Business and technology leaders face consistent pressure to bring products to market faster. Never in the last quarter century has the pace of change, the quantity of available tools, and the raw compute power been greater. In this episode, slashBlue CEO Tom Dodds joins me to talk about how to build technology that’s aligned with the people, process, and purpose of the organization. Does it help people do their jobs better? Is it impacting the company positively? Is it helping the company with their lasting purpose? The answers to these questions contribute to a holistic view of technology implementation.
Thomas Dodds is a CEO, husband, father and pastor. He has spent the last 26 years helping people see their purpose and achieve it with technology. As the CEO of slashBlue, he delivers purpose-powered technology for purposeful leaders by providing IT Strategy, Consulting & Support.
Ledge: Thomas, thanks for joining us today. I appreciate your time. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about you and what you do?
Thomas: I’m really glad to be here. Thanks for the privilege. I’ve been in the technology space for 25 years and I’ve had the privilege of helping a lot of companies to get meaningful momentum with technology to make a real impact on their whole business.
I spent 12 years in software development and then moved over into technology consulting to help companies select the right technology and to build the right technology that makes an impact for them long term in their business.
Ledge: What’s a business value objective? There are a million technologies you can select from and they’re changing every day. The pace of change ─ even since 2001, you were talking of when we left development world.
So how do you help people make durable choices that are meaningful and how do you even measure that it has achieved what you wanted?
Thomas: Our tagline is “purpose, power, technology at slashBlue.” I believe in that. We all believe in that. You have to start with understanding what the purpose of your organization is that you’re trying to impact. So to make a durable choice, it’s understanding what business model you’re in.
We break it down into three perspectives.
Does it draw a profit for the organization in their business model? Is it helping the people in the company to do their jobs better? Is it impacting the clients of the company in a way that fulfills their promise to them? Does it provide value? And then, finally, is it helping that company with their lasting purpose, the impact that they want to make in the world?
Looking at those three perspectives, we have to be able to hold them and say, “Is it going to make a durable impact?” as you’ve said. And we call that “meaningful momentum.”
If you’re only considering the technology solution and what it’s going to do for you, you’re going to miss the broader perspective of what’s going on there.
We use a DevOps cycle so if you’re starting to plan, you’d want to plan with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey would say, and to understand how it’s going to impact the organization rather than just diving into the technology. That’s the most important part.
So whether you’re going to build something from scratch or buy it off the shelf ─ in today’s world, so much more is available to grab off the shelf. And if you don’t need to build it, don’t do so. It’s a much better use of resources. So, for us, it starts with planning with the end in mind.
Ledge: Fantastic! You’ve seen the full move, I imagine, in the course of the company from on-prem to cloud and client server to mobile. How are clients dealing with that?
I imagine you’ve probably dealt with legacy installations and upgrades and then all the way down to sort of edge computing and IOT coming into the fray.
How do you help people dissect that from a business and technical leader perspective?
Thomas: There’s so much in there. What technology is going to actually help has to be something that’s going to solve for real problem in the business. If you deploy a technology and you don’t have the right people in place to do the job or you don’t have a clear process in terms of how it’s going to help your company with a competitive advantage, it’s not worth putting the technology in place.
So it starts with understanding “Is it a technology problem that can be solved or, better yet, can a technology help you leapfrog and avoid some of the process or people issues?
With the technologies we’re seeing today ─ incremental improvements in a legacy platform, something that’s been in place forever ─ things are so rigid; people are frustrated.
Rather than trying to improve that, how can you change the rules of the game?
With some of the new ways people work ─ working remotely with Internet of things and all these gadgets or on your smartphone ─ it’s changed the way people work. So if you can leapfrog from an old green screen into a mobile setting, all the better if you can take advantage of that.
I think for a lot of people, the promise of AI is overblown but there’s so much promise there in terms of how people work and in getting things out of the way for them.
I get up in the morning and I take my heart rate variability to see if I can train today and how my body is going to respond to training. You couldn’t do that years ago. I wake up in the morning and I do that and it takes one minute; and that’s something that helps me say, “I’m not going to kill myself in the gym today because I’m not physically rested. My body is not ready for it.”
Those kind of technologies, from an organization standpoint, can make a huge impact. So if you can leapfrog paradigms, I guess, and take advantage or that and if you can buy off the shelf.
