In Conversation With: Nancy Novak, Compass Datacenters

  • March 11, 2021
  • Eloise Brown
 

Nancy Novak, Compass Datacenters’ Chief Innovation Officer, has over 25 years of construction experience and has overseen the delivery of over $3.5 billion in projects during that time. Prior to joining Compass, Nancy was the National Vice President of Operations for Balfour Beatty Construction which she joined after serving in a variety of executive positions for Hensel Phelps Construction Company. Nancy is a member of the iMason’s advisory council and is actively involved in a number of organizations dedicated to the advancement of woman in business.

We recently spoke to Nancy as part of our interview series for International Women's Day, to celebrate women in the data center industry. You can read the main article here.

Nancy, please could you start by telling me a bit about your background? How did you get into the data center industry?

So I have a background of being a general contractor for many years. My dad worked for one of the largest contractors in the world. I’m one of four girls, and two of us went into construction. I worked in the general contracting world, where I was a Construction Executive for one of the largest national firms, where I worked for around 20 years. I then retired for a few years and travelled. I felt as though I needed this time to figure out how to use my skills in a different way. I also felt frustrated about how few women there were in the construction industry.

I have sponsored many women’s groups throughout the years, and we’d got to where we could fill a pipeline, but just couldn’t get them elevated in the business. While I was retired, I ended up going to some amazing conferences from Fortune 500 companies, which provided different perspectives on the conundrum and I found this fascinating. 

While retired I was skiing in Steamboat, Colorado, and I ran into the Chief of Enterprise for Balfour Beatty, which is a global firm and he asked me to help them to become one national firm because they’d acquired numerous national firms in the US. I spent three and a half years in that position, getting onto the speaker circuit which was great. I’d learnt so much while I was retired, about equity and different businesses and how to look at that and I found I could start spreading my knowledge through this. That’s how I met the CEO of Compass Datacenters and he asked me to come and help him build Compass. This was a fantastic opportunity for me to come in and do what I’m good at and also be able to do the things I’m passionate about.

How was it coming of retirement?

I was ready. I’d been retired for three and a half years, I travelled to forty different countries. I experienced lots of great things, but I felt ready to stay put and return to the workforce. I was only 47 when I retired for the first time and I knew I was going to work again, I just had to figure out what I wanted to do. I’m blessed that these things came serendipitously came into my path.

I consider myself a true builder. I’ve done everything from launch pads, to airports, to hospitals and museums, so I have a very diverse portfolio of some amazing construction projects. This also includes the Pentagon renovation. And then data centers. They were coming out a couple of decades ago, so I’d done a couple in my time. Honestly, the thing that attracted me to Compass was their desire to disrupt the industry. We have figured out how to make some repeatable facilities, where we can learn and get better.

It’s crazy how quickly the data center industry has developed in the last 20 years, and you’ve got to experience that first hand!

You’re right, it is crazy. There is so much construction with data centers on a global scale, and there’s so much to do! These big tech firms that Compass services are somewhat new in the construction industry.

There used to just be computer rooms, then there were small colocation-types on an enterprise level, then hyper-scale and now the edge is right on our trail. Edge is a whole other thing, these big tech firms are very large and disruptive, with a global presence. They are looking at the construction industry, and seeing what needs to be fixed. I challenge our industry all the time. We have to become more agile, inclusive and innovative. If we don’t, these large firms are not going to let us stand in their way. 

When you first started out in the industry, I’m presuming there were very little women in the workforce. How did you find it? Have you seen many changes over the past few years?

I haven’t seen any movement of women becoming a larger portion of the construction industry for decades, whether it’s in the trade or in management. Still 10% of all participants in the built environment are women, which is crazy. Then, in the trades it’s less than 3% and it’s getting worse.

So, that hasn’t gotten any better, but in terms of my experience of the industry, there fewer explicit biases that occur in the way women are treated. However, there is exhaustion over whether something implicitly is being done. There are a lot of times where there are biases that occur that are implicit, though they are done with good intentions and not bad ones. You’re still trying to figure out whether you got passed up for the right reasons or gender based reasons, which is a hard one. A lot of awareness is needed to help us.

What could companies do to attract more women in the industry?

The number one thing is if she can see it, she can be it. If you have a presence of women or executive women in a company, that will attract other women because she can see that there’s an environment conductive to that.

I absolutely recommend, that if you are recruiting anywhere, you must bring in a diverse set of recruiters, including women and other minority groups. If you want to attract the talent, you have to look welcoming. 

I also think that on an actual construction site, if you are one of the contractors or owners, you need to make sure you provide women’s protective apparel. Vests that fit women and not men. We ensure all of our clothing fits women. So, we shorten gloves to fit women’s hands, vests are made for someone with hips and not broad shoulders. If you make an effort to do these things, it makes you more inclusive and welcoming. It’s a big deal.

You can also incentivise through contracting. Tell your general contractors and sub-contractors that there’s going to be incentives, a bonus pool or recognition, if they help bring in more diversity. You will become more innovative and productive, shaping you better overall. Owners need to start getting clever. 

