Housing Technology interviewed Rackspace’s chief technology officer, Lee James, during the recent Housing Technology 2018 conference.
How are you finding Housing Technology 2018?
It’s been brilliant. It’s our first year at the event, so thank you for having us. Lots of our customers had recommended it and there is a great buzz here! Apparently there are around 450 people here and we’ve had so many people asking us questions.
I’ve just done a presentation on the scalability and feasibility of cloud. It wasn’t a technology presentation, more about the impacts of people and skills, and how to move forward. We’ve already had really good feedback.
Who are Rackspace?
We started in 1998 and now service over 300,000 customers globally, not just for space in [server] racks, but also managing their IT and their infrastructure services. We’re the leading cloud provider, meaning that we provide services and support around Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft Azure, and private cloud vendors such as VMware and OpenStack (we even helped build OpenStack with NASA back in the early 2000s). We call ourselves the number-one services company for the cloud.
And you’re worldwide?
We are a worldwide organisation; we’re big enough to cope because we have the scale, but we class ourselves as being small enough to care. The biggest thing about Rackspace is not the services that we provide, it’s the people.
We have a culture; we call ourselves ‘rackers’ and we expect you to be the same at work as at home. We want you to be you, we’re very results driven and that culture is what makes us special and makes us connect with our customers. Each of those customers is individual to us and we have the lowest churn rate, and what that really means is that customers leaving you to go somewhere else for something different, yet our churn rate is just over one per cent.
How should housing providers approach cloud vs. on-premise?
In housing, there’s a huge amount of cloud already being used. We’ve found that the sector is quite mature, in that it’s familiar with software being delivered to them to use but in a service-type model. We see a lot of requests saying, “I would like to transform” but it’s not necessarily an infrastructure question, such as do I go from private cloud to public cloud?
The questions we ask are: what are the applications that you’re running today; how can we make those applications cloud-ready; what are your business requirements on top of that; are you looking to drive operational efficiency; can part of your business scale up and scale down?
We find many people stay in private clouds because their businesses are always-on, whether its servicing the needs of their customers on a day-to-day basis or for data or regulatory components. One important thing is that we are unbiased; we have a portfolio of around seven or eight cloud providers, and we help you make the choice based on your applications and your business requirements.
Why move to the cloud?
There are many different ways that the business operates. We’ve worked with some customers that have private tenants and social housing customers, and we’ve worked with companies that are looking to build up new sites in new locations with new management.
It’s like any decision; how can I align my people, processes and technology better for the business? What the business wants is a clear understanding of: what does it cost me to serve; what does it cost me to deliver; and how can I cost-optimise that in the best way? We feel that cloud can align technology, people and processes directly in line with the business requirements.
For example, for a new housing development, lots of different partners need to work on it, so we can fire that up in the cloud and everybody can connect to it rather than having to wait for certain pieces of infrastructure to be delivered. And we can turn it off afterwards. The key is that we’re aligning how IT delivers its services directly to how the business delivers its services.
If a housing provider wanted to do something without the expense of infrastructure and actual implementation, you can help them?
Absolutely, we call it incubation. There’s a great deal of testing and proving: is this going to work; we’ve a new model that we’d like to take to the market, would it work; will a new system to manage our customers work?
If you are firing up a new development, then you need to understand the analytics and all of the different pieces that need to be taken into consideration, then test them and try it. We ask our customers what their requirements are and then best align the right cloud to their requirements.
Certain clouds are more suited to gathering data from different centres, understanding analytics and how to analyse them and provide reporting and data in an easily accessible place. We suggest customers incubate first, understand what’s right, fit the requirements, and then scale outwards from there. The benefit of Rackspace is that we can do this instantaneously for you. And security and governance is absolutely key from the start.
How has housing providers’ use of IT changed over the past five years and how will it change in the next five years?
In short – information and analytics. We’re now gathering so much information, whether it’s sensor information from particular sites, my personal credit profile or information about optimising environments and customers in terms of temperature control, to give just a few examples.
That can also have a big impact on understanding the profile of the customer which can then be the new profile for new housing. You are best fitting the housing to the requirements. We are seeing streams of data coming through and what’s important is to make sense of that data, and use it to solve the questions asked.
In future, I see more housing providers using machine learning, analytics and even AI to model what the future could be, becoming more prescriptive about the services offered, and becoming more cost optimised. The whole raft of information and analytics will revolutionise and change the housing sector.
Can you think of any private-sector companies whose use of IT could be mirrored in housing?
One of our customers is Metro Bank. While other banks are moving away from the high street, Metro Bank is opening more stores and really focusing on its customers. It understands that customers want to interact with them in different ways, they want a personal touch, but they want mobile capabilities as well, to provide a huge portfolio of services around the loans and various other pieces, not just savings and standard banking.
Sometimes you’ll see a cloud first mentality – “I will push everything to a public cloud because it will be my panacea”. With Metro Bank, we made sure that we analysed each of its applications to understand the commercial impact, the operability impact, who was using that application on a day-to-day basis, if it was going to be more cost effective and what the right solution would be.
We host the whole of Metro Bank today. If Metro Bank goes down in any way, it has to report itself to parliamentary committees, for example. And in the housing sector, they’re under similar scrutiny and regulatory controls in terms of what they do. So Metro Bank is a perfect example in the private sector and what we’re seeing mirrored by the housing sector is that we pick the right solution but take everything into consideration, not just the infrastructure.
How have you helped companies create their own ‘customer centricity’?
‘Customer centricity’ is in Metro Bank’s own strategy. We’re showing that we’re a partner that thinks the same way. Come to Rackspace headquarters, see how we operate on a day-to-day basis and what we do in terms of how we look after our staff.
We have our own internal customer centricity, known as a technical career track. A number of our experts are technical, so our highest grade within that technical career track is the same level as a director within Rackspace.
We want you to be the best technical person you can be, without having to manage different people, and we’ll reward you for that because we think that’s amazing.
Have you always had that ethos?
Yes, from day one. We call it a fanatical experience. We want to give you the best support experience you could ever have, we give dedicated people to dedicated accounts, and we make sure that you speak to a ‘racker’ that understands you.
We have something called ‘Fanatic of the Month’, and we stand up and tell everybody how things are coming on. It’s about transparency, and then we celebrate successes. We also highlight where we’ve areas to improve, and take both customer feedback and all the ‘racker’ feedback and make sure that we act on that.
Rackspace is more than just a job; it feels like a home. We have passionate people that love coming to work and actually solving problems but, more importantly, love working with the people that they work with.
Housing Technology would like to thank Lee James, CTO of Rackspace, for taking part in this interview.