That’s one thing. But even maybe more fundamental than that is looking at the maturity of the organization or the people that you’re trying to get the technology in the hands of. There are fundamental foundational things that have to be there.
It’s like going to a doctor. If I’ve got back pain, I’m not going to hear your message from the doctor about eating healthy and taking care of myself so I don’t get hurt in the future. You’ve got to address the back pain first.
If I don’t have the collaboration tools that I need, if I don’t have a phone, if I don’t have good Internet connectivity, if I don’t have stability or a good voice over IP phone, if I don’t have video conferencing, it’s not worth giving me fancy systems in place if I don’t have the building blocks in place as well.
I think it starts with a good technology maturity model that understands “Do you have the foundational building blocks in place? Is your organization capable of delivering stable, predictable technology?” before you move to a point where you say, “Hey, we’re going to change the way people work fundamentally in our organization.”
That’s another perspective on it ─ looking at leaping paradigms, making sure that you also have a stable technology in place.
Ledge: From maturity models, you often will come back and say, “Eighty percent of this stuff is, is the organization mature enough to even consume and utilize technology at a different scale?” So they’re probably interested in a legacy organization and frankly, a lot of them are profitable and are doing great and just not concerned about at the line-worker level that “Why do I need to replace this? It works and I like my job. I don’t want to learn a new thing. I’m ten years from retirement.”
Thomas: People don’t. They hate change. But they can see the joy on the other side of it. They just don’t know it until they get into it. One of the hardest things for technologists to get is “How is this really going to impact people on the other side? How are we going to help them to get through it?”
Technologists have to be capable of that to be able to articulate the business side, to be able to walk people through the impact and the change because it’s going to get harder before it gets easier on technology that’s worth adopting and worth changing how you work.
Ledge: Absolutely! And it’s got to be a lot about that worker-side benefit as much as the profitability-side benefit. Chances are, a business leader is going to know that, in many cases, “If I adopt more technology, I’m going to achieve better profitability, at least, on a conceptual basis.” It does not mean that it makes the people element better.
I like that about your model because you simply have to address those things kind of in parallel or you’re just going to hit the adoption wall and spend a lot of money on technology that doesn’t achieve anything.
Thomas: A lot of CEOs and business leaders feel “I’m not getting the result that I want from technology investments. Help me make better investments.”
Ledge: Absolutely! And it’s very much a portfolio mindset across the whole business. Well, if we just had an ERP or we just had an inventory management system or this or that, it’s going to be, as you’ve said, holistic.
Let me ask you about your perspectives on ─ since you’re working across a broad swath of industries, obviously, we’re in the talent business so there’s a lot of talk about the constructure on the talent market in terms of technology. What are you seeing out in the field in your work?
Thomas: This is the case everywhere. Leaders’ need to come to market faster and clients’ demand for timely and immediate delivery of products and services are higher than ever. And the talent to be able to deliver with the quality that our organization needs and at the speed an organization needs is absolutely a problem everywhere.
So when we look at technology, the old mindset was “Let’s cut some expenses out of IT” but what it really does is it transfers the burden of technology to the users and they actually slow down. There’s more frustration and more disruption for users.
Thirty percent plus of technology investment is going to be wasted. You’re not going to realize it. But it’s kind of like a venture capital portfolio where you’ve got to invest and you’re betting on a few homeruns that are really going to change the way you do business.
It’s the same way with talent. It’s helping people change the way they work to develop healthy habits and encourage them to work in new ways and easier ways.
There’s a great book by Chip and Dan Heath called “Switch” and it talks about change, that’s it’s like riding an elephant. The elephant is not going to change direction. So part of what you’ve got to do is shape the path and make the path clear easy for them and the elephant will walk down it.
Hopefully, I was faithful to what they said.
But technology change can be like that. And for talent, if you show them a path that’s easier and there’s promise on the other side of it, it’s going to make people happier in their work environment; they’re going to want to work for that company; they’re going to be more productive with it.
And just taking a lot of the ankle-biters out of the way for them, the technology noise ─ there are so many technology tools to do things. And so, part of the technologist’s job is to simplify the complexity.
It’s like “I don’t want more technology.”
“We’ve got to have it now. Every aspect of the business, every aspect of how an employee in a business delivers value is impacted by technology today. So you’ve got to have technology at every point.”
