Some industry professionals do it all, so to speak — from maintaining uptime and customer satisfaction to meeting corporate-level and government-regulated sustainability goals to motivating and empowering others around them to be their best and everything in between.
But these qualities don’t describe a particular job function or skill; they describe a special type of person — someone who is passionate, who goes above and beyond the call of duty, and who does it with a smile.
Matt Silvers, senior director of site operations for Vantage Data Centers, embodies all of this and more, which is why Mission Critical magazine named him the 2020 Most Critical Player Award winner.
Silvers got his start in facilities 25 years ago, working as a calibration technician for a local HVAC firm that served the biopharmaceutical sector. He was promoted to lead technician before moving to another company, where he served as a facilities manager for a hyperscale data center provider.
Episode 29: The 2020 MCP Award — Part 1
Learn more about Paul Haley — one of the honorable mentions for the 2020 Most Critical Play Award.
He started with Vantage Data Centers in 2014, and it was the COO of the company, Chris Yetman, who nominated Silvers.
“His commitment to operational excellence is reflected every day in the trust that customers place in him,” said Yetman. “His leadership on everything from sustainable building practices and energy efficiency to the ongoing development of his team and his commitment to their safety and well-being makes Matt standout.”
When he was informed of the nomination, Silvers said he felt honored.
“Especially since the nomination came from a valued mentor,” he said, “someone who was instrumental in helping me get where I am today.”
And although he said Yetman’s guidance — and the occasional noogie — taught him to understand the true meaning of the word “leader,” he was still shocked to find out that he won.
Six years ago, when Silvers started as director of operations for Vantage, he had oversight of three data centers. Today, he oversees seven facilities across two campuses — one of which is the largest single campus in the California region as well as the largest LEED Platinum-certified data center campus in North America.
He gracefully balances sustainable business practices with the company’s requirements to meet SLAs. Silvers created an inventory program to ensure spare parts are always on-site so that in-house engineers can fix equipment without delay. He has also built meaningful relationships with vendors to ensure equipment is maintained as needed and meets the highest standards.
Because of this, the Vantage campuses he oversees have consistently maintained six nines of availability.
“Customers count of Matt, his leadership, and his team for reliability, predictability, and, ultimately, 100% uptime,” Yetman said. “For example, customers typically manage their data modules. However, one of Vantage’s prominent high-tech customers reached out to Matt and asked him to take over all operations. When it comes to efficiency, they literally said, ‘Well, we’d rather just give it to you.’ Vantage is the only company the customer has asked to perform this critical business function, and it’s all thanks to Matt.”
On a weekly basis, Silvers gathers his team to analyze operational performance across the board — from big-ticket issues to seemingly small things. Together, they look for ways to address challenges and improve performance.
“For me, it’s all about customer service,” Silvers said.
And, according to Yetman, this is proven repeatedly by an ongoing feedback loop and frequent customer satisfaction surveys.
“My approach to data center operations isn’t one of ‘check the boxes and move on,’” Silvers said. “I try to push boundaries, think strategically, build customer trust, and develop a solution for the problem at hand.”
He doesn’t just follow operational protocols; he sets them. At least, that’s what Yetman had to say.
“When it comes to quality control, Matt has a deep and wide sphere of influence,” he said.
And he doesn’t just focus on improving the facilities he is responsible for — he lends his expertise to the entire company, from top to bottom, across all campuses and departments.
“While various teams work together to develop Vantage’s processes and strategies, Matt leads the implementation and then continues to refine the processes to ensure they’re as effective in the real world as they are on paper,” Yetman said.
To complement his leadership qualities, Silvers also possesses technical skills that allow for innovative solutions. He was responsible for a unique chiller design in one of Vantage’s data centers that uses an evaporative cooling model.
“He collaborated with engineering to develop a closed-loop, chilled-water system that can cross-connect to any one of the four phases contained within the chiller system to provide cooling water for the other phases,” Yetman said.
Based on customer feedback, Silvers was looking for an effective way to communicate possible issues with customers.
“My mantra is that we should always be transparent in our communications but make no noise as it’s getting done,” Silvers said. “I often speak about how operations is the one aspect of the business that should be invisible to the customer.”
It was this mantra that inspired Silvers to partner with the IT and controls teams at Vantage to develop a real-time alert system.
