Dave Sims, lead storyteller at Rackspace tells us how Rackspace was able to become one of the greatest companies to work for. They’re known for their fanatical support with their customers, and they also support internal employees through many engagement initiatives.
Q: Hello, everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager at Officevibe, and today I’m with David Sims, who’s the Lead Storyteller at Rackspace. Dave, thanks so much for taking some time to chat with me.
A: Thank you. Thank you, Jacob.
Q: So Rackspace is a pretty popular company. A pretty well-known company, obviously, but just in case maybe someone out there doesn’t know, can you just tell us a little bit about what Rackspace is and what Rackspace does?
A: Sure. Rackspace started about 15 years ago as a start-up. It was originally just a hosting company for Websites, and over the last few years, it’s moved into cloud computing. It’s launched an open-source alternative to Amazon, which is kind of the biggest cloud provider. We provide cloud hosting for enterprise, small businesses, start-ups. We have hundreds of thousands of customers, so it’s a pretty fast-growing business. It’s doubled in size since I started three years ago. I can only imagine how much it doubles every three years since it’s first formed. It’s a very fast-moving, very innovative tech company.
Q: Very cool. Thanks for sharing that. I’m sure the culture has something to do with the exponential growth that you are experiencing. But we’ll talk about that. Lead Storyteller. That sounds like a very cool title. Can you tell everyone a bit about what that actually means?
A: I came to Rackspace three and a half years ago, I was a filmmaker by trade. I’ve done, like, four narrative films. I went to film school, so I’ve always been a documentarian and a filmmaker. When I joined Rackspace, I just started to make essentially short documentaries about what it’s like to be here and work here. I’ve given a transparent window into who we are as a company.
And so Lead Storyteller really just encompasses trying to document how the company’s changing, the things that we’re doing, all the innovation that’s happening, because we’re part support company, and now we’ve kind of moved into a technology company with doing our own software as a service. Lead Storyteller for me is just being hands-on and kind of sharing the Rackspace story with the world, really.
Q: Nice. That’s awesome. And, we were chatting offline for a little bit, and you mentioned to me that you’re kind of transitioning into more of an H.R. role right now, to focus more deeply on the company culture there. So I’d love to pick your brain on what exactly you’re about to start working on. Anything that’s valuable for our audience. Can you maybe take a few minutes and tell us about some of the initiatives that you might start working on in the next little while?
A: Sure, so… About a year ago, I joined marketing. Before that, I was actually in H.R. before, and I was part of team run by Michael Long, who is quite well-known for in the industry for his work with culture branding. And during that time, I was on the team for a year, where we basically documenting the Rackspace culture. I started some initiatives then that kind of caught on a little bit within Rackspace, like doing a day-in-the-life series, where I would shoot and edit a video in the course of a day and put it out. It would really give a snapshot of what a day at Rackspace is really like. We have 5 or 6,000 people that work here at Rackspace, so if you can make them proud, and if you can really show what we do every day, then they’re going to end up sharing that video out.
We have a built-in audience to get that culture out into the world. I moved to marketing to work on corporate branding for the last year, but now I’m going to go back into doing culture branding. Get back on the floor and get in touch with what amazing innovation and cross-team collaboration that goes on on a daily basis here. I have a few things in mind, big-picture-wise, but I just want to focus on our open-source initiatives that we’re working on. For me, that’s really interesting. I like the whole community aspect of it. We have open stock. We’re collaborating with hundreds of other companies, major companies. There’s developers who, by all intents and purposes, these companies should be in competition, yet they’re collaborating together to bring this open-source movement to reality. I think that’s something I really want to focus on. The cultural perspectives, as well, like moving back into H.R.
Q: That’s cool. Thanks for sharing that. I was going through the Rackspace Website, of course, the culture section on the Web site. I noticed you have a lot of cool initiatives on there, like Rack Health and Rack Gives Back, and different things. I want to kind of go through each one of those, if that’s OK with you. Just a quick description of each one. Let’s start with Rack Health, actually. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that is?
A: Yeah. For example, up until August of this year, I was a smoker. I was reimbursed for all of my quit-smoking cessations by Rackspace. They’re trying to ensure their Rackers are healthy. They just opened a really nice gym that I just joined. You can join up and go 24-hour days at the gym. There’s a lot of initiatives to make sure that the Rackers are healthy. I don’t know all the details of it, but just from the experience I’ve had from helping me quit smoking, paying for that and having a gym here, that’s not even 20 steps from my desk, the access you have to health. They do biometric screenings once a year so you can get your updates on your health. They seem to want to take care of people.
