CAPRE’s 2020 Digital Infrastructure Outlook Preview: DataCenterDNA’s Lee Smith Says Industry Needs to be “Sexy” to Address Skills Gap

CAPRE: Thanks for chatting with us Lee. Tell us about DataCenterDNA and your unique perspective there.

Smith: Data Center DNA is a boutique consulting firm I founded in Northern Virginia over a year ago. Our focus is operational excellence. Sometimes a C-Suite has a strategic direction they want to take, but then there can be a lag between them and the operational execution. So we come in to see where those disconnects are and put things back together. We also look at organizations in terms of growth and expansion. We specialize in focusing on little-served edge markets, such as those in Asia or Africa, where companies might be looking to expand but perhaps they don’t have a full understanding of the challenges therein.

CAPRE: As someone who has a bird’s eye view of the industry, what do you think is the most pressing issue facing the mission critical space?

Lee Smith, Founder, DataCenterDNA

Smith: As an individual and professional, I have a soft spot for skills and educational growth within the industry, both domestically and abroad. The biggest challenge we’re facing is that we don’t do enough to market ourselves and the skills necessary for our industry as, for lack of a better word, sexy. It can be very, well, uncool. We need to do more to grab the attention of middle school, high school, and college students to get them to envision themselves as having a role in this industry.

What’s perplexing is that the “hard skills”  – engineering, design, construction – well, the challenges and rewards you can get out of going into those areas, we’re just not doing enough to grab that imagination. And we’re of course not doing enough to get more women and minorities into our industry. I’m not happy with the state of things there at all, and I’m hoping that’s something we can work on in 2020.

CAPRE: We’re looking forward to hearing from you at CAPRE’s 2020 Digital Infrastructure Outlook January 30, specifically your panel, the 3:00 pm – 3:45 pm session “International and Domestic Investment Landscape: What are IT Trends and Projections From a Local and Global Perspective?” So what are you looking forward to about the event?

Smith: I’ve been in Northern Virginia for about 18 months and I’ve been do a number of conferences. I never walk away disappointed because I always learn something new. I enjoy learning about those different viewpoints that people bring to these conferences. Sometimes these viewpoints are very diverse, even diametrically opposed. And that’s okay, since there’s a lot of interpretation within our industry about how things work and where things are going.

CAPRE: What is the biggest challenge facing data center owners and operators in Northern Virginia as we head into 2020?

Smith: I think that the challenges that the data centers are going to have to get over is pricing – the cost of land, services, etc. Amazon just bought a tract of land in Chantilly for $73 Million USD. That’s a lot of money. If you look at the baseline on the input costs of land, then it’s relatively small, but I do believe that the challenge in some states will become how you manage these rising costs.

CAPRE: What tailwinds do local owners and operators have on their side?

Smith: These secondary markets which surround more primary areas of activity, such as Prince William County as opposed to Loudoun County, are developing in such a way that they don’t even feel they’re competing against each other. Northern Virginia has proven to the rest of the world that collaboration leads to better growth and understanding, and that’s very important. When I travel globally, the collaboration isn’t necessary as strong as it is here. Local governments here work together – they understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At the end of the day it benefits the county and the state. As an outsider who has been here for a short time, the ability for Northern Virginia to continuously generate demand is just insane. The challenge will be to manage it more collectively, as more and more counties acquire more business. After all, Loudoun County is running out of space.

CAPRE: What do you think will the biggest change in the industry as we proceed through 2020?

Smith: I hate to say this, but it’s the Edge. The Edge is still a buzzword that’s not clearly defined. But over the next 12-24 months, specifically in 2020, there will be a purer understanding of how the Edge can be monetized and what kind of value we can derive from it. I really believe that is something that will happen this year. I’m excited about that because I’m still coming to grips with what the edge is and how we’re going to make it work.

South African born, Lee Smith is the founder of DataCenterDNA LLC, a boutique firm which consults and advises on aspects that impact and improve operational sustainability and resilience, strategy, the expansion of mission-critical data centers, as well as education and skills development. Lee has more than 30 years of data center industry experience, ranging from planning, design, commissioning and integration, to infrastructure services management, software engineering and operations. He’s established himself as an expert in mission-critical data centre consulting on the African continent for more than a decade.