Case Studies

Paul Peterson – JLL Work Dynamics

Data center facilities manager builds positive culture for passionate hires

When Paul Peterson transitioned from chief engineer to data center facilities manager at JLL Work Dynamics, he faced a daunting task. For one thing, he was moving into a regional role and taking on a new location with low staff morale and challenges related to its being an older building.

“To create a positive culture, they have to feel supported—and they didn’t have the support,” Peterson recalls.

Paul Peterson | Senior Director, Data Center Facilities Manager | JLL Work Dynamics

Paul Peterson | Senior Director, Data Center Facilities Manager | JLL Work Dynamics

So, he set up regular team meetings to bring everybody together in one room to vent and discuss the issues they’ve encountered in their day-to-day work. JLL is a Chicago-based professional services firm specializing in real estate and investment management.

“That’s something that has to happen all the time,” he says of the meetings. “The data centers industry is changing constantly; technology changes, and there’s a lot of challenges with client demand… So, getting them in the same room where they can talk about situations we’ve encountered is just a game changer.”

As the data center industry also faces a labor shortage for operating engineers, it’s even more important to Peterson to attract and retain good talent. The opportunity is there to pursue engineering jobs after trade school, he says; one doesn’t necessarily need to get a four-year degree. And companies like JLL are waiting with open arms to welcome the right kind of candidates into the fold.

Cultivating a positive culture

Peterson’s efforts to cultivate a collegial environment started before he took on that new site, however. And they’ve resulted in his teams receiving high-level praise for their performance, he says.

For example, Peterson conducts weekly on-site meetings with each of his teams in which they read and discuss industry-related articles. In addition to imparting knowledge, this sparks questions and discussion about the industry and makes everybody feel that they’re part of something bigger.

“This is a very technically forward industry. There’s a lot of innovation and technology changes that are happening very fast,” Peterson says. “So that’s always a good way to spark people’s passion for what they do. And I tell my team all the time, ‘I want you to be happy coming to work. I want you to be excited about what you’re doing for work.’”

When Peterson and his team encounter serious issues, or what he calls “critical situations,” and perform well in the recovery process, he might throw a team barbecue. And even when the team makes mistakes, everyone will bring in food for a sort of impromptu potluck around a conference table to debrief on what happened.

Paul Peterson | Senior Director, Data Center Facilities Manager | JLL Work Dynamics

“It’s a very open-forum, positive way of doing it,” Peterson says. “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen companies that don’t necessarily do that, or they’ll send out a notification that just says, ‘Hey, this is what happened; we need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’ It’s very abrasive. To me, if there’s a failure on site, it’s a learning experience.”

Hiring for passion

Candidate selection is another facet of Peterson’s strategy for creating a happy, productive workplace. He has an unorthodox take on the hiring process, but he also has a “good track record” of his picks working out, he says.

“In my experience, sometimes it’s easier to train someone with a blank slate than try to correct bad habits,” Peterson says. “I’ve hired candidates who don’t necessarily have a strong technical background with specifically the data center industry. But they’re very passionate, and they can learn and have a very positive attitude and approach to things.”

Peterson pairs that approach with JLL’s training platform and a training program he puts the engineers through when they come on board to teach them about the science of the role, what to look out for and so forth.

“If they come on and they’re hungry, they have an appetite to absorb more information and learn new skills, I would much rather a candidate like that than someone who comes on and just thinks they kind of know everything,” he says. “If you’re new to the company, and you’re there early every day, and you’re looking up different things and trying to learn, those are the attributes I’m looking for.”

Making the most of opportunity

Peterson started his education thinking he wanted to be a chemistry teacher, but he says he soon realized he was only going through a four-year degree program because it was expected. He is more of a technical, hands-on person than an academic one, he says.

It just so happened that a family friend owned a large manufacturing company of critical power equipment and, around that time, told Peterson’s dad he was looking to put together a field division. The prospect intrigued the younger Peterson.

Paul Peterson | Senior Director, Data Center Facilities Manager | JLL Work Dynamics

“He gave me an opportunity to pursue that career path, but there were things I had to do to get that opportunity,” Peterson says. “I still had to go to school for electronics; I had to pass and get through the program that they recommended.”

It was through that process that Peterson met his mentor, John Balsamo, “an absolutely unbelievable engineer, even to this day,” he says. “He taught me everything.”

All told, Peterson worked for DSA Encore a little over six years, rising from production engineer to field service engineer to senior field service engineer to northeast regional manager by 2012. In 2013, he joined Quality Uptime Services, going from senior field service engineer to senior sales engineer over the next five and a half years.

In 2019, Peterson joined CBRE Global Workplace Solutions as a lead building engineer. And in January 2022, he signed on with JLL, becoming senior director and data center facilities manager.

Peterson sits on the board of the New York Empire State chapter of 7×24, an industry group that sponsors networking and learning events. He’s also an advocate for the Nomad Futurists, a group dedicated to raising awareness about the data centers industry among the younger generations.

“I was given a really good opportunity at a young age—I got into this industry through a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work,” Peterson says. “Then I took the opportunity and ran with it. And I like having the ability now to go back to these trade schools, meet with these students, talk about my career path and what I did to get to where I am—to show them that there is a tremendous opportunity in this industry right now.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VIII 2023 Edition here.

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