Q: That’s so nice. I find that so cool. Congratulations on quitting smoking.
A: [Laughs] Thanks!
Q:That’s an accomplishment for sure. Can we talk about Rack Gives Back and what that is?
A: Yeah. Rack Gives Back is an interesting story, actually. Rackspace moved into an abandoned mall. It’s one of their largest recycling projects in San Antonio history. They basically gutted a 1.5 million square-foot mall, and rebuilt it to make it our headquarters. And when we moved into this part of town, it was in the northeast side of San Antonio, and it was in a rough neighborhood.
Originally, they had talked about building a wall around Rackspace, to protect from the environment, but instead, Graham Weston decided he’d rather put that money into a foundation that would actually help the neighborhood instead of trying to isolate ourselves from it. We’d actually be a good corporate citizen and help the community around us. We’ve adopted this whole school system around us, and the whole neighborhood. It’s kind of been building up around us. As we’ve grown, the neighborhood has been prospering, and people are moving back into it. It’s revitalized the neighborhood. Rack Gives Back is one of our initiatives from the Rackspace Foundation. People often volunteer their time. We get a couple days off a year where you can actually go and volunteer your time to help the community, and help put playgrounds into schools, or painting schools, or just getting involved in the neighborhood and being a good corporate citizen.
Q: And do you find that a lot of the employees, a lot of the Rackers, do they participate? What’s the participation rate like?
A: There’s a lot of pride around it. I don’t know the statistics, but I think it’s somewhere around 65 and 75 percent of Rackers give money in every paycheck towards the Rack Gives Back Foundation to help the community. Team outings, I see teams all the time that go out as a team to get involved in the neighborhood and to help, and to also build strengths and bonds with those team members. There’s a lot of pride that goes into it. I think the people are really proud of the social conscience that we have as a company, and the work that we do for San Antonio and for our community.
Q: That’s so cool. I didn’t realize the numbers were that high. That’s pretty impressive. Can you talk to me a little bit about the Rackspace Foundation and what that is?
A: Yeah. Like I said in that earlier answer, originally it was formed as an alternative to building a wall around our headquarters. I guess Rack Gives Back is kind of the action arm of the Foundation. The Foundation itself is 100 percent funded by employees, and it’s really the social, philanthropic element of Rackspace. We help the community.
Q: Right. That makes sense. I noticed also on the Web site, Rackspace University. I have an idea what that could be, but maybe if you could explain that?
A: Yeah. It’s interesting. Actually, just last week, I was downtown. Graham Weston has started Geekdom, which is kind of a collaborative workspace in the old building where Rackspace was headquartered when it was very small. Below that now is the Open Cloud Academy, which was started by Rackspace University, where anybody can go and get the tools needed. An eight-week course to learn the latest in Linux and cloud, and all the latest open-source languages. Rackspace University is doing that now publicly, but also within Rackspace, we have a university system where Rackers can go on their own will. Whatever class they want to take is free. Every day there’s probably 10, 15 different courses being taught where you can continue to educate and teach yourself. I think we’re a Gallup strength organization. We use the Gallup strengthsfinder. I think the majority of Rackers have learner as one of their top strengths. I think having that university at their access, to continue to learn and grow their skill-sets and become certified in Red Hat or Microsoft or Linux. It’s a university system within Rackspace, essentially.
Q: That’s unbelievable. I find that incredible, honestly. I was going to ask you this later about how if the non-developers often learn some of the technology and things like that from other Rackers. I knew you’re a technology company, but obviously there are not that many technical employees there, like sales people or whatever. I’m assuming that the sales people must take a few courses to kind of become more familiar with technology. That’s great. I think it gets everyone on the same page, or at least a similar page. It’s important.
A: A lot of times I’ve done videos with people that our leading our networking aspect of our cloud, that now I see them in the classroom teaching people from all different aspects of the business. There’s a lot of cross-team collaboration within Rackspace. It’s pretty remarkable. I think it’s one of the things that I wanted to focus on from a cultural perspective, moving into H.R. as well.
Q: Yeah, that’s great. That was actually going to be my next question. I was going to talk about the team. I know you guys are a huge company. You mentioned over 5,000 employees. You are distributed all over the world for sure. I’m wondering what it’s like to work at such a large distributed team? Also, maybe some of the tools or some of the best practices that you use to maintain that flow.
