Women in Leadership: Rachel Peterson

Vice President, Data Center Strategy, Meta

As Vice President for Data Center Strategy at Meta, Peterson oversees the company’s global infrastructure expansion and strategy. She is responsible for data center development, including data center site selection, energy strategy and procurement, analytics and planning, data center community engagement, and sustainability. Peterson has led the development of data centers in the US, Europe, and Asia.

Peterson has been at Meta for more than a decade, and during that time, helped create the company’s Women in Infrastructure and IT programs. She is a big advocate of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I). Prior to joining Meta in 2009, Peterson held a variety of roles at Google and Cisco Systems spanning data center site selection and supply chain operations.

What kind of challenges and opportunities has COVID-19 presented?

As COVID-19 has changed a lot of things for the world, we see a significant opportunity for technology to play an increasingly important role in connecting people who are physically separated from their communities. There was a huge increase in traffic when the pandemic started across our apps and services. From one day to the next, we saw the usage of our products in many countries around the world increasing by up to 40 percent every week. We saw firsthand just how much people depended on Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp to communicate with their friends and family, and the role that Meta played in keeping people across the world connected.

We needed to make sure our global infrastructure could withstand the pressure of the increased traffic. Not only that, we began to realize that if things continued as they were, then we quickly would need more capacity, while keeping our apps fast, safe, and reliable. Actualizing this became more challenging with most of our employees working from home, global supply chain disruptions, and the continued obstacles of building and operating our global fleet of data centers during a pandemic. 

What was it like for you working at Facebook’s first ever data center and being part of the company’s growth in data centers with $20B+ invested across 40M sq. ft.?

I joined Facebook-now Meta-at the end of 2009 when the data center team had less than 20 people and we were getting ready to break ground on our first data center in Prineville, Oregon. We had a few leased data centers at that time, and our site supported only a couple hundred million users. In those early days, you got to be a ‘jack of many trades,’ and I was fortunate to build out many of the core functions that now drive our data center program, including site selection, energy, sustainability, community development, strategic planning, and data science. Today we have 18 data center campuses globally, which translates to 48 active buildings and 47 buildings under construction. Each of these buildings is the length of four football fields and contains tens of thousands of servers. In 2009, I never would have imagined that we would need to grow our data center and infrastructure platforms to support nearly half the planet.

Decarbonization of data centers is top of mind for the industry. Tell us a bit about Meta’s approach to sustainability.

Our approach to sustainability focuses on efficiency in our design. That is, to use less—less energy, water, unnecessary infrastructure, and waste. For what’s remaining, we focus on reducing our environmental impact through renewable energy, water stewardship and embedding circularity, and low carbon alternatives into everything.

In 2018, we set goals to reduce our emissions by 75 percent and reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. By the end of 2020, we had reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 94 percent, with global operations now supported by 100 percent wind and solar energy. Today, we have contracted over seven gigawatts of renewable energy and developed green tariffs in several states to make it easier for others to join us in purchasing renewable energy.

Since 2020, we set new goals-to reach net zero emissions across our value chain and become water positive by 2030. The goal to reach net zero by 2030 focuses on achieving carbon reductions across the entire company and our value chain, and embedding a sustainability mindset into everything we do, whether designing products and servers, commuting and traveling, picking materials to construct our data centers, or working with our suppliers to use renewable energy and set their own net zero targets. In support of our net zero goals, we are examining the reduction of diesel generators and exploring alternative technologies, such as grid-scale energy storage and software workload migration, to deal with rare utility outage scenarios.

Water is another major focus, with the climate crisis putting a strain on global water resources. Although already focused on minimizing our amount of water usage, we’re exploring technologies to further reduce water use while maintaining power use efficiency. For the water we can’t avoid using, we invest in local projects that restore the water we consume to the communities where we are located.  

What is the importance of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DE&I) to you and to Meta?

At Meta, it’s incredibly important for us to build teams that are as diverse as the communities we serve. It’s vital that our working environment is one where equity, respect, and inclusion are fundamental to the experience of all employees. Meta has committed to two aggressive company-wide diversity goals: getting to 50 percent representation of underrepresented groups by 2024, and to increase representation of people of color in leadership positions by 30 percent in the next five years.

