Leadership Lessons, Brought to You by 2020

Missy Young

CIO at Switch

Learning Objectives

2020 is the year that keeps on giving. How can we as leaders lead ourselves, our team, and our businesses through a year filled with remote working, quarantine, social unrest, natural disasters, and a presidential election? Good news: there is hope and you are the source.

"Choose hope, choose joy, and choose grace. Anything else will cause anxiety, grief, and despair. "

Missy Young

CIO at Switch


Hello, my name is Missy Young. Thank you so much for coming to my talk today. I am the Chief Information Officer for a company called Switch. I’d like to give you a little bit of background about myself and the company to give you some context for what I’d like to speak about today. Switch designs, builds, and operates the world’s most powerful data centers for some of the most amazing companies in the world. We have built the world’s largest technology ecosystem right here where I live in Las Vegas, and we power all of it using 100% clean and renewable energy.

Our customers are Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Disney, Sony, HP, Intel, Intuit, Hitachi, Cisco, Dell, EMC, VMware, FedEx, Hulu, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Amgen, Dignity Health, Justice Healthcare System, Eli Lilly, Renowned Healthcare System, MGM, Boyd Stations, The Nation, DreamWorks, Pixar, Warner Brothers, Lucasfilm, MGM Studios, Fox Studios, Fox Broadcasting, UFC. We run most of the major video games here so Halo, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty, Ghosts, Destiny, Mobile Strike, Game of War, you get the idea. It’s about a thousand with some of the coolest companies out there. Our customers are relying on us for 100% mission critical uptime. We have incredibly high levels of physical security in all of our facilities and we are considered critical infrastructure at the federal and state levels.

I’m proud to say that Switch has a perfect uptime record. We have never had a customer experience even a nanosecond of an outage or downtime of any kind. We proactively practice disaster avoidance, meaning we plan and prepare for all kinds of natural disasters and threats in order to protect our clients from those events if they happen. 2020 has, of course, been an unprecedented year. Personally, I am very much looking forward to going back to precedented times.

As leaders, however, during this time, instead of asking ourselves, “Why is this happening to me?” Hopefully, we are asking, “What can I learn from it? And how can I lead others through it?” 2020 has been a gauntlet of one unexpected thing after another. We are all dealing with a myriad of unusual things at once, something for which there is no instruction manual. How will we lead our company through these difficult times? How will we lead our teams? How will we lead ourselves? A crisis is really good for showing us exactly what we’re made of.

On the evening of October 1, 2018, an evil man went on a shooting rampage here in Las Vegas. As the chaos was unfolding, people began to flee the event and run into other buildings screaming for help. 911 began to get calls from the Tropicana saying there’s a shooter, and calls from the Mandalay saying there’s a shooter, and calls from from the Luxor saying there’s a shooter. It sounded like a coordinated attack by multiple shooters on the strip, so the police and SWAT teams responded accordingly. For a few hours, we thought it might be a terrorist attack.

That was also the week of my company’s IPO on the New York Stock Exchange. We went public on October 6, the Friday of that week after the shooting. What that meant at the time was that our CEO and our company’s President were both out of town on the roadshow leading up to our IPO. I had a startling realization that I was in charge on the ground, potentially during a terrorist attack. We had SWAT teams posted at our campuses due to our status on the critical infrastructure list. For a few hours, we didn’t know what else might be coming. All airplane traffic was diverted away from Las Vegas.

So what did I do? I opened up the playbook and went right to the section on terrorist attacks, and did what I had been trained to do as a leader in a crisis. We had planned for this, and boy was I glad that we had. I learned in that moment that in a crisis, we don’t necessarily rise to the occasion, we default to our training.

Entering 2020 and the global pandemic. Yes, we have a playbook that deals with the pandemic and how to handle that scenario. Although, truth be told, I would bet cash money that we would not have needed it and yet here we are. But where’s the playbook for all of us on how to lead through a sustained pandemic and quarantine combined with civil unrest due to racism and a heated political climate with an election coming up and massive fires on the West Coast and hurricanes roaring through the Gulf Coast? Oh, let’s throw in some murder hornets for good measure. We are all experiencing low level sustained trauma due to the drawn out quarantine and anxiety about the future. Anxiety happens when we are unsure about the future and cannot control things. But now, we have this lasting unending anxiety over the unknown future.

We, as leaders, are going through this trauma at the exact same time as the people we lead. This is trauma—a mass trauma. We are all feeling the same earthquake and the same shock waves and the same aftershocks at the same time all over the world. We are responding to it physically. We don’t have to suffer something specific for our emotions to be valid. You are under pressure and you need to listen to your body and respond. When you’re in the moment though, sometimes this is all very hard to see. We don’t have to wait until this is over to recognize what is happening. There’s so much unknown, and our nervous systems are activated as a result in the presence of the spear. You might experience fatigue, racing heart, shortness of breath, etc.

To take care of your body, eat right exercise, get enough sleep, meditate or pray, whatever works with your beliefs. This is so important because, as leaders, we don’t really get to take a break. We have to keep leading others through the crisis because we have people counting on us to do so. It is your responsibility to take care of yourself so that you can take care of your team.

