Hard Career Lessons

RackspaceI’m supremely confident in my skill and ability and I’m more or less considered pretty bright.  However, I got served a very hard career lesson a few years ago when I took a job at Rackspace.  Rackspace is a great company and a great place for most people to work.  This isn’t a critique of them as an organization specifically.  They have a great culture with the only draw back that most people complain about is the pay scale.  Rackspace is a service provider which means the margins are typically not very high so they face the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent.  The take away from the experience is that I learned the most about my leadership style and ability in my short 3 months working for them than anywhere else.

My Resume

Their interview process is extremely thorough.  If I remember correctly, I went through at least 5 interviews to get a job as Manager of Network Operations for their Chicago facility which was just getting turned up.  They drilled me on Spannng Tree, BGP, iBGP and a ton of technical networking material.  This should have raised a red flag for a management position but I didn’t pick up on it.  I met with their Chief Engineer and my Manager a couple of times and with the key staff that I would be managing.  I was impressed with the talent of the Chief Engineer and my staff was top notch.

The culture if very Silicon Valley like.  You get to wear jeans, tee shirts and shorts.  Plus you get to play with Nurf guns during your working hours.  None of this really appeals to me but it speaks to the laid back environment  Their work hours are very Silicon Valley like as well.  A couple of the engineers I managed worked ungodly hours in Chicago for Austin, TX pay scales.  As a point of reference, I felt I was underpaid by about $20-$25K a year.  So, I knew they were severely underpaid for their levels in the Chicago region of the country.

I knew the salary issue coming in the door.  I was excited to work with a leader in hosting and service.  But, I underestimated how big of a difference in culture the company was from most places I worked. The biggest shift was in management style.

I failed to realize that there was a severe missmatch in what they were looking for in a manager vs. what I provided as a leader.  They were looking for someone who could take a detail level approach to managing staff.  If I was giving a task, I was expected to manage the task to completion and not delegate and just provide basic direction.  I’m just not skilled in providing this type of leadership and even through all of the interviews I misread what they were looking for and they miss-interpreted my leadership style.

It was a hard few months I worked for the company.  I enjoyed the challenge of the work but just couldn’t adjust my management style to someone who QA’d work versus someone who sets direction and removes road blocks.  I developed a very tough skin as I was pulled into more performance related conversations than I ever experienced.  I’d always been a top performer.  The job prior to Rackspace the CEO of the firm told me, “You brought us out of the stone age.”  So, it was pretty humbling not to succeed at the role and I basically refused to quite because I don’t like failure.  It made for a very uncomfortable position which again was another great learning opportunity.  From healthy conflict comes growth.

“From healthy conflict comes growth”

I also learned more about in what types of roles I add the most value.  I’m a thought leader that has the ability to apply technology to business challenges, inspire others and develop consensus amongst a diverse group.  I bring change where change is sought.  You want someone who will ensure the correct knobs are turned and the switches were set in the right position that’s really not me.  It was a difficult experience but I’m grateful for the additional tool in my belt.

I’ve learned to ask valuable questions and pay attention to red flags in communications during interviews. Hope this post saves you from having to learn it the way I did.

Published by Keith Townsend

Now I'm @CTOAdvisor

7 thoughts on “Hard Career Lessons

  1. I love the openness on the public Internet, it isn’t for everyone.

    My guess is, you didn’t export working at a provider to be such a different experience than working at an enterprise ? An internet provider has much more of a startup mentality.

    Understanding culture at a business before working there is really hard, I think.

    I’ve worked in such an enviroment for over 10 years now, yes, at the same company. An application service provider, we develop our own software and host other people software.

    There is no official title, but I am the technical lead on infrastructure. So I’m also the architect.

    The company is still small enough, I can do many different technical jobs/projects. Over the whole stack, from programming websites all the way down to networking at the of our networking (peering/routing/filtering) at the Internet Exchanges. Because I know the whole stack, they also ask me to help on a lot of outages.

    Ohh and yes, probably underpaid if you compare it to the enterprise. But I actually like the less formal/get stuff done mentallity.

    1. Yeah. I didn’t expect the stringent purse strings. I read Amazon has the same challenges with controlling costs. More importantly I didn’t anticipate that driving a difference in management styles as well.

      It’s a trade off. It’s critical to know what you are trading and what you are getting in to. Sounds like you’ve found a great balance.

      1. I think it’s a pretty good balance, it’s not perfect, but I doubt I’m gonna easily find a better fit.

        There is one thing I am however very clear about, I’m not a manager. I only deal with the technology. I have no interrest in being a manager.

      2. There is a good reason many providers base their services on open source software. Price is involved, but it definitely isn’t the only reason.

        It is usually freely available, you espcially don’t have to deal with per-user licensing.

        When you deploy it at scale you’ll need to know the software by heart anyway so there is no advantage to paying for shrinkwrapped software which might be easier to install (a lot of the times that isn’t even true).

        Open source is usually easier to customize to fit the needs.

        An example tells us that even shrinkwrapped software has no advantages on the one thing where you would expect proprietary vendors to have a great advantage over open source: support.

        The example is that we also deploy certain Microsoft software when we escalate an issue to them, it is usually a very specific technical problem which we need to have fixed fast because of an outage. We usually end up finding the fix ourselfs, because we are faster at fixing the issue then they can figure out our environment.

        So now you know why the open source solutions are on my mind a lot of the time. 🙂

    2. Man, there are a lot of typos and other mistakes in there. And not just because English isn’t my mother tongue. Sorry. 🙂

      “to networking at the of our networking (peering/routing/filtering) at the Internet Exchanges” should have been something like: “to doing networking at the edge of our provider network, at the Internet Exchanges (doing peering/routing/filtering)”

      1. Didn’t even notice…. BTW… I’m pretty open in general unless it’s something that can damage others. This experience taught me to be pretty true to who I am. If I try to tailor my personality and goals to a certain position then it will not be a great experience on both ends.

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