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A Philosophical Route to Data Centres: Insights from Courtney Popp of Infrastructure Masons

Tue 9 Jan 2024

Ahead of Data Centre World at ExCeL London on the 6-7 of March, we spoke to Courtney Popp, the Director of Education Programs at Infrastructure Masons.

She shared her journey from a philosophy graduate to a leader in the data centre industry, and discussed the critical challenges facing the sector today.

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The Philosophical Route to Data Centres

Courtney graduated from the University of Lynchburg with a degree in Philosophy in 2010. This path, she explains, wasn’t straightforward.

“I started college in 2002, took a significant break, and then returned to complete my degree,” Courtney recalls.

Her initial ambition was to become a Philosophy Professor, but soon after entering graduate school, she realised this was not the path for her. This revelation led her to Cisco, where she landed what she affectionately refers to as her ‘first big girl job’.

The Intersection of Philosophy and Data Centres

When asked about the relevance of her philosophy degree to her current role, Courtney highlights the unexpected parallels.

“Philosophy taught me to approach problems creatively and think differently,” she said. This skill has proved invaluable in her roles in programme and project management, particularly in synthesising diverse information into cohesive strategies.

A significant strength Courtney attributes to her philosophical education is the confidence to admit when she doesn’t have all the answers.

“In an industry as complex and evolving as data centres, acknowledging what you don’t know is crucial,” she asserted.

This approach has empowered her to tackle one of the industry’s most pressing challenges: the talent gap.

Confronting the Talent Gap in Data Centres

Courtney identifies a looming talent gap in the data centre sector, with an estimated 300,000 job vacancies on the horizon.

“We have an ageing workforce and not enough happening at the entry-level,” she noted.

Infrastructure Masons is actively seeking solutions to this problem, exploring various avenues to attract a new generation to the industry.

Courtney also touches on the often-overlooked aspect of sustainability in data centres: workforce sustainability.

“Without a skilled workforce, data centres cannot operate efficiently, which is a sustainability issue in its own right,” she said.

A Year of Change and Challenge

In 2015, Courtney made a bold decision to relocate from Washington, D.C. to Denver, Colorado.

“It was a year of transition and introspection,” she reflected.

Courtney’s move to Denver wasn’t just a geographical change; it was a shift in her career trajectory. Initially taking a job that seemed promising but quickly turned out to be a poor fit, she found herself burnt out and yearning for something more fulfilling.

An Unexpected Turn

Courtney’s journey took an unexpected turn when she applied for a position at the Colorado Department of Labour and Employment (CDLE).

Despite feeling she had ‘bombed’ the interview, she was offered the job.

“It was a role I didn’t fully understand at first, but it turned out to be a defining moment in my career,” she said.

Over seven years with CDLE, Courtney rose through the ranks, gaining extensive knowledge about the workforce development system in the United States and beyond. Her tenure included managing critical aspects of unemployment insurance during the pandemic, providing her with invaluable insights into the sector.

Pioneering Workforce Development Initiatives

When asked about her proudest achievement at CDLE, Courtney highlights a program aimed at helping people on unemployment insurance re-enter the workforce more quickly.

“We targeted individuals laid off through no fault of their own from declining industries,” she explained. c

Under her leadership, the program underwent significant modernisation, introducing virtual appointments, self-scheduling, and translations into Spanish to increase accessibility and diversity.

“This program not only modernised our approach, but also ensured our initiatives truly represented the people of Colorado. It’s something I’m incredibly proud of,” she said.

Bridging Technology and Humanity

When asked about applying her understanding of the human condition to digitalisation, Courtney emphasised the importance of keeping the human aspect central in technology-heavy spaces.

“We are in an industry aligned with advanced fields like AI, but often overlook the human part of the equation,” she stated.

Her focus at Infrastructure Masons is to demystify data centres, making them more accessible and understandable to the public.

Courtney highlights the ongoing efforts at Infrastructure Masons to educate the public about data centres.

“We aim to explain the necessity of physical space for storing the immense amount of data generated daily,” she explained.

This educational drive is part of a broader campaign to bridge the gap between public perception and knowledge of the data centre space.

The Role of Media in Shaping Perceptions of Data Centres

Discussing the media’s role, Courtney acknowledges that while she isn’t an expert in media relations, she sees significant potential in media as a tool for positive portrayal of digital infrastructure.

She points out the lack of accurate media representation of data centres and the need for factual and complete storytelling.

“We need to emphasise the economic impact of data centres and their role as a major job multiplier,” Courtney asserted.

Courtney illustrates the media’s sometimes one-sided storytelling. She refers to an incident in Northern Virginia where a movie star protested against a data centre’s establishment, as widely covered by the media.