“Customers are incredibly happy with it,” Yetman said. “Not only does it keep them apprised of issues, but it also shows them the Vantage team is proactively managing the issues and provides transparency into the resolution process.”
When customers are first ramping up, data centers can often be extremely inefficient and costly, as more energy is required to run the mechanical system at a reduced load. But Silvers has not only accepted this challenge, he has overcome it.
“Matt developed an innovative process to measure and reduce the number of air handlers brought online to match the actual load,” Yetman said. “He also developed a process to place plenum-grade vellum underneath airflow tiles to block off the floor and minimize the amount of air loss while data modules are being populated.”
In addition to this, his teams look at PUE on a weekly basis during their meetings. But, it doesn’t stop there. Silver also created a system to improve water usage effectiveness (WUE).
“He poured a tremendous amount of time, energy, and thought into a model that assesses when chillers and cooling towers are working inefficiently, enabling the team to optimize the performance of those towers.”
Going beyond the facility walls, Silvers works with the city of Santa Clara to ensure Vantage is utilizing all of the initiatives offered, including the use of reclaimed water. Silvers has embraced this option despite the high upfront costs, since it has a significant environmental benefit for Santa Clara and the surrounding communities.
Like most humble leaders, Silvers acknowledges his success is not entirely his.
“At the core of this effort is my team, and I take pride in mentoring our critical facilities engineers [CFEs],” he said. “Rather than call in contractors to fix or repair equipment, our CFEs are on the frontlines, owning routine maintenance and growing their marketable job skills so they can be leaders for Vantage and the data center industry as a whole.”
And from the sound of it, his method is working. Under his leadership, engineers go through rigorous training — both in-house and off-site — including courses on proficiency and quality systems. As individuals become subject matter experts, they train others on the team. Silvers also arranges equipment training provided by the manufacturers and leadership training for new managers.
“Maintenance and operations are seamless, thanks to the time Matt invests in the development of his team,” Yetman said. “In the last six years, Matt has developed seven engineers from the ground up who are now managers at Vantage.”
Like pretty much everyone, Silvers faced a new challenge this year: COVID-19. As an essential service, Vantage data centers have remained open throughout the pandemic.
“That would have been significantly more difficult without Matt,” Yetman said.
In response to the coronavirus, Vantage created an Incident Response Team, and Silvers was named operational lead. In this role, he arranged logistics with construction partners, secured additional handwashing stations, created COVID-related signage, and communicated with all customers to ensure safety protocols within the data centers were being addressed and followed. He also created social “bubbles” by scheduling some employees to work at the beginning of the week and others to work at the end. Additionally, engineers shifted to working from home one day a week. The approach was designed to ensure that if one team member was infected, it would not spread across the entire team.
As if the pandemic wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Silvers also had to face the California wildfires. For customers and employees alike, he offered secure storage space for personal belongings during the evacuation.
“He also offered individuals who had to evacuate a place to stay on campus, taking advantage of on-site cots,” Yetman said.
“Irrespective of pandemics or natural disasters,” Yetman continued, “he always puts safety first.”
And that commitment extends to the community in the form of partnerships, including an agreement with Silicon Valley Power (SVP). By utilizing on-site power generation, Vantage enables SVP to recover power from the grid, ensuring the customers who need it most are able to maintain power during rolling blackouts.
“Partnership is key,” Silvers said, “even with those you may have conflict with. Whether you’re working with a competitor or co-worker, try to find common ground and develop a partnership. We must all work together to continue to grow our industry and create more opportunities for success.”
It’s not his passion for the industry, his motivating leadership style, or his technical skills that earned Silvers the Most Critical Player Award — it’s the combination of all of these traits that build off of each other in such a way that they simply cannot be contained within the walls of his facilities or the boundaries of his campuses.
His advice to the rest of the industry is to be transparent and exhibit “extreme ownership.”
“It’s a U.S. Navy Seals term that stresses a mindset of not blaming others for poor outcomes but taking full responsibility for what is happening or has happened,” he said.
“And strive to surround yourself with passionate subject matter experts,” Silvers continued. “You can never go wrong when you have smarter people than you on the bus to help you drive.”
While only one person can earn the Most Critical Player Award, Mission Critical decided to highlight a couple of our honorable mentions.
Vice President of Quality and Continuous Improvement
Salute Mission Critical
Don Denning spent 21 years serving in the U.S. Marine Corps as an aviation support equipment electrician. That was his first mission critical job, and it set him on the path to where he is today.
