David Mezera remembers when the Dayton Arcade was just an “eyesore” in the 90s, around the time when he was working toward becoming an engineer. Flash forward 30 years and Mezera is president of IT management and consulting firm DataYard, and his company is set to be the technology partner of the major Arcade renovation project. We sat down with Mezera to talk about his winding path toward running DataYard, how he’s seen Dayton grow and what he’s learned about company culture.
What was your first job?
My first job was being a paper boy, but that wasn’t the best first job. The best job I had was a doorman at Da-Bel Cinema in Dayton, which is where I met my future wife. At that job, I learned that your friends love you when you can get them into the theater for free!
How did you find yourself starting DataYard?
I grew up mostly in the Dayton and Beaver Creek area and went to Carroll High School. I went to Ohio State University and got my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. I joined the Air Force, which sent me to Colorado Springs to fly satellites. I didn’t do a lick of electrical engineering. I flew communication satellites instead, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. I loved it and learned a lot. Being in the military was a great experience, and it gave me the opportunity to come back to Dayton to go to the Air Force Institute of Technology, where I got my master’s degree in artificial intelligence.
At the time, nobody cared about AI or thought it was possible, but now you hear about it all the time and it’s really starting to take off, so having a background in that is kind of cool. I’ve watched technology evolve and the internet become a core component of AI. It’s something nobody imagined in the early ’90s because the internet still wasn’t even available for commercial use, it was all for education and military. While I was in the Air Force, I was introduced to the internet and that led me here.
Were you always entrepreneurial?
No, I had no idea this was coming to my life. I always thought I’d be an engineer. My dream was to work for on computers for Apple, but once I got into the Air Force and saw this opportunity, it was the best decision I ever made, career-wise.
DataYard is officially the technology partner of the Dayton Arcade project. Why did you want to be involved?
I grew up in Dayton, and the Arcade was open when I was a kid. It was a great place to go and then it closed its doors and has been this depressing eyesore for the longest time. There have been a lot of false starts and a lot of people saying they’re going to do something about it and not actually following through. But it’s very energized now, so when we heard that there were some great folks behind a new move to open up the arcade and found out that we knew some of the players, we contacted them and asked, “Hey, how can we help?”
We have a longstanding relationship with The Entrepreneurs Center here in Dayton, which is part of the Arcade Innovation Hub. They’re partnering with that organization and it was a natural fit for us because we’d already worked with The Entrepreneur Center to offer some solutions at the arcade. What we’re doing for them is pretty comprehensive — Wi-Fi throughout the space, kiosks, security, you name it. We’ll be a part of anything technology-related inside that facility, including managing it long-term.
Is the community aspect of the Arcade important to you?
Absolutely. We’ve stuck with Dayton through thick and thin. We had some pretty hard times around 2008 and 2009, so we love to see the reinvigoration that’s happening in downtown Dayton. There are a lot more restaurants, a lot more microbreweries and seeing the Arcade come back to life and being able to be a part of that is a huge thing for us. It’s symbolic, too. When the manufacturing industry took a hit in the 2000s and GM shut down the plant in Moraine, Dayton took a real beating.
But now, we are reinventing ourselves and becoming a much more tech-savvy city and community and the Arcade and Innovation Hub are part of that. I went away to Colorado, but the whole goal was always to come back to Ohio and be a part of making Dayton better. Making Dayton a better place is a pretty good motivator.
What do you make of the broader Dayton business scene right now?
It’s a whole lot more energized here in the Dayton area than it was 10 years ago. There are a lot of young people starting up tech startups, restaurants, there’s a restaurant here on the first floor of this building that for the longest time nobody could get to stay open. These companies have been successful and they’re doing great work. There are a lot of people here in the Dayton area that are really smart about technology and they’re taking a risk, which is what business is all about, taking risks, putting your neck out there on the line and trying to do something new. There are a lot of folks in Dayton that are doing that, and we love it. I mean, we just feel so good about being in downtown Dayton, being in Ohio and I would say it’s flipped 180 degrees from where it was.
How have you changed since founding a company?
That’s the story of life, isn’t it? You grow as you learn, and you grow through the struggle. Having that background in artificial intelligence and programming helps me understand a lot of the tools we use and a lot of the work we do, but I don’t do much technical work anymore. Now, my team does most of that, but I still have that background to understand what they’re talking about when we talk about projects and where we want to invest our money.
I’m a techno nerd at heart, but the Aileron leadership program in Tipp City was a really transformational thing for me. I went with other entrepreneurial people, other business leaders and listened to them go through the same struggles and headaches and discuss ways to solve those problems. They challenged me to grow and I’ve become much more interested in the culture of the organization, not just the products that we build. To me, that’s one of the biggest transformational changes that I’ve gone through and I’ve really come to appreciate the value of creating an environment where people love to work. You let them do what they do, and they create great products.
You put an emphasis on culture at DataYard — what’s your strategy?
We try to do a lot of things together and create moments where we share a meal, plan an event or do an outing. We have a program called Kudos where people give gratitude to one another and if we get to a certain level, we all go take a half day and just go do something fun. That energizes the folks on the team and gets them animated. Another important thing is that when we hire somebody new, we focus on their ability to fit in the culture more than their technical aptitude. You can always teach a smart person how to do new things, but if their cultural fit isn’t the greatest then you’re going to have problems within your organization. So we always focus on the cultural fit.
How do you feel about the business side of entrepreneurship?
I have a love-hate relationship with that. There are certain things that I loathe, like insurance. I’ve got a great guy who deals with insurance and fortunately he takes that headache off my back. I like to create new things, and my focus right now is on creating systems to make my team’s work easier and better. That’s challenging technically, which scratches that itch for the technical side of me. But I also really enjoy working on the people side. There are just certain parts of business that I know are necessary evils and thankfully other folks take care of that for us.
How do you spend your spare time?
I do a lot of off-the-wall stuff. I design art and make a lot of the designs for the DataYard shirts that we print. There are so many crazy, stupid things I do to solve problems, too. We had this issue with low humidity that I set out to solve. In the data center, low humidity is a problem because you can build up static charge. It’s been an issue for years, but we never really addressed it because it would cost a lot to fix. So one day I was like, “I know how to do this. How hard can it be to make humidity and control it?”
I used a lot my experiences to build this misting device and now we keep our humidity perfectly at 42 percent year-round. It was just a hand-built homemade kind of thing, but we use a little bit of everything that we know about technology to make these things work. For me, it’s about solving problems and doing something creative. That’s what a business is; you’re making something that didn’t exist before. That’s always the most rewarding thing for me.