Industry Spotlight: Aligned’s Billie Haggard on Veterans In the Data Center

April 19th, 2021 by · Leave a Comment

A few months ago, we looked into the opportunity for veterans in the data center and internet infrastructure industry with Salute Mission Critical.  Today, we return to that topic to talk with Aligned’s Billie Haggard. Aligned builds and operates data center infrastructure for hyperscale and enterprise companies around the country, leveraging innovative, sustainable and adaptable approaches to facility design and operations. Billie started out in the Navy before transitioning to the data center world, and as SVP of Operations and Safety Officer at Aligned, he actively seeks to attract more veterans and ex-military talent into the industry due to their unique mindset and training.

TR: What is your background, and what was your journey to your current role at Aligned? 

BH: I served 13 years in the Navy as a nuclear-trained mechanic on submarines and surface ships. On each, I was responsible for operating and maintaining, and at times troubleshooting issues, within a nuclear power plant. I was also heavily involved with training, safety and quality assurance. I was an instructor for five of those 13 years, and for a couple, I was the lead instructor training other instructors on how to teach nuclear power. When I got out of the Navy in 2000, I attended a conference where, luckily, the head of a small startup company started talking about data centers and what was coming in the industry. I went to the HR department of that company and said, "I don't care if I have to sweep the floors, I want to come work for you." 

Over the next 20 years, I went to work for various companies including CoreSite, Switch & Data and Microsoft, and have been involved in every aspect of data centers: from engineering, to construction, security, operations, etc. When I ran into Andrew Schaap, CEO of Aligned, and learned about the technology behind Aligned, I decided to do something different.

TR: What was it about Aligned’s technology plans that got you interested?

BH: If you go talk to any data center company out there, they will talk about their electrical systems and the reliability of those systems. But very few talk about the technology behind the mechanical plant. The world has changed over the last 20 years, and there are important questions about how to have a more efficient mechanical plant without sacrificing reliability. Aligned was at the forefront of that with its Delta3™ cooling system, which enables industry-leading PUEs  and reduced water and power consumption across the board. And that's what customers are looking for right now. Conversations around sustainability have the entire industry looking at more interesting ways to reduce energy and water usage. 

At Aligned, safety is our #1 priority.  There is high risk around data centers with cranes, hoists and electrical equipment. 

There has also been a big shift with enterprise customers going into the cloud working with wholesale data centers such as Aligned. These customers want to ensure that our systems are maintained and operated the way they would operate their own data centers. They want transparency in analytics around how we operate our data centers.

TR: You have made a practice of hiring veterans to help operate critical infrastructure, how does that fit into the picture?

BH: Having gone from the United States Nuclear Program straight into the data center industry, I can say without a doubt that one of the reasons I got my first job interview is that I had nuclear training on my resume. But aside from having a strong technical background, I found that companies are looking for individuals that are very process-driven and have a critical mindset around how the infrastructure is operated. Equally as important, there are soft skills that make all former military members valuable in this environment. That includes being a team player and having the right technical aptitude.  Questions that can be answered with a “yes” are:

  • Can they learn?
  • Are they able to handle multitasking in the stressful situations that we encounter every day when operating these facilities?
  • Are they driven to complete goals and make sure what they're doing aligns with the mission of the company?
  • And, probably number one: Can they follow processes and procedures?

All these skills are things that former military members obtain through their years of service and that directly correlate to the needs of this business.

TR: I imagine most resumes claim to have those abilities.  What makes veterans stand out when it comes to performance?

BH: It’s the critical mindset. When a military person walks on-site, they use all of their senses and pick up what others may not thanks to their training.  For example,  equipment may sound different, or they may pick up on a smell that's different.  Or perhaps they just listen to and recognize alarms. They almost become in tune with the equipment, which is something that comes from years of experience. Think about it. If you're on the front line and you're sitting in a foxhole overnight, you're thinking about everything that's going on around you.  You're completely aware of whether your equipment or weapons have been maintained,  how well you have been trained for a specific situation, or how to use them in that situation.  This is what I refer to as the ‘critical mindset that we utilize in the military, which corresponds to the same mindset that we need to effectively operate data centers.

TR: How do you reach out to veterans with these skills?  How do you get them to consider a career in the data center?

