Rick Rhoades on Building a Successful Cloud Services Team at Penn State University

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

By John McCormack, Writer, NET+ Program

Cloud Superhero Spotlight

Editor’s Note: This profile continues our series of interviews spotlighting the wonderful contributions that research and higher ed community members make to the NET+ Program.

Be on the lookout for additional interviews, and email Apryl Motley if there’s a Cloud Superhero you would like us to spotlight in the future. We’re grateful for all our volunteers and appreciate all they do to move our work forward.

— Sean O’Brien – Associate Vice President, NET+, Internet2

Rick Rhoades believes that “a massive skill gap is holding the cloud back at many institutions.”

However, his own career trajectory has proven those skills can be developed in-house and he’s using his journey as a template to create a successful Cloud Services Team at Penn State University.

Here’s what happened: About 26 years ago, Penn State hired Rhoades despite the fact that he did not have a college degree.

“When I stepped into Penn State, I was just a high school grad. I had worked many odd jobs before that. I made spark plug wires, cleaned buses, and, of course, flipped burgers. I couldn’t even spell ‘IT’ at the time,” Rhoades said.

But the department’s IT leaders decided to bring him into the fold, anyway. Rhoades seized the opportunity and worked his way up to eventually become Manager of Cloud Services in 2019.

“I was initially hired to operate mainframe printers, and it was there where I met some great people who helped me,” Rhoades said. “That’s where I fell in love with technology and the experience laid the foundation for my career.”

Climbing the Ladder into the Cloud

During the past quarter century, Rhoades has built upon this experience and worked his way up the IT ladder – having held various positions in mainframe operations, production control, windows systems administration, programming, management, and now, cloud services.

Rhoades is appreciative of the opportunities he has had and believes the leaders who hired him as an eager but inexperienced professional were on to something. Now, as a leader himself, Rhoades also embraces that philosophy of taking chances on non-conventional applicants as a strategy to build an effective team. In fact, he asserts that the philosophy could be adopted throughout all research and higher education (R&E) IT departments. Indeed, if more IT leaders took a chance on job applicants that come to the interview table without the traditional credentials, the R&E community just might have the staff needed to move forward more expediently.

John McCormack smiling for a photo.

Fun Facts About Rick

  • Number of Years in Current Role:
    4 years (26 years total at Penn State)
  • What You Like Most About Your Job:
    The pace of change, which is even faster in cloud than in other areas of IT
  • Favorite Song:
    As a musician, it’s difficult to pick one song. Favorite bands include Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Radiohead.
  • Best Advice About the Cloud Ever Received (& from whom):
    Incredible growth happens outside your comfort zone (a lesson that Rhoades has learned from various mentors).

“Managers should not be afraid to take a chance on the less experienced person with a passion for the work,” Rhoades noted. “I’ve been thankful to have leaders at Penn State who really took chances on me being less experienced, but very passionate about what I was doing. I really try to keep that mentality through all the hiring that I do.” 

This philosophy makes it possible to build a motivated team cost-effectively. “These folks know they are being given an opportunity and they really want to prove themselves,” Rhoades said. “They might not initially have a bunch of cloud skills, but given the opportunity in the right environment, we can foster that growth.”

Building a Successful Nittany Lions Team

Ultimately, by taking this strategy along with others who come to the table with traditional credentials as well, Penn State has been able to build a small but extremely talented cloud services team. 

The NET+ peer community helps to foster growth within this team. The community specifically helps Penn State team members as they assess and implement cloud services. Rhoades is the current chair of the NET+ AWS Service Advisory Board and Penn State sponsored the service evaluation for the newest NET+ service, NET+ Kion.

“Unlike the business world, this isn’t a competition,” Rhoades said. “In the higher ed community, we’re all focused on collaboration, and there’s a lot of sharing that happens. Your team and your institution as a whole are not on the journey alone and can move forward by unleashing the power that’s found in the community.” 

As such, the Penn State Cloud Services Team has been able to achieve a variety of goals.

“We are really focused on empowering faculty and staff to use public cloud,” Rhoades explained. “That may include helping them be more innovative in their approaches, making it more cost effective to deploy, while also making it easier to use at Penn State.”