Finding and developing talent in today’s technology world is an ever-present challenge in the technology space. But over the last eight years, Salute Mission Critical has forged a new path to meeting the demand for qualified personnel: recruiting, training, and then putting veterans to work in the fields of data center construction and operations. With us today to talk about Salute’s unique position within the internet infrastructure sector is Kristen Vosmaer, EVP of Global Operations.
TR: How did Salute Mission Critical get started? What problem were you looking to solve?
KV: Salute’s journey started eight years ago with the goal to solve two main problems. One, in the data center industry there was a shortage of talent, in terms of technicians to do the work. It was and still is a growing industry, and there just aren’t enough qualified hands to meet the demand. And two, there were so many military men and women coming back from tours in Iraq, Afghanistan who did not have a great conduit into the private sector. I’m not necessarily talking about military personnel with advanced skill sets like a Navy nuclear engineer, who is always a prized commodity, but more the infantrymen and women, the boots on the ground, the soldiers that are doing the fighting, handling logistics support, the military police, etc. The idea was to save the skill sets that they’ve honed and learned as well as some of the basic tendencies that the military does an excellent job of training into them, and harness that into what’s ultimately also a critical operating environment in the civilian sector.
TR: Which skill sets that derive from military service do you find most applicable, and what roles were you filling?
KV: An understanding of the chain of command and the discipline to follow standard operating procedures, the ability to work in a hazardous environment with critical awareness, and finally the teamwork and the chemistry that military men and women share with each other are all natural conduits to a high-performing team in the mission-critical space. We started with the very humble scope of data center cleaning, both post-construction cleans and then operational cleans. We were fortunate enough to partner early on with some of the hyperscalers. Microsoft was an early adopter and client partner of ours and still one of our largest clients today. Then we started developing beyond that and broadened the scope of work that we approached and discussed with clients. Next came technical solutions like battery maintenance and battery replacements. Large industrial-sized batteries are heavy lifting and it is very precise work to do it safely and accurately. Then we started decommissioning legacy facilities that were starting to get repurposed for new data center equipment. We would go in and we would systematically take the whole facility apart and work on the recycling of materials. From there we started doing whitespace build-out: raised floor, drop-down ceilings, cable trays, the cabling itself, the racks and cabinets, the installing of servers, network equipment, then the PDUs, and the wiring and the testing of all of that. Then in 2015-2016, we started partnering with clients to provide more dedicated operating teams for which we also added things like facility engineering, a network operations center, and eventually physical security services for data centers. That finally made us into a one-stop shop capable of being the outsourced provider of choice for clients to fully run their data center from A to Z.
TR: So what does Salute look like today?
KV: We employ a workforce of a little over 400 technicians strong. We operate in nine countries today over three continents: Europe, North America, and South America. We also do a lot of project work over in Asia but have no dedicated teams there. In the US, on any given day we are operating in about 30 to 32 different states with either project teams or dedicated teams. One of the more gratifying things is that since our founding we’ve introduced 2000 veterans into the mission-critical industry who have either gone through our programs and then onto our clients or on to other opportunities that they may not have had access to had it not been for our organization. So, we really also focus on being a workforce development firm and a workforce development tool for our clients. They can go about doing their day-to-day business, and focus on their technology or their core competencies, while we help them by developing a workforce that is a swiss army knife of skill sets that they can leverage in a variety of ways. We have created a better mechanism for them to groom talent for their own companies in the future while staying true to our mission.
TR: Most companies view high employee turnover as a negative, yet you are proud of it. How do you reconcile your goals with the costs of being a workforce development engine?
KV: That cuts right to the chase of our business model and what we have to be good at in order to thrive. Turnover is never seen as a good number. But suppose turnover is 11% year-over-year globally, but 7% of that is due to our customers taking our staff. We think that’s a huge success story for us. We celebrate it with a bottle of champagne and a sincere congratulations. We have had some great stories of people off the streets, even homeless, going from entry level into a technician role with a major player. What we’ve always been good at is identifying talent. We’re very good at streamlining the assessment and the on-boarding process and that’s something that is easily overlooked but shouldn’t be understated. If you look at any major company, whether it’s a hyperscaler or a large Fortune 2,000 company, their hiring process is much slower than ours. We can on-board people within a matter of days after getting a requisition or a new team assignment thrown at us. That mechanism for feeding our engine of new technicians is our competitive advantage. It allows us to burst quickly, to go from zero technicians to 36 in a matter of two weeks over three different sites in the US, all doing a certain defined scope and having them trained and on-boarded appropriately. Because that’s a competitive advantage, we don’t have to look at turnover as a negative thing, and certainly not attrition due to them going to our clients. We take the position that we’re here to facilitate bringing people into the industry, and more competent people in the industry is good for everybody. So being vigilant about always keeping our recruiting, training and communication cycles sharp allows us to thrive even though we would have what others perceive as a negative result by having attrition outside of our organization.
TR: What does the talent pool you are drawing from look like right now? How deep is it, and does it vary by geography?
