Women in Leadership 2: Nancy Novak

Nancy Novak is the Chief Innovation Officer of Compass Datacenters, which builds data centers for leading technology companies around the world. She has more than 25 years of construction experience and has overseen the delivery of over $3.5 billion in projects. Novak is also a passionate advocate for issues related to the advancement of women in technology and greater diversity in STEM.

There aren’t many women in our industry, let alone in operations and construction. What has your journey been like and how did you get in construction?

The construction industry was male dominated when I began my career 30+ years ago. Female role models and mentors were virtually non-existent. It would be nice to say I never experienced the downsides of being a woman working on various job sites, and later, within the boardroom, but there have been some bumps along the road. However, my career has allowed me to work with many individuals who based their opinions of me on my work and achievements.

The world has changed a lot in these years, albeit not equally in all areas. I think it’s incumbent on women who have achieved success and visibility in general to offer the benefit of our experiences to young women to aid them in their careers. For me, this means serving as a mentor, and an advocate for the diversification of the workplace, particularly in STEM fields. Acting in this role doesn’t mean only speaking and writing about these issues, but also illustrate the opportunities available to young women.

Sustainability is now a priority in every industry. How does it span into construction?

At Compass, we’ve always said that sustainability means more than Green Power. This view is becoming more universally adopted. In terms of construction, materials are definitely part of a holistic green strategy. We are the first data center provider to work with CarbonCure to use concrete that uses residual Co2 in the manufacturing process and reduce overall emissions. For Compass, that equates to 1,800 tons of Co2 eliminated per campus, which is the equivalent of driving a car over four million miles. We also look for ways to reduce waste by taking work off-site to fabricate large components, and reduce our carbon footprint through the materials used in our facilities.

How critical has creativity and innovation been during the pandemic? 

One of our company values is continuous improvement. COVID-19 has really put that philosophy to the test. In practical terms, the biggest impact has been on the job site. Since building a data center is so labor intensive, it forced us to develop a variety of unique solutions. For example, we conducted what we believe is the industry’s first virtual commissioning. Normally, the Level 5 phase of the commissioning process requires 20-25 people on-site. Through the use of sensors, streaming and monitoring software, we could complete testing with only five individuals on-site, while maintaining social distancing requirements. Currently, we are working on the concept of virtual punch lists to eliminate the need for on-site inspections. We are also developing tools to conduct our scheduling pull-plan sessions virtually. The best part about these innovations is that the benefits are many and will last long after the pandemic is over. 

Pre-fab concrete walls being hoisted into place on a data center build

In your view, how will the pandemic impact the digital infrastructure in the long run?

The societal impact of the pandemic will have permanent effects on how we work, communicate and entertain ourselves. This will result in the need for even more infrastructure investment, including data centers, to keep up with demand. I’m happy to see the emphasis on digital divide issues. I’m working on raising awareness and solutions for solving issues such as access to Internet, affordable equipment, and training and education around digital literacy.

How is diversity key to solving the labor shortage that the data center and mission critical industry is facing currently?

Changing the face of the mission critical data center industry is necessary, but when you combine future data center demand and the average age of existing technical personnel or skilled trades, it’s a demographic imperative. There is universal agreement that the available labor pool is not sufficient to keep up with the personnel requirements of providers. Women and minorities remain untapped resources that can fill shortages. But when you consider the efforts to increase awareness of the career potential of STEM-related employment to groups that have been previously overlooked are still in their infancy, you have the potential to bring a much younger cohort into the talent pool. Not to mention, the multitude of studies show having diversity positively impacts the bottom line.

Encouraging women and minorities to pursue STEM-related educational courses and mentoring them are imperative to creating a larger labor pool. Looking for transferable skills that might be more traditionally female versus male (i.e. administration versus maintenance) requires a broad spectrum of activities. This starts with early education initiatives, including focus on vocational education to support the need for people who build data centers, and continues with industry initiatives in hiring and career development.

We’re in the early phase of changing the face of the individuals who build and maintain facilities. We can build on the success of more women and minorities entering the industry knowing that within the decade mission critical and data center organizations will look markedly different.

Earlier this year, you were appointed to the Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council. What are the key initiatives that you plan to work on as part of the leadership team?

I’m honored to have become a member of the iMasons Advisory Board and the opportunity it provides to work with so many leaders in the data center industry. Currently, Heather Dooley and I are co-chairwomen of the iMWomen group. We are concentrating on developing a hiring practices guide that can be used to identify promising female candidates and hire them.

The Digital Divide is an important issue that we need to address as a country. No one should have their access to the opportunities provided via the Internet restricted due to geography, poverty or education. More specifically, this means both high speed connectivity, the tools for its use and the lessons to use these tools. I’m working with Dean Nelson and Christian Belady to develop a workshop on this topic for our upcoming iMasons’ Global Member Summit.

As a successful woman leader of this industry, what qualities have been key to your success?

I don’t believe leadership attributes necessarily differ between men and women. Vision, perseverance and decisiveness, and many times a thick skin, is essential whether you’re building a business, leading a department or managing a job site. If there is a difference between the sexes in leadership, women still have a higher bar to prove themselves. Some may say this is stereotypical, but considering you are asking people in industries that have historically been monolithic in their employment composition to change entrenched belief systems, this state of affairs is still indisputable. I think perceived male/female differences are changing, but we have a long way to go to achieve an equal playing field, particularly in the upper ranks.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

I’m an outdoorsy person. I love to ski, in snow and in water, so I’ve got both halves of the year covered. I also try to fish as often as I can. My dad was an avid fisherman and he passed his passion on to me and my three sisters.

I also like to travel or more euphemistically, my expeditions around the globe. Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of countries and built relationships with some of the coolest people who have helped broaden my worldview.