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Data Centre Titans: Shane Kilfoil on Leading the Charge in Data Centre Cooling Innovation and Sustainability

Fri 15 Mar 2024

In the tenth edition of Data Centre Titans, we feature Shane Kilfoil, President of Subzero Engineering for Senneca Holdings.

Shane shares his career journey in the data centre industry and his perspectives on the future of cooling.

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

I am currently President of Subzero Engineering for Senneca Holdings. I have held several senior positions globally in the industry and IT space, with the most recent position being Senior Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing for Tripp Lite. Tripp Lite was acquired by Eaton just over three years ago, and shortly thereafter I moved to Senneca Holdings.

Growing up in South Africa, I had several friends who were very targeted in their career approach. I studied electrical engineering and realised that I was more suited to a commercial role.

Earlier in my career, I wanted to see the world, which resulted in leaving South Africa in 1996. My curiosity of seeing the globe, matched with my technical know-how, allowed me to get jobs overseas that kept me in the technology field. I was able to take different roles of increasing responsibility in various companies throughout my career, and that has set me up for where I am today.

I tend to enjoy positions in organisations that are fast-growth or turnaround situations. I have been lucky enough to have held senior positions in companies where I have continued to be challenged and stretched.

I have realised that there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to leading different teams. Every organisation is at a different maturity level or at a different life cycle. When I come into an organisation, I do an assessment to determine where we are in that lifecycle, considering what are the strengths of the team I have and what coaching and leadership style will best suit them.

I adapt my leadership style to best suit them initially. You spend a lot of time with people, especially in small organisations, where they do not understand why you are doing things. It is more time-consuming than the fast-growth, top leadership style. Ultimately, I’d like to get to more of a democratic leadership style where I take a lot of input, work with a team on clear goals, and let them run the business themselves.

What challenges have you faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?

While working for a large multinational, I took a position back in South Africa to head up their African business unit. It was one of the more challenging positions that I have held in my career. I had to unify offices, operations and business with different cultural values across the continent into a cohesive entity that delivered on the company’s growth objectives.

It was not all smooth sailing and I had to invest heavily in building the right leadership and management structures across the continent to get us onto the right trajectory. The time spent on developing the right team set the business up for successful execution.

I believe that communication is one of the most powerful tools that a leader has in overcoming challenges that manifest themselves in businesses. It is a tool that is often not easily or effectively deployed.

I try to spend a lot of time with various teams and individuals within the organisation. Understanding what motivates them as groups or individuals, or what challenges they may be facing, allows me to gain greater understanding in how I, or my leadership team, need to communicate effectively within the organisation.

This understanding allows me to adjust my communication style in different situations to reach the optimum outcome. Even doing this, I am not always successful, but I continue to listen, learn and adjust to improve my effectiveness in communication.

In some instances, leaders need to lead their team in a direction that might be contrary to what the broader organisation believes the direction should be.

In the high growth or transformative type businesses, you are often in an environment where leaders have a vision of where the business needs to go. The broader organisation might not see or understand the vision, but as a leader you need to help them understand the direction and marshal the resources to support the visions.

Staying the course is not always easy, as people generally do not like change, especially if they do not understand it. However, through effective communication and sustained execution, perceptions can change when they start seeing the positive results that the vision brings them.

Why are containment and infrastructure solutions, as well as cleanrooms and separation systems, important for approaching data centre efficiency and reliability?

As demand continues to rise, compute power needs to continue to increase. Whether it is a hyperscale, colocation, or enterprise data centre, this increase in compute power is driving an increase in power and water consumption.

Every data centre owner is looking for ways to improve their PUE and thereby minimise the operating costs while meeting the increase in demand. There are a number of tools that providers are using to achieve these improved efficiencies.

By separating, containing, and managing the hot and cold air flow within a data centre, containment and infrastructure solutions, as well as cleanrooms and separation systems, can effectively help data centre operators increase their efficiency and lower their operating costs.

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

Data centres consume large amounts of power and water, and most of the industry recognises that finding sustainable solutions is important if we are to minimise the impact on the environment. This has resulted in data centre owners and operators being proactive in their approaches to minimising the impact on the environment.

We are at a point where the larger impacting items have been addressed and our customers are now looking at other items in the supply chain. Our customers ultimately dictate where we go as an industry, and we are being asked to help them reduce the environmental impact of data centres.

Our product solutions inherently help reduce water and power consumption, but as suppliers to data centres, we need to improve the carbon footprint of the products we use to achieve these reductions. SubZero Engineering has a goal of becoming the greenest containment provider in the industry.

We are actively focused on launching products that are market leading in terms of their lower carbon footprint when compared to our peers.

What advancements in containment and infrastructure solutions do you find most exciting?

While compute power has been increasing at a relatively steady rate over the last number of years, artificial intelligence (AI) has introduced a step function change in the demands on data centre. Operators are having to balance the requirements of an existing infrastructure with the increased density required to effectively run AI.

The data centre containment market has relied on relatively passive devices that are not smart devices. As operators are changing the way they manage their infrastructure, we are seeing an increased need for smart containment.

By imbedding intelligence within our solutions, we create another data point within an operator’s environment that allows them to manage their facility more efficiently. This change from passive to active containment is one of the areas that I think has huge potential for the industry over the next few years.

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

Liquid cooling is driving a lot of conversation in the data centre industry. Like AI, it is an exciting development that opens several possibilities within the data centre environment.

Like many emerging technologies, there is no industry standard yet, and who knows which liquid cooling technology will ultimately be the dominant solution.

At present, it looks to be cold plate technology. In our space, there has been a lot of speculation as to what liquid cooling means for containment and the broader infrastructure environment.

While it is still early, I believe we may see the data centre design change a little in terms of conveying the liquid around the data centre. Could the trend of using aisle frames to support the conveyance return back to raised flooring to keep the fluids on the ground and not overhead?

In the environment of cooling, I do not believe that we will get away from cooled air within the data centre in the very near future. The need for it may be tempered, but our belief is that that most operators will go to a hybrid model of liquid cooling on the necessary items and traditional cooling for the rest.

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

The data centre industry is an exciting space to be and, like most industries, has many different specialties within it. The good companies and influencers within the industry are well known.

For someone starting out, I would recommend that they try to get a good grounding in the basics and across a few sub disciplines. Most importantly, they need to stay relevant and up to speed on changing technologies.

The industry is very inquisitive and the crazy idea of today can be the next big trend within the industry tomorrow. Being able to scale to new technologies quickly is important in staying relevant.

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

I tell my leadership team to work themselves out of a job by building good teams. With a good team you get outsised results.

About the Author

Shane is currently President of Subzero Engineering for Senneca Holdings. Over his 25 year career, he has held a number of senior positions globally in the industrial and IT space.

Previously, he spent 11 years with Eaton, where he held various positions of increasing responsibility that ranges from sales, product management and general management, his most recent position was as the Managing Director of Africa.

Shane holds a National Diploma in Electrical Engineering from the Nelson Mandela University in South Africa and a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Management.

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