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Building the Future of Data Centers: The Journey of a Capstone Education Program

October 18, 2023

Written By: Vanessa Eixman

In a world ever more reliant on digital infrastructure, it’s critical to educate and inspire the next generation of leaders in this field. To address this need, the data center industry has united to create a Capstone program intending to increase awareness about the myriad of job opportunities in this space and help educate students on the core elements of the data center business: from site selection to design, mechanical and electrical equipment, operations, staffing, networking, security, budgeting, and other aspects of the data center business. The year-long program gives the students practical experience combined with their college degrees to help jump-start their careers after graduation.  


The Capstone program was initiated by EdgeConneX, a global data center operator, and the Infrastructure Masons, a non-profit organization whose mission is to unite digital infrastructure stakeholders globally to connectgrow, and give back. As a founding member of the Infrastructure Masons (iMasons), EdgeConneX felt this was an ideal program to leverage the iMasons community and epitomizes the iMasons focus on education, inclusion, innovation, and sustainability.  


In collaboration with other iMasons companies and members, the Capstone program emphasized under-represented communities in the data center industry by focusing on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), with Hampton University in Virginia piloting the program in the first year. This impactful organization understands that fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging cultivates a more diverse and innovative industry. A program like this is valuable because it provides the next generation of graduates training for the next generation of infrastructure.


Diversity Fuels Innovation, and Inclusion is the Catalyst that Converts Variety into Progress

The program was born out of a conversation Dr. Demetris Geddis, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Hampton University, initially had with Phillip Marangella, Chief Marketing and Product Officer at EdgeConneX, about installing a micro-edge data center at the campus to help train his students in a real-life data center environment. The idea developed into what has now become the Digital Infrastructure Capstone program. Phillip then contacted Jeff Omelchuck, Executive Director at iMasons, about the concept to see if they’d be interested in partnering on the project since it met many of the iMasons key mission objectives. Jeff provided immediate endorsement, helped champion the project at iMasons, and pulled in the vast resources of all the companies and industry leaders in the iMasons community.

The Capstone course at Hampton University is team-taught by Dr. Geddis and Dr. Qiang Le. The iMasons project was the first industry-sponsored Capstone design project. Before this partnership, all Capstone projects were open-ended and student-generated ideas.

As Dr. Geddis noted, “The iMasons’ project is not just a Capstone idea, it is a real-world business experience, which brings students virtually face to face with industry leaders who served as mentors.”

Dr. Le added, “This partnership inspired the department to offer more industry-sponsored projects from partners such as Amazon, IBM, and Lockheed Martin.”

Created as a stand-in for traditional senior design projects, the Capstone program enables students to showcase the application of their engineering and design knowledge. Throughout the year-long project, students work in groups with dedicated iMasons member mentors to design a nationwide digital infrastructure architecture plan to support the latency and bandwidth requirements and the projected growth of a mobile phone app. Once sites have been selected, students will design a data center on one of their chosen sites. After Hampton University, the program collaborated with the Inclusive Engineering Consortium, an Engineering super department spread across over 30 HBCU institutions, and added Morgan State, UTEP, and Prairie View A&M University.


The program recently welcomed California State University, Los Angeles, which is coming online soon with an engineering program designed for the large Hispanic base in the region. Another region in progress is Chicago, which is focused on the neighborhoods where new data centers are being built. The program aims to expand internationally and collaborate with academic institutions in markets like Singapore, Jakarta, the Netherlands, and Ireland.


At the heart of the program also lies the commitment to sustainability. As the program prepares students to tackle the world’s most daunting technological challenges, it also instills in them the importance of environmental stewardship. The future of the digital infrastructure industry rests on the industry’s ability to harness technology’s potential while preserving the health of our planet for generations to come.


“The Capstone program is more than just a learning experience—it’s a launchpad for the data center industry’s future leaders. As they grow in their understanding of the digital infrastructure landscape, participants are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to drive the industry forward. This commitment to education, inclusion, and sustainability are the pillars we build tomorrow’s digital infrastructure.” Phillip Marangella, Chief Product and Marketing Officer for EdgeConneX and iMasons mentor

The program expanded to STEM-focused high schools, aimed at spreading more awareness about the infrastructure industry and the many career opportunities within. To be considered, iMasons looked for public high schools that serve communities of specific social and economic sizes, such as those with a significant Title 1 population. After evaluating if the students designed the most optimal networks, the class moves into the second semester, where they select a site to build a data center and work to design one from the ground up. This includes calculating real estate costs, costs for plumbing, equipment, servers, and power supplies. The students are instructed on how to build CapEX and OpEX budgets for the entire build, and then, at the end of the second semester, they present the project to a board meeting.