For data centers in particular, these goals are more difficult given that the industries traditionally supporting data center construction and operations aren’t that diverse either. To address this, we’ve been trying to increase the number of diverse candidates in our recruiting funnel. We’ve developed programs such as HardHat in Hand, a nationwide training program that provides participants with basic fundamental knowledge relevant to all construction and skilled trade occupations.

Additionally, we use a Diverse Slate Approach that provides hiring managers with qualified, underrepresented people for open roles. As part of this approach, we’ve placed intentional focus on widening our recruiting efforts to other industries that provide access to more diverse talent, such as the US Military.

Once people are onboard, we focus on supporting their journeys through career development, continuous learning, and a strong community experience. Our skills development programs cover the gamut, from supporting women in tech to helping individual contributors of all backgrounds build influence and cultivate leadership. We have numerous Employee Resource Groups designed to serve as dedicated spaces for employees of various backgrounds to build community and form supportive relationships.

As an example, I created the Women in Infrastructure group to promote inclusion and build awareness on the need to recruit more women into our infrastructure team. Meta also has a number of programs to foster the development of women leaders across the organization.

In an era when time-to-market is essential, how do you ensure that data center construction is keeping up with the rapidly increasing demand? Can you shed some light on your build-vs-buy strategy?

Many years ago, we made the decision to build and operate our own data centers in order for Meta to have the capacity it needs to provide rich experiences to billions of users. By building our own, we’ve been able to support the growth of our users and choose our preferred locations to create an efficient data center and server ecosystem. Using this strategy, we could rapidly embed new technologies into our data centers at scale in a way that’s homogenous across our fleet, allowing us to operate our infrastructure more efficiently. Had we outsourced, we would not have been able to embed a sustainability focus as quickly as we have done. 

What does the post-pandemic world look like to you?

The pandemic changed a lot about how the world stays connected, not only personally but also professionally. With this increased amount of remote engagement, resulting in the trend toward more immersive user experiences, the need for more capacity has become apparent. Looking toward this inevitable growth across our industry, it is important that we approach thoughtfully and address many of the trending issues.

For example, the growth Meta and others across the data center industry are experiencing is putting pressure on the availability of on-site labor resources. To address this, we are looking at designs that enable subsystems to be manufactured offsite and assembled with fewer on-site resources, which also will lead to improved quality and construction schedules.

Enriched and more immersive user experiences will fuel the continued adoption of AI/ML hardware in our data centers. GPUs consume more power than the typical server CPU. This will require a re-imaging of the data center power and cooling solutions to support large-scale deployments of these ML systems while maintaining power and water consumption efficiencies.

In terms of sustainability, a broad decarbonization of electrical grids and greater access to renewable energy will be critical to enabling Meta to site data centers in more locations. Not only hyperscalers, but all data center providers are focused on this trend, because we all are thinking about how to reduce our environmental footprint, reach net zero emissions, and decrease our use of water. With these shared objectives, the industry has opportunities to continue collaborating, and we have greater impact when we work together.

As a successful woman leader, what message do you have for young women looking to join this industry?

Oftentimes, people think that the data center industry is reserved for a specific engineering career pathway. As you can see from my journey, there is so much more to offer within the data center space. There are opportunities where people can have incredible impact across real estate, environmental, energy, sustainability, design, construction, and community relations. This is an industry that covers a wide range of expertise and skills. It is my hope that we can attract motivated young women who will continue the innovative work that has been started. 

It is my hope that women, as well as others, do not get discouraged by the lack of this industry’s diversity, yet instead see it as a call to be part of the change, with the opportunity to do more. This ongoing InterGlobix Magazine piece on ‘Women in Leadership’ is exciting because it helps demonstrate that women can have successful careers in this industry. It’s important for that we-as women leaders-help pave the way for future generations of women. With the wealth of opportunities available in this industry, I encourage young women who know someone in the industry, to reach out and find out more about possibilities and their personal journeys. Even if you don’t have a contact, there’s a world of information out there on the web. datacenters.fb.com is a place to start.