I’d love to start broad, tell us a little bit about who you are and how you came to be where you are now.
I started out working in architecture. I started writing code when CAD came along and began teaching collegiate-level software programming classes. While I was teaching, an opportunity arose to tie a bunch of the colleges’ technology together. Wide-area networks were brand new at the time. Since I wasn’t afraid of a computer, I took that project on. Over the next few years, I used my wide-area networking expertise to start tech consulting divisions at a few companies. Back then, it was frame relay, CAD, sneakernet, people were mailing floppy disks around. Hard drives were so big they required a forklift to move. We’ve certainly come a long way since then. I worked as a consultant in this space for a long time. At some point, I was raising kids and I needed to get off the road. I became a CIO for a time before eventually returning to consulting because I just enjoy it.
I think that technology will be a better industry when we have better representation of all walks of life. That said, I don’t think the way we talk about diversity right now is always helping. When I view diversity, I view it as fingerprints. Two people who may look the same can have really unique, important perspectives. And diversity is about more than just how we look. I have two neurodiverse grandchildren, they have just as much to contribute to society as anyone else, they just learn and work differently. Part of the reason I wrote my book, Jumpstart Your Career in Data Centers was to help people to realize there are career opportunities for all kinds of people in data centers.
When/where did your passion for technology start?
I took a coding class in college and I thought that it was so interesting that you could manipulate code to do so many different things. I am a passionate lifelong learner. I like a challenge, I love to solve puzzles. For me, the big thrill of technology is the chance to learn something new every day and the fact that it can be applied in so many ways. I love the fact that technology changes every day and there is always something new to learn. Another thing I love about this work is the global aspect of it. Travel has been an incredibly rewarding part of my career. I have over four million miles on one airline doing projects all over the planet.
You have a book about data centers and the career possibilities at them, how did this become your passion and why do you think data centers are so important?
Data centers are incredibly important. Every digitally known documented thing lives in a data center. Most people consume that data but they have no idea what a data center is. It’s like electricity, you flip a switch, the lights turn on. Do you know how it works or care about the utility workers that make it happen? Not until your lights go out. There is a lot that goes into making and maintaining all of these systems that we take for granted and I just find them fascinating. Data centers enable all other kinds of technology and everybody consumes data. That’s why diversity and representation is so important in this area. The people building technology should be as vast as the users that consume it. Data centers are incredibly important and have many opportunities for fulfilling careers.
How can data centers offer opportunities to people who are often underrepresented in technology functions?
Data centers, just that one sector of technology, has the ability to be the most diverse sector in the industry. If you consider everything it takes to build a data center, construction, staffing, coding, security, and more, we can support every single demographic out there and do it well. I think what makes data centers so impactful is that there are just so many different kinds of opportunities in them. From construction to the cloud, there are jobs for literally everyone.
One important thing that separates out data centers from the rest of the tech industry is that there are opportunities for people who do not have college degrees. When I talk to students, I tell them that I don't think a four year college degree is the way to get into this industry, nor should it be. By requiring degrees, companies engineer out diversity. That’s where innovation happens, when people with different knowledge bases and experiences come together to solve a problem. There is no right way or wrong way to solve a problem, and that’s the issue with four year degrees, they don’t always show people all the different ways to learn. I’m a big believer that people can learn on the job. And these jobs can be absolutely life changing.
What needs to happen to help more women and other underrepresented groups get into tech and stay in tech?
We have to introduce technology much younger and not just as devices you can waste time on. For most kids, the first and only introduction to tech they get is a coding academy. While writing code is a part of tech, it is a very minuscule part of the industry in the grand scheme of things. It’s a very specific skill set and if people don’t like writing code, sometimes they assume that a technology career is not for them. We have to provide a much broader introduction to kids and show them that no matter what they want to do, whether it’s code, drive a bulldozer, be a diesel mechanic, run fiber or copper, or see the world, there's a job for them in tech.
From the company standpoint, there are a few things that need to be done. For starters, we need more representation. More women on the boards of tech companies, more women in leadership levels. And not just one woman. I read an article not too long ago that said that if there was only one woman on the board of directors that there might as well be none because that voice gets so drowned out. Companies need representation beyond just tokenism. HR departments should also take a hard look at their systems and screening tools to look for bias. Lastly, companies should look in other places for the talent they’re hiring for. They should look for industries and jobs with similar applicable skills for the roles they're trying to fill. This way, they’ll expand their pool of talent beyond the existing tech workforce.
