Leading the Evolution of Data Centers

Sean Farney (MSIT ‘07) is helping some of the world’s biggest companies create the space they need to house data while limiting their environmental impact.

Sean Farney (MSIT ‘07) doesn’t see data as a mere collection of numbers and information. To him, data is the currency of our modern culture. 

Farney hopes to bring greater value to that currency as he helps global real estate company JLL work with high-powered clients to find them the right space for massive data centers that make as little environmental impact as possible.

Sean Farney“The data center space is one of the fastest growing and most richly funded sectors of the economy," said Farney, who joined JLL in April. "Data center providers like Amazon, Google, Meta, and Microsoft can’t build facilities fast enough. The opportunity to join a technology real estate company like JLL in a self-defined role in one of the coolest industries on the planet was just too good to pass up.” 

Farney serves as JLL’s executive director of data center strategy and innovation. In that role, he shares what JLL offers and the importance of sustainable data centers at industry conferences, on podcasts, with influencers, and in trade publications. 

“Helping companies reduce their carbon footprint via more efficient facility design, build, and operation is deeply fulfilling,” he said.

It’s also a job he credits Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program with enabling him to perform at the highest level. Farney studied philosophy at the undergraduate level, so any skills he had in information technology prior to MSIT were mostly self-taught. 

“I felt lacking in formal IT training," he said, "and I wanted to check that box."

In 2005, while working for Boston Consulting Group, he joined the MSIT program. After graduation, the lessons he learned at Northwestern helped propel him to a data center manager role at Microsoft. Between then and now, Farney held leadership positions at five different companies, ranging from COO at Ubiquity Edge Data Centers to director of data center marketing and business development at Kohler.

He credits MSIT not only with giving him valuable IT training, but also reminding him how much he enjoyed learning.

“The focus on execution and deliverables in the workplace can sometimes discourage new learning,” he said. “It was invigorating to learn for the sake of learning again.” 

Farney soaked in lessons on everything from IT infrastructure to leadership. The latter is what he calls, “the single most important workplace variable for long-term success and happiness.” 

Leadership, he said, is simple but far from easy. 

“Be a good listener, be humble, be principled, lead by example, work hard, be human, be decisive,” said Farney, whose own leadership style has been so effective that he has current employees who have worked with him at three different companies since his MSIT graduation. “That’s the biggest compliment a leader could ever have.” 

So important was the MSIT program to Farney’s life and career that he has been returning to serve as a guest instructor since 2015. He teaches what he calls “a data center primer – the sexy numbers and technologies and the impact they have on daily life.” 

He also continues to publish his work – his latest being a chapter in a new book called Greener Data on how to build and operate more sustainable digital infrastructure. He said the MSIT program was vital in helping him apply technical concepts to business problems in order to find solutions — and make a difference.

“MSIT was a truly transformative threshold in my life," he said. "The perspective and confidence I gained enabled me to achieve amazing things. Giving back to the program that gave so much to me is, indeed, an honor.”

McCormick News Article