But the technologist’s job is to make it as simple as possible to use the technology and remove all the tools.
Am I going to use video conferencing for this? Am I going to show up in person? Am I going to chat? Am I going to phone-call them? Where am I going to store my notes? How are we going to do this together?
Let’s simplify it in the way that we do business.
My CRM system, manually enter people in to try to make contact?
No way! Make it easy.
The tools have to support the talent and we’re looking at not trying to just measure incremental returns of “Let’s get five percent here and there” but let’s get ten times the return, a hundred times the return.
A lot of the historical talent promise in software development, for example ─ a great software developer will deliver a hundred times of value of an okay software developer.
We want to take that kind of shift to every worker and technology can help do that where you’re just “Let’s cut out the things that are unnecessary, understand where the value is being delivered.”
An example of that would be automation. If there’s a task that’s repetitive that creates value, let’s examine that and let’s cut it down by making it simpler for people to do or, better yet, put it in a tool that’s automated where the human interaction is as small as possible so you can avoid error and maximize repeatability and the amount of effort.
So even just making the effort smaller on repeatable tasks, there’s huge promise in that. And automate it across the business.
Ledge: Yes, and that’s where all the work now is going. And ML and AI are just saying, “Hey, we’re not going to replace people with ‘robots.’ We’re going to, in fact, super power the people who already have the knowledge.” And that removes a lot of that fear from “I’m getting replaced” to “Wow, I’m going to have super powers now” whatever the metaphor is because this can make you do a hundred million times more of what you do.
But we still need your brain. What we don’t need is you typing the same thing over and over again.
Thomas: That’s right.
Ledge: That’s a big learning for the way that we’re talking about ML and AI. You made the comment that a great software developer should return a hundred X on the investment whereas a not great one maybe is ten X or less. That’s just a great segue into a question I always ask.
My final question is always “What makes a great software developer? What are the heuristics that you would use and advise people on?”
It’s like I’ve got to be able to tell the difference between somebody who is fantastic and somebody who is not. The franchise player ─ what is that and what’s your model for doing that?
Thomas: It’s a million-dollar question, isn’t it? Or it might be more in these days.
When you look at a technologist, software developers included, the difference in what that person is able to contribute in terms of meaningful momentum primarily comes down ─ you have to ask this of every technologist you’re looking to employ or get on: “What is the level of work that they can do?”
There are good people at all levels but how complicated of a problem can they understand and what is their proven track record to be able to deliver impact at that level of complexity?
Are you talking “Is this person expected to be able to change the way that that business does its business to come up with a new technology that’s able to completely transform the business model?’”
That’s a huge value. And that’s a rare person.
Or are you looking for boots-on-the-ground frontline technologists to churn out the results day after day?
In that case, you’re looking for somebody who can take a proven process that contributes value and operate within it and get the measured result process that that process anticipates.
Whether you’re in a QA environment testing the output of software or you’re helping people to adopt the software by training them, wherever you are in the life cycle of delivering technology, it’s being able to deliver it to the right level.
It’s really hard to find people these days. I think it comes down to finding people who have not only the ability for the level of work but also a character that is willing not only to work for themselves but to work to benefit other people; and they care about people and and serving them.
Those two things are really important. And then, you can train somebody to focus, to measure the right result, to go after it, and to get predictable results day after day.
I don’t know if that answers your question. There are three secret sauce elements for me: the right level of work; the character of the person focused on; caring for others and that long-term impact because we’re purposeful. We’re all about meaningful momentum and not just velocity in any direction.
And the world needs that. Finally, it’s being to train them to focus on what’s most important for the context of the job their doing.
Ledge: And you, certainly, articulate well why then, in fact, with those heuristics, it’s difficult to find those people. It’s worth their weight in gold and more when you can find the people who meet those measures.
I certainly hope that we do that in our process. It’s awesome to hear that you’re doing that with companies on the ground because I do think that that purpose-driven work is really what’s going to make the difference and drive the profitability and the meaningful work.
Ledge: People show up everyday and they really want to enjoy what they’re doing in working together towards a mission and vision that makes sense to them.
Tom, thanks for the fantastic thoughts. It’s been a lot of fun talking. I understand that we can find slashBlue online for anybody who wants to dig into more of your work.
Thomas: That sounds great. Thanks for the privilege.
Ledge: Awesome! Thank you.