The untold part of the story, however, was the movie star’s desire to continue fox hunting in the area, a detail that significantly changes the narrative.

“This example highlights the necessity of telling the entire story, not just the convenient parts,” Courtney emphasised.

The Importance of Comprehensive Reporting

Courtney’s example underscores the need for comprehensive and factual reporting in the media.

“It’s vital that the stories surrounding data centres encompass the economic impacts and the real reasons behind community responses,” she added.

This approach ensures a more balanced and informed public understanding of the data centre industry.

Courtney believes that holistic and accurate media coverage can significantly impact the data centre industry’s public perception. She stresses the importance of the data centre industry in telling its own story.

“Organisations like the Data Center Coalition, 7×24 Exchange International, and Infrastructure Masons are playing a pivotal role in providing resources and knowledge for accurate representation. It’s about empowering those who understand the industry to contribute to the narrative,” she said.

Government and Industry Education

Courtney also touches on government’s role in better communicating the significance of digital infrastructure. She notes the challenges in accurately portraying the data centre industry due to a lack of technical knowledge among journalists and government officials.

“Educating these key players is crucial for accurate storytelling about our industry,” she added.

Graduation, Transition, and Impact at Infrastructure Masons

In the final part of our discussion, Courtney Popp shared insights from her most recent transformative year, 2022, highlighting her move to Infrastructure Masons and the significant contributions she’s making in the data centre industry.

2022 was a year of significant change for Courtney. She officially graduated with her Master’s degree and made the decision to move back to the DC area from Denver.

This transition was not just about relocating geographically, but also marked a pivotal shift in her career.

“I packed up everything, including my dog and plants, and drove across the country, looking for a role that resonated with my aspirations,” she recounts.

Joining Infrastructure Masons

Courtney’s job search led her to Infrastructure Masons, where she found a role that perfectly aligned with her unique blend of skills and experience.

“It was a combination of my background in workforce development, education, and a bit of technology from my time at Cisco that made me a good fit for Infrastructure Masons,” she explained.

Courtney emphasises the importance of feeling fulfilled in her role and the satisfaction of ending each day knowing she has made a difference on a global scale.

Discussing her impact at Infrastructure Masons, Courtney is particularly proud of the organisation’s scholarship program.

“We award hundreds of scholarships worldwide, helping individuals from diverse backgrounds, including those transitioning from the military or seeking their first job in digital infrastructure,” she said.

Courtney highlights the program’s success in regions like Africa, where it provides significant opportunities for economic mobility and skill development.

Inspiring Stories of Change

Courtney shares a heartening story of a scholarship recipient from Lagos who, through his passion for education, has influenced others to apply for the scholarship, creating a ripple effect of positive change.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see the direct impact of our efforts on individuals’ lives and their communities,” she added.

When asked how she would encourage people to consider a career in data centres, Courtney said that one does not need to be a coding expert to be part of this industry.

“It’s about expanding the perception of what a data centre job entails and highlighting the varied opportunities within this field,” she explains.

She shares an anecdote from a recent conference where she educated facility managers about the potential of working in data centres.

“Have you ever switched on the Internet at your house? Have you ever plugged in all of that stuff? You can work in a data centre as a facility manager for example,” she said.

Courtney’s Vision for Data Centre World 2024

As we looked ahead to Data Centre World 2024, Courtney Popp shared her enthusiasm for presenting the innovative educational initiatives she’s been working on at Infrastructure Masons.

Courtney’s excitement centres around the launch of a unique curriculum developed in partnership with JASON Learning, a STEM education nonprofit.

This curriculum, focusing on digital infrastructure, will offer modules on various aspects of data centre development, including site selection, sustainability, government policy, and future-proofing for AI.

“It’s about introducing students to the intricacies of data centre operations and the innovations in cooling and other technologies,” she explained.

The curriculum, set to launch on International Data Center Day in March 2024, aligns with Courtney’s vision for broadening the reach of digital infrastructure education.

Courtney highlights several ways that data centre vendors and end-users attending Data Centre World can get involved.

“Companies can adopt a module, putting their story and brand into the educational content,” she suggested.

Another innovative approach Courtney discusses is hosting design and pitch challenges, where students tackle real-world problems provided by industry partners.

“It’s a chance for students to engage creatively and practically with the challenges in our industry,” she said.

A Vision of Impact and Inspiration

As we concluded our interview, it was clear that Courtney Popp is not just shaping the future of digital infrastructure through her work at Infrastructure Masons, but also inspiring a new generation to explore and innovate in this critical field.

Her appearance at Data Centre World 2024 promises to be a highlight, offering insights into the intersection of education, technology, and sustainability in the data centre industry.

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