From there, he went on to work for a company called Lee Technologies, which was later acquired by Schneider Electric. It was his former boss from Lee Technologies, Lee Kirby, who recruited him to Salute Mission Critical and who nominated him for this award.
“Don has had a monumental impact at our company and in the industry,” Kirby said. “He does this as a natural part of his role in everything we do as he has tightly integrated safety with all training and driven a culture of accountability from the highest to the lowest position at Salute Mission Critical.”
But, in the words of Denning himself, every leader should value the safety of their team, customers, vendors, and every other person who is a part of their experience.
So, what’s remarkable about Denning is not that he puts safety first because, according to him, that’s a given. It’s more about his multifaceted approach. As a retired gunnery sergeant, he has honed his leadership and critical thinking skills and incorporates safety into everything he does.
“His remediation planning is a testament to his caliber as he precisely measures before and after projects to ensure returns are quantified and can be monitored afterwards for ongoing refinement,” Kirby said. “And all risks are identified and mitigated as a natural part of the initiative.”
Beyond this, it was his leadership and passion that led the company to make huge investments in workforce development and training programs, including Salute University. While this may not seem like it falls into the sphere of influence when it comes to safety, in this case, it does.
“Of the more than 2,000 veterans who have come through this program, 12% of them were homeless when they were hired,” Kirby said. “On average, 20 veterans die per day due to suicide, and homeless veterans are five times more likely to commit suicide. That and the many other risks of homelessness are eliminated with a job, and Don’s leadership in the area has allowed us to change the lives and, in some instances, save the lives of many veterans. This takes life safety to a new level, and it is why I am so proud of Don.”
Considering he didn’t even know he was nominated, Denning was pretty surprised to find out he was a finalist in the contest.
“Salute is a dream come true for me,” he said. “Getting more people to realize the value of a skilled job in the trades that support our digital infrastructure … especially for veterans, military spouses, and other demographics that are underrepresented in the data center industry, is my passion.
“I do appreciate the recognition,” he continued, “but feel that any of my colleagues are just as deserving. The esprit de corps and camaraderie at Salute Mission Critical is unmatched in the industry and reminds me of the Marine Corps because everyone on the team is focused on the mission and shares the same values.”
Chapter Lead - Physical Infrastructure Critical Environments Operations
Spark New Zealand
In his early days, Paul Haley made his debut into the working world as an electrician. Today, he is chapter lead of physical infrastructure for critical environments operations at Spark New Zealand. But a lot happened in between, and that’s what makes him such a unique player in the industry.
After working as an electrician for a few years, where he completed several data center projects, he was introduced to structured cabling, fiber optics, and critical infrastructure.
“I needed more of a challenge and found a data center facilities manager position,” Haley said. “It was a steep learning curve going from the tools to an office job, but it changed my perspective on the world.”
Learn more about Paul Haley — one of the honorable mentions for the 2020 Most Critical Play Award.
Just three months later, he was on his way to earning a bachelor’s degree with a focus on business and economics.
“He brings a diverse and bespoke skill set to the industry,” said Peter Fisher-Skipper, product owner in physical infrastructure for Spark.
But that’s not why Fisher-Skipper nominated Haley for the award.
“Paul is a truly inspiring leader who uses a servant leadership style to transform teams from low buy-in to high performing and happy,” he said.
And, from the sounds of it, his secret seems to be pretty simple: His actions are in line with his beliefs.
He extends a sense of gratitude for his job. He views the companies Spark serves as more than just customers; he sees them as the backbone of the country’s economy. He also embraces change. He’s passionate about watching the industry evolve rather than resistant.
“The learning never ends,” Haley said.
And he consistently supports his team to take on new opportunities and pursue additional study, just like he has done and continues to do himself.
“Over the last couple of years, Paul’s team of 11 has achieved or are working toward two postgraduate degrees, one bachelor’s degree, and seven diplomas,” Fisher-Skipper said.
His strong desire to always do his best is contagious and inspires those around him to do the same.
“Be the leader you need to be,” Haley said. “Take everything you have seen, heard, and been a part of and take the good bits and adjust them to suit you and your style. Then take all of the negative and ensure that you do not become what you do not like. And remember that on the journey, you will always be a teacher and a student simultaneously.
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