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Interview: Rackspace EMEA CTO on why it pays to put people at the heart of IT transformation

Rackspace EMEA CTO Lee James opens up about how taking a people-first approach to digital transformation raises staff morale and engagement levels while helping the managed cloud provider win new business

Received wisdom dictates that the success of any digital transformation rests on the ability of organisations to address three core areas – people, process and technology.

The technology and process parts of this equation are often referred to as easiest to address because people, in short, are unpredictable, particularly when it comes to how they accept and respond to changes in their environment.

How they react often comes down to how the transformation is pitched to them in the first place by senior management, says Lee James, CTO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Rackspace, talking to Computer Weekly during a recent visit to the company’s UK headquarters in Hayes, west London.  

For instance, it is easier to secure buy-in and support from people if digital transformation is being presented as something they will be actively involved in, rather than a process they will be subjected to, says James.

“With any transformation, it can sometimes feel like it is being done to you, rather than with you, so it is important to make people aware of what the aims of the transformation are, what they will get out of it and what the customer benefits will be,” he says.

And with the right messaging and communication, organisations stand a better chance of having employees who are engaged and enthused by what is going on around them, he continues – but the language used needs to be inclusive right from the start. 

“You have to set out your intent, saying this is what we are going to achieve as a team,” he says. “Here are the business benefits, and the organisational benefits too. This is what we are going to become and this is what we are going to achieve as a team – together.” 

This is important messaging to get right, because employees are often the CIO’s greatest allies when it comes to securing the support of team members who may be more sceptical or unsure of the direction the company is heading. 

“That’s what you have to remember about digital transformation,” says James. “It’s not ‘have I got the right people [to do it]?’, but ‘how will we bring everyone along the journey as part of this transformation?’. Because these are the people who are going to be your promoters, as well as your detractors.”

“It is important to make people aware of what the aims of the transformation are, what they will get out of it and what the customer benefits will be”

Lee James, Rackspace

James joined Rackspace as EMEA CTO in mid-2017 from IT services company Computacenter. During his tenure there, he helped the firm’s enterprise customers with their cloud migrations in his role as group services development director.

James has also spent a fair amount of his 21-year tech career working on the user side of the fence at some of the world’s largest and best-known enterprises, including oil and gas giant BP, where he was involved in a $600m datacentre consolidation project, and pharmaceutical behemoth GSK. He also spent a couple of years at online betting company Betfair before switching to the supplier side.

“I had a really great time at BP and saw parts of the world I never thought I would, and worked on some amazing projects,” he says. “Then I turned up at Betfair, which was kind of like this little startup [by comparison].

“I went from an organisation with 100,000 people in defined structures to a company with 1,000 people delivering this online gaming product.”

It is fair to say these experiences have all served to shape and inform James’ own views on what it takes to create and maintain a supportive and collaborative culture, and why it is so important to give people the right tools to deliver a top-quality digital product.

“I interviewed a software developer to come and work for my team at Betfair and we sat down, did the ‘how are yous’ and everything else, and he said, ‘What laptop will I get? Will I get an iMac?’ And I remember sitting there thinking, ‘That’s bold in an interview’,” he says.

James says his response was non-committal enough to prompt the interviewee to state that if his request for an iMac was denied, he would not be coming to work for the firm, but, in hindsight, James understands why this prospective employee was so insistent on it.

“Inwardly, I was quite shocked at the time, but really what he was saying was ‘these are the tools that help me work the best’, and I thought it was amazing that someone was so passionate about it. So we made it one of our criteria for hiring,” he says.

“I always remember that interview. We can’t give people everything they want, as much as I would like to, but where we can, we get a brilliant software developer and an engaged person too.”

Bringing your whole self to work

Rackspace’s workplace culture champions individualism as a means of getting the best, most productivity work out of its technology teams, which is evident from a quick walk around the office.

There are flags hanging above each bank of desks to demonstrate the nationalities of the staff sitting beneath them. Everywhere you look, there are photos, slogans and mascots that give some indication of the rapport between its team members, interspersed with certificates and other bits of branded paraphernalia talking up individual and group achievements.  

“What you see around you today is a celebration of who we are, the acceptance around the skill levels they have, and the personality that comes out and the fact they are being rewarded for their hard work with their certifications and other forms of recognition,” says James.

“It’s not about the grind of, ‘there is a problem, fix it; there is a problem, fix it’. It is about finding the time to allow people to grow, be awesome and celebrate their success.”

This is important because it makes each member of Rackspace’s development teams aware of their own accountability and contribution to the success (or not) of any projects they are involved with. And this, in turn, encourages them to achieve more, says James.

“They are striving to be better all the time, and they encourage each other to strive to be better all the time.”

The importance of individualism is further reinforced by the eye-catching branding that adorns some of the office walls at Rackspace HQ, which serves as a reminder to its staff that this is an environment where they can express themselves freely and safely in their workplace with the slogan: “It’s okay to be me.”

It is phrase that feeds into the concept of supporting people so that they feel comfortable and supported in “bringing their whole self to work”, says James. So much so that when employees enter the office each day, they do not feel under pressure to dial-down parts of their personalities, including their interests, passions or fears.

“I don’t want to turn up to work being different to how I am in my personal life, because it can mean you’re being false in both aspects, and that’s really hard,” he says. “What you hopefully get at Rackspace is the best of me, because I’m not trying to be something different.”

A further example of how Rackspace supports its staff in freely expressing themselves is through its in-house volunteering scheme, in which each employee is gifted 100 hours a year to devote to causes and initiatives that are important to them, says James.

This has previously seen people help with cleaning out canals, take part in sponsored bike rides or help out in local schools, and what Rackspace gets back in return are employees who are happy, engaged, and feel invested in by their company. 

Read more about workplace culture in digital transformation

James cites these initiatives as reasons why Rackspace was recently ranked 10th in Great Place to Work’s 2019 rundown of the UK’s best workplaces with 1,000 or more employees, and why its net promoter scores (NPS) are consistently high.

“This is what gives us NPS ratings higher than any of our competitors, and the lowest churn ratings too,” he says. “We feel that’s how organisations should be set up.”

Rackspace has found itself in the midst of a sizeable business transformation of its own in recent years, with a few senior management reshuffles and its acquisition by private equity house Apollo Global, which marked the end of its nine-year stint as a publicly traded company.

This transformation has also seen the firm seek to expand beyond its roots as a public cloud provider, and one-time competitor to Amazon Web Services, the Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure.

Instead of competing with the big three, Rackspace now offers managed services support to enterprises that are migrating their applications and workloads to the Amazon, Google and Microsoft clouds.

It is a business pivot that appears to be working out well for the company, with the AWS-flavoured version of its managed services offering previously hailed by its senior management as the fastest-growing business initiative it has ever embarked on.

James says the company’s culture is an important part of its customer acquisition strategy, because, as he terms it, “people buy from people” and when they see how Rackspace looks after its staff, they get some insight into how the firm treats its clients too.

“Every single one of the people who works here is qualified enough to get up and go work somewhere else,” says James. “And if you don’t provide the tools, and the techniques and the capability and opportunities for them to work from home or in environments where they feel comfortable, it doesn’t matter how much you pay them – they will simply walk.”

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