Rackspace creates career path for tech execs who don’t want to manage people

Technical career path rewards people who’d rather manage technology than manage people

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Hernán Piñera / Stephen Sauer (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Egle Sigler started at Rackspace as a junior programmer and later moved to a DevOps architect position before advancing to her current role: principal architect of private cloud solutions at Rackspace.

Along the way, Sigler was asked about leading a team of developers, but it didn’t seem like the right path. “I wasn’t really interested in taking the management route, at least not immediately,” Sigler says.

She sought advice from a senior colleague, who raised an important question. “He asked: ‘When do you feel like the time disappears? What is it that you work on that you can lose yourself in?’” Sigler recalls. “For me, that really was a turning point. I love the technical stuff. I can spend hours and hours working on it without realizing it. While I like working with people, I prefer the technical part.”

Sigler found a way to stay technical while still advancing her career at Rackspace thanks to the cloud provider’s technical career track (TCT) program.

The TCT program gives top technical personnel the opportunity to rise to executive-level leadership positions within the company, without having to manage people or give up their technical work. TCT people take part in strategic company decisions and are paid at rates equivalent to senior management staff.

“The people in the program have the same status within the company as the equivalent executive ranks. They’re invited to the business leadership functions, and they’re expected to use their knowledge to help drive business impacts,” says Van Lindburg, a vice president at Rackspace and head of its TCT program.

Rackspace created the TCT program to provide a clear advancement path for technical staff. It helps employees avoid the mid-career plateau that can stymie technical people’s advancement, and it helps Rackspace avoid losing experienced people to attrition.

“This has been a huge boost for some of our very top technical talent,” Lindberg says. TCT members see that their opinions are being taken seriously and their ideas are being implemented.

The program also has benefited Rackspace. “We’ve been able to increase the accuracy of our estimations, make wiser and better decisions, speed our time to response or time to market, and increase the effectiveness of the things we do,” Lindberg says.

Rackspace’s Microsoft Private Cloud offering was brought to market faster than any other product in Rackspace's history with the help of TCT members, for instance. TCT people also took part in a project to rework Rackspace’s datacenter and server designs to use custom-designed computers, racks, and systems based on the Open Compute Project; that initiative has yielded savings of tens of millions of dollars in Rackspace’s supply chain plus new capabilities, the company says. Involving TCTers in an overhaul of Rackspace’s security incident response processes resulted in an 80% reduction in response and resolution time.

“We always thought that [creating a technical career path] was important, but it has had an unexpectedly large effect on the business as a whole, on our recruiting, on our retention, and on our ability to execute,” Lindberg says.

Getting on track

To be eligible for the TCT program, technical people need to have advanced through the typical career pathway in their area of expertise; network folks must have reached the “network engineer 3” level, for example, and software developers must have progressed to the fifth and most senior level in their track. “You need to first get to the top of your traditional track,” Lindberg says.

There’s an induction process twice each year. Candidates come from a number of different paths – technical support, internal IT and systems management, product engineering, and more. They’re first screened by their respective business units, then by a global committee. People who make it through both levels are recommended to the senior leadership team for acceptance into the program.

Within the TCT program, there are three ranks: principal, distinguished and fellow. These levels are equivalent to director, VP and SVP, respectively. “Just as it takes some time to make it to a director or a VP level, these are things that people aspire to and work toward,” Lindberg says of the TCT ranks.

The program is selective; among more than 6,000 Rackspace employees, roughly 50 are TCT members. “It is a very small group compared to the population of Rackers,” says Adrian Otto, a distinguished architect at Rackspace and TCT program board member. “Everybody who’s in the program has demonstrated tremendous capability and leadership potential.”

“My style of leadership is more of a lead-by-example type, and sharing, teaching, and mentoring from that perspective, rather than a professional manager. When the TCT program became an option for me, I immediately gravitated toward it,” says Otto, who was a serial entrepreneur before joining Rackspace in 2007.

Otto and colleague Aaron Sullivan are two of the four Rackspace employees who’ve reached the distinguished rank in the TCT program. There are no fellows yet.

Sullivan, a distinguished engineer, joined Rackspace in 2008. He’s responsible for the company’s Open Compute systems and OpenPOWER initiatives. “I’m not as effective when I’m somebody’s boss. I’m a lot more effective when I’m somebody’s guide or a mentor,” Sullivan says. “It’s more consistent with my personality and how I relate to people.”

Once part of the program, TCTers are expected to carve out time for Rackspace-level technical leadership activities. The rule of thumb is to make available between one-third and one-half of their time for TCT activities.

“By freeing up some of their time to explicitly deal with Rackspace-level priorities instead of just team-level priorities, we give them the opportunity to work on things that are important but not always urgent,” Lindberg says. “That’s one of the toughest things for any business to do, because if it’s not on fire now, it’s hard to prioritize it correctly.”

Sigler’s work with OpenStack is a good example of how the TCT program allows employees to expand their roles. Sigler is a board member at OpenStack Foundation and co-chair of the DefCore committee, which works on minimum-requirements specifications for OpenStack. Rackspace -- one of the original founders of OpenStack -- has two DefCore-certified OpenStack clouds.

“That has been a great initiative that combines the technical leadership aspect of the job with the technical,” Sigler said of her DefCore work. “It kind of merged my day job with my OpenStack Foundation job with TCT.”

Sigler also made time to co-write a book (DevOps for VMware Administrators), and she’s working on another one. She has served for two years on the governing board for POWER (Professional Organization of Women Empowered at Rackspace), Rackspace’s internal employee resource group dedicated to empowering women in technology.

“I’m really fortunate that we have the TCT program. I don’t really see how else I could be doing all these different things that I am,” she says.

The flexibility and growth opportunities that TCT allows are a big part of why Sigler has stayed at Rackspace, despite enticements from other companies. “Because of all the people I work with, and the doors that TCT has opened for me, I don’t have a reason to look anywhere else,” she says.

Not just a courtesy title

TCT hasn’t always been so well developed. An early iteration of the program was more of a “gold star” initiative that rewarded technical people Rackspace wanted to recognize and retain, Lindberg says. Over time the program has become more formalized and developed – but it took some internal reorganization to get to that point, he says.

Formalizing the program has allowed Rackspace to better engage with its entire technical population, not just the folks at the top. “It helps us be a little more mindful about making sure that we have a broad range of technical skills and viewpoints reflected in this group,” Lindberg says.

"It’s structured enough and transparent enough to be something most employees see,” Sullivan adds.

The program has come a long way in the last year or so, Otto says. TCTers are doing more meaningful work at global scale, he says.

The idea of recognizing top technical talent is not new; many companies use titles such as “distinguished engineer” or “fellow” to designate key technical people. But Rackspace sees a distinction between those titles and its TCT members, who are expected to be involved in business decisions.

“It’s more than just a badge that you’re in this program. It’s not just a way of giving an award to an employee for being a great engineer,” Otto says.

At the same time, “Rackspace has made a deliberate effort not to have confusion between executives and TCT members. These are really considered today separate tracts,” Otto adds. “With very few exceptions, everyone in the TCT program does not command a staff. They’re leaders, but they’re not managers.”

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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