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Q & A blog

Chris Jackson, Director of Cloud Product Engineering at Pearson

Bio

Chris Jackson is the Director of Cloud Product Engineering at Pearson. He leads a small team of incredibly talented engineers into a brave new world of containerised platforms for Pearson's next generation of digital services. His passion for building valuable technology combined with his amateur skills in all things code inevitably led him to a leadership role where he can help others achieve their goals and engage them in some of the mChriost exciting technology spaces available. Prior to Pearson, Chris spent 8 years with Rackspace observing and participating in the cloud explosion through the eyes of a vendor and seeing how Open Source Software is genuinely changing our approach to everything. He is a reformed thought-leader who will over a beer tell you that many of the world's problems could be solved with a bit of DevOps...

When he is not working, Chris has a wife and two young boys who serve as a brilliant reminder that bettering education services is a worthy investment of his time. He also is an avid rugby, football and formula one fan who dreams of one day owning a car faster that his release cycles.

1. Hi Chris, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, your tech career is highly impressive, Silicon Valley is certainly different from Loughborough! How mapped out was your tech career for the 5 years following your graduation from Loughborough University?

Not at all really!  Most of my friends at university went into formal graduate schemes with FTSE100 companies. I declined a position with one of them to take an entry level role at Rackspace instead. It was at the very start of their hyper-growth phase when they were still a start-up to hosting. What I missed out on in formal graduate programme structure, I made up for in opportunity and fun.  It was a wild ride that actually lasted 9 years and saw me cover a wide number of roles and set me up for what I’m doing now. I owe Rackspace a lot for the investment and opportunities they gave me when I was starting out.

2. What are your 3 stand-out memories from your fledgling tech career?

I am most proud of the work we’re doing at Pearson building Platform as a Service capabilities for developers on an open source container platform. That has been a labour of love that myself and my team have taken from scratch to being a major part of Pearson’s strategy going forward. I will also always remember the first time I spoke in front of a large audience, I did a cloud presentation at a Rackspace customer event that went really well and I’ve never looked back!  Finally, I always remember fondly the cool work I did with CERN and the IT team who process the data from the LHC particle accelerator. The joint research we presented on OpenStack really moved the community forward and to be part of their teams and see close hand their work at the time they discovered the Higgs Boson was a really special time for a nerd like me!

3. In your latest presentation at DevOps Enterprise Summit London ‘16 @DOESsummitEU http://bit.ly/chrisjdevops where you presented ‘Our Story of Building a Start-up to compete with ourselves’ you mentioned you “thought you were a technical person, but the more technical people you worked with the more you realised you weren’t particularly technical and couldn’t hold a candle to those people”, how did this influence your career choices?

I realised 3 years or so ago that I wasn’t a naturally gifted coder and what I took days to write, others could do in hours! But I realised that I had a lot to add in making the cool stuff engineers build accessible and understandable to the business so that they maximise the value from the thing that someone has created. In my role as a leader, I get to be creative and build strategies but ultimately, I exist to allow others to express themselves technically. I have learned to take great pride from building an environment where a team of engineers can do something incredible and take the deserved plaudits. I still like to keep my hand in though, just so I can toss my team a curve ball and remind them that I still have a rough idea what it is they are building!

4. You also mentioned you’ve grown to love Silicon Valley, why is that?

I think I was referring to the TV Show! I’ve worked closely with start-ups for a number of years in London, so some of the humour in the Sitcom really tapped into experiences I have had working in that exciting sector. There is an awesome start-up scene in the UK and I love how open source software communities bring the smallest and largest companies together to work on the same technology.

5. Why did you specifically choose the bubble analogy within your ‘Disrupting the Enterprise’ piece?

I think the bubble idea works because you are somewhat insulated from the wider enterprise, but you can still look out and be heads up to what is going on around you. It’s close to a silo, but a bit more deliberate… Our idea and ambition is still very embryonic and something so important but so new could get bumped around in the trade winds of a massive company, I wanted to make sure we protected what we were making so that it had the best possible chance of success.

6. At your presentation at DevOps Exchange London #DOXLON in 2015 your bio was:

  • Reformed evangelist
  • Ex-Racker and stealth sales-person
  • Moved from vendor to customer world
  • Now leading people at Pearson

What would your bio be now?

I think a lot of that still holds true! I think I’m more aware of the power that disruptive technology can wield in an enterprise and I think I’ve had the chance to work with and lead much larger teams.  So I might add “Disruptor in Chief and Enabler of people smarter than me!”.

7. Would you rather be known as a tech influencer or an exceptional leader?

I think an exceptional leader will influence technology, either directly or through the actions of the teams they lead.  If you look at the influence someone like Jeff Bezos has had on technology - he’s not recognised as being immensely technical, but he is one of the main contributors to the most seismic industry change in IT for the last 20 years! I’d also like to think I would be known as a brave leader - sometimes the things we need to do aren’t easy and they need someone to protect a group and take some headwinds for the long term benefits to reveal themselves.

8. How would you describe your efforts in creating a better, faster, smarter working environment for your teams as the title of a novel?

“The Never-ending Story”

9. What are the key benefits of operating a DevOps Methodology, to any business?

It ultimately is about delivering more value to the business through bringing products to market faster without impacting performance or stability, increasing the rate of innovation and getting new ideas and revenue opportunities into customers hands quickly, establishing fast feedback loops to developers.

10. Would you rather have a disruptor or a DevOps rock star join one of your teams tomorrow?

We work hard on our team dynamic to get the right blend of personalities. Our ideal team members have got the skills and experience in the technology we work with, but more importantly they are able to work in a social environment, justifying and sharing their own ideas and respectfully challenging others on their contributions.

11. There is and has been an abundance of stats and research around why women in tech’s numbers are still declining, despite best efforts. If you could design the processes to entice more women into tech roles by ultimately make the processes better, faster and smarter: what would you do?

There’s no silver bullet to this. I think ultimately more people need to talk about what is stopping us having a better distribution of race and gender in teams. I would concentrate on giving people the confidence to expect to have a conversation with a potential employer as a complete equal and on the flip side work closely with my existing team to ensure when we are given the opportunity to bring someone new to the team that we spend some time considering social norms we’ve built up to ensure we’re keeping the team approachable and inclusive. Everyone who works in technology needs to take responsibility for thinking about how they can improve the current balance, whether as a team member or a leader, we all have a part to play in making our industry a more balanced and inclusive place. I take that responsibility seriously and want to do all I can to help make sure this is an issue we keep on the agenda.

12. If you were to define your most significant “water cooler” moment what would it be?

Probably when I pressed the sparkling water button by accident… #firstworldproblems

13. Your 1st customer is now live on your platform initiative. Significantly, what’s next?

The 2nd, 3rd and 4th customers! We also are in the process of enabling new regions so our customers can exploit the Platform to deploy their applications globally. We also want to drop the adoption barrier a little bit so future customers can self-migrate themselves and we can concentrate on writing more features.

14. If you were to design an app for the greater good, what would it be?

We’re already enabling this kind of thing at Pearson! We’re trying to provide digital education services to the world and democratising access to high-quality education to anyone with access to an internet connection. I love the impact we have on learners around the world every time we make headway on our work!