I’ll be the first to admit that the uncertainty of what is to come is draining. As someone who thrives on control, this season is incredibly stressful for me. Personally, I am reading my lack of normal and wondering when all this pandemic nonsense is going to end. Will there be a vaccine and effective treatment? What about solving racism issues while I’m stuck at home? What’s going to happen with the election? When can my child go back to school safely? Not knowing the answers to all of these questions fills me with anxiety.

I also feel like there’s a lot of outside pressure nowadays to compare my journey through this pandemic with the journey of others. I can see on my social media feed how some people are learning new recipes, crafting new things to the home, getting in shape, spending quality time with the kids, and just all around turning this into the most delightful time ever. Lord help me if I ever start crafting. My girlfriends will rightly call for medical intervention, “Come quick, she’s got a glue gun!” However, if you want to have a competition to see who can eat the most unholy combination of junk food and leftovers in one sitting, I’m all in. The layers of stress that have been added to my life in the past few months have been overwhelming. I know from talking to my friends that I’m not the only one. Every one of us is experiencing the same anxiety, frustration, and worry. So cut yourself some slack. Even though someone on Instagram might look like they have it all together, I can promise you there are days when they are ugly crying and eating hostess products while binge watching Netflix.

Ask for help when you need it. As Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers because they are always there,” I have found that to be true in my life over and over again. When I was first starting out in the tech industry, I was hired by a woman who wanted to give other women a chance to get into the field. Back in the early 90s in Los Angeles, there were very few women—almost none—just me and this woman, it seemed like. She mentored me for a couple of months. Then, she was offered a different job elsewhere. So she left, and she was replaced by a man who immediately told me that I did not belong there because women should not be engineers. Then, he set out to make it his business to make me quit—to try to either make me fail or make me quit so that either I would leave or he could fire me.

He would send me into some of the worst gang ridden areas of LA driving around this white van full of millions of dollars of electronics to do ATM provisioning, T1 installs, and all kinds of other things. That didn’t work, because I always said, “Well, I might get shot, but I’m not going to quit, that guy is not going to run me out of here.” Then, he started giving me assignments that were way above my level of expertise. He would give me very complicated networks to configure and install and a customer from. So I would ask other engineers and technicians, “Hey, show me how you do this. How does this work? Why don’t I understand this part?” All of them helped me. I learned for every one person who was a roadblock in my life, there were ten who wanted to help me. Always look around you because you will find the helpers. Don’t let pride stand in the way of you asking for help. Pride is something that can sometimes prevent us for asking for help, but then, you don’t grow and neither does the other person by helping you. So, please look at the helpers.

As leaders, we are faced with knowing that we must lead through the crisis while also experiencing the crisis. As leaders, we must set the pace, set the tone, and set the example for how we want others to behave. A great example of this was provided by President George W. Bush on the morning of 911. When it was whispered into his ear that the country was under attack, he was sitting in front of a group of schoolchildren. You know instantly that if he jumped up and yell, “We’re under attack!” it would not only upset the children, but potentially destabilize the nation. So he held his emotional reaction in check, guarded his feelings and his facial expressions, and calmly decided his next step without trampling on the feelings of the children around him in that moment. We must do the same for those that we lead. We must set the example that we want them to follow. If we act like the world is coming to an end because of the pandemic and politics and racism, guess what? It will too, and that is not what we want.

The best way to be a good leader is to think of yourself as a servant. We serve those who believe. The best way to serve them is to give them hope, joy, and grace. Nobody wants to be hurting. We’re trying to hurry up and not be in pain because that’s what leaders do. We’re not supposed to be suffering. But then we run the risk of rushing the people that we lead to not be in pain, too. We have to be willing to be in the presence of pain. This is called empathy. Ask the people you lead, how are they feeling? Then, listen to them without judgment, without interrupting, and without giving unsolicited advice. Empathy is the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and feel what they feel. Empathy involves an investment of thought and time on your part to really understand the other person’s point of view. Empathy means you enter into their struggle and their pain.

Currently, we are living in a world where despair is right under the surface of everything. What can you communicate as a leader that will resonate and keep resonating hope? One challenge with communicating hope in this season is that it can sound shallow or hollow. It can sound a little bit too hallmarking, but hope is gritty and refuses to despair. In fact, it combats despair. Hope needs to be rooted in the truth. Hope gets its hands dirty. Hope is in the dirt, it’s in the thick of things. Hope is a battle ready strong warrior that stands steadfast in the face of darkness. Hope is tough and refuses to give in. Hope is an expectation that we will see good on the other side. It is an expectation that this season is temporary and that things will change.

This is a season of tension. We have to deal with the daily real stuff, walking through it, yet trying to maintain hope. One way to maintain hope is to choose joy even when you don’t feel like it. Joy is not always synonymous with feeling, but joy is not something that we need to make. Joy means intentionally choosing to focus on the good things. For instance, this year, I have randomly lost hearing in my right ear. By choosing joy, I’m focusing on the fact that the left ear still works. If you can choose joy, it means you’re going to have a good perspective on things.

