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Data Centre Titans: From Quarterback to Tech Leader with Darryll Dewan, CEO of Total Site Solutions

Wed 3 Jan 2024

Data Centre Titans Interview Series From Quarterback to Tech Leader with Darryll Dewan

In the seventh edition of Data Centre Titans, we hear from Darryll Dewan, CEO and President of Total Site Solutions (TSS).

Darryll Dewan shares his journey to the top, from his early days at Dell to his current leadership role at TSS.

With a focus on AI’s transformative role in data centre management and the significance of sustainability in modern data centres, Darryll also provides his predictions for the future of the industry.

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What is your role and how did you get to your current position?

I am the CEO and President of TSS.

During my tenure as a Dell executive, I came to know TSS board Chairman, Peter Woodward. We had opportunities to get to know each other and discussed sports and business philosophies. We found common ground in these two subjects – Peter is a hockey guy, me football, and one thing stood out, which was how we value trusted relationships.

I left Dell just before joining TSS to pursue my next business adventure. My tenure with Dell was excellent; while it is a great company with wonderful people, I wanted to pursue board level assignments that could leverage my sales and operational experiences.

Call this serendipity because Peter and I reconnected at the time my tenure with Dell ended and decided to meet to discuss a role on the TSS board.  We soon uncovered an opportunity to lead the company as CEO.  I love challenges and decided to dive in, joining the TSS team in November of 2022. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

What is a major challenge you have faced, and how did you overcome it?

Early in my selling career, I was struggling to make sales. I was frustrated and worried that I was in the wrong business. Turns out, I discovered the main contributing factor during a sales conversation with a founding partner of a leading CPA firm in my Hartford, Connecticut territory.

I was told I was focusing too much time discussing the technology – as we used to say, the speeds and feeds – and not enough time presenting the solution that produced the main goal: the business value.

He helped me refocus my sales effort to the business outcome and related business value that a company would earn from deploying the computer, software, and services. The true value comes from turning data into information, faster and more accurately than before. This helped the firm provide broader levels of service, faster and more competitively than other firms.

Candidly, this provided me with insight to selling into manufacturing, distribution, and services businesses. His coaching and my adjustment were a major turning point in my business career.

This reminds me of a related topic: mentorship. At some point, we all need a coach, a mentor, whether it is a family member, business leader, or a person who is successful in their role and is willing to help.

I was fortunate to have been mentored along the way by multiple folks. I recall one was called the ‘coach’. Long story, but at one point in his life, he was a coach and then he became very successful in the high-tech world. As a result, I view my role as a ‘coach’ thanks to him. You win together, you lose together, and one of my main goals is to put the right people in the right jobs.

What is a pivotal moment in your life that has significantly influenced who you are today?

My parents were in the entertainment business and, at an early age, I was introduced to well-known and popular entertainers.

I was impressed by the talent who took the time to get to know me; they were nice, diverse, creative, and simply kind.

This made an impression on me, that being kind and attentive was good. They were much more respected than the others with an ego, and so I have found it personally more rewarding to do my best to get to know people at a deeper level, to respect cultural or personal differences, and to be as kind as possible to everyone.

You were a high school quarterback from small town who found great success. How do you apply what you learned from those early days to your leadership role now?

Team sports defined me.

I had the opportunity to be the quarterback on an amazing team of tough high school football players in a small Connecticut town, and with a coach who we thought was crazy at the time.

This coach retired as a legend a few years after we all played for him, and the experiences we share have defined many of us. He wasn’t crazy, he just demanded more from us than we would ordinarily bring to the team and, as a result, we learned to never quit, to be in top physical shape, and to play as a team.

Our coach pushed us well beyond any level of our own physical and mental limits, and one of the lessons learned that has helped me in leadership roles is it is okay to push my personnel beyond their own defined limits.

I had my fair share of injuries and learning opportunities, and it all came together my senior season when we won all but one game. Our offensive system featured me as a running quarterback, and with a strong line, we crushed it.

We had a great team of players that contributed to my success. I was subsequently recruited to play at the next level by a host of New England colleges. In time, I was recruited by larger Division One schools, and chose to play for the Irish at Notre Dame.

The New England schools and coaches focused their narratives on being a big fish in a small school versus a small fish in a bigger school. They seemed to think settling was best. I didn’t.

