Facebook used the global hiatus wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic to re-evaluate its data center network and to improve its scale and execution.

That’s according to Jeff Ronan, the BMS program management leader at Facebook, talking at last week’s DCD>Building at Scale event for the data center construction ecosystem.

At Facebook, he said, the internal challenge of managing the business through Covid-19 was in many ways seen as an opportunity – to examine what worked, what didn’t, and how operations could be improved.

“We looked at this as an opportunity to transform our business models. We weren't doing this just to adapt to Covid, but also to become more scalable. It triggered a wholesale re-evaluation of our entire global program, our [business] partners, our processes, our delivery model,” said Ronan.

He continued: “What we found is that we were a bit bloated, we needed to ‘lean it out’, if we're going to hit on all cylinders. We identified goals and changed the way we execute to achieve them... Ultimately, for us on the building automation team at Facebook, for 2020, we were able to deliver at a greater scale than ever. But at the same time, we were able to lower capital expenditures while improving our quality.

“So what [had started as] a challenge turned out to be an incredible opportunity with a very happy ending for us and we’re still moving in that direction.”

Ronan was speaking in a DCD>Building at Scale panel session entitled ‘What are the principles for effective project partnerships in 2021?’ alongside ABEC’s Matthew Morrall and ATS Automation’s Lucy Gedney, with the session moderated by Honeywell global strategic account manager of data centers, Cathal Martin Murphy.

Re-evaluating strategy, for a company of the size of Facebook building out hyperscale data centers across the world, is a necessity added Ronan.

“We have a lot of different partners, consulting partners, contractors, key stakeholders, so you've got to try to find a way to align that strategic vision. And that's a pretty big challenge. Internally, you've got to make sure that your your teams are staffed accordingly to execute at scale. You have to make sure that you have partners that have no qualified resources, to also build with you at scale. You have to be repeatable, you have to find a way to manage change [and] you have to have streamlined processes.

“And you have to constantly re-evaluate what's working and what's not, and be bold enough to make those changes in the middle of this full-speed train you're on. At a high level, you have to look ahead, and you have to identify and mitigate risk to the business. And you have to wrap a plan around that. So that's kind of the approach that we've taken at Facebook and, specifically, within the building automation team,” said Ronan.

At ATS Automation, meanwhile, the initial response was to keep staff busy while some rivals automatically reached for the pink slips, laying off double-digit percentages of staff. “We were about trying to keep everyone busy, even if we pushed forward some of our design that we might not have done for several months,” said Gedney, vice president of sales at ATS Automation.

However, as an organization serving critical infrastructure, it quickly changed course: helping to keep data centers, laboratories and healthcare facilities open and running.

But it didn’t stop there. The company was completely restructured, with the training department expanded because hiring the right people in the current environment with the right skills had become a significant challenge.

“We have a never-ending stream of new people coming through. But then you're like, ‘great, you have new people, how do you get them up to up to speed?’ So we created an internal training department to ramp them up faster, and to give them some experience before they are in an environment where they can actually crash some things.”

Also, despite the hype surrounding work-from-home, another of the company’s hiring criteria was a willingness, not just to travel, but to relocate for one or two years at a time.

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