CenturyLink’s new cloud development center in downtown Bellevue boasts all of the cool amenities of a typical high-tech office space. Mini scooters buzz around the halls, conference rooms boast quirky names like the Batcave and Nut House and, of course, the well apportioned break room offers a casual spot where staffers gather for catered lunches three times per week.
But visitors to the 4th floor offices will quickly notice something else: The number of empty offices and conference rooms.
Large chunks of the new office — which CenturyLink moved into last month — are unoccupied.
That’s by design.
The telecommunications giant, which purchased Bellevue-based cloud computing startup Tier 3 last year, has big expansion plans in store for the Seattle area. And that expansion ties directly to the newly-opened cloud development center, which now occupies 30,000 square feet in the One Twelfth @ Twelfth building.
CenturyLink employs about 100 people in the new center, mostly staffers who came on board as part of the Tier 3 acquisition. But in the coming months, the company plans to grow aggressively, adding as many as 150 new employees in Bellevue. Total capacity in the new space stands at 300 people, and executives are already wondering if that will be enough to house the expanding staff.
“We are constantly growing,” said former Tier 3 CEO Jared Wray who now heads CenturyLink’s cloud computing operations.
Just in case CenturyLink runs out of room, the company has an option on the second floor at the office complex. In fact, CenturyLink has already brought in two recruiters to staff up the engineering center — a tough task given the extremely competitive market for engineers with knowledge of cloud operations.
Despite the intense competition for talent, CenturyLink is moving forward with its plans to establish Bellevue as ground zero for the company’s cloud efforts. In fact, the cloud offering initially developed by Tier 3 is now the fastest growing product inside CenturyLink.
Wray — a father of three boys who grew up scraping dollars together mowing lawns in Idaho — is leading the charge to keep it that way.
“This is a billion dollar game now,” notes Wray of the cloud computing market. “It is not small.”
One way that CenturyLink hopes to differentiate — and remain innovative — is through the physical office space itself. The company has established what it calls “team rooms” — enclosed office spaces that house about 14 workers. The spaces are meant to be flexible, so engineers or product managers from one group can parachute into a team room to work on a specific project. All of the desks raise and lower, and there’s no longer a notion that an individual employee “owns” a desk.
Collaboration and communication are encouraged. “The idea is that people move from room to room depending upon what they are working on,” said Wendy White, a marketing executive at CenturyLink.
However, phone calls are not permitted in the team rooms — in part because they tend to be one-to-one conversations that exclude others. Also, employees are not permitted to eat lunch in the team room, instead getting outside the walls to mix with others, making strong personal connections that hopefully will lead to improved products.
The innovative layout is a far cry from Tier 3’s previous stomping grounds in an old real estate office that Wray said boasted a lot of mahogany wood fixtures. “With this, we are able to do a lot more with mobility. Everyone can basically move in between all of the offices — based on the sprints,” said Wray, referring to the sprint development cycles that the teams work on.
Wray said they designed the offices so that engineers and program managers would not plop on their headphones as soon as a task was assigned or an issue was identified — something that typically occurs in open floorplans. “That is not what we want. We want that constant communication and collaboration, when you are working on a feature together, because you know what is going on,” said Wray.
Unlike the stereotypes of software engineers, CenturyLink product manager Jared Ruckle notes that development is not about heads-down coding eight hours per day. “It’s about communicating for like six hours a day, and understanding the requirement, and then banging out code in the remainder of the time. It is bad when you are siloed with heads down like that,” he said.
Q&A with Jared Wray
GeekWire: It’s been about a year since the acquisition. How is that transition going from working as an entrepreneur to being part of a very large company?
