In this interview, Lee Smith talks about his experience in the field, lessons learned, role responsibilities and ends with some advice for people looking to walk in his footsteps.
Tell us about your experience in the data center industry. How did you get into the field and what has your career roadmap been like?
I first fulfilled my military conscription in the Army of the South Africa Defense Force. After completing my junior leadership training at the Infantry School, I was deployed as a platoon sergeant in the highly regarded 201BN (also known as the “Bushman Battalion”). Our home base was in Omega, which is located in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia. In December 1988, having completed my service, I was honorably discharged and my professional career began a few weeks later, on January 2, 1989.
I’ve always been in and around data centers. I started as a computer operator and then “graduated” into network software, network design and architecture. Once we “slayed the Y2K bug”, I moved into the world of UNIX, firewalls, distributed environments and internet systems. After doing that for just over 2 years, I moved back into the data center environment as production manager of client-facing mainframe and midrange systems. A few more years as a hardware infrastructure manager rounded off my IT experience.
This opportunity catapulted my career path into the world of mission-critical data centers, covering all disciplines, from strategy and design to operations, management and overall integration. Sometime after, I founded a consulting firm with my wife. My part of the business focused on all things data center and education. I gained a considerable amount of experience through the work that I did across many data centers and organizations and locations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Through access to many people within my professional network, I also expanded my knowledge and understanding of the global data center industry.
In May 2014, I attended a data center conference in San Jose. It was there when I first heard the Chairman and Co-Founder of Salute, Lee Kirby, speak about the vision and the objectives he and Jason Okroy, Co-Founder and CEO, hold dear. I remember it well because of how it made me feel. Little did I know where my professional path would take me. Six years on, having relocated from South Africa to Northern Virginia — here I am, a member of the Salute team! With its well-established and strong industry reputation, joining this organization’s leadership team is a huge privilege and a massive responsibility. In honor of the mission, my contribution will be to ensure that we continue to grow and deliver the best-in-class data center lifecycle services capability for our existing and new customers. Equal to that is providing opportunities for veterans to find a professional home and career within Salute and the greater data center industry.
In 2018, an opportunity presented itself whereby my wife, myself and our youngest daughter relocated to the USA. We now live in McLean, about a 30-minute drive from Data Center Alley. All of this has led me to where I am today – a proud member of Salute Mission Critical. I’m fortunate to have been exposed to so much within the mission-critical data center industry over the past 30-plus years.
My family is my life. The data center industry is my passion. Salute Mission Critical is the perfect conduit to living out the latter.
What made you want to build your career in this industry?
I just knew that I was in the right profession. I’ve always enjoyed data centers and that sentiment has never changed. I am passionate about this industry. I revel in its challenges, the people and the camaraderie. It’s different from other professions. Data centers are the heart and brains of whatever needs to be done. The white space houses the IT platforms for many applications and other digital activities – the brain. The site facility ensures that it all keeps going, 24×7, without fail – the heart. The blood of any data center environment is the people. The blood flows through the entire body and makes it work – just like people in our industry. It all made sense to me and I never doubted the industry’s future or my career path within it.
What is the best lesson you have learned from your career?
The most important lesson I’ve learned is that the data center industry is entirely about trust. Trust in our systems, procedures, customers and service provider partners. Critically, it’s also about trust between team members, managers, colleagues and peers. No matter what we do and no matter for whom we do it, trust is what binds and defines each of us. Another important lesson is that you must never stop learning and growing your knowledge. Knowledge, by itself, is not power. What you do with your knowledge is what unlocks its power.
At a more spiritual level, I try to live by the mantra, “Listen to understand. Speak to be understood”.
What advice would you give to others looking to follow a career path like yours?
To me, the digital infrastructure industry is a miracle industry. Across the globe, millions of digital instructions are successfully executed every second to have access to information, complete transactions, buy, sell, speak to our family and friends, collaborate with our peers and colleagues, watch a movie and so much more. There are so many things that must work without fail, supported by hundreds of thousands of industry professionals worldwide. It is incredibly challenging yet gratifying. So, don’t be afraid to step up. This industry has so much to offer. But it takes passion, unreserved commitment and perseverance. Learn more and then share what you learn. Do all of this with a positive attitude and you will not be disappointed.
What does your current role at Salute Mission Critical entail?
I’ve joined as the VP of Facility Operations and Services. Our team is responsible for managing and executing various operational and other supporting activities to the highest possible levels. We keep the promises of our customers and deliver upon expectations. As custodian of this team, my role will be to grow our operational capability, to provide a platform and contribute my knowledge and experience for Salute to scale quicker at the operational level. Having such an accomplished management group and team, who are highly experienced and skilled in their own right, provides me with excitement as to what we will deliver for our customers and Salute.
What makes Salute different from other data center lifecycle services companies?
Salute was started with an honorable objective in mind – to help integrate military veterans into the data center industry. When I first heard Lee Kirby talk about this in 2014, I immediately identified with his and Jason’s vision. Salute has amazingly executed on this. As a result, the organization has built a strong reputation and received a tremendous amount of goodwill and recognition from the industry, not only for its efforts to assist veterans but also for its contribution to its customers. Salute has become an incubator for the development of data center skills whereby people can be integrated into the workforces of our clients and excel even further. No other data center lifecycle services company offers this, nor can it claim to do so. This is what sets Salute apart – we are unique in that sense.
I’m very excited to have Lee join the team and have a ton of respect for all that he has done for the industry. I am excited by all that he will do for Salute. Welcome, Lee!Jason Okroy, CEO and Co-Founder of Salute Mission Critical