The new data centre boardroom

The new data centre boardroom

Peter Hannaford, Senior Partner at Portman Partners, describes the data centre leaders of tomorrow and how they must be the embodiment of the solutions to today’s challenges.

There is no doubt and possibly an excess of conversation about how the events of 2020 impacted people and industries across the board. Still, one industry that until recently attracted little attention outside its inner circle of operators and investors is having its moment in the spotlight, is ours. The business of the data centre and the challenges it faces are a microcosm of broader social and corporate concerns and the movements around them, and all require aggressive, directed initiatives from executives at senior levels to address them. There are three challenges that can be viewed as standalone items, but I would argue they are entirely intertwined, and successfully managing any one benefits the others. So, in no particular order, they are:

  • Sustainability
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Innovative leaders


With the rise of the remote workforce and lockdowns around the globe, data usage has increased – significantly. A recent TeleGeography report found that the COVID-19 pandemic drove international Internet capacity from 450 Tbps to 600 Tbps, a 35% increase year over year from 2019 to 2020, and identified four primary growth areas. The report stated that:

  • The most significant growth in regional capacity between 2019 and 2020 came from Europe
  • Peak international Internet traffic increased at a compound annual rate of 30% between 2016 and 2020
  • Average global international Internet traffic rose from about 120 Tbps in 2019 to 170 Tbps in 2020
  • Pre-COVID, peak traffic growth was forecast to be 28%, but the pandemic drove it to 47%

The increase in data usage and the corresponding increase in the data centre’s carbon footprint have put a bullseye on the industry, with many labelling it a top climate culprit, making it one of the most significant targets. How much climate responsibility lies at the feet of the data centre itself is debatable, but none would (or should) argue the industry has none.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

2020 also brought society and the world at large to a reckoning on another enduring problem- systemic racism and it’s correlative inequities. Race, along with the longstanding issues of bias and discrimination based on gender and other characteristics that limit opportunity persist, despite the best intentions. It continues for many reasons, including unconscious bias on full display in the still mostly white, mostly male, mostly older data centre boardroom.

In her recent whitepaper, What good looks like: Reimagining EDI in the Digital Infrastructure Sector, Portman Associate and University of Nottingham Associate Professor and Head of International MBA Programs, Dr Terri Simpkin, summarised that ‘rewards from diversity can only be derived from a workforce that is both diverse and inclusive’. Simpkin goes on to state that the digital infrastructure sector as a whole must implement ‘structural, processual, behavioural and cultural change to mitigate profound emerging issues such as an ageing workforce, lack of employer brand and labour churn’.

The sector must broaden its workforce and expand the pipeline of talent. The benefits of a broader workforce, and ultimately, a more diverse leadership pool are great – enhanced reputation, a stronger brand and the prestige of being a desirable industry will attract the best and brightest from all walks of life, securing growth and future success. In addition, by implementing wide-ranging EDI initiatives, data centres can be corporate leaders as well as providers of the infrastructure that enterprises and society require for ongoing operation.

Innovative leaders

In the well-read recent report, The people challenge: Global data center staffing forecast 2021-2025, Uptime Institute reported that as data centre capacity is expanded, the availability and potential lack of specialist staff will be an issue of concern for the future. This concern certainly harkens attention to the EDI imperatives noted above.

Additionally, as I wrote about in a recent article for Digital InfraNetwork, sustainability is a substantial concern and passionate cause of the GenZ workforce, which now comprises 40% of the working and consumer population. GenZ demands that the businesses they work for embrace solutions to the issues they care about. A top requirement for younger workers is to be employed in industries and for companies they deem ethical, responsible and socially aware. This generation is the future of leadership in the data centre industry and our businesses must attract them.

While I assert that data centre leadership must look forward, they must also look around their present. Many of the systems and processes currently in place are not the ones that will bring forward a new generation of talent. I wrote a series of articles on the characteristics required for successful leadership at all positions in today’s boardrooms and the common denominator is the demand for innovation across all positions. Among other qualities;

  • CEOs must have the courage to be different
  • CFOs must be creative
  • COOs must have a passion for sustainability (as must the entire organisation)
  • CCOs/CROs must develop new products and services that uniquely deliver for their customers’ needs today AND tomorrow

Innovative, creative, passionate and responsive. To move forward, the data centre needs leaders who can look back and see ahead with a drive to improve not just the product, but also how they go about delivering it and the people they employ to do it.

Tomorrow’s data centre boardrooms

Tomorrow’s data centre leaders must be the embodiment of the solutions to today’s challenges. A commitment to sustainability and other ethical concerns will attract new talent. New talent in the workforce is more diverse than it ever has been and diversity leads to innovation, leading to growth. Implementing aggressive initiatives to address the challenges we face is not just about public relations and corporate image. It makes for good business practice, people sense and will secure the future of an industry with a profile raised by the crises of 2020 and that now in 2021, has the eyes of the world upon it. Everyone is looking. It’s time to make ourselves better. Let’s make ourselves proud.

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