T.J. Ciccone, NOVA DCO Faculty and VP of STACK Infrastructure, shares insights on teaching and managing in a mission critical field.
You’ve recently been named a 2022 Education Champion by Infrastructure Masons – congratulations! Can you tell us how that came about and how you felt about it?
In 2017, Northern Virginia Community College approached me and asked if I would be willing to help start their data center operations course. First, I helped develop some of the coursework to be implemented, then they asked me to teach it. In January 2018, I held the first data center operations course, part of a fully accredited program at the college. In September 2018, the college launched the first-ever two-year degree program designed specifically for data center operators in the state of Virginia. It’s an ideal program for a state now known as “the home of the internet.”
The class began with 12 enrollees. Now the program has gained so much momentum that I teach two cohorts of the course with room for up to 50 students. About 85% of my students are now working full-time in the data center business, and most of them are people who had never set foot in a data center before.
Infrastructure Masons is a global, non-profit, professional association of infrastructure executives and technical professionals. This year, I was honored and humbled to have been named the 2022 Infrastructure Masons Education Champion. So many people have played a part in this, and I am very appreciative! I would like to thank STACK Infrastructure, Beth Ciccone, Northern Virginia Community College, and AFCOM Potomac Chapter for helping me further the education of our future data center workforce.
As far as your Data Center career, what lit the flame for you? How did you get into it?
Like most people in the data center business, I got into it by accident. I was a Chief Mechanical Operator while serving onboard the USS Enterprise, where I was responsible for the daily mechanical operations of the nuclear power plant. When I left the military, I spent ten years in retail, and I was looking to get out of retail and go to law school. While going through that process, I got a call from a former military member and a dear friend of mine who was the director of operations for a data center company in New Jersey.
I started working there about a week later.
You are VP at STACK Infrastructure and busy with many projects related to DCO. You are also a professor at NOVA. Why is it important for you to teach?
Five years ago, one of the statistics brought to my attention was the need for data center industry personnel will grow more than 15% in the next 5-10 years—and that was back then. Since then, the number of industry personnel has increased vastly. When the pandemic shut everything down and the use of the “Internet of Things” grew, many people were driven into the data center business.
The data center industry has tried to increase diversity and inclusion across the board, especially in regard to STEM students who are trying to find their way into something.
At the same time, I teach because I realize that the opportunities given to students from working in the data center can literally change their lives overnight. When I was asked to join the data center business, my first question was, “What’s a data center?” Even though it’s been 15 years since I entered the industry, many people still ask me that same question. I am working to change that.
What’s your philosophy of teaching in terms of connecting to students?
I look at every student like each one has the ability to be in this industry. There may be varying levels of impact, but each student can do it. That’s how I look at them and how I connect to them. Have you ever seen any movie where there’s a drill sergeant that everybody hates and then loves by the end? I think that is me in a way. On day one I make it clear that I do not teach remotely for a reason. In this business, we are on-site. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we were in person. For 15 weeks, these students need to commit to being there for at least 14 of those because mission critical works the same way. We’re not giving out $25,000 a year jobs. These are $100,000 salaries. If you want it, you must put in the work to get it. That’s kind of the way it starts off. Of course, then you get to know them, and you get to know their story. I have individual meetings with each one, and then I cater the learning from there.
What are some of the success stories you have seen from students in the DCO program moving forward into a career?
80% of the students that have passed my class currently work in the data center business. It started with 12 people the first year, then went to 15, 18, and finally 21. Now I teach twice a week on Mondays and Fridays because we expanded to two cohorts since there were so many students. We recently crested 100 students who have been a part of the program. To think, five years ago, 50-something of those students had never even heard of a data center, and now they’re working in the industry. At our STACK Infrastructure site, NVA01 in Northern Virginia, nearly half the existing staff at that building came from the Northern Virginia Community College program. The data center industry will only grow; NVCC pointed out this last year that during the pandemic, community college enrollment across the board declined, except for in the engineering technology space.
What would you say to students who are considering DCO as a career field but don’t necessarily see themselves as technically gifted?
Many students start the program without basic knowledge of the industry. NVCC has the only fully college-accredited coursework in the data center business. Our curriculum breaks concepts down in a way that students of all levels can understand and enables them to dive into the industry. This program produces students that understand all sides (telecom, fiber networking, engineering operations, etc.). Finding people with a broad knowledge is challenging, and our program is not only turning out high-quality students, but students that know both ends of the industry—utility to rack and what’s going on inside the rack to connect it to the internet.
NOVA will soon have a state-of-the-art Data Center Training Facility at the Woodbridge Campus. How will that change the game in terms of awareness and training?
There’s nothing like this in the United States. They are building a $5 million functional data center in Woodbridge, Virginia. It will allow us to expand the program for more students. Right now, we’re limited to 20 – 24 per class, but their classroom sizes will be bigger, and it’s expandable at the same time. It’s really going to give students the hands-on experience that they need. Aside from that, one of the amazing things about STACK being a huge supporter of this program is that on three of the 15 class nights, the students come to STACK and get to see what it’s like on the inside.
How has NOVA SySTEMic/NOVA IET been helpful to you in connecting education to industry?
It’s almost like the opposite. Working in industry allows me to connect industry to education. For example, there’s a lot of data center events that I get to invite the students to, and those groups encourage the students to attend golf outings, Christmas parties, etcetera.
How does diversity, equity, and inclusion factor into filling the talent gap in the DCO market?
Progressing DE&I is a major initiative in the data center industry, and the same goes for Northern Virginia Community College, which is a big supporter of STEM and working with national programs like “Girls Who Code.”
I’m on the board at AFCOM Potomac, another organization supporting the advancement of data center and IT infrastructure professionals, and I help run their education committee. We run an internship program over the summer, and the money raised from the internship program goes to directly support students who are going into the program that I teach. It’s grown so much so that everyone who takes my class in the fall gets their class entirely paid for. There’s no paperwork associated with it. There’s no background check. There are no qualifying prerequisites. The course is paid for everyone from all walks of life.
Additionally, STACK Americas created a program that is specifically designed to bring in students from diverse backgrounds for paid training without subtracting from the viable headcount needed to run a site so that students can learn and train on the company dime for one year and become a fully operational critical technician. I’ve never seen an employer do that—ever.
What’s your work/life balance in this field? What do you enjoy in your spare time?
Instead of the term “work/life balance,” I prefer the term “work/life flow.” I am a big believer of work hard, play hard. In addition to my career at STACK, as well as my contributions as a professor, I have way too many hobbies. I play golf and disc golf. I’m at the gym every morning, religiously, at 5:20 a.m. where I’m either lifting weights or doing yoga. For years, I maintained my status as a triathlete while in this industry. My expectation for myself is that I need to be available 24/7, and I am ok with that.
Click here for more info on Data Center Operations at NOVA. We offer a 2-year A.A.S. and and 1-year C.S.C.
You can register for T.J.’s course: ENE 195: Introduction to Data Center Operations for Spring 2023. There are several spots still available (classes start mid-January), but it will fill up quickly as the Spring class will focus on getting students into the internship program over the summer and getting jobs filled!
Click here to watch a video on enrolling at NOVA.
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