…By supplying telecommunications and edge data center providers with best-in-class generators to support the mission-critical information and exchange of data, Kohler is enabling this Fourth Industrial ‘data’ Revolution. I believe that data centers and the generator products we manufacture will lead us into the Fifth Industrial Revolution. Power systems, whether they are diesel generators, hydrogen fuel cells, or large-scale battery arrays, are fundamental to the success of this revolution.
The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?
In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Farney, Director of Marketing & Business Development for the Data Center segment at Kohler Power Systems.
Sean Farney is Director of Marketing & Business Development for the Data Center segment at Kohler Power Systems. He leads segment growth, supporting Kohler’s data center power systems strategy, including channel programs, brand awareness, product performance, and solutions differentiation, and partners with the sales team to prioritize, develop, and execute a global customer acquisition strategy. He was the founder of Ubiquity Critical Environments, a data center startup, built and operated Microsoft’s Chicago facility, and held leadership positions at The Boston Consulting Group, Intercontinental Exchange, and Rockwell Automation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Today, I’m a self-proclaimed data center nerd — but I didn’t start out this way. In the mid 1990’s, I worked at a small IT startup with fellow geek Mike Manos. We both pursued technology paths, which crossed again while he was the general manager of Microsoft’s data center program. Mike built an empire there. It was a team of industry heavyweights, including Christian Belady, Joel Stone, Dan Costello and Najam Ahmad. I still vividly remember getting the call from Mike while sitting on a beach in Jamaica on a family vacation, asking me to join the team and get the 120MW Chicago site into production. I jumped on the incredible opportunity and became immersed in the very specialized world of hyperscale data center operations. This was a seminal moment in my career — a huge up-level — and the start of my love affair with data centers. Not long after, I went on to launch an edge data center startup company, Ubiquity Critical Environments. I recently joined Kohler to build out the data center business. Kohler has been making generators for more than 100 years and is third in the world. Kohler is adding a new focus on the hyperscale segment, leveraging our 4MW genset. It is exciting stuff to be driving!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I mentioned Ubiquity Critical Environments, the data center company I founded with a friend and business partner. We started the company in 2012, and that was one of the most educational and interesting times of my professional life. The genesis of Ubiquity was at a dinner in New York, with the business plan drawn literally on the back of a napkin. We took this pitch — that the world needed small data centers (now called the edge) everywhere. We pitched it to a hedge fund and secured the capital to launch the company. Developing and launching the product, courting customers, raising capital, and driving sales and marketing was incredibly valuable. I wouldn’t trade this professional experience for any other.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is this: “He who toils here hath set his mark.”
The motto is seen on the Kohler Co. medallion, which is in various places throughout our facilities in Kohler, Wisconsin. It’s inside the administrative buildings and at entrances to our factories. When your tenure as a Kohler associate reaches the 25-year mark, you receive a personal medallion with the same inscription. More than 10,000 associates around the world have reached this momentous mark! It’s hard to find a better testament to the quality of an organization than 10,000 people who have spent 25+ years there.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I mentioned my friend and colleague, Mike Manos, who gave me a tremendous opportunity at Microsoft. I gained experience there that I leverage almost daily, from data center operational excellence, to how to lead through influence. I also learned the how and why of building high-performance teams. Because of this lasting legacy, I’d argue that Mike is one of the best mentors in the business, and I know there’s an army of industry veterans who would say the same. We’ve had the good fortune to share a few hunting and fishing adventures together as well, which are stories that are best told in an Irish pub.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I earned a Master of Science degree from Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering in 2007. After completing this rigorous professional program, I kept suggesting (some might say whining) to the director that there should be time spent on data centers, as they are marvels of electrical and mechanical engineering. He finally capitulated and asked me to write a class abstract and the rest is history. I’ve been teaching second-year graduate students about the wonders of data centers for seven years now as a give-back to the industry. I love to teach and interact with future leaders.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution matures, we continue to see growth in the appetite for data; it is the currency of the epoch. The result is unparalleled data center facility construction, so the bits and bytes have a place to call home. Another truly amazing consequence is the growth of connected devices — laptops, tablets, phones, autonomous vehicles, and ‘Internet Things’ — that generate this data. There are ~23B of these connected devices today increasing at a CAGR of 10%. Not only is the number of devices increasing, but the amount of data they generate is also increasing. Because technology like autonomous vehicles needs this data very quickly, which is called ‘low-latency,’ we see a new network-effect need for smaller data centers that live close to the devices, or edge data centers. 5G cellular broadband provides a new, faster path for all of these connected devices, but will require these edge data centers to store these new masses of content.
Since connected devices are starting to transport mission-critical data, like the very information that tells your car when to turn or stop, end-to-end availability becomes essential for life safety and revenue generation. Kohler is eager to assist in the deployment of edge data center and 5G infrastructure by providing best-in-class power systems and field-proven generators at these facilities.
How do you think this might change the world?
By supplying telecommunications and edge data center providers with best-in-class generators to support the mission-critical information and exchange of data, Kohler is enabling this Fourth Industrial ‘data’ Revolution. I believe that data centers and the generator products we manufacture will lead us into the Fifth Industrial Revolution. Power systems, whether they are diesel generators, hydrogen fuel cells, or large-scale battery arrays, are fundamental to the success of this revolution.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
As part of the always-on connectivity that comes with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we’re constantly on social media and email, which is not always a good thing. The gravitational pull of our electronic devices can become too large and lure us away from other important things in our lives, like our families and maintaining other personal relationships. However, there is a silver lining with this incredible advancement of technology; medical wearables and the ability of high-speed, low-latency data center and telecom infrastructure to actually save lives. My brother-in-law has Type 1 diabetes, a debilitating disease. In the past, many diabetics were tethered to testing tools and had restricted mobility. Now diabetics have access to wearable medical technology that can leverage 5G networks and edge data centers to get real-time health metrics and automated reporting of emergencies with no mobility limits. This is technology doing good, and Kohler is very proud to provide the generators that ensure these truly critical systems are ‘always on.’
