Rackspace’s Lee James talks about his journey from the market stall to becoming a CTO
What is your role and who do you work for?
I’m the Chief Technology Officer at Rackspace EMEA, and responsible for making sure that our products, services, and offering meet the needs of our customers and help drive growth for their business.
How long have you been in IT?
I recently celebrated my 21st year in IT – although it was slightly quieter than my actual 21st birthday! I started off working in an IT support role at a chemicals company in Leeds. It was a great place to learn – I got to see first-hand how IT works in a highly-regulated industry.
I later moved to London and undertook a number of contract roles to further my skills and industry knowledge before I landed at BP to help drive forward their private cloud strategy. At BP, I had the pleasure of being mentored by Brian Brennan and Paul Russell – their guidance is what forms the foundation of my own guidance on today.
Before I worked in IT, I began my working life on my parents’ market stall. They taught me the importance of connecting with your customers, and making sure you put yourself in their shoes to understand their needs and provide the best experience possible. It’s something that has remained with me until today.
What is your most interesting project to date?
To date, the most interesting project I’ve worked on was around analytics. My team and I developed a service which could provide insight into when a piece of technology was likely to break down, allowing us to rectify the problem in advance. The first time we trialled it was during a large project with a major automotive company, and we discovered that their CEO’s laptop was about to suffer a malfunction.
Without alerting them we backed up all of his data and loaded it onto a new laptop, which we delivered before anything went wrong with his current one. He was astounded by our proactivity as he could continue his day as normal. Now imagine that being delivered to 30,000 users. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes and imagining their experiences, is what makes the smallest breakthroughs have the most impact.
What is your biggest challenge at the moment?
My biggest challenge is helping customers make choices. Customers have more choice now than ever before and must be able to weigh different options – understanding what’s going to give them the biggest benefit and what will have no impact if implemented. It’s these decisions that can make a huge difference to their bottom line.
What technology were you working with ten years ago?
Ten years ago, we had just completed the largest enterprise rollout of VMware globally – all delivered through a self-service portal and directly linked to service management. While the end to end service was industry leading, the team at BP was already thinking ahead and we had just started the extension and rollout to AWS.
Public Cloud deployments in 2008 was extremely leading edge, so my team had to understand the cost benefit analysis, governance, control, integration and how to make it fit our users needs. Looking back, we were really building the first rules of the road for the public cloud – how to use, pay and automate it.
What is your favourite technology of all time?
It has to be the Sony Walkman. I was brought up on music, but the Walkman made it personal. I could not only take music with me for the first time but I could really understand what was behind each and every song. I will never forget the headphones with the orange sponge!
From a technology point of view, the Walkman also paved the way for disruptive tools like the iPod, iPhone and services today like Spotify. It really revolutionised the industry – similar to the cloud today.
How will the Internet of Things affect your organisation?
With IoT devices expected to reach 70 billion by 2020, the possibilities of how to use devices and the data they capture is never ending. Therefore, I feel that it’s critical that we continue to ask the same questions as we do today for each of our customers – how can we help you understand your customers better through data; how can we help you drive new revenue streams and product offerings with data, and how can we help you drive efficiency in your operations?
The ability to provide both the professional services to help customers on this journey as well as providing safe, secure and scalable platforms both at the edge (device) and the core (data processing) will be critical to the success of IoT.
We are already helping a number of organisations in the retail, ecommerce and financial services sectors to understand the value of IoT and data.
What smartphone do you use?
I currently use an iPhone 7. Its my first switch over from being a long time Samsung user. I still struggle not having a back button on the Apple as well as the extra internal storage but the apps and battery life are great.
What three apps could you not live without?
Flipboard – it keeps me up-to-date with the latest news.
Fitbit – it’s become religious in terms of beating targets and helping me focus on my sleep patterns.
Podcasts – There are so many great podcasts and I couldn’t live without the Fighting Talk, StaceyonIOT, Freakonomics radio and Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcasts!
What new technology are you most excited for a) your business and b) yourself?
For Rackspace, I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of what is possible with Virtual Reality. I’m excited to see how it helps visualise how we architect and design multi cloud services, and how we can map an entire customer journey and data processes so it is clear for clients.
From a purely personal point of view, I’m currently going through a home build project, so I’m really excited by how I can make my home as connected as possible. I’m currently looking at Amazon Echo Show as being the interactive “face” for every room and help create special moments with my family.
If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you be doing?
From a very young age I was developing message boards on BBC computers, so technology was always going to play a part in some form. If I hadn’t been struck by this, it’s likely that I would have joined the Navy as I attended in Naval college and I would have been following in my family’s footsteps.