I picked Notre Dame because I decided to bet on myself and to never settle. It worked out well. It wasn’t easy, but I became a three-year starter, running back, receiver, slotback, or fullback depending on the opponent and what scheme coach Ara Parseghian had in mind.

The obvious lesson was being flexible and prepared, using your skills and talents in the best way to help the team win.

One short story about being recruited has helped me select talent in business. Coach Parseghian offered a scholarship saying he would give me a chance to compete with some great athletes and get a great education, but couldn’t commit to me playing, which he said was up to me, no guarantees.

I am not sure that would work today, but it did back in the day. Many of my teammates could play anywhere and chose Notre Dame for the simple chance to compete with the best.

In the sales business, I look for people who want to compete and who are focused on that same principle, versus guarantees, etc.

Given your focus on software and high-performance computing, particularly around AI, how do you foresee AI transforming data centre management and operations?

To some degree, it is playing out in real time, and we will all learn along the way.

But we have all experienced how technology can transform how we work, play, and interact at an individual level and a social level. The growth of mobile phones, edge computing, IOT devices, cybersecurity, software complexity, and enhancement of telecommunication speed results in a massive amount of information exchanged across our world today.

AI is the new ‘wow’, especially now that we have Generative AI and super fast, more powerful, affordable computing to facilitate the advancement and utilisation of AI. Data is king, and compute power unlocks it all.

In my experience, the adoption of technology and especially new tech becomes a cost-benefit analysis – the calculus between time and money. How much will it cost, how long will it take, what is the value associated with the investment, and what are the ‘risk’ factors that could impact the decision?

At TSS, we assist enterprises to accelerate their adoption of powerful AI and computing technology by rapidly integrating and testing a variety of computing components, and delivering with speed and quality at a lower cost with the comfort of minimising the risk associated with doing this on their own. In other words, we are totally committed to helping organisations do what they do best by doing what we do best: get the power of technology in their hands with speed, quality, reliability, and at a lower cost.

Furthermore, the explosive growth of emerging technologies, like liquid cooling, creates options for enterprises to move computing power closer to where their needs are geographically. The use of modular data centres is a faster and affordable option, and allows an enterprise to maintain control of their data in their own facility.

The demands of the end customer will also continue to put pressure on operators for faster time to value, incremental improvements in flexibility to be able to scale up and down as needed, while expectations of quality and reliability continue to increase, even though the integrations and technologies are getting more complex.

The managers and operators, along with the vendors and end customers, will need partners that can more effectively and efficiently integrate and deploy, ensuring more rapid time to value. As deployments get more complex, being able to handle complexity at scale not only becomes more critical, but it will require partners that have the expertise to simplify the complex and deliver with exceptional quality. This will continue to be wrapped in the pressures of reaching sustainability goals and increasingly strict regulations.

As demand continues to grow, we will also continue to see challenges in the supply chain, so any hiccup between the placement of an order to installation in the data centre can mean not only loss of revenue, but challenges to one’s reputation and their customer’s success. The stakes continue to grow and the quality, speed, and flexibility of partners like TSS becomes even more critical.

Integrating and deploying data centre technologies swiftly and efficiently is key in today’s fast-paced tech environment. Can you share some of the challenges you’ve faced in this area and how you overcame them?

There are two challenges that we proactively address. First is matching the human resource needs to each project. Because of issues in the supply chain, we can experience bumpiness in the delivery of technology, meaning there are times when we are working on several small projects followed by a period where we operate near capacity.

We approach our personnel management with creative thinking to ensure we have support when needed and prioritise the wellbeing of our staff. As we continue to grow, our capacity management becomes easier.

Secondly, TSS is ensuring our partners understand our full capabilities to engage earlier in projects where our expertise can ensure they roll out solutions with speed and flexibility in a way that end users can consume them.

One of our partners was working with a large insurance company to deliver a highly complex cybersecurity solution, and trying to do it on the premises of the data centre. For a variety of technical and logistics reasons, the project wasn’t moving at the speed the end user needed.

We used not only our technical expertise, but logistics understanding, to package up their racks, deliver them to our facility, and complete the entire project in under two weeks – when previously, the project had been in process for a couple of months. We had the capacity to serve them, the understanding and experience to reduce the complexity, and were able to simplify the entire process for our partner and the end user.

