One conference room is better known as the "Kindergarten Cop" room, named after the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film. There's a "Usual Suspects" room downstairs, complete with one-way glass on the door. Others depict scenes from the Star Wars and Transformers franchises.
Welcome to the world of Rackspace. Employing about 120 people who call themselves "Rackers," the Blacksburg branch of the San Antonio-based public cloud company serves as a center for cloud-computing software and application development, manages the company's hosted email business, and more. Housed in the University City Mall development adjacent to campus, the sprawling office has a cozy atmosphere. In fact, "Racker Kids," employees' children, covered the walls of the Kindergarten Cop room with their crayon drawings.
Clearly, Rackers want to be here. And Rackspace clearly wants to be in Blacksburg. Employees even call it Racksburg.
"It's a core value to treat your fellow Rackers like friends and family," said Rackspace software developer Iccha Sethi (computer science '12).
At the helm of this collaborative environment is Doug Juanarena (electrical engineering '75), Rackspace's vice president of Blacksburg operations. The entrepreneur was among the first to invest in the company when it was Webmail.us, the fledgling startup of three other Virginia Tech alumni, Pat Matthews (finance '02), Bill Boebel (computer engineering '01), and Kevin Minnick (computer science '00).
In late 2004, Juanarena sat across the table from the trio. "Pat was very upfront with me," he said. "[Pat] said, 'This is our third business. The first two failed.' To me, that was a strength, because you learn 10 times more from failure than you do from success." Juanarena had made a number of angel investments over the years, but noticed something special about Webmail.us, so he gathered a group of investors to help the company grow. "These guys needed money to scale up. You think of email and it seems simple," he said of their business, "but when you look under the hood, it's like a jet fighter under there."
In 1977, Juanarena left his job at the NASA Langley Research Center, where he was developing instrumentation, to found Pressure Systems Inc., in Tidewater, Va., and further develop a pressure-sensing technology. He sold the company in 1996 and soon became involved in such tech ventures as Nematron Inc., Luna Innovations, and GenTek Ventures. He returned to Blacksburg in 2000 and invested in Webmail.us in 2004. The company grew in size, and by 2007, it was acquired by Rackspace.
Brian Hartsock (computer science, computer engineering '06), the product manager for the control panel that customers use to access Rackspace's cloud products, has been with the company since 2006. "At first we had a lot of college students in here and we all became friends," he said of the camaraderie. "Our demographics have changed a little, but that 'work hard, play hard' mentality is still around."
The mentality largely stems from the personnel Rackspace hires; they're passionate, but willing to take themselves a little less seriously than the stereotypically driven tech employee. As Juanarena puts it, "We don't hire brilliant jerks. … We don't just hire people [who] are smart, but people who will fit into this environment."
This attitude has put Southwest Virginia on the map in the tech world. Perhaps the most notable Rackspace project is OpenStack, the world's largest and only open-source cloud-computing platform. OpenStack was originally a team effort between Rackspace and NASA, but NASA eventually passed full control of the project to Rackspace, which then took the project open-source. Now such household names as Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell contribute to OpenStack.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of Rackspace's location is the labor pool. "We're [located] at the outlet and spigot of one of the largest engineering universities in the United States, and one of the best," Juanarena said.
Said Brian Hamilton, director of Montgomery County's Department of Economic Development (MCDED), "Virginia Tech [produces] 1,900 engineering and computer science graduates per year, and many of them choose to stay in the area due to the high quality of life." MCDED estimated that in 10 to 20 years, the Montgomery County area population will be approaching 130,000 people, and Hamilton said that with hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction already under way in the Blacksburg area, "the community will offer the technology workforce more opportunities to grow in their careers in Blacksburg and in the surrounding New River Valley."
The area has another well-known perk: natural beauty. It's a part of the work-life balance that Rackspace email product manager Brooke Jackson (marketing '02, M.B.A. '04) appreciates. "You get a really tight-knit community [and] amazing outdoor activities, and then you can come to work and be on the cutting edge of technology," Jackson said.
If the valley has the great outdoors covered, Rackspace takes care of the indoors. In the 2012 "100 Best Companies to Work For" list, compiled by Fortune and Money magazines and CNN, Rackspace ranked 74th.
Rackspace also is highly connected to other area tech businesses and to Virginia Tech. "The power in Silicon Valley is [its] entrepreneurial ecosystem," said Juanarena. "We want to build our brand, but we also want to grow that [type of] ecosystem here in Blacksburg."
Juanarena said that Rackspace employees often provide free consulting at area companies, while he personally mentors professionals and Tech students and faculty, helping them "commercialize their dreams and ideas." Meanwhile, he said, "Virginia Tech creates a tremendous amount of research and intellectual property, which spills over into the community to create businesses that hire people."
The notion of new ideas and risk-taking is deeply embedded in the Rackspace culture. Look at it this way: The Kindergarten Cop room, covered wall to wall with crayon drawings, is more than a funny place to meet. It's a reminder that challenges and invention should also be a whole lot of fun.