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
The creation and evolution of Kohler’s data center generators was developed over time by many intelligent people who foresaw the needs that the data-driven economy would create. Personally, I recognized the need for the technology I am now part of providing when I was running Ubiquity, the edge data center company. I noticed that the largest edge data center companies were not run by telecom companies, but streaming service companies, like Netflix and others. After getting bids from those types of providers, it was a lightbulb moment. I realized that streaming content was the wave of the future. People enjoy watching what they want, when they want. We’ve really become a data-driven economy, and that’s the driving force going forward in technology. I realized at that point that edge facilities would need power and backup power sources to keep the streaming content flowing in the event of an outage. That realization led me to where I am today — helping data center facilities keep the lights on, so to speak, in the event of a power failure caused by weather or other unforeseen circumstances.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
I would say widespread use of backup power technology is already here because of this voracious appetite for data. The younger generation expects to stream content anytime anywhere. That’s now part of culture, and the expectations keep going up. More content being streamed leads to revenue for Netflix and others. The challenge lies with the data center industry, including those of us providing backup power to those mission-critical facilities, to keep up. Technology has converged to allow us to stream content on a handheld device within seconds, and on-demand data is now part of the human experience. That’s why we see this insatiable demand for data centers and, consequently, generators. Good or bad, we need to be able to flip the switch in a moment’s notice to allow content to be streamed even if a data center’s primary power source is offline for any length of time.
The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?
At one point, there was a $1.5 billion surge in cloud service consumption due to COVID-19 because everyone had to work remotely. The number of daily Microsoft Teams users rose to more than 115 million in 2020 because employees needed to stay in touch while working from home. If the pandemic had happened five years ago, maybe we would’ve made it work. But if it had happened 10 years ago, things would have broken down or we would have had to go into work and potentially risk our health. The tremendous advancement in technology allowed us to keep working safely.
The additional demand for more connectivity caused by people working from home and turning to streaming services for entertainment greatly impacted the need for data center infrastructure. Not only was it a COVID-resistant sector, but companies are spending even more now to make sure they can function with remote workers. They’re investing more in colocation, cloud and hyperscale data centers, which only increases the demand for backup power and generators. It may not always be an option for an employee to physically go to the office if the data center supporting a company’s cloud infrastructure fails, so the need for reliable backup power sources is higher than ever.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I’m a fan of quotes. I find them inspiring and motivating, so I’m going to answer with some of my favorite quotes.
- “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and the merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.” — Niccolo Machiavelli. Change is hard, but it’s literally the key to evolution. I’ve run cloud migrations at two Fortune 500 companies where I had to shut down on-premises data centers and install a more efficient, scalable, secure and agile cloud operating model. Despite being the best way to deliver value to shareholders and customers, I met resistance at every step along the way, simply because it was ‘new.’
- “I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in life are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” — George Bernard Shaw. I’ve learned that bettering yourself is a continuous journey for which you alone are responsible. This wisdom has pushed me to seek out a new role every 2–5 years, adding different capabilities and experience to my personal skill portfolio, including Big Tech, startups, financial services, manufacturing, consulting, strategy, operations, product and marketing. It ain’t easy, but seeking growth through change and making your own circumstances is an important part of personal and professional success.
- “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.” — Vince Lombardi. With the glamour and glitz of Big Tech, startup billionaires and social media influencers with millions of followers, we all should be reminded frequently that good ol’ hard work is what gets it done. I’ve slept on the data center floor, the lobby couch, and a lot of airplanes because success is naught without labor.
- “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt. Failure, as a learning tool, is invaluable. Once of my most treasured professional experiences was founding Ubiquity Critical Environments. Ubiquity was a ‘failure’; shuttered after three years due to reallocation of the backend real estate assets. However, the experience of pitching and selling an idea, raising capital, designing and building a product, and taking it and our crazy idea to market was of immeasurable value. Today, I feel that the velocity and breadth at which information is communicated creates risk-aversion. So I implore everyone to ‘dare mighty things’ because the takeaway is the journey, not necessarily the end result.
- “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” — Albert Einstein. There is a tendency to graduate from college and assume that formal learning stops. We all need to be continuously learning — both formally and informally — to grow and progress. We also learn in different ways in different life phases. I went back to graduate school when I was 35 and married with two kids. Stepping back into the classroom having 10 years of life experience under my belt gave me a completely different perspective on knowledge and its application. To keep my brain healthy, I suspect I’m not yet done in the classroom.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My wish for how we could make change is to challenge the industry to allow innovation on the operational side of this business, not be so tradition-bound. We should always experiment with new ideas that are healthier and less impactful on the environment. An example of this is a new set of operational recommendations for testing and maintenance for generators. The new method Kohler has pioneered was traditionally avoided because of wet stacking. Wet stacking is a term for condensation that builds inside generators, which isn’t good for the equipment. To prevent condensation, data center operators run their generators for longer periods of time when testing them, which uses a higher power load, at least twice a month. With our new discovery, data center operators can test their generators monthly for just five minutes. The result is 50% less fuel burned and 50% less exhaust. Because we challenged ourselves, we have created a new way of testing generator performance that is better for the environment, and that’s a huge deal.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best way to stay up to date with the work I’m doing alongside the Kohler team is via our social media channels at https://www.linkedin.com/showcase/kohlerdatacenters/ and https://twitter.com/KohlerDCPower.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.