As far as keeping women in tech, I will say that it is a very different workforce than it ten years ago. There are a lot of women my age who have busted our butts throughout our career to make it better for the women that come behind us so they don’t have the hurdles that we had. Still, too many women leave the tech industry. We need people to feel welcome. When we embrace our differences, we can go a long way in making our workplaces kinder and more inclusive. If we just treat people like people and not like a person with some adjective in front of it or some qualifier, we can stop feeling so separate.
You advocate heavily for women, trades, and veterans. Why is that?
Women, because I am one and we’re half the population. Women are an unacceptably small amount of the tech workforce. I advocate specifically for women because this is a life changing career opportunity and I think that there is no time that a woman should ever have to rely on someone else for their income. I also believe that women bring a unique perspective to technology. Not to say that there aren’t empathetic and kind men, but women bring some kindness and some difference in how we treat others and expect to be treated. If women don’t have a voice in the room, then we’re never going to make those changes needed to support and keep women in tech.
We owe the trades everything. If it weren't for the trades, nothing would be built. College is in the cards for some people but it's not for everybody. I think we need to meet people where they want to work and where they want to grow. If someone is good with their hands and they want to share that artistry and craftsmanship with the world then we should support that. Take a kid who had a horrible high school experience, they’re not going to rush to sign up for college. But that's not to say that they can't go into a trade and have a fulfilling career. The other nice thing about many trade jobs is that they’re great for parents or caregivers. Many of these jobs are 8am-5pm. There are also so many young people who don’t know what they want to do. They can start in the trades and if they decide they want to move up to management, many companies will help pay for a college degree. In data centers, they can start out in an industry where they can go anywhere, anywhere in the world and in any direction from a career standpoint.
I advocate for Veterans because I believe that they deserve every single opportunity they can get. People say that data center jobs are good for veterans because they think fast on their feet and are used to chaos, but there are a million jobs in the industry that have nothing to do with either of those things. For example, a lot of people don’t realize is that a huge portion of our military are experts at construction. If you need stuff built, Veterans are a great community to tap into. While my book is for everyone, I did pick out those three groups with extra resources for them just because we have a shortage in the industry and I think it’s a missed opportunity.
What advice do you have for others who want to make it to technology leadership like yourself?
Keep your eyes open and pay attention to everything around you. Nobody makes it to leadership and succeeds in a vacuum. A data center is an ecosystem and it takes every single piece and moving part to keep that ecosystem up and running. The more you understand about the ecosystem of your industry, the easier your job is going to be. So invest in yourself and in your knowledge. Being well-informed on the big picture will give you more flexibility as far as where you can go and what you can do.
Seek out other people who have been in the industry, find a mentor, a sponsor, find people that will help you. Most people are more than happy to help but you can't expect them to be mind readers. Give them an idea of what you want. I would also encourage others to give themselves some grace. You don’t have to do everything all at once and these things take time.
Who helped you rise to this role and how do you pay it forward?
I have had so many people in my career that have been kind enough to help me get to where I am. I try to pay it forward by doing exactly that for others. I do whatever I can, networking, mentoring, making introductions. I also try to reach back and help those coming up behind me. If I get asked to do a speaking engagement and I know someone else is really interested in speaking, I put them forward. Maybe make it a panel instead of a keynote. I do study groups for my book, I’ll zoom into peoples classrooms and talk about data centers. I try to spread awareness about this industry and the kinds of careers people can have in it. I also make an effort to be kind to everyone I meet. If you expect something from your network you have to put something into your network.
How do you hire? What do you look for in people?
It depends on the job and what I'm hiring for. But for me, one of the biggest qualities in a candidate is when you give them a business problem and ask them how they’d solve it and they ramble on for fifteen minutes and never once say “I would call the help desk”, then that tells you a lot about how they work. You want the people that know how to ask for help and aren’t afraid to reach out to find answers. I also look for people who are curious and ask questions. I think the ability to get along with other people on your team is absolutely key. There is nothing worse than bringing in someone who destroys a team. Once you hire someone, you have to treat people well. I’ve had employees where we got stuck late at night working on a project so I've sent spouses flowers and money to go out for dinner. I often did these things out of my own pocket but it was the right thing to do. Because I couldn't be where I am today if they weren’t doing their work well.