How can we shift the perception from data centres being significant energy consumers to champions of sustainability and social impact?

When you look at recent announcements and sustainability reports from industry leaders, I think we are on the way to changing that perception.

The public is starting to understand the progress made by our industry, as they recognise the infrastructure needs of our modern society, and the role data centres play in that.

We are seeing more cooperation, investment, and innovation in balancing the environment and sustainability with growth and infrastructure needs.

My perception is that, early on, the industry might not have reacted with the urgency that the public desired. In the past several years, the data centre industry has taken a leadership role in sustainability and made efforts to improve cooperation and knowledge sharing.

Vendors, operators, and managers throughout the ecosystem are investing in innovative solutions that improve recycling, reduce water and energy consumption, protect resources and the environment, and have a positive social impact.

We are seeing improvement in facility development with smaller footprints, innovation in cooling systems and techniques, investment in power generation techniques such as Tier 4 generators, more efficient components, and recycling programs to name a few. All these things will have an impact, but the industry by its very nature will always have opportunity to improve.

Thinking about the next five years, what is a bold prediction you have for the data centre industry?

There is no doubt that IT will continue to evolve. Remember the days of the service bureau, the glass house, mainframes, Profs, then distributed client computing, the Internet, server/storage solutions, SaaS, the cloud, the edge, hybrid cloud, hyperscalers, colocations, and more.

Everyone is searching for the next best thing to make us more productive and competitive.

To help in a unique way, we at TSS are investing resources and time to drive the modular data centre business. While the deployment of them is not new, TSS has deployed more than 300, with more growth expected.

As stated earlier, due to AI and the recent acceleration of high-performance computing, the demand to deploy megawatt compute power to process AI solutions faster is all around us.

The sustainability value is also a driver, which is hard to do in a conventional data centre. The alternatives to deploy take longer and cost more.

The compound annual growth rate of the modular data centre market is expected to be 15% per year from 2023 to 2032. This is a significant opportunity for TSS and our OEM partners.

I would be shocked to see enterprises move their critical data outside the company IT environment, which means localised data centre power is the next best alternative. The idea of modular data centres is not limited to large containers, as smaller, more flexible options are gaining attention.

As we look at inference needs with AI and machine learning, where that needs to be deployed for the most practical application and real-time generation of content might also drive the need for more compute power through modular data centres.

What advice would you give to someone starting in the data centre industry?

First off, develop a winner’s mindset. Be prepared to make a difference. Do not become a passenger on the train, drive the train.

Do your homework. Become a student of the game, out-prepare others. Be ready to adapt to change.

Develop your personal brand – your reputation and your network of contacts.

Don’t be afraid to do something. Be prepared to fail and always get back up.

Never quit. Ask yourself what the value is you bring to the table, why do they need you. Deliver on your commitments and ‘make a difference’.

Could you share a quote that inspires you as a leader or empowers you in your work?

I had the opportunity to play for a few great coaches and two stand out for their quotability. My high school coach Gus Edwards, and legendary Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian.

Coach Parseghian said: “The little things make the big things; football is a game of inches.”

At some point in a game, even though a field is 100 yards long, you will face a forth down and inches on the goal line to score a winning touchdown. Same in business, often the last mile in a business situation is the most critical. Be aware of the little things and be prepared to deal with them.

My own quote is ‘operate your business with your high beams on’.  Just like driving at night, when you have your high beams on, you can see farther down the road and can take preventative action sooner. Do the same in business.

Coach Edwards said: “Get up, you are winning.”

This was encouragement he would yell to help us avoid quitting or letting up. When we were winning or losing, it applied. Likewise, the same in business; never quit.

Coach Edwards’ philosophy was ‘you will hate practice, and you will love the games’. Little did we know, if you can perform in practice under incredible physical and mental challenges, you will love the game and simply execute. His motto ‘don’t think, just execute’; this is paralleled in business.

Both coaches would say ‘football is the game of life’. We used to cringe – here we go again. But over the years, I have realised how profound that is, as teammates are lifelong friends and the sports parallels to business are numerous: preparation, execution, and teamwork are common denominators in sports and business.

And yes, the stories do change over time, we somehow got better, faster, and smarter.

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