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Interview: Lee James, CTO, Rackspace

Lee James spent the early part of his career on the user side, deploying clouds and vSphere for his employers, before moving to the supplier side, first at Computacenter and now at Rackspace

Lee James is chief technology officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Rackspace. He joined the company six months ago, taking a customer-focused role to help the company’s customers on their cloud journeys, while also helping to develop roadmaps for new Rackspace products and services.

James started out in IT on the user side, working at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) as lead architect deploying the first version of VMware ESX server. “It was very much in beta, and we were working with blade technology at a time when people were wondering what it was,” he says.

James then joined BP, where he was involved in a $600m datacentre consolidation project. “Given my previous experience in virtualisation, this is something BP wanted to move to,” he says.

BP signed VMware’s first enterprise licence and deployed what, at the time, was believed to be the largest VMware virtual server farm. In 2006, BP built an IT-as-a-service platform to support its web and Windows server infrastructure.

In 2010, following BP’s decision to outsource its IT to HP, James joined Betfair to head up the strategy and product teams.

Speaking of his experiences at the betting site, he says: “We wanted to do agile development, continuous development, continuous delivery. We tried to get 100 releases to product every week, all driven by software.” The platform Betfair used needed to support public, private and hybrid clouds, to enable the company to expand into new markets.

From buyer to supplier

Following his time at Betfair, James says he switched to the supply side, “from poacher to gamekeeper”. 

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The conversations that ultimately led to this decision initially began back when he was at BP.

“Computacenter used to deliver all of BP’s software licensing tools, as well as hardware, and I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Norris, global CEO at Computacenter, and Kevin James, Computacenter’s group chief commercial officer,” says James.

“Kevin approached me [when] Computacenter’s customers wanted to go to the cloud. He asked me to come and help the company build its internal propositions, and also use my experience to help other customers move to the cloud.”

James says moving from being an IT user to a provider of IT services was quite a shock, but admits there are also similarities, because “everyone cares about the customers and users”.

After spending three years helping to build Computacenter’s cloud strategy and services portfolio, and becoming “more entwined in vendors” than he had ever been, James moved to Rackspace.

Cheap clouds can cost more

Having worked both at large and small organisations, James feels his experience in working on complex cloud architectures enables him to have an honest conversation with customers, many of whom face similar implementation challenges to those he has tackled in the past.

Businesses may try to find the lowest cost when selecting a public cloud provider, but James points out that corporate governance will often prevent a company from selecting the cheapest offering.

“When I worked at Betfair, we were governed by the Maltese Gaming Association, which had strict rules about where data was stored,” he says. “I’ve been involved in many projects where the client has asked for the lowest common denominator, but this becomes the lowest common denominator, plus legal, plus regulations, plus data sovereignty, plus workers’ councils.”

Once all the additional costs have been taken into account, James says the best and cheapest option may be on-premise, in the company’s own datacentre.

Poacher turned gamekeeper

When asked about how other IT leaders treated him after his move to the supply side, James says he feels he was “rather blessed” because he “came with history and experience”.

While CIOs are often inundated with suppliers pitching their products, James says his experiences at user organisations mean the conversations he has with C-level executives are generally more welcoming. He says he can have an honest conversation about the difficulties of implementing complex cloud and virtualisation architectures, which not only are hard to implement and deploy, but also require the business to think about people and processes along with the technology.

“It resonates with them because it is not about someone trying to sell them a product or service. They just want a real conversation, to get past all the fluff of the marketing messages. I found that it really worked. Yes, I was at Computacenter, but I’ve also worked at BP and Betfair, and they want me to share my experiences and talk about the gotchas and what went wrong.”

He says his experiences from a decade back – implementing cloud, virtualisation and agile development – along with client work during his time at Computacenter, help him in his current role at Rackspace. “I can take my experiences of working with companies like AstraZeneca and Rolls-Royce and help to support Rackspace’s customers.”

Cloud personas

When asked how he applies his experiences to different types of organisation, ranging from small businesses to the largest enterprises, James says it is important to be cognisant of the company’s cloud persona and the personas of the different stakeholders in the business.

“There are a lot of nuances you need to understand. The buying process can be very different.” Different parts of the business will work in different ways and so will have their own cloud personas. And as James has found when talking to IT leaders, change management that takes into account these personas is key to rolling out a cloud strategy.

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