My mother gave me some interesting perspective recently. She reminded me of the polio epidemic that occurred when she was a child and how the schools closed, everything closed, funerals could not be held, etc, for fear of this extremely contagious disease that was predominantly striking children. But they lived through it, and eventually things went back to normal. Then, when she was graduating high school, several young men that were graduating with her were immediately shipped off to Vietnam because of the draft. It didn’t matter what college they had been accepted into, what team they were going to play for, or if they plan to go into the family business, their plans were put on hold in order to go fight overseas.

Every generation has something that it must bear. This generation is not exempt. So, we must bear it and patiently endure, and come out the other side ready to build our country back up, and take care of each other. Give yourself some grace in the meantime, and extend grace to those around you since they are bearing the weight of the stress, too. Choose hope, choose joy, and choose grace. Anything else will cause anxiety, grief, and despair. Choosing these things for yourself will really help and then extending them to your team will be extremely beneficial for them.

Hope, joy, and grace will arm you and those you lead with the with the weapons you need to survive the season. While you were taking care of yourself and taking care of those who are leading, you must also do what is right by your business. Now is a good time, if you haven’t already, to start reevaluating how you do everything. I think the worst thing any business leader can say right now is that that’s how we’ve always done it. That type of mentality is no longer safe in the 2020 world. Today’s business leaders must be flexible and willing to try new things. I think that the speed with which we all move to working from home showed just how fast digital transformation can be accomplished when there is a compelling reason.

There are several questions that smart leaders everywhere are asking themselves right now. For instance, are we going to keep our employees working from home forever? If so, do we really need that big corporate office space we’ve been paying for? Do we need to keep servers in the on prem data center anymore? Should that data move to the cloud or should we move those servers to a colocation data center? Should my mission critical infrastructure be situated in California anymore? California has become a hotbed for massive fires, earthquakes, civil unrest, rising power costs, and rising taxes.

Let’s just examine only the risk of the fires for a moment. If you have mission critical servers running in California, think about the building where they are housed. Is it made of flammable materials? Does it have a wooden roof or a steel roof? Will the powerlines and connectivity running to that facility survive a fire? If you are not happy with the answers, you might want to consider relocating those servers to somewhere safe. Yes, I’m specifically calling out California. But, of course, these questions should be asked of any company that has mission critical infrastructure located in natural disaster areas like the coastlines and the earthquake zones.

Another question, how can we reduce costs? If there is any way to reduce costs and save jobs, that work must be done. Your people need to know that you have done everything you can to reduce costs and protect their jobs during this time of uncertainty. One area to look at is telecom. Is your company spending too much on telecom? We find that 99% of our customers are spending way too much on telecom. But when they join our $7 trillion cooperative, then we are able to help them save potentially millions of dollars on connectivity at all of their locations worldwide. If you remember that long list of client names I gave you at the beginning, we enable all of our customers to combine their buying power into one massive $6.7 trillion entity that has more buying power than any other company in the world. All of these companies together are much stronger than when they buy alone.

Another question to ask, can your data center survive without water? What if there is an outbreak of Cryptosporidium bacteria in your city’s water supply? This is actually happening Portland and Milwaukee. The government officials maybe decided to shut off the water to the city. Can your business or your data center survive for long without water? Incidentally, because of our patented designs, Switch can power and cool its data centers for a whole year straight without any additional water. Normally, a Cryptosporidium outbreak isn’t even something I talked about, but it’s 2020—you never know. This is also the year that Taco Bell has discontinued the Mexican pizza. So I’m not really sure what other calamities might happen.

Another important question to ask, does my company do enough to champion diversity and inclusion? It is no longer enough in tech to point the finger and say, “Well, we would hire more diverse candidates, but there’s a pipeline issue and we don’t get enough applicants.” Well, let’s change the pipeline issue. One way that Switch does this is by a heavy investment in FIRST Robotics, which is an incredible nationwide steam program for kids that revolves around building operating and competing with robots. 90% of the FIRST Robotics kids are economically disadvantaged, 83% of them are minorities, and 47% of them are female. Take a hard look at how your company is doing in this area of diversity and inclusion, and figure out how to do better if you need to. As a female engineer in a very male dominated industry, I can personally attest to how amazing it is to work for a company like Switch that has championed women from the day it was founded. Half of our executive team is female. Bottom line, find a way to make a difference and make it.

To summarize, as leaders, we must lead ourselves, our team, and our business with an expectation of hope and a willingness to reevaluate everything in order to see things through this season. Our country over the years has survived a Civil War, two World Wars, and several conflicts. We have been through the Great Depression and several recessions. We have had epidemics, racism, riots, assassinations, mass shootings, et cetera. We will survive this season. We will be stronger for it in the end. Those who lead with hope, joy, and grace will bring our teams with us through to victory on the other side. You can do it, and I am standing with you. My door is always open to each of you. If you would like to contact me, my email address is Missy@switch.com. Thank you so much for listening

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