on securing IP networks, and configuring and controlling role-based access. "If you believe, as I do, that 2008 will be a big year for gigabyte or 10 Gig, and a big year for IP-based storage--whether it's iSCSI or IP--that brings in some real security concerns."

Open storage reqs
David Gabler, senior corporate recruiter at Lowe's, the nationwide home improvement retailer, recently posted job reqs for a storage engineer and a storage engineer project manager. Some of the skills Gabler listed for the storage engineer position included: "Ability to apply knowledge of SAN fabric architecture, information lifecycle management, migration planning, technology scaling and performance tuning ..." as well as EMC-specific software products knowledge. The storage engineer project manager job listing read in part: "Participate in managing enterprise disaster recovery infrastructure. Experience with large enterprise storage environments (50TB-plus)."

Both jobs require "great communication and so-called soft skills," says Gabler. That means "the ability to understand the storage space and how it impacts business. We have a dedicated storage department and that department needs to be well represented throughout the organization."

Two months later (at the time of this writing), both jobs remain open. "The technical skills are hard enough to find," says Gabler. "But it's the management angle, especially for the PM job, that's really challenging [to find]."

If it's any consolation to Gabler, a lot of other companies are in the same boat and looking for the same skill sets.

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