Equinix - Breaking the Stereotype on a DC Project
According to the Uptime Institute, 1 out of 4 data center projects have zero women on their design, build and operations staff. That was not the case on an Ashburn, VA project where the team was led by women who implemented new practices, applied lessons learned and provided a strong example of collaboration. While women make up just 14% of the construction workforce, these leaders are not only challenging the industry stereotype, but building a great project and fostering continuous improvement that can scale across the client’s portfolio to drive value and deliver great results.
“Growing up, I lived on a farm,” said Gabrielle Bishop, a DPR mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) coordinator on the Equinix project in Virginia known as DC21, a 156,000-sq.-ft. data center. “My sisters and I got to work alongside our dad. I loved to tinker with things, troubleshoot and problem solve, so as I got older, I thought I’d probably go to school for engineering.” Bishop interviewed at several colleges within the engineering school at Virginia Tech, but something hit home as she listened to the Dean of the Construction College speak. “As a woman, who was in the Navy like my dad, and a college athlete like me,” Bishop said. “She was relatable.” While Bishop was aware of the more common types of engineering, she had never heard of construction engineering. “I didn’t even know it was an option going into school,” she recalled. “But the way the Dean described it, it just drew me in.”
Alaina Reeverts, Equinix senior construction manager, has a similar story: “Since I was probably four or five years old, I knew I wanted to build things. My dad was into an engineering TV show, and I remember watching and seeing construction on a big tower. It stuck with me that I didn’t see any women, but it didn’t deter me from wanting to build.”
In fact, in high school, Reeverts was taking a drafting class with the goal of a career in architecture, when her teacher asked her if she had ever considered construction management.
“She told me I had the personality for it,” she laughed. Curious, Reeverts took a class through the local junior college and stuck with construction management all the way through her graduation from Illinois State University. “My internships got me hooked on construction, but my first project at my first job right out of college was a data center in Cheyenne, WY. I’ve been in mission critical construction ever since.”
“I wasn’t planning on working in construction at all,” said DPR project manager Lindsay Smith, who obtained her degree in architectural engineering from Penn State University. But once she had boots on the ground at a jobsite during an internship, she changed her area of focus from structural engineering to where she knew was a better fit for her—construction management. “When I was thinking about what I wanted to do for a career or what I wanted to study in college, construction was never a thought that crossed my mind,” said Smith. “It wasn’t even a curriculum option that I was aware of.”
Like most projects in the construction industry, mission critical projects including DC21 have encountered lingering challenges from the global pandemic. Having worked together previously on multiple Equinix projects, the team was well-prepared to put their heads together to find solutions.
“Procurement delays have been our biggest challenge,” said Bishop, who explained that equipment in data centers is on the critical path and essentially drives the schedule. “We’ve had to come up with temporary solutions and made sure to include everybody in the decision-making process, not just DPR, but making sure all voices are heard in brainstorming for solutions.” Bishop reiterated that the critical factors in the success of solving a problem are clear communication and transparency to ensure all parties know what’s happening at any given point. “We’ve developed a great relationship with each other and a process in which we’re now able to anticipate what Alaina’s team needs and what they expect from us.”
“Equipment and material delays were definitely difficult to maneuver,” added Smith, noting that the delays were significant and often with no notice. “It took very transparent and constant communication, and creativity, to maintain our schedule where we could. It required a lot of work from all of our teams.” Making this a priority helped continue to build and foster a close client relationship.
“Dealing with the equipment delays, this team came together to brainstorm our options and potential workarounds,” said Reeverts. “We’ve worked on multiple Equinix projects together over several years, and we know how to work well together. Having our combined knowledge, experience and our close relationships, together we were ready to prepare backup plans if we needed to.”
“One of the ways we did things differently on this project, was developing a ‘scorecard’ and a process for using it,” explained Smith, including that the detailed and thorough scorecard served as a platform for keeping project stakeholders in constant communication, encouraging open and honest feedback, with the intent to better support the project and its teams. It worked so well in fact, that it has become a model for Equinix projects moving forward. The success of the method has prompted members of several Equinix project teams to visit the DC21 site to learn more about implementing the process into their own projects.
Additionally, Smith and Bishop helped develop and implement what Reeverts and the Equinix team refer to as an “a la carte” menu. “If we run into an issue, we aren’t looking for just one solution,” said Bishop. “We talk about options a, b, c and d. We highlight the low-cost impact, high-cost impact and middle of the road impact. The levels of schedule and risk impacts. The Equinix team is then able to ask questions, have discussions with us and among themselves, then pick from the menu understanding all of their options and how those choices work together. They help shape the path of the project going forward with full transparency.”
And for Bishop, Reeverts and Smith, it’s not only about finding solutions and fostering good relationships among themselves as a team of female leaders. “We take it seriously, to build strong relationships with everyone onsite, not just the team in the trailer,” said Reeverts. Added Bishop, “I’m proud to be part of this strong female leadership team, but what is truly significant is that we’re good at our jobs. We are highly skilled, experienced and resilient experts who also happen to be women.”
While this team crushed the stereotype in a male-dominated industry, all agreed that there is unlimited potential for all women to continue to break the mold moving forward, including work on STEM, mission critical and other advanced technology projects, with data center demand projected to grow approximately 10% a year through 2030.
“We’re seeing more and more women come into the trades,” said Bishop, noting that she’s currently working with an all-female fire alarm crew on another in-progress Equinix project. “There isn’t one specific opportunity for women to integrate into the industry or into advanced technology. I genuinely feel that every door is wide open.” She added that exploring various roles in construction early in her education was critical in finding her path and fully understanding the range of options she had in choosing what to study and where to focus her career goals. “Ask questions and be ready to dive in. Just be curious. Be open and be yourself.”
“I see female electricians, women working for our telecom and drywall subcontractors, we’re starting to see females represented in so many roles who haven’t let stereotypes influence their decisions to get into construction,” said Smith. “And I’ve been lucky to work for a company and with a customer who both empower women to work in the field, to lead teams or to explore any path they’re interested in.”
Initially, Smith shied away from working in advanced technology. “I wasn’t interested in working in this market at all,” said Smith. “It was intimidating.” She added that she was unsure if she had adequate technical knowledge to work with the complex systems typically found in data centers. “I didn’t know if I was equipped for it because I started my career in a market that was less technical than advanced technology, and that was the only experience I had.” When Smith joined DPR’s advanced technology team nearly four years ago, her first project was an Equinix data center, and has she worked on mission critical projects ever since.
With more than 10 years’ experience in mission critical construction, Reeverts is fueled by the pace of data center projects. “It’s not boring,” said Reeverts. “It’s ever evolving. There is always a new challenge to solve, and it is intimidating.” She said that working on data centers and mission critical projects might not be as ‘pretty’ as work in other markets, but that’s part of what makes the work interesting. “There’s more concentration on the ‘heart and soul’ of the building, its systems. It might not sound sexy, and that’s why it’s so important that there are opportunities for young women to become aware of how rewarding this work can be.”
To the young women entering the construction industry, from the women who are and have been pioneering the way, Reeverts said, “Be receptive to criticism and help. But don’t be intimidated. Don't get small. There is so much to learn and there are so many opportunities to succeed.”
Posted on October 25, 2023
Last Updated October 24, 2023