Industry Spotlight: Bridging the Datacenter Talent Gap with SMU’s Dr. Klyne Smith

February 13th, 2023 by · Leave a Comment

One of the most difficult challenges the infrastructure industry faces is that of acquiring talent.  The reason simply is that the pool of people with relevant experience is too small, because the education system of today isn’t oriented toward serving this need.  There is no clearer example of this than within the modern datacenter, which house an integrated nexus of technologies rarely taught in the same parts of a college campus.  With us today is Dr. Klyne Smith, who co directs the M.S. in Datacenter Systems Engineering program at SMU.  SMU’s program is one of the few out there that are taking the problem head on.

TR: How did you get involved in the education side of the datacenter technology world?  What was your journey?

KS: I actually started my career at IBM in software development, and after I left IBM I went to a telecommunications network startup company. And it was there in that first conversation, that I learned that once you have the software, you still need to put it somewhere: servers, a T1, a NOC, and at some point a datacenter.  For years I had just assumed I gave the software to somebody, and it just worked.  I stayed in the telecommunications world for 14 more years, coming to really understand what a datacenter was and how it actually worked. But the biggest problem I ran into was not the technology.  It was hiring people, although I didn’t really know what that meant yet. I just knew I couldn’t find anybody who had datacenter experience, because no one had it.  Later I got my doctorate degree at SMU and I started teaching in the network telecommunications area. I was still in corporate, but when SMU asked if I’d like to co-direct a datacenter system engineering program, I suddenly realized that this was what I had needed 15 years prior.

TR: What led to the creation of SMU’s Datacenter Systems Engineering master’s program?  What need are you looking to satisfy?

KS: I understand technology and delivery, and there’s no traditional degree that gets you ready to work in a datacenter. There are parts of it spread across mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, environmental engineering, sustainability engineering, industrial engineering, computer science, data science, and data engineering. But there’s was not one degree in any university that pulls that together. A datacenter is a unique solution in which so many things must work together in order for it to survive.  It is a significant engineering problem, and I get excited about it because I have been on both sides. 

The industry leaders approached SMU’s Lyle school to convey the need for an interdisciplinary engineering degree program in datacenters that cuts across all disciplines of engineering. The first discussions took place as early as 2012. Through these earlier discussions with the industry leaders including Chris Crosby, Peter Gross, Jim Sargent and Christian Belady, Lyle School of engineering Dean at the time, Marc Christensen and the faculty of the School realized that there is an urgent need for a formal program (in addition to the more ad-hoc and more specific pieces of training activities) in this emerging field of cloud infrastructure field. We agreed that Lyle School at SMU had all the necessary pieces to start such a program, being part of a comprehensive university and having the necessary engineering departments and offering BS, MS and PhD degrees in each of these engineering fields. We believe that we are satisfying the need for a formal structured interdisciplinary degree, to prepare the future leaders of the digital infrastructure with this program.

TR: What are the elements you are trying to bring together to make a program of this type?  Is it primarily space, power, and cooling or do related topics like fiberoptics, data science, AI, security, and wireless an integral part?

KS: It really is “all of the above”. As mentioned above, the program aims to provide its graduates sufficient knowledge of the board engineering base that is part of today’s datacenter. But it also allows the student to focus on a specific area of datacenters to become more specialized in that area and become an expert. So the first half of the program provides more generalized knowledge on the various areas that make up the datacenter: Facilities infrastructure and its management; Data Engineering & Analytics; and Network, virtualization & Security. The second half allows the student to take more advanced courses in one (or more) of these areas to develop more depth and expertise. In recent years we also added a specialization track in Business in cooperation with the Cox School of business at SMU.

TR: What types of people are you looking to attract?  Who would most benefit from a degree like this?

KS: The modern datacenter is undergoing an evolutionary transformation and will continue to do so in the decades ahead. Continued advances in mission critical facilities, virtualization, networks, data analytics, the extraction of useful information, and security, will introduce dramatic changes, requiring professionals with diverse, highly specialized skills to effectively address the needs of a rapidly evolving critical constituency.  We aim to attract people who either want to get into this incredibly exciting field for the first time or folks who want to hone their skills and get to the next level of leadership.

When I’m recruiting people for this program, I find that 50% are already working in a datacenter and just really want to understand more about them so they can move up the ladder. The other 50% are strong in one field or another and need to figure out how to merge it. I try to help them find the right classes to get them where they’re trying to go. The way our program works is we have six core classes with four specialty areas. But you don’t have to specialize in those areas; you can take a couple from each area. My passion was being able to help students transition from their current single-minded delivery to a major delivery that’s going to help the organization.

TR: Given the strong demand in this sector, why are there so few programs like SMU’s M.S. in Datacenter Systems Engineering available today?

KS: There is usually a time lag between the emerging high-tech industry need and the development of meaningful degree programs by well-known and respected comprehensive universities. I think universities are cautious by their own nature. It is also true that prospective students tend to look for degrees that are well known and established (such as the traditional Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering Computer Science, etc.) that they feel the prospective employer will understand and appreciate.  After all, from the student’s perspective, it is a significant investment in time and funds.

TR: How have companies and organizations in today’s datacenter ecosystem responded to this new program?  Do they participate actively or just benefit passively?

KS: The industry is very excited about the program and they are very much willing to help. We are approached constantly by companies who want to, first and foremost, recruit our graduates. But they also want to help us in any way they can to sharpen the program and keep it current and relevant to the industry as it evolves. They want to get the word out and let the world know about the MS in Datacenter Systems Engineering degree program at SMU. We really do work closely with the industry.

TR: Are there additional technology or management areas that you’d like to add to the program?  How do you see it evolving?

KS: As we mentioned above, we are in close in touch with the industry and get frequent input from the experts to help us continue to modernize the program. We have a very engaged External Advisory Board of experts that are very active in keeping us focused into the future.

TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!

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