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My Priority List Today, Tomorrow And Every Day After That

This summer, we brought several interns aboard at our San Francisco Office (SFO). In this blog series, these interns share tales of their times as Rackspace summer interns.

I’ve never been good at multitasking. I spent my free time in college doing an incredibly repetitive and monotonous sport: rowing. Maybe I chose to row because receiving more than one instruction at a time would’ve fried my brain. I’ve always been capable of focusing on the task at hand, but nothing I encountered in school had ever challenged my ability to prioritize until this summer, when I was hired to work as a software developer at Rackspace.

I work on the Airbrake team, which as a recently acquired company is going through a major technical migration. We have the personality of a startup, where everyone plays multiple roles during the day, but this kind of rapid-fire agenda was completely new to me.

The only other places I’ve worked are sleepy research labs where projects took months to come to fruition. At those jobs I didn’t have a mission-critical role, so my colleagues didn’t rely exclusively on my work for success.

That’s not the case for people hired to work at Rackspace. Since becoming a Racker, I’ve had to react quickly in a fast-paced workplace, where each task seems critical and time-sensitive.

Oftentimes I’ve had to choose what tasks I was going to ignore that day. Will it be customer acquisition and funnel optimization? How about the impending migration deadline? Or will I have to rush through new hire onboarding? For the first time in my life, I’ve been placed in the driver’s seat and given the responsibility of making crucial decisions with far-reaching consequences. I often found myself asking: what was I even hired to do? My title says “software engineer,” but I spent just as much time on marketing and operations. When I was first hired, I found myself doing odd jobs to satisfy my need to feel productive, although I didn’t see how any of these tasks fit together. I’d get halfway towards finishing something and then get sidetracked by a new priority, like a sailboat without a rudder.

It all came to a halt with a front-page thread on Hacker News, in which most commenters who mentioned our product did so disparagingly. It was brutal, and I was surprised to hear their criticisms.  At that moment, I realized that I was out of touch with the customers who use my product.

For the first time at work, I decided to make my own priority: find a way to get in touch with those people and find out why they feel the way they do about our product.  So I dug for customers’ email addresses, sent each of them a message, and waited. By the end of the day, I received three replies. The following day, nearly everyone I emailed responded. I followed up, I lunched with one, I Skyped with another, and I learned where our product stood in the eyes of the customer, and what I could do to help my customers succeed.

More importantly, I had discovered why I was hired: to help customers and my co-workers achieve their goals. If I can’t do that, why should I expect to receive a paycheck at all? And it became so much clearer what I had to do when I came into work the next day. I solved my multitasking problem by realizing that there was only ever one task that mattered, and everything else was secondary.

It’s easy to get lost in the details of what you’re doing every day. But whenever I’m in the twilight of productivity, I remind myself that if I’m not helping customers or coworkers, then I’m not working on the right task.

What makes Rackspace special is that our business can only succeed if our customers succeed. Our company isn’t built on one-off inventions, arbitrage or psychological tricks. We have a simple goal, and that’s to put our customers at the forefront of everything we do.  Now that I’ve learned this important lesson, I can’t think of a better place to put it into action than here.

The Rackspace San Francisco Internship Program develops technical skills in interns while also supporting integration into the office culture. Want to join the team? Rackspace San Francisco is now accepting résumés for Summer 2014 Internships. Email your résumé to SFjobs@rackspace.com or join us at one of these career events: Oregon State University School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Senior Dinner October 23rd; Oregon State University Engineering Career Fair October 24th; UC Berkeley Engineering and Science Career Fair September 18th. 

About the Author

This is a post written and contributed by Andrew Taber.

Andrew is a recent college graduate currently working as an engineer in Rackspace's San Francisco office. He works on the Airbrake error tracking software, learning about new technologies and ways to use them.


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