The rise of women in higher management, in digital technology business roles, and in STEM is an ongoing discussion that is still only making baby steps towards an equal balance. However, successful female professionals are growing in number and using their positions to speak about their experiences, serving to prove that women are able to enter and thrive in all manner of jobs and should be encouraged to do so.
Ali Greenwood, Vice President – Data Center Solutions at JLL; Gina Gardner, Director of Enterprise Data Center Solutions: Wholesale, Custom & Cloud Services at QTS; Michelle Forbes, who is also a Director of Enterprise Data Center Solutions: Wholesale, Custom & Managed/Cloud Services at QTS; and Sarah Keller, Senior Manager, Technical Sourcing and Supply Chain at Uber, are all women playing vital roles in the large businesses they represent. All of them were excited by the concept of data centers, and all of them had to learn the industry from scratch to become the experts they are today.
Greenwood began her career at a small real estate investment and development organization, before the company she worked for was drafted in to assist in securing capital for a new data center. She swiftly had to learn all about this new world including all costs involved, and was fascinated by it.
“I started working at Digital Realty a couple of months later,” she says. “It was such a great way to learn the data center business. Truly focusing on the data center itself, the required investment, ongoing operating expenses, leasing, and how it all affects the ultimate return to stockholders is an incredibly valuable approach to understanding the data center business. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
Greenwood felt, however, that she should be working more closely with people, using her skills as an articulate and engaging person to translate the potentially complicated world of data into something more palatable.
“I knew after sitting in the corner of sales pitches and tours to end-users that I could explain why our company, and this particular facility, was a great choice. Now at JLL, I’m instilling in clients the confidence that I can help them through a process that will result in a successful data center project.”
The data center industry is growing apace, and as it does so, more opportunities are opened up for a broader range of people. Greenwood sees this as an opportunity for more women to join the fray of STEM, and she is better served than most to watch the evolution of the industry.
“It’s certainly an underserved area,” she admits. “Technology isn’t going anywhere, it’s growing like crazy, and all the technologies we constantly utilize touch a server in a data center somewhere. There’s no reason women shouldn’t participate in that growth.”
Keller, Gardner, and Forbes – the latter two being childhood friends and now colleagues – are equally passionate about the inclusion of more female professionals in the data center world. “Women in leadership has been a hot topic for a while now and there are so many more organizations dedicated to the advancement of women in business, technology, and engineering,” says Gardner. “It is no longer uncommon to be in meetings or events and see quite a few women representing all sides of the business. I have had the great opportunity to work with and meet some incredible women in this sector who are rising and making notable contributions.”
“It’s refreshing how many more women are in the industry today than when I started,” adds Forbes. “Over the past 10 years it has been exciting to see more women selling wholesale space, working as brokers, and what I especially love to see is many more women in IT and engineering roles. There are some incredible smart females that are changing the way we are perceived, and I love that.”
“I find the lack of diversity – not just a lack of women – to be a real challenge,” Keller admits. “We are in an industry that is going to need to respond to ever-growing demands as IoT and Cloud infrastructure require that the underlying technology become more efficient, scalable and stable. We need diverse experience and backgrounds tackling these issues.”
Gardner, Forbes, and Keller, like Greenwood, were all excited enough by the concept of data centers to enter the industry at the soonest opportunity. Gardner was enticed by the looming presence of the World Wide Web in 1995, and entered into a job selling web hosting and colocation services. The company she joined – Best Internet – launched one of the first ever ecommerce sites and sold eBay its first data center colocation cage.
Gardner introduced Forbes to the carrier-neutral colocation world in the late 90s, and she has been selling data center space ever since. “I knew it was an exciting time and the internet was here to stay,” Forbes says, “and with that, data centers were an essential part. Today it’s incredible to think about how almost everything we use is likely running out of a data center, and maybe even one I lease them space for.”
After the dot com crash in 2003, Gardner took a break to get married and have children, before she wanted to get back into the data center industry. Thanks to her enthusiasm for returning to the game and a swiftly-reviving industry, she found a comfortable role once again.
“As I look back over the past two decades through all the data centers I’ve toured, the change and evolution, the real excitement has always been meeting with people at growing companies, discussing their visions and innovations, and coming together through solutions and partnerships. That continues to motivate and move me to work hard and continue this journey.”
In 2004, Forbes was introduced to the business that spawned the concept of wholesale data center space: “I took the leap as I could see the environment changing and customers were asking for more flexibility with their growing footprint,” she says. “I chose sales because I love working with people, building real relationships, finding the right solutions, and ultimately becoming a trusted partner. My advice to anyone would be to find your strength and stick with it, and you will excel. Also, find a company culture that you fit in with – it changes everything. There’s nothing worse than the wrong work environment.”
Keller was drawn more to the underlying technology that made data centers more efficient: “Starting out in the International Standards bodies, I was able to participate in early industry efforts to standardize grid and datacenter technologies. Those efforts really prepared me when for future roles I would take at Facebook, Workday, and Uber.”
She saw first-hand some ground-breaking technologies that have shaped the world today, and she is able to utilize her experience in her current role at Uber. “I never planned to end up in this career,” she admits, “but I’m grateful I found something that I’m genuinely happy to do every day. I think that some of the most awesome challenges are coming to the data center industry, and you need people that are willing to step up to those challenges.”
These four women have not only grasped the opportunities they worked to achieve, but have flourished within them and managed to create a structure which encompasses family and career in the most comfortable way possible.
“The key is realizing that balance and perfection is not realistic,” says Gardner. “Being okay with the fact that life and work are always in flux is when it all comes together. I love my job, and I enjoy working hard, but I rejoice in spending time with my family and the people I love. I’m pretty sure this is why women are such strong multi-taskers; it’s our way of life.”
“As a mother of three children and working at one of the fastest-growing start-ups in the world, I’m always looking for ways to keep this balance in place,” Keller adds. “Every day is an exercise to ruthlessly prioritize, and you need to measure on a daily basis what is important to you, to your family, and to your work.”
“Today with technology and our ability to connect virtually in so many ways, it has made it even easier,” says Forbes. “Women are great at multi-tasking, and finding the right work-life balance provided for me the right way to work smarter and harder, while still being able to have time for my family.”
“Happier chaos I think is the key,” Greenwood states. “I love my job, I love working hard; it’s a huge part of my life, and honestly, who I am. Juggling it all is crazy, and single working moms – bless you. Something I always try to remind myself is at the end of the day it is not the years in my life, but the life in my years that will define me. It truly is all about spending time with those you love.”
Life is full of challenges and opportunities, and the working world has the capacity to be a minefield for women. Greenwood, Gardner, Keller, and Forbes are living proof of the brilliance and adaptability of female technical professionals, and they possess an enviable aptitude for a balance that ensures the highest possible satisfaction.
Greenwood concludes: “Those of us in the industry could probably do a better job of speaking up and making women of all ages aware of a great and growing opportunity. Endeavour to always find your niche, your passion, your stride, and find your value proposition as soon as possible. If you do not feel that you’re insanely invaluable, then you should promptly change paths.
“As the famous Zig Ziglar said: “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.” If you can’t define how you can help people get what they want, push reset and figure it out. Then get back in the game.”