Dawn Johnson, Data Centre Engineer
EMBL-EBI’s data centres host one of the biggest collections of molecular data in the world, and when anything goes wrong in the campus data centre I am the first point of call.” Dawn Johnson, Data Centre Engineer at EMBL-EBI
"Petabytes of data are being accessed millions of times every month by users all over the world, and our job is to ensure the data and software are always available, 24/7. Last year we moved our public-facing data centre from two sites in London to a single centre in Hemel Hempstead. Our team was tasked with ensuring there was the room, electrical capacity and cables needed to make the transition successfully. There’s nothing like having to move nearly 10 000 computers to make you appreciate the sheer scale of data we store here.
My father is a mechanic and an engineer: growing up I was always in the garage with him, fixing and tinkering with cars, and that was really what I wanted to do. But it was 1979 when I left school, they just didn’t hire lady mechanics. It wasn’t until a few years later when, working as a secretary for a company that sold serviced computers, my boss invited me to try my hand as a computer engineer. I was a novelty, and I still don’t meet many other women in my field, but I hope that will soon change – I’m very proud and lucky to be part of this."
Q&A with Dawn Johnson
Q. What does you role entail?
A. I look after the four computer halls we have: two here, one in Hemel Hempstead, and a Data Recovery centre around 8 miles away. I organise all the equipment that comes in; ensure we have space, power and connectivity; track where it’s going and make sure it gets physically installed. Once it’s up and running, I hand it over to be put into production. I also take care of the infrastructure cabling and hardware repairs, organise the de-installation and collection of equipment… basically everything to do with hardware in the data centre.
Q. What were you doing before you came to EMBL-EBI?
A. I actually worked around or with the EBI for around 12 years before I took a post here. I used to work for HP, taking fault calls from customers; then I changed to become a field service engineer. I then worked for a reseller here on the campus alongside the technical sales people, focusing on installing the kit, building it, and handing it over to the customer once it was ready. I did that for many years for the EBI and the Sanger Institute before someone informed me of the job opportunity here and I applied for it.
Q. What attracted you to this role?
A. Well, I’ve always been interested in working with hardware. I wanted to be a mechanic when I was younger but there wasn’t really a place for women engineers at the time, so I ended up working with computers.
Q. What are some of the challenges you face in your job?
A. Changing technology: the pace of change is so fast that learning about how it works can be challenging at that speed. Also, the networking is so complex that it can be hard to understand at times. There’s always something new around the corner – always a new way of storing information, of computing. It changes all the time.
Q. What is a typical workday like for you?
A. It can vary a lot! I always start the day with a plan, but then something can break or an unexpected delivery can arrive which changes the whole day. Sometimes I can stick to my original plan, but quite often I don’t. I normally come in in the morning, look at any faults that may have happened overnight and take it from there.
Q. Do you have any advice for someone applying for a similar role?
A. Well that’s a good question. As I came through a sort of ‘back door’ route I’m not really sure about the qualifications side of things, but I would assume you would need something in computer science. You need to be someone with very good communication skills and, as it is a fairly physical job, you would need to be fairly fit and active. Of course you need to be comfortable using a computer, dealing with spreadsheets and emails for example. You also need to have very good organisational skills.
If you are a woman going into this industry, you do have to be quite brave and forget about gender and just get on with your job. I am the only girl here; I’ve met only a few female hardware engineers during my whole career, which is a shame.
Q. What do you like most about EMBL-EBI?
A. Obviously the campus is great: it has a very laid back feel to it. You’re very much left to get on with your job, noone micromanages you and you’re trusted to look after your own work. And, as this place isn’t commercial like some of my previous jobs, it’s not all about the next sale, which is nice.