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A look at the future of data storage careers

Thanks to virtualization, the cloud and solid-state technology, data storage professionals and those who want to pursue a career in it face an uncertain future.

As technologies converge in the modern data center, traditional jobs and responsibilities are being reshaped. In Storage magazine's most recent storage salary survey, data showed that these days, on average, storage pros spend less than one-third of their time on storage projects. While this may seem to indicate a misapplication of talent, it's more likely a harbinger of changing roles already emerging for storage professionals.

It really is a new IT world. The on-the-job certainties of the past have almost all been upended, first by the rapid uptake of virtualization technology and more recently by the legitimization of the cloud and the adoption of solid state. While managing storage is still a part of the job description most of the time, storage technology and data storage careers look very different than in the past.

A case in point is the experience of Shawn O'Brien, director of architecture and infrastructure at Room & Board, a multilocation furniture retailer based in Minneapolis that recently shifted from disk to solid-state storage.

"In my experience [at] other companies, managing traditional disk arrays required constant monitoring and management of the intended workloads," he said. That meant planning for which loads were assigned to controllers and groups of disks, for example. If there was a problem or unexpected heavy load negatively impacting the work of a large group of users, you could do little to immediately remediate the problem.

Similarly, "Disk planning was a huge effort, which required discussions with many teams," O'Brien added. Prior to moving to all-flash storage, it took dedicated time and effort for a systems administrator to manage disk loads and capacity plan. "We no longer dedicate time to this effort, which allows administrators to focus on greater value-added efforts."

Even at the heart of the traditional storage industry, the word on the street is that change is coming for those pursuing data storage careers, and that change will mean adjustments to IT work habits, above all.

"Digital transformation does not come free, and it is not just about technology. It is more about the transformation of people and process," said Hu Yoshida, CTO, Hitachi Data Systems.

As a result of this shift, existing storage specialists, as with other infrastructure staff, will need to reskill and learn new ways of delivering agile infrastructure platforms via the cloud or third parties. And, as this transition happens, Yoshida said there may be a need for temporary contractors to take up some of the workload so that storage pros get the bandwidth they need to absorb and practice these new skills.

"We are also seeing a temporary increase in headcount for storage specialists as the promise of robotics and other automation matures," Yoshida added. The ability for a company to leverage robotics and IT automation and then shift skilled workers to higher-knowledge responsibilities is still in its infancy. And that means enterprises will require more infrastructure specialists, including in storage, during the transition.

According to a recent Gartner report, Adapting to the Cloud: Work and Career Strategies for IT Infrastructure Professionals (June 2016), technology silos are eroding as IT shops rapidly embrace hybrid IT and leverage software-as-a-service products and public cloud infrastructure (infrastructure as a service) to improve IT agility and reduce Capex costs.

The implication for data storage careers is obvious, according to Matthew Brisse, a research vice president at Gartner. As more IT services move to the cloud, physical server storage and facilities infrastructure management tasks and headcount are going to dwindle, he stressed in the report. IT infrastructure professionals and their managers need to identify what tasks they will perform when most or all IT services are externally or cloud hosted. "Consider rethinking your career plans," Brisse wrote, "because the migration of IT services to a distributed set of cloud providers will have a major impact on most roles."

A need to reskill

Yoshida emphasized how storage pros should prepare to acquire a new set of skills, particularly around mobile, social and analytics. Social is about connecting with both customers and co-workers, Yoshida added. Although critical to the people and process part of digital transformation, it is often neglected.

"Social media tools like community websites, blogs and Twitter feeds help IT to connect with their customers and be more innovative and agile." It also helps business units understand the contributions made by IT and how to use tech staff in their transformation, he added.

Glass Half full

John Reed, senior executive director for Robert Half Technology, the large IT staffing firm, sees demand for storage pros continuing, not waning, but evolving in the future. He shared some observations and current trends with us.

What are the biggest trends in storage-related careers? For example, what specific types of jobs do you foresee, and where will there be growth or shrinkage in opportunities?
Storage systems engineers, storage architects and administrators are in-demand within organizations. Whether it's on-site storage networks or cloud-based, employers are seeking these professionals for their businesses. With the growth of data initiatives, IT leaders need to manage expanding storage environments. More companies are finding a need to focus on storage as they encounter growth, so there has been relatively consistent demand for these roles.

