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The GreenBiz Interview

How She Leads: Joyce Dickerson, Google

Trained as an industrialist engineer, she spearheads energy efficiency and "sustainable IT" across the company's massive data center portfolio.

How She Leads is a regular GreenBiz feature spotlighting the career paths of women with influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, GreenBiz Senior Writer Heather Clancy corresponds via email with Joyce Dickerson, Google's head of Global Datacenter Sustainability.

Dickerson is responsible for the Internet giant's tech-related energy efficiency initiatives, and shares her expertise with the Green Grid, an industry association.

She previously held positions with Apple and Pacific Bell but most recently led the information technology team at Stanford University. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Heather Clancy: How did you get interested in "sustainable IT"? Was there a specific catalyst?

Joyce Dickerson: Most of my career has been about developing new initiatives within companies and then launching them. I helped open Latin America for Apple, launched dial-up and small biz Internet service with Pac Bell, did business development at a couple of startups. In 2004, I joined the IT department at Stanford University to create a project management office, so the IT department could be more successful in developing and launching new IT services across the university.

In 2007, clean tech was starting to take off in Silicon Valley, which I found very exciting. I have been passionate about preserving the environment for as long as I can remember, but I struggled to figure out how to combine that passion with my career.

I discovered the Stanford Sustainability Working Group, a team that advised the president and provost on how to run the university sustainably. It included people from housing, food service, waste management, buildings, research and so on. However, there was no one from IT in the group. By 2008, I officially held the title of "Sustainable IT." I had a fantastic cross-functional team that I was leading, and we were pioneering Sustainable IT in higher education.

Clancy: What inspired you to join Google?

Dickerson: It was Google — I was excited by the impact I could have there. It was the only place I would have considered going to from Stanford. When I got the offer to lead Global Datacenter Sustainability for Google, I was thrilled.

Clancy: How do you collaborate with the company's other sustainability leaders?

Dickerson: Sustainability is embedded across the company. Google has a strong culture of collaboration, so we are always on the lookout on ways to work on projects together, or to take something one group has done in its area and make it work for ours.

For example, our real estate and workplace services team developed a great program for employee engagement around sustainability, which they run in the Google office spaces. We’ve expanded it to our data centers.  

Clancy: What's the company's most state-of-the-art green data center?

Dickerson: We are focused on innovation and efficiency across all of our data centers. I bet there’s not one person at any of the data centers who doesn’t think about energy efficiency every day. It’s helped our data centers use 50 percent of the energy of a typical data center. This year, we even started building computer models to help us predict — and improve — our efficiency. But there is more to sustainability than just energy efficiency. We have also purchased over 1 gigawatt of wind energy to power our data centers. And from a materials standpoint, we reuse and recycle 100 percent of the electronic equipment that leaves our data centers.

Clancy: How does your team share best practices from data center to data center? What about with other high-tech companies?

Dickerson: Sharing data across sites is an important component of my role.  Each of our data centers has a team of incredibly talented engineers who are empowered to innovate and drive improvement.  We share best practices intently, and build in flexibility for how these are deployed at the various sites. For the industry, we participate in industry groups like the Green Grid, and we have published a number of white papers sharing our best practices. 

Clancy: What do you consider your team's biggest achievement (so far)?

Dickerson: Continually proving out that sustainability is good business, and not just a good thing to do. The sustainability projects we put into place are all supported by robust total cost of ownership analyses. They pay back more than they cost.  

Clancy: What's your most pressing concern, and how are you tackling it?

Dickerson: The exciting thing about this area is that solutions are being developed so fast: whether it is innovations in equipment efficiency, advances in renewable energy, better metering and controls, introduction of new materials, and so on. Keeping up with it all is a challenge in its own right.

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?

Dickerson: I’d suggest getting a traditional degree, like engineering, and to move laterally into sustainability rather than trying to start off there. In my work, engineers and teams who are inventing new technology, piloting new products at the data centers or coming up with more sustainable ways to do things have a tremendous impact.  

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