“We feel like we can make the biggest impact in those areas. For high schools, we are starting with schools that already have a program in place with Senior projects that kids work on throughout their senior year. The modules are the same for every school, with students in the first semester working on team-based projects collaborating with iMasons’ member mentors, who are all professionals in the industry. Together, they learn about topics ranging from the manufacturers that sell to the public and are looking to create an app or tabulate projections on usage, latency requirements, and the design of a nationwide network of data centers that support the applications. Our goal is to raise awareness of the digital infrastructure industry. Some programs focus on the ways an education can move a student out of a community. Our program, though, is centered on how students can stay in their own neighborhoods, give back, create opportunities, and help others excel.”  Courtney Popp, Education Program Manager at Infrastructure Masons

Let’s take a closer, more personal look at the program and an individual who went through the Capstone program and follow her on her journey: Jai Huntley, 2020 founding member student and part of the first tranche of schools in the Capstone program. Ms. Huntley graduated from Hampton University in 2021 and worked for EdgeConneX full-time as an engineer. She has since used what she learned in the industry by managing space, power, and cooling existing data centers, designing new data centers, and assisting sales for colocation space.

“Since I was relatively new, I received a lot of breathing room to conduct my research. It was an amazing experience where I received the support of so many people throughout the industry. I’ve gained so much by having that support system from many tenured and seasoned EdgeConneX team members and engineers. Coming into the industry, I received a lot of breathing room to simply learn. It was one thing to learn the ins and outs of a data center, but it was and still is another to apply that knowledge to an operating data center with dollar signs behind it. I recently hit my two-year mark, so I have a special appreciation for many seasoned EdgeConneX individuals as well as other faces who have supported me throughout our industry.” – Jai Huntley, Data Center Engineer for EdgeConneX

“Upon entering the data center industry, I saw a lot of low-density configurations. Now we are seeing the industry shift towards Artificial Intelligence (AI) deployments that use high-density gear. In noticing the customer trends, I felt confident to take the initiative to help move these solutions forward. So far, I have learned a lot by being involved in the various aspects of this deployment as it touched on things past my experience like finance and project management. This is an exciting and interesting time to be in this sector. What my team and I are designing now will be duplicated across the EdgeConneX footprint and impact the future of the data center industry. We are essentially paving the way for the future of data centers.” – continued Ms. Huntley

Recognizing that it takes a team effort, Huntley knew she had to incorporate many skill sets and expertise to pull this off successfully. She also recognizes AI’s deep and profound impact: “When I think of AI, it’s more than an interesting technology. For young people who have grown up on technology, this will be what they know from the start. The capabilities are endless. I’m so grateful to be a part of paving that way forward.”

Some sage advice from Jai for those considering the iMasons Capstone program:

  • Be open minded, you never know what you can learn, Expand your mind and try new experiences. I didn’t know about data centers when I started the program, but once I did a deep dive into a blank space with the right support system, it opened my eyes to another realm.
  • Do your own research. Curiosity helps you learn, and learning on your own first allows you to speak confidently about what you are learning.
  • Lean on your mentors/resources. My mentors were Phillip Marangella, Jack Elsea, and Bill Kleyman. Each with different backgrounds and who always ensured I had the help I needed.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for a specific mentor to guide you with whatever you want to know and find interesting. All these experiences and touch points help advance your learnings.
  • It’s ok not to know everything, so ask questions!

A Look Ahead

Based on the program’s success, iMasons Capstone started a pilot in Northern Virginia for the 2022-2023 school year at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The program will then expand into Chicago-area high schools.

“The value of the iMasons Capstone project lies at its core, in the connection between the student teams and their industry mentors. These working professionals volunteer their time to work closely with the students throughout the year-long project, which fosters a sense of camaraderie and shared success. Given today’s economic realities, when technology layoffs are regular news items and careers in tech might seem a little less secure than they did two years ago, the connection with industry professionals helps students create meaningful relationships with potential employers that go far beyond submitting a job application. Graduating college with a professional network already in place within the Digital Infrastructure industry will serve Capstone students throughout their careers.” – Courtney Popp, iMasons

In addition, the Capstone program recently expanded to include credentials and certifications with the DataCenter Dynamics Academy. Every iMasons Capstone student can now access all the available data center training modules for at no cost, which serve as a level-set, ensuring all students entering the program have a baseline of knowledge. The DataCenter Dynamics certifications include Data Center Technician, Facilities Management, Data Center Specialist, and Design Engineering. iMasons also provides a $2500 scholarship for every student enrolled in their Capstone program.

iMasons Capstone is always looking for mentors with diverse backgrounds and experience levels, who want to give back. If you are an experienced data center professional and would like to mentor students or contribute to the learning programs, please contact: courtney@imasons.org or fill out the Mentor Interest Form HERE.