The hunt for storage skills

Like many other IT workers, Jesse Gilleland was laid off this summer. But unlike a lot of other IT professionals, he landed a new job in less than three weeks.

Gilleland credits his three years of enterprise-level storage experience for the quick resolution. He’s now a senior systems engineer at Communications Technology Systems Inc., an IT services firm in Roswell, Ga., where he recently configured several storage pools on various types of EMC Corp. hardware that can be used in a Web server farm or disaster recovery system.

“There are very few people who are storage-centric,” he says. “It’s a good niche market to be in.”

Indeed, three years’ experience is more than most candidates have, according to Arun Taneja, an analyst at The Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Mass. A lack of widely accepted, vendor-neutral training and the fact that storage technology is advancing so quickly means that people with “quality storage skills are scarce,” Taneja says.

As a result, companies are unable to fill storage administrator positions and are often forced to make storage just one aspect of a systems or network administrator’s job, he says.

But that’s changing. Not only are companies continually taking in data from e-commerce sites, but massive IT projects in enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management also require and generate large amounts of data to be useful. Someone must manage the accompanying data storage, Taneja says, adding, “You can’t run away from it.”

Of the 47,000 open jobs listed at online job board, 1,500 request storage skills and 900 of those call for storage management knowledge, says a spokeswoman at Dice Inc. in New York.

Tracy Reed says his experience as a Unix systems administrator makes him well prepared to handle the heavy-duty storage needs of his company, Inc. in San Diego. An online music site, has 70TB to 80TB of data to store and move as Internet visitors download songs.

“A big part of managing large disk arrays is managing the allocation of the storage and managing the hardware, then choosing the right way to lay out how the data is stored for your application to get good performance,” Reed explains. “These are things a Unix systems administrator will have been familiar with.”

Reed says he does most of his work on equipment from Storage Technology Corp. in Louisville, Colo.

Knowing about storage makes him more marketable, Reed says. “I’ve not been scouting around, but I do get a lot of headhunters calling me up,” he says.

To get around the lack of qualified professionals, Mike Donohue Jr., vice-president of IT at Inc., an online recruiting firm in Bloomington, Minn., has contracted with his vendor, Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC, to provide all service on his site’s storage-area network (SAN) gear. He says he hasn’t even tried to find staffers with extensive storage backgrounds.

“The storage vendors are going to be very efficient,” he explains. “They will make sure that they have the proper levels of expertise, but IT will have only a limited number of people inside who know this [technology].”

Another way to deal with the shortage is to cultivate the needed skills from within. It’s generally less expensive to train existing staff than to find and hire someone from the outside, says Barb Gomolski, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

“People with distributed computing experience, networking and data management experience would be the natural candidates” to take on storage administration, Gomolski says.

What can IT professionals themselves do to develop storage expertise?

The storage market lacks widely recognized, general-purpose certifications. But many suppliers, including Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Legato Systems Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Veritas Software Corp., offer their own classes.

To help learn Fibre Channel technology, which is at the heart of the hot SAN products, Taneja suggests solid training on switches from either Broomfield, Colo.-based McData Corp. or San Jose-based Brocade Communications Systems Inc.

Indeed, that reflects much of the path Gilleland has taken. He has training from HP and Sun and has done systems engineering work at storage vendors EMC and Anaheim, Calif.-based MTI Technology Corp.

“All I’ve got is real-world experience,” he says.

And that’s more than most.