Best paying data center and infrastructure careers

It's possible to have a career in data center or infrastructure. You just have to do something else besides.

If programmers are the rock stars of the technology world, data center and infrastructure staff are the roadies. There's not a lot of glory or flash in the jobs that make the enterprise run, but you can make a good, steady, valuable career out of them. But as with any other technology job, experts say flexibility and up-to-date skills will mean the difference between an executive career track and a life in the machine room.

If you're looking at an infrastructure job because coding gives you the willies, there's bad news: The people we interviewed unanimously agree that you've got to get with the programming if you're going to have a career. And if you think a data center job is a good place to hide from people, the news is even worse, because soft skills are increasingly important as well.

Systems administration and systems engineering jobs "stand on shifting sands and are eroded by continued advances in automation," says Mark Stone, a senior program manager for cloud services at a Fortune 100 company. The good news is that those jobs aren't so much vanishing as they are changing into something else.

IT careers by the numbers

No single company seems to have a handle on what the best or best paying data center or infrastructure jobs are today. The best answer seems to be that it depends on what the hiring company wants. But there are plenty of resources that, taken together, start to resolve into a picture of how a job seeker ought to be thinking.

In its most recent tech salary guide, IT search firm Mondo found that only 4 percent of IT hiring was in network administration, with another 8 percent in tech support and systems administration. Various types of development—application, web/interactive/ecommerce, and business applications—accounted for 40 percent of hiring. Security accounted for 15 percent, DevOps 14 percent, and database administration 10 percent.

Of network administration, the highest paying job Mondo listed was, unsurprisingly, IT manager, ranging from $138,000 to $168,000. A network admin's pay ranged from $72,000 to $102,000, and a network architect was paid almost as much as the IT manager: $134,000 to $157,000. For sysadmins, the pecking order starts at the help desk ($44,000 to $75,000) and tops out at a systems engineer ($85,000 to $136,000). It's worth noting that some titles with specific new skills (Microsoft 365 Engineer) also pay well ($110,000 to $123,000).

At the very low end of the market, a job like data center technician or network operations center technician pays between $14 and $31 per hour, according to PayScale. It's unlikely that anyone would reach the heights of an Information Technology Specialist 2 for the state of New York, whom public records show was paid $247,757 in 2016—nearly three-quarters of that in overtime.

But people in the data center business don't seem to think it's a great career path. "It's my feeling that there's consolidation in progress," says Mark Jacobs, a consulting systems specialist at a large publishing company. "In my case, we're closing our data centers and going to hosting companies. There's also plenty of skills outsourcing going on to cheaper support staff, so you'll always be at risk of losing your current job function to someone else."

Jacob's career advice? "Be flexible, learn, and grow yourself over your career. I'd focus on general skills—TCP/IP networking, data security, and things like that, rather than more specialized product knowledge."

Networking and security are also fruitful avenues for advancement. "Your cloud/data center is only as good as the networking connected to it, and cyberthreats are growing exponentially," says Stone, the Fortune 100 program manager. 

Break in the code 

Flexibility and new skills were high on the list of Bec Bliss, a recruiter for tech search firm Gray Scalable. "Even if you're not looking for a programming job, it would be advisable to learn how to program," Bliss says. "More and more, infrastructure and operations roles pretty much require pretty advanced programming skills."

She's not suggesting that everyone run out and learn C++ if they just need to run a data center. But with admins and operations managing ever more complex environments, the ability to code well enough to automate your job becomes important. "You can be code-literate at a base level, get an understanding, and have working conversations with developers."

And as infrastructure jobs become more technical, they'll present a greater opportunity to people whose skills have kept up, Bliss adds: "I think that some of the more traditional infrastructure roles that weren't as highly valued are now becoming more technical. There is going to be a lack of supply, and we're going to see the salary numbers going up in the next few years. But it definitely will be with the technical programming component. The more exposure you get to the development work, the higher your value. Combined programming and networking—it's hard to find people who have solid experience and skills on both ends of that spectrum."

Physical infrastructure chops will continue to be important and marketable, however. "I still have very big name companies that I work with that are still working with physical servers, that have infrastructure for sure that isn't going to be moved off anytime soon," says Bliss. "Knowledge of how that works will be helpful. I think traditional data centers will still exist. They just might not be the sectors that wow in a few years. That's why programming is the way forward."

Who's hiring for what? 

So if data center and infrastructure jobs have cloudy and changeable futures, and if development just isn't your thing, where should you focus your attention?

UpScored is a website that uses artificial intelligence to match job seekers with job openings. About a year ago, it analyzed about 500,000 resumes and 13,000 open job descriptions to answer the question, "What jobs are going begging because there aren't enough people with the relevant skills to fill them?"

The biggest unmet demand, it turned out, was for NoSQL big data languages: Hadoop, Redis, and Cassandra. Data mining, data science, and statistical modeling were big, too. Also in demand were descriptions that included "load balancing," "cloud computing," "distributed systems," and "systems architecture." Those are infrastructure and data center jobs, but ones requiring software and automation skills.

Which brings us back to programming. "If you're going to work in data, there are three things that you need," says UpScored CEO Elise Runde Voss. "You need statistics, math, computer science, or some related area of study, although those fields are evolving so fast" that experience may be more important that education. "You need business acumen, and you need programming skills. It depends on the company, but those are the three things that are important in any data role."

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Bliss adds that database language skills are especially important for future career development: "Automation has become a higher priority, even in sysadmin roles. The non-relational database skill is less important to get your foot in the door than it is to be able to [move] your career to the next level once you have a job. As you advance and work on larger scale projects, you'll need those skills to take your career to the next step."

Fortunately, there are lots of places to get trained up.

Voss points to boot camps and online courses like Metis and Coursera, and notes that Google has an immense public data directory, while the University of California, Irvine, operates a machine learning repository

"I fully recommend that you don't wait to learn," says Voss. "When it comes to job applications and actually getting the interview, though, practical experience will be best. If you are thinking of learning a new skill, maybe take a step back to take a role that might pay less or be a lower title to pick up professional experience or skills. I highly recommend it. In the long term, it's going to pay off."

And the higher you want to rise, the better your soft skills need to be. "Being able to understand highly technical concepts and relate them to non-technical folks is highly desirable," Bliss adds. In other words, you'll need to know enough about what the programmers are saying to translate it to top management—who definitely don't know what the programmers are talking about.

So what now? 

Like anything else in tech, it's hard to predict what's going to happen in the next few months, let alone years. But the experts seem to agree: If all you have to offer are entry-level skills, your career will probably involve a drive-thru lane sooner rather than later.

Learn enough programming so you can automate chunks of your job and increase your efficiency. Train up on development skills so you can at least start to talk the DevOps game. If your mind works that way, there's a big demand for people who can handle large data sets. And there's always room for people who understand the technology well enough to explain it to the C-suite.

Developers may be the rock stars. But they can't do their jobs without the roadies—the data center and infrastructure team. And just as the best and most valuable roadies are the ones who play musical instruments pretty well themselves, experts say that the operations folks who'll have the longest careers are the ones who know their way around code.

 Jobs in the data center: Lessons for leaders

  • Senior management and administration roles still pay well, but both automation and outsourcing are reducing the job pool.
  • Developing skills in specific technologies, such as big data (and its related tools), makes for a broader range of opportunities.
  • Long-term career success will require developing basic coding skills, along with business, people, and communication skills to maximize your growth path.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.