Also, during the execution of a job, anytime a diverse individual does something helpful – promote it. Normalise the benefits of having all these different lenses available to you.

There’s such a fine line between companies recruiting people because of their skills, and recruiting them so they can tick a box.

It cracks me up. We, at Compass, make a huge, intentional effort on bringing women in. Companies state that when bringing women in, we must make sure they’re the most qualified. Do we do that with white men? How many white men do you know that aren’t the most qualified? It’s a huge ratio. Why is there such a huge measuring stick against women and other minority groups? It doesn’t make sense.

It’s crazy, but shows the areas that need to change. How have you found it from your own experience of being a woman in male dominated field?

Over my career, I have moved 17 times. I’ve built so much and I started back in the 80’s, so it’s changed quite a bit since then. I definitely have been  in a P&L position and held the reins, giving me an accountable experience. So, I have a well-rounded view of the industry. The thing that bothers me, is people look at me and call me an anomaly, that I’m not like other women. I find that insulting to other women. There are many women I have worked with, who are highly credentialed

This is probably said with good intentions, but it isn’t a compliment.

Right, they say you’re this ‘unicorn’, you do a really good job and you do it with the handicap of being a woman. It frustrates me. I would hate for any other woman to go through what I did. When I speak, and I am speaking to a young crowd, I give them examples of things that were good and bad. 

A lightbulb moment for me was realizing, we, as an industry, need to stop trying to change the women to fit the industry. We need to change the industry to accept and allow women to work in it.

This relates back to being on site and having equipment and uniform suitable for women. At Compass, we are getting ready to have Exoskeletons implemented onsite. The greatest thing you can do is neutralise a position, so it doesn’t have to be based on brute strength. It helps everyone. All men are expected to lift heavy tools and equipment. If they had Exoskeletons, they wouldn’t need to do this. They would injure themselves less, they could work longer and it wouldn’t be so physically hard on their bodies. It also neutralises the position to the point where women can do this too. 

I use the example of fighter pilots. Previously, planes were reliant on brute strength and g-force. Computers really enhanced the abilities of being able to fly these planes regardless of how strong a person is. They are not reliant on how much muscle mass you have, but more so on your skills. I love that and I want our industry to move in that direction.

What do you think they could do more of in the industry to ensure we do move in that direction?

I believe in taking as much labour as you feasibly can, offsite. This is an important part of an evolving industry. The reason I say this is, the trades are in trouble. The average age of an electrician is 50 and there is no pipeline coming in. This is because it is hard-work and the lifestyle isn’t hard with the hours, commutes, site conditions and physical demands. You go wherever the job is. Whether you’re moving, commuting or living away from home. We’re in wet and cold environments, sometimes they’re also dirty and unsafe, even though we try to make it as safe as possible. In these ever-changing environments, every day is different. If you figure out ways you can pull labour off the job site, by doing advance work packaging, pre-fabrication and modalized construction, then you’re making the environment more controlled. You can control things like quality and safety.

Factories are putting day care centers in there. You end up working more normal hours. By scheduling this work, it sets up a cadence where the job gets predictable and there is a routine way of accepting materials. People don’t realise that statistic in construction – 70% of labour hours are spent on material handling, not material installation . So, if there’s anywhere you can close gaps to become more efficient, you’re not only going to become better as a business, but also more inclusive. You will attract more diverse employees, in an environment that is clean, predictable and you provide necessary training.

This seems to be that the focus is more on your skills and other attributes, as opposed to your physical capabilities.

What was it about the data center industry that got you interested?

When Chris Crosby called me and said that he’d seen what I’d done at Balfour and that I wanted to take a break, he asked me to go and work for him. They were getting ready to blow the doors off. I had told him that I didn’t really like building data centers, it’s hard on the trades and the personnel. In my humble opinion, they aren’t that attractive either. But then Chris knew I wanted to disrupt the business, and that’s what they at Compass were working on. 

The tertiary benefits that came from this, was looking at prototypes that can be site adapted and can be continuously improved to become more agile. This not only got me excited, but also being plugged into large tech firms was huge. Think about what that means for humankind, the access to information, applying and using data. It’s a fascinating career to have, you never get bored. If you’re a learner, it’s a fun industry to be in. it just makes me sad that it’s so non-inclusive.

Nancy, what’s is one piece of advice that you would give to any woman wanting to get into either construction or the data center industry?

Network, network, network, network!

Get a presence, reach out to people. I’ll have lunch, coffee or get on a call with people; especially young women. I want to mentor young women. 

The biggest advantage that men have in our industry, is the potential vs. credential conundrum. We, as women, could have every credential, but we don’t have the relationships that can be built in an organic setting that allows leadership to see our potential. 

I also want to point out that there are tonnes of industries that have wonderful transferable skills and attributes that our industry needs, so having no experience in the data center industry is no dealbreaker. You need to have the right attitude, and the right company will guide you. I believe that’s what we do at Compass. We’ve had some amazing success stories, of young women who didn’t have a background in data centers, who have come in and hit the ground running. They are killing it. And the main thing is that they enjoy it!

It’s so important to promote other women, especially in a very male dominated industry. 

Thank you so much Nancy!