Students

Guarding data on the side

Alone among the servers

It’s not easy to provide cheerful customer service when five ear-splitting alarms are going off around you. Working as a front-desk security guard at a data centre can be taxing – and the night shifts are brutal. But for students Alexander Meijer and Iris Venhuis, it’s the perfect job.
By Matthijs Nieuwenhuijse / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

On his nightly rounds past the gigantic emergency generators, he often thinks: ‘if they switch on right now I’ll probably go deaf’. Student Alexander Meijer works as a security guard at a Groningen data centre. ‘A pressure pump for car tyres will sometimes switch on automatically, and it scares the crap out of me every time.’

Hanze university physical therapy student Meijer works for security company Workrate at a data centre in Groningen. The data centre is guarded 24/7 by thirty-five data security guards. Thirty-four of them are students. Students are generally more flexible and their schedule allows them to work at night. They are ideal for the security sector.

The security guards check all the rooms in the complex. The day is divided into three shifts: from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Guards do one round during the first shift, and two rounds during the last one. ‘If something’s wrong, like a leak or a malfunction, we have to tell the site manager’, security guard Meijer says.

Eyes and ears

Being able to follow strict instructions is crucial for a security guard. Security guards are observers. They are the eyes and ears rather than the brains. ‘And we’re certainly not hands; we’re not allowed to touch anything’, Meijer adds. This means it’s not a job for absent-minded people or the rule-bending creative type.

The job – with its gadgets, servers, data, IT, and back-up power – seems mainly to attracts men. ‘Yeah, it’s pretty much a men’s world’, agrees Meijer’s colleague, Iris Venhuis. ‘The employees at the data centre are all men, and nine out of ten times their customers are male, as well.’

But Venhuis, a master student of clinical and forensic psychology, has worked as a security guard for two years. She recently worked her last shift. After she leaves, there will be only three female security guards left.

IT people can be hilarious to talk to. They’re fun people with an unusual sense of humour

Venhuis wasn’t necessarily attracted to the security aspect of the job. She was much more interested in greeting customers at the front desk. ‘IT people can be hilarious to talk to. They’re fun people with an unusual sense of humour.’ Does a blonde woman behind the front desk ever make the male nerds nervous? ‘Not really. Some of them joke around a bit more, but nothing untoward or anything like that.’

Five alarms at once

Working at the front desk means doing nothing for hours and then suddenly having to do thirty things at once. Neither Venhuis nor Meijer have remember their training periods fondly. ‘During my second shift there were two fire alarms and three door alarms when I had four people at the front desk’, Meijer says. But fortunately, newbies are accompanied by a seasoned guard during their first three shifts.

‘My first shift was the worst I ever had’, says Venhuis. ‘Everything that could go wrong went wrong. Alarms went off, there were people at the gate who weren’t on the list, and people wanted to leave, all at the same time. It did teach me how to prioritise, though.’

Seasoned guards have an innate sense of how to prioritise: everything by the book. An alarm, for instance, always comes first.‘Even if there are twenty people waiting at the front desk, alarms have priority’, Meijer says.

Simple

According to Venhuis, the work itself is simple enough: follow all the steps and report what needs reporting. Even if it’s something that seems easy to solve yourself, you have to tell someone else about it. ‘That’s the real challenge.’

Even serious guards have time for fun. The company organises parties, drinks, and outings for the security team. Because everyone is fairly young, they are usually up for

I can’t say that I enjoy doing my rounds on my own

And the disadvantages? ‘The night shift is pretty hard’, says Meijer. ‘Not much is going on, and your sleep rhythm gets messed up.’ He doesn’t get scared at night, though. ‘I can’t say that I enjoy doing my rounds on my own, but it’s not like I’m afraid.’

Due to safety concerns, women aren’t allowed to work nights. ‘I certainly don’t mind, because I need my sleep’, says Venhuis, who has trouble getting up early for the morning shift. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a shame, since the night shift pays more. But Venhuis says that no women have yet volunteered for the extra punishment.

Alone

Venhuis does think it’s a shame that she’s alone most of the time. ‘It’s a great group of people, and the job would be a lot more fun if we could do it in pairs.’

Some security guards turn their part-time jobs into full-time ones. After his job as a security guard at Workrate, Jorden Kofman now works full-time for Zentrys at the data centre in Groningen. He studies civil engineering at the Hanzein the evenings.

‘It’s a good follow up to a technical programme’, site manager Erik van Egmond explains. ‘There’s no such thing as a data centre education, it’s a niche sector. But because of the fast growing data centre market, there’s a demand for employees’, he says. ‘We can sort of help each other out.’

Venhuis and Meijer aren’t interested in working more than part-time. ‘I don’t think I’ll be joining the exciting world of data security after I finish my physical therapy studies’, says Meijer. Venhuis would also prefer a position more in line with her studies. ‘But I won’t rule out an HR function at a data security company.’

The data hotel

The centre, which various companies use to store their data, is more of a ‘data hotel’, site manager van Egmond explains. ‘Each company has its own server room. Only they can access it.’

Van Egmond works for Zentrys, an external company that takes care of operational management for various data centres and manages the security guards.

Everything at the data hotel is top secret, and there’s a strict protocol. This means that Ukrant.nl is not allowed to shadow any of the security guards outside of a guided tour.

The building is surrounded by a high electric fence. Visitors, usually IT people who need to work on the servers, announce themselves at the intercom at the gate. The security guard checks whether the visitors are ‘on the list’. After they’ve identified themselves, visitors get a pass and are allowed to enter their server suite.

The complex is very large and factory-like. ‘For every square foot that’s taken up by the servers we need the same space for cooling and back-up power’, Van Egmond explains. Two halls the size of gyms cool the servers and provide back-up power. A third hall contains the emergency generators. ‘In case of emergency, we have enough diesel on site to keep everything going for twenty-four hours’, Van Egmond says.

 

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