Google's security chief, a veteran Navy SEAL and former FBI agent, stands guard for Googlers around the globe
By ETHAN BARON | The Mercury News (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 10, 2017
MOUNTAIN VIEW — As corporate America has begun aggressively recruiting veterans who have led men and women under fire, Google has skimmed the very cream of the crop to manage its global security.
Veteran Chris Rackow heads the team that protects the company’s 80,000 Googlers, along with its offices and property, in more than 150 cities across almost 60 countries. The Mountain View-based technology giant tapped Rackow’s experience just over a year ago, recognizing the value the former warrior would bring to the search powerhouse. He had spent years in two of the most elite military and paramilitary organizations in the world: the U.S. Navy SEALs and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.
Rackow’s leadership illustrates how corporate America has caught on to the resource created by veterans of U.S. foreign interventions. An ability to manage complex, risky and dynamic problems, especially in the rapidly changing technology industry, carries a premium.
Google brought Rackow on board in September 2016 as vice-president of global security. He is one of many veterans at Google, which does not disclose the number it hires, but says they’re employed in every job category, including software engineering, sales, finance and security.
“One of the highest values of veterans is leadership just because it is such a core element within the military, from junior-enlisted all the way up to senior officers,” said Rackow, 51. “Everybody’s expected to exert some type of leadership, and that is baked into recruits from day one all the way through.
“It’s a quality that I have seen to be slackening across the business world,” Rackow said. “That’s, I think, where veterans really can play a huge part — coming in and providing positive, respectful and dignified leadership for organizations, especially multinationals.”
Rackow’s military career started in 1988 when he joined the SEALs, a Navy special forces unit known for its punishing selection program and high-stakes covert missions. Amid nearly 23 years as a SEAL, on teams 1 and 3, Rackow also spent 13 years in the FBI. For five of those years, he served as a member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, a counter-terrorism unit operating at home and abroad, which, like the SEALs, is famed for its harsh induction and commando-style operations.
Now he works in an industry where the weapons of battle are code and silicon chips.
“I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room,” Rackow said. “In fact, I’m probably at the very low end of the totem pole based on the amazing skills we have here at Google.”
And for veterans, the corporate world has some significant differences from the armed services.
“The government and the military really are quite homogeneous. It really is not as truly diverse as a company is, and especially a global company,” Rackow said.
“You really are presented with 360 degrees of various belief systems and ideas and concepts. That’s probably just the unique challenge for veterans, is to understand … the larger landscape that they need to be able to understand and learn how to operate within,” he said.
Still, his service gave him deep expertise in areas where the skills needed for military operations overlap with those required in a global technology firm — teamwork, for example.
“A team is really a group that understands that we are sacrificing a small part of our individuality, but we’re coming together for a common good, a common goal,” Rackow said. “Whether you call it a common goal or you call it a mission, it’s all the same thing.
“True leadership really means there’s no one model, and oftentimes within a team let’s say of 10 people you might have to exercise 10 different leadership styles … without it looking as if you’re catering to individual needs,” he said.
In 2016, when he was chief resilience officer at civil engineering firm AECOM, Rackow was named one of the most influential security professionals in the U.S. by Security Magazine, in a list that also included retired U.S. Air Force general and former CIA director Michael Hayden.
“Chris is just an example of somebody that has learned the business-speak, learned how to communicate security’s value to the enterprise,” said the magazine’s editor Diane Ritchey, who has interviewed Rackow several times. “He’s a really outstanding example of a leader.
“Individuals who are really successful in a military career tend to do very well in the private sector because they’ve learned specific leadership skills.”
Along with his background in warfare, Rackow brought into the tech industry a solid civilian education — thanks to realizing during his time with the FBI that he was getting intellectually outgunned.
“I was coming to the conclusion that I was going after people that were way smarter than I was, and I needed to go back to school,” he said.
He spent two years getting two degrees simultaneously: an MBA from the highly ranked Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and a master’s in global management from Arizona State’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, the latter teaching him “how to be successful across different cultures and belief systems.”
Corporate recruiters often reach first for prospects with military experience and an MBA, said Idalene Kesner, dean of the Kelley School.
“The veterans who come to us and study with us, they’re usually the very first people who line those jobs up, even before graduating,” Kesner said.
Rackow’s background positioned him well for the private sector, Kesner said.
“He had traveled internationally, he had been in counter-terrorism — those things tell us that we’ve got someone who knows how to keep their cool in emergency situations, bring together teams and communicate effectively,” Kesner said.
Rackow, married with a daughter, 17, has bounced around the world for decades, mostly in the Middle East and the western Pacific. Now, working at Google and living in Half Moon Bay, he’s not so far from where he spent his formative years. Born in Los Angeles, he lived in Lake Tahoe from kindergarten through fourth grade.
“My mother was from Sweden, so she was an avid outdoor-snowy-cold-type person. She dragged me up in the hills all the time, but it was fantastic because I learned how to ski,” he said.
When Rackow was in fifth grade, the family moved to San Diego. “I grew up pretty much a California water kid. I was always out in the water, surfing, sailing, diving. Surfing stuck with me — I go out when it’s appropriate for my age,” he said. “I’m not charging anything big anymore. But I love to go out and standup paddleboard, or go out and surf.”
He considers his hiring by Google “a stroke of luck” that started with a call from one of the company’s recruiters.
“It was of great interest to see if I could actually come and work and provide value here, and especially after doing the research on what Google believes and what they think they can do for the planet in general, I looked at it as another service-based environment,” Rackow said.
Google supports veterans through grants to an education group and scholarships. It also hosts a veterans’ network among employees and resume-writing workshops pairing Google employees with veterans entering the civilian workforce, Rackow noted.
Though a commando for most of his career, he had prefaced his service with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I’m an engineer at heart,” Rackow said. “But as my counselor in college told me, I probably should never practice engineering.”
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