5 Questions for SVP, GM of Professional Services Rachel Cassidy

Cassidy talks "women in tech" at this year's Texas Conference for Women

Rachel Cassidy leads the evolution of the Rackspace’s technical sales and professional services organization into a trusted advisor role, providing the end to end expertise to lead Rackspace customers successfully through their cloud journey.

Prior to Rackspace, she spent a decade at Red Hat, building out the pre-sales and professional services organization as vice president of global professional services. She then worked to create a robust global partner ecosystem, serving as vice president of global partner and technical enablement, leading to her recognition as CRN’s Women of the Channel Power 100 and CRN Channel Chiefs.

Rachel will talk about women in technology at the 2017 Texas Conference for Women on Nov. 2; the Rackblog sat down with her to learn a little about what she’ll be talking about at the sold out event.

You currently serve as Senior Vice President and General Manager for Professional Services at Rackspace; before that you spent a decade at Red Hat. How did you get your start in tech?

My father was an engineer; we called him ‘the rocket scientist” or “the brain with feet.”  He would bring home his R&D computers — this was back when no one had computers in the house. So I was always around technology and very interested and comfortable with it.

In 4th grade my teacher, Mr. Cunningham, was also consumed with computers (cassette based at this time). He taught the class how to program, and really made it fun.  I have been doing various types of programming since I was 10 years old. Through high school I loved math and computers and although I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, I was even in the afterschool ‘math club.’

I ended up at Cornell contemplating genetic engineering, but transferred to the Hotel School, which was a mini MBA, yet still gravitated back to technology, focusing on food and beverage management and management information systems. I worked in the hospitality industry in New York City for a few years but found myself computerizing the payroll system or automating an event planning system. I realized I was bored and wanted to be around technology.

My first job in tech was with Reuters as the project manager/configuration manager for a programming team developing a transactional currency exchange system. I also started at New York University for my MBA in finance and technology, but after a year I wanted to go back to school full time. I transferred to Georgia Tech’s MSM program taking a combination of computer science and MBA courses.

I was a graduate research assistant working at Georgia Tech Research Institute on a Department of Defense project developing a mission planning system. I taught graduate students programming as a graduate teaching assistant and worked as an intern at Federal Home Loan Bank as a programmer. So much for going to school full time! My first full time job after grad school was with a start-up tech consultant company programing IT asset management systems for GE Power as my major client. The executive sponsor at GE asked me to start up a consultant practice for a software company for him and off I went.

At the conference, you’re sitting on a panel called ‘How to Get Taken Seriously as a Woman in Tech.’ For those who won’t be able to attend, what will you be saying?

I’m a strong believer in diversity and gaining the best outcomes from a combination of different backgrounds and experiences. We have a noticeable gap in women in tech companies (leaders, engineers and associates) and it’s a challenge that needs to be addressed with our children and schools.

Programs that encourage young girls to get interested and STAY interested in math, science, computers and engineering will be critical to changing the demographic mix in our future. I have seen some wonderful programs across all grades to include rotational engineering programs at highs schools, and even programs in colleges to help young women complete their education in a computer science/engineering discipline.

Too often, when girls have an initial interest, there’s not enough support for them to follow it through. In my computer science grad school program, I was the only woman in a number of these classes, and always the last one picked for project work. It wasn’t fun, it was discouraging.

Recently, I was asked to sponsor a program at Rackspace with the intent of bringing in more “Fellowship” level women  to our technical leadership program. However, after reviewing our company’s stats and trends on women in our organization, it was clear that we were not bringing in enough women up front, let alone at senior levels.

An added challenge when we do have women on our highly technical teams, our predominantly male managers have not had experience managing women in technology and self admittedly struggle with it. It’s not just a Rackspace challenge, we had the same issue at Red Hat, and in all of the organizations and even colleges I attended.

We need to focus on building programs that give girls and young women the opportunity to be exposed to technology, then encourage them to stay engaged. And in parallel, we must create healthy and diverse work environments that attract, value and retain women.

Describe a specific challenge you faced as a woman in your career and how you overcame it.

I was asked once if I was ever uncomfortable because I was always the only woman in the meeting. I had to admit I didn’t even notice most of the time, and initially, I thought this was good, I was in an environment where it simply didn’t matter.

However, over time I realized it was not okay not to notice, and I needed to be paying attention to it. I attend many conferences and meetings with customers and partners. At one event, one of my partners told me to look around. As I did, I realized that not only were we were surrounded not only by all men, but they all looked the same. Same age range. Same suit. Same race. Same shoes.

At this point, I decided I needed to do something to help make a change. I shared my experience with some colleagues across my organization, noting that it was an external partner that had called it out.  Later in that event, at an executive luncheon, there were just under a 100 people and only four were women. I took action and worked with the different leaders across that organization to understand the demographics of our women in leadership across our partner ecosystem and started to reach out directly, seeing their participation. The following year at the same event there was a significant difference. You do need to pay attention and be proactive to help lead change.

What advice do you wish someone had given you as a young woman just starting your career?

Really engage in your job. Understand the business that you are supporting, not just your role and impact but the bigger picture.

Build relationships with your colleagues and customers. Networking is important.

Don’t be afraid to be yourself and be different and have different opinions; that is part of your value, the giving of your true and inner self.

Always do the best job you can do and be proud of.

You say you believe in the power of diversity; why?

 I have always leaned towards unique individuals, people who were different from me, that I could learn from. When building my teams, I strive and look for diversity across every facet: gender, background, demographics, experiences.

Having a point of view, and respecting different views and backgrounds with an open mind is critical to us learning and thinking and doing things outside the box — and that’s what can provide the competitive advantage in your offering or business.

Some say that we need to look more like our customers, with more diversity,  but I think it’s even bigger than that. If we want to reach more and different customers we need to look more like the world.

It’s not just one leader or one idea, it’s leveraging the power of many. I blame my open source background for this but I truly believe in the best ideas come from a variety of inputs and collaboration, thinking through all elements of the challenge at hand.

It’s what we learned on the baseball field when we were kids…  there is no I in TEAM.

Tracy is editor-in-chief of the Rackspace blog. A Californian and former newspaper reporter, she's called San Antonio home since 2003. You can find her resume and clips on LinkedIn.

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