KV: There’s some differences depending on the geography. Northern Virginia is a very active market for data centers and telecommunications, and if you need top-secret cleared individuals in that area, there’s a shortage of that. But other markets are underserved and underdeveloped. The advantage that we have is we’re not looking for specific skill sets all the time. We’re not expecting two years of experience doing battery maintenance for a particular vendor’s gear. We’re looking for very raw talent that we can shape and mold. We look for tendencies and we look for certain patterns that we know we can adopt into our culture very quickly, that we know will work with our clients. That gives us a wider talent pool to draw from. I think if anything our challenge is educational. Even if they don’t have any awareness of the industry, getting them excited about it is not that hard because everybody globs on to names like Microsoft, Apple, Google etc. But getting them to understand what the work is is harder. Make no bones about it, cleaning a data center is not an easy task. If you’re in a post-construction clean, that’s a dirty environment and it takes work and it takes a very detail-oriented person to be able to thoroughly clean switch gears so that it’s safe enough to operate and somebody doesn’t get electrocuted by arc flash. Establishing a connection between an entry-level skill set and the criticality of even what seems like the most menial of jobs, that’s the real challenge that we embrace every day. We are not just bringing people through the door, we’re bringing people through the door that can understand that the hard work that they’re putting in has an impact not just for them but in the industry as a whole.
TR: How do you handle the training process? Is it virtual or in person, and how does it differ from the standard?
KV: We start with table stakes training for everybody, which is Data Center 101: What is a data center? How does it operate? What are the systems? What are they designed to do? Everyone needs to have some awareness of what they’re working around. First and foremost in everybody’s mind is power systems, just in terms of the hazardous operating environment they can create. It is a remote learning platform, and was prior to COVID-19, as we are a very distributed organization. We have some industry partnerships through which we have developed that online content. It’s designed for entry-level knowledge and to emphasize safety. Then from there, it depends a bit on where they enter our organization. We have different curriculums for every segment of our business. Security guards and officers go through a slightly more bespoke training on security and access control. Somebody that comes in on the battery monitoring and replacement team would go through more bespoke training around arc flash, and electrical switching procedures, lockout/tagout, etc. Then operations teams may have multiple lines of scope and obviously the content can intersect, and so they’re able to grab multiple areas of the training platform to utilize.
TR: Where are you putting your resources today?
KV: From a training and learning perspective, it is always a journey, never a destination. We are always finding ways to optimize the content: how we absorb it and how we reinforce it later. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly reinforced some things and made us look closer at things that we can do better from a communications perspective internally. One area that we’re spending a lot of time on now is the communications piece between our technicians in the field and our clients. It’s about putting everybody on a platform such that they understand who is on-site, what are the scopes that they are working on, when are they leaving the site. There needs to be more fidelity around the audit trail. Also, communications have to get distributed to our technicians in a faster way than they ever have before. For instance, if we have updates on a site where a maintenance vendor has tested positive, we want a faster communication stream to tell people if they have potentially been exposed, explain what steps we need to follow together, and supply supporting resources. We are working actively on a more seamless communications platform that will be both web-based and application-based on everybody’s smartphone.
TR: How do you think the industry has weathered the pandemic, and how has it affected Salute?
KV: I think that our industry, given its criticality, has certainly weathered the pandemic well. I think it’s forced a lot of people to rethink certain strategies around commercial real estate, e.g. how often people need to be in the office or can work from home. The benefit for Salute is that, at the end of the day, there are still scopes of work that need to be completed by physical hands on data center equipment. And the pace of construction has not slowed down either. So, when you look at the access to the talent that can work in a construction or operating environment, that acuteness is still there. For us, the pandemic has highlighted an even greater need for companies that can really adapt to that workforce development requirement and scale quickly into a new market or a new operating environment or even a new task or skill set to ensure success. Our clients are relying on us even more now to perform more and more of the day-to-day tasks in a data center.
TR: Are there things the data center industry has not done as well during the pandemic? What lessons are we learning?
KV: Part of the reason why we’re working on a communications platform is that we see gaps. Even as we can have a closer relationship with our clients, there’s still a gap, particularly in the REIT sector, in how companies interact with the multitude of vendors. There are a lot of instances where someone who has been in the environment and has then tested positive for COVID-19, and it has required a good day or two of work to track down who have they’ve been in contact with, how the site was impacted, whether security has good video logs that they can validate where they’ve been, etc. And there are many other cases where better such communications would be very applicable. For example, if maintenance was performed and 12 hours later, that same piece of equipment has a hiccup or a bump in the road, the tracing of what has happened to that piece of equipment over the last 12 hours may involve several groups (security, operations, the vendor, etc.) that don’t necessarily have a good process to talk with each other without a ringleader. Closing that loop is really something that the industry can work on better. Part of it is a basic hesitancy to be as open and sharing as is needed, but I think if you look at the industry going forward, we need to be able to make decisions quicker based on good information. Shortening that communications loop is key piece.
TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!
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