BH: When I started, I didn't even know what data center was. Data center jobs were at the bottom of my list, until I realized that all of my skills directly corresponded with what the data centers were seeking. Today, we use social media and recruiters as well as programs such as Infrastructure Masons and Salute Mission Critical that really target veterans.  And we try to align with the organizations that support the military. In the past, I've gone to transition assistance programs at military bases. When individuals are trying to figure out how to transition from being military-minded to civilian-minded, they learn how to interview, what opportunities are available and get an assessment of their skills. Getting tapped into that program creates a direct funnel into data centers.

TR: How receptive are veterans to that message?  What hurdles do veterans face in taking this path?

BH: There is some hesitance because the terminology is different. The data center is filled with acronyms like UPS, RPP, PDs and CNR. You have to learn a new language when you transition from military into the data center industry. So, you have to bridge that gap for new hires and say, "Okay, you may not understand what a UPS is now, but in the military, you operated transformers, motor generator sets and battery systems. And if you put these components together, you have a UPS."

Once you get past the technology terminology, you can make people from the military very comfortable that their skill sets directly correspond with jobs in data centers. The other aspect is that people want more than a job, they want a career path. Take my career, for example: I went from a technician through various jobs in different aspects of the data center industry to becoming SVP of Operations. 

TR: Are there particular talent sets available out there right now that you are focusing on acquiring?

BH: Because the labor market is so challenging right now, I want to utilize all the talent I can get. Nuclear-trained candidates are certainly attractive potential hires because they require the least amount of training. However, there's a huge untapped market in the electrical and mechanical trades. We here at Aligned are also putting in place other training programs to take individuals straight out of trade school with technical aptitude and guide them along their journey in their data center career. I have seen reports that there are close to a million unfilled jobs in data centers. Companies like Aligned have to take the approach that we need to grow our own.

TR: Where does one turn to get started in this sector?  Are educational institutions providing a good pathway?

BH: There are some certification programs that you can consider.  However, I have found them not as useful, primarily because they're not as hands on as I anticipated.  If I were to encourage people, I'd say universities and trade schools should develop curriculums that are directly tailored to data center operations.  There are trade schools and universities that are starting to talk about it and put programs in place. But I haven't seen the output of any of that yet.

TR: Are there particular geographies or markets for which you find more success finding ex-military talent?

BH: One nice thing about veterans is that they're used to moving around. They can usually make a home wherever our data centers are located. So, we haven't had any difficulty placing individuals.

TR: Aligned recently built a new facility in Salt Lake City.  What opportunities do you see there and where else will you be looking to expand your operations?

BH: It’s exciting for us to add more inventory in the Salt Lake City market. It gives us some career growth for our existing employees, while expanding the labor markets and bringing in new talent to support our growth. There's an anticipation in 2021 that Aligned will expand in all of its existing markets and we've always wanted to expand into one or two new markets each year. But that is dictated by our customers’ interest in new markets.

TR: How has the pandemic affected things, and how does the rest of this year look like on that front?

BH: Because we're staffed 24/7 on security and operations, we've had no impact to our business operations. Even before the CDC got involved and it was determined that COVID would be a pandemic, we were very proactive at the site level. We separated our security teams. Then, we created four shifts of operations people, and we separated those as well. We put in commonsense measures around social distancing and enhanced cleaning early on, which made everything easier.

You’ve probably seen that in the initial stages of the pandemic, many vendors expressed having raw material shortages such as copper, concrete, steel, etc.  Some auto manufacturers have closed plants because they can’t get the parts; even some chip makers were affected. Luckily, Aligned’s supply chain methodology encompasses our Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI) program, through which we hold a dedicated, 50 MW, auto-replenished pool of available inventory, ready for immediate deployment to support our customers’ current and future growth, while eliminating any impact to delivery timelines.

Event with the pandemic and higher unemployment rate, the labor markets are tough with respect to finding people with the right skills.

I'm hopeful that by the summer, we can get back to doing things a little bit more normally, like going to conferences. We're very proud of our touchpoints with our customers as well as prospective employees, vendors and contractors. We miss being able to interface with all groups at our quarterly events.

TR: You are based in Texas.  How did the winter storm event in March affect Aligned and you yourself?

BH: Both are intertwined. We knew the week before that there could be potential issues with the grid being overwhelmed thanks to the great relationship we have with our energy provider. So, we decided that Sunday morning we would transfer our site to generator power.  My team and I pulled 12-hour shifts, 4AM to 4PM, for the days we were on generators - just be on the safe side. Our data center was not impacted, and everything remained online.

TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!

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