Wray: “They have a couple more people. There are 45,000 people inside CenturyLink. What has been really amazing for us is that they almost see this as a reverse in culture. They really love the culture that we have and they want that to extend long-term into theirs. So, they have been really passionate about making that happen. It is not like ‘we are sucking you in, and you need to do it the way we do it.’ The top leaders are very entrepreneurial and they really understand what needs to happen, and how to get there. That has been great for us. They love what we are doing, and love the engine that we are running on. They really love CenturyLink Cloud, and they want to promote that more. It has been a really good experience…. I know a lot of acquisitions happen and things go to a halt, and everybody leaves. I don’t think we have had a single person in a key role leave the company.”
GeekWire: Is Bellevue the cloud headquarters for CenturyLink?
Wray: “It is the place for cloud. When they were looking for what they wanted to do long-term … cloud is a really big thing for them.”
GeekWire: Why are they doing this in Seattle?
Wray: “Seattle has become this pulse of cloud. It is like the heartbeat. All of the big cloud players are up here. After we announced last November, I remember that two months later HP was like: ‘we are in Seattle now.’ And then recently Oracle did the same. What you are finding is that a lot of the engineers, cloud is an extremely hard thing to do because it is highly distributed. It is a way different mentality of how you do development. And Seattle has really embraced that over the past five years. So, that’s just coming now to fruition. I give credit to Microsoft and Amazon, and a lot of the big tech giants that invested in services before it was even known as cloud. Up here, if you want talent to build really big cloud systems, this is the place.”
GeekWire: How does CenturyLink fit into the cloud landscape against Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services?
Wray: “When we look at where cloud services are today, we are not focused on what everybody else is doing, we are focused on what our customers really care about. And those customers are really looking at hybrid scenarios, and that is something we do extremely well. We want to enable that better. We want to get more automation, and make that more advanced. We want to add services that they do want, and so we really compete in that sense doing hybrid technologies. I would probably say the other thing that we are passionate about is how do we take to certain things to market that we do extremely well. At Tier 3, we really focused on white labeling and reseller capabilities, and now that is getting extended inside CenturyLink. That is going to be a place that we really own in the market…. Cloud is massive. You really just want to own certain pieces of it, and that is what we are doing.”
GeekWire: What is the pitch to keep your large business customers inside the CenturyLink family versus going to another cloud provider?
Wray: “It is also a new thing. We have been acquired for a year. And so we have worked really hard to make awareness through our sales channels, and that has actually gone really well…. We are really making that table stakes, like everything else. You already have co-location, you already have managed services, you have a network and now you have cloud services. And that is built into how we sell it to our customers.”
GeekWire: So this is another service that CenturyLink can sell?
Wray: “A lot of customers don’t want to sign a new contract. They don’t want to learn a new system. They want to be able to say: ‘Hey, how do we get online?’ When we compete — when it is head-on cloud-to-cloud — we really focus on the key attributes that we do extremely well. We have an amazing platform that does great at advanced management and it is extremely high performant.”
GeekWire: Where are we in the adoption of cloud services by businesses?
Wray: “I still think a lot of us are still up to bat. We are probably in the first or second inning, but mostly because people are now considering that this is a standard way of operating. When they look at cloud, they say: ‘Oh, I need to consider cloud now.’ Whereas before, they were saying it was security or something else that was stopping them from using it. I’d probably say we are getting there, but really the majority of workloads that can be cloud capable, have not moved yet. And that is going to be a really big defining moment.”
GeekWire: When will we see that tipping point?
Wray: “It will be in the next decade. In the next 10 years, we will see that tipping point happen. I think it is going to be in the next five years, but it really matters about how good we get at moving our customers. One of the things that I really loved about CenturyLink is that it gives a path to get customers in the cloud. A lot of (talk) is about how you just have to do it. But a lot of people don’t have the developers to re-do their entire system, which is really painful, to re-architect and make it cloud ready. A lot of them can’t do it…. I think where a lot of people struggle is where they try and take something that was already in a co-location, fork lift it and put it in the cloud. While that sometimes is a good scenario, it is not always the most optimized scenario. And so you got to figure out how you are going to move it in order to be optimized, and that is going to be the path that people are searching for.”