A: Yeah. I think, obviously, there’s a lot of virtual conferencing going on. People have stand-up meetings every day and invite in people. A lot of these teams are split. A lot of our developers are in San Francisco. We’re spread all over the nation and all over the world. We stream a lot of stuff. We do a lot of WebEx. We do a lot of video conferencing. It’s just daily meetings, and touch bases. I don’t know the inner workings, really, of how a lot of these teams collaborate across the globe. I don’t touch that so much, so I probably won’t be the best person to answer that. I’m kind of giving you generic answers.
Q: No problem at all. I guess I wanted to ask about fanatical support. Your slogan? Not slogan, but it’s a kind of saying. Whenever you hear about Rackspace, you hear about fanatical support. Talk to me a little about that. How is support so deeply baked into the culture? What do people learn about support, and things like that. Talk to me a little bit about that.
A: Our highest honor here at Rackspace is the fanatical jacket, and every month a Racker that’s gone above and beyond for a customer, like really shown that support. They’re like celebrities, heroes to us, so they’re put into a straitjacket to represent fanaticism for our customers. It is so ingrained in our culture. From early on. I think IT had that reputation in the late, mid-90s, when nobody wanted to answer the phone, nobody wanted to be involved. There was a snobbery, I think, universally around technology at that point.
With time, David Rice realized that that wasn’t going to work. That we needed to be fanatical for our customers. From early on, it was a mantra within the company for years before it became a marketing term. I think it’s something that rallied the company far beyond anything that was just done as a slogan. To this day, we have a whole wall that’s dedicated to Rackers that have won this fanatical jacket. It’s just such a huge part of every day for everybody, to volunteer your best and coming in and doing the best you can for our customers. It’s so ingrained in our cultural DNA.
Q: I love how it’s celebrated with that jacket. Everyone can walk around making fun, laughing at the guy. That’s fun. That’s nice. The next question for you is, I was going through the Rackspace site, and I was actually kind of blown away at how many benefits that the company offers. There’s nothing that’s not there. From medical, dental, you name it. You guys have it. I’m just curious, in your own personal opinion, what’s your favorite perk or benefit and why?
A: I don’t know, really, which one. You have the ability to get involved with so many things, like physical fitness. We have Cross Fit here three times a day. There’s a gym that just opened. There’s perks like that. There’s food trucks twice a week. Those kind of perks touch me more than when I think about the benefits. I do like the bonus-sharing. I think that’s amazing. A company that shares their equity. If we do well, then the customers get that equity participation. I think that’s amazing. It’s an amazing way to keep people involved. It’s really empowering for you to have included them. Beyond that, obviously, it’s nice to have all those options. We have a lot continuing education through H.R. with Rack Wealth, which is kind of like Rack Health. Rack Wealth, which actually can help you with financial planning and talk you through buying a house. There’s a lot of support. Fanatical support isn’t just for customers. It’s actually Rackers supporting Rackers, as well.
Q: Nice. I like that. Fanatical support, even internally.
Q: It seems like a fun place to work. I’ve watched a lot of the videos that you have made, and it seems like everyone is having a good time. Everyone’s high-fiving, this and that. I wonder how social is the team? I know you guys are distributed, but let’s say office that you work at. How often do you guys go out for dinners? Are there a lot of social activities that happen?
A: Like you said, you’ve seen a lot of fun things that happen at the office, and I think we very much have a “work hard, play hard” kind of mentality. Each manager of each team is given a monthly allowance to encourage them to go out and do team-building exercises, whether that just be happy hour or lunch or going to the batting cages or whatever it may be. We’re really encouraged to do things socially outside of Rackspace. I personally keep my head down when I’m working. My video team, we produce 4 or 500 videos a year, so we kind of keep our heads down and don’t do too much of that. Generally, every team has an allowance it’s given every month to be able to go and do something socially as a team. I think it’s important. We work hard, we play hard. You’ve got to let off that steam.
Q: Definitely. I actually find that with all these chats that I’m having with different people from different companies, that’s a very common theme that I’m noticing. Work hard, play hard. It’s great. I think we’ll probably end it here. I just want to thank you so much for taking some time out of your day. I know you probably should be shooting right now, but honestly, I appreciate you taking some time to chat with me. This was a lot of fun, and hopefully we can do this again soon.
A: Yeah, thanks. It was nice to be on the other side of the camera for a little while.