What credentials or skills are most valued? Which have fallen from favor?
Storage engineers generally have the ability to learn new tools and products quickly, but some of the specific skill sets in demand are: NetApp, [Dell EMC], Dell EqualLogic/Compellent, HPE [Hewlett Packard Enterprise] 3PAR and Nimble [products and services].

How is all of this translating into compensation? Is storage a good place to spend your career or are there greener pastures for people with storage-type skills?
Storage has certainly been proven to be quite profitable for professionals with specific skills and experience; they are seeing very competitive compensation packages from organizations looking to fill these roles.

What about vendor-specific skills? Does that spell opportunity or is it a potential dead-end?
While we often encounter specialized storage engineer positions that require some direct experience with a vendor-specific skill set, there are always exceptions to the rule; especially since most of these professionals can learn quickly and transfer their existing skill sets in order to meet the needs of the organization.

Another important focus should be orchestration and automation of the environment as well, according to Tony Daniello, director of infrastructure services at Computer Design & Integration, a value-added reseller with a storage focus based in Teterboro, N.J. "The ability to automate the integration of multicloud strategies and accommodate cloud bursting using tools such as Chef, Puppet and vRealize will be essential to understand," he said.

Ed Tittel, an author of books on storage and IT certifications based in Round Rock, Texas, likewise sees continued demand for storage specialists, but predicated on being "cloud savvy" and cognizant of big trends in IT such as hyper-convergence.

"As long as storage pros stay up-to-date on those things, they can continue to make a good living for the foreseeable future," he said. However, Tittel warned there likely won't be much growth related to NAS and other pure hardware-related technologies, "Although, companies will need to keep those investments running for the next three to five years."

The wave of the future leans heavily toward the software side, but someone with a background in electrical engineering already knows they need to focus on growth areas such as solid-state. "There will be plenty of opportunities there, but within a narrow niche," he said.

As for certification in general, it's still a good way to strengthen a resume. However, "Most vendors are moving toward virtualized storage, and we don't see a lot of certification coming from the hyper-converged space, at least so far," Tittel said.

Picking from among the certifications currently available is "a matter of exigency" because they may not represent what people should be doing now or in the next few years, he noted. Furthermore, as Storage magazine's salary surveys over the years have shown, certifications have little bearing on data storage careers.

But traditional skills still matter

As a counterpoint to the "doom and gloom" offered by Gartner and others, Vadim Vladimirskiy, founder and CEO of Adar Inc., a Skokie, Ill. cloud-hosted streaming IT company, sees more runway for data storage careers. The sky isn't falling, at least not yet.

Vladimirskiy started his career as a backup storage consultant, and he is the first to admit that data center jobs are changing due to cloud computing and the expanding scope of tasks located in the cloud. "This means storage professionals need to build new skills," he said.

Storage technicians can, for example, boost their resumes with networking skills and certifications. "A solid, working understanding of networking is immediately relevant to most data center operations and can offer a competitive edge for job seekers," he added. And, since Ethernet has become the storage networking protocol of choice for most companies, traditional Ethernet skills are directly applicable to configuring and maintaining storage networks.

It's also a good idea for storage specialists to become familiar with virtualization technology, as many applications today are developed and executed virtually from within the cloud. "In order to effectively compete against other candidates in the field, storage technicians should understand not just the storage layer, but also the practical applications for storage technologies," Vladimirskiy explained. "Storage is not just [about] storage anymore -- it's becoming more about data availability."

For his part, Daniello believes the expertise accumulated by storage professionals will never become obsolete. "The knowledge gained [by storage specialists] has built a strong foundation for moving onto other technical advancements," he said. For example, one can relate Cisco VLANs with VSANs and how they answer a common challenge.

As technological innovation relates to storage expertise in general, it has made storage provisioning easier than ever. A storage engineer should understand, however, that their knowledgebase today needs to encompass the environment as a whole, including the ability to understand the hypervisor and network component.

Stay connected and prepare for change

What's the key to surviving this IT sea change? Keep your eye on what's ahead and get involved with industry professional and user groups around specific technologies, said Paul Wallenberg, unit manager of LaSalle Network's technology services recruiting team based in Chicago. That way, you can compare and contrast how your organization does things by learning about and understanding how they're done at similar organizations, or even competitors. "There is always going to be a science vs. art dialectic when considering the application of technology like storage," Wallenberg said. "What you need to [ask] is: Can we be doing it differently? And, then, taking it a step further: Is doing it differently the same as doing it better?"

About the author:
Alan R. Earls is a Boston-based freelance writer focused on business and technology.

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