In this Digital CxO Leadership Series video, Mike Vizard speaks with Don Jones, Head of Developer Relations and Developer Skills for Pluralsight, about the current relationship between IT and the rest of the C-suite.
Mike Vizard: Hey, guys, welcome to the latest edition of the Digital CXO video cast. I’m here with Don Jones, who is Head of Developer Relations and Developer Skills for Pluralsight, they are a provider of a platform for training developers, and we’re gonna talk a little bit about the relationship between IT and the rest of the C suite these days. Don, welcome to the show.
Don Jones: Hi. Good to be here, thank you.
Mike Vizard: Do you think that, in the wake of COVID-19 at least, we heard that everybody and his brother was launching digital transformation initiatives, but do you think the relationship between IT and the rest of the business is fundamentally changed, or is there still this big divide between the two and we’re just kinda papering it over?
Don Jones: I think there’s still a pretty big divide. I think everybody’s a lot more aware of the need for us to get past that, and I think a lot more companies are actively working on that now—like, really, really trying to make IT in business one thing. But it takes a while, you know? A lot of companies have been doing things a certain way for a long, long time, and it’s tough to make all those changes. It’s very cultural, it’s very skill-based, and those things do take time to move.
Mike Vizard: Do you think organizations need to think more maybe like a General Manager of a baseball team where I’m constantly on the lookout for talent, I’m managing talent like farm teams, I’m constantly recruiting on the assumption that I’m gonna have a fair amount of turnover, there’s a lot of competition for quote-unquote the best free agents. So, do we need to rethink our whole approach to IT talent management?
Don Jones: I think we do and that farm team analogy is a really good one. Your best baseball teams don’t rely on just what’s coming out of college or what they find on the street, they’re building their own talent. They’re looking for people with high aptitude, they’re looking for people that are good people for their team, and then they’re building the skills they need.
You know, if you think about how difficult the labor market is, if your success as a company depends on you having the right skills, like, the labor market is super random, you know? You may or may not be able to get the skills that you need. So, if your whole strategy is, “I’m just gonna buy the skills I want,” that’s gonna prove a limiting factor on your company. Whereas, if you can build the skills you want, if you can very deliberately hire the people—right, because you can’t change who a person fundamentally is, but if you can get the right culture and the right human beings on your team and confidently build the skills that you need today, tomorrow, a year from now, whatever, then you’re unlocked. You’re not anchored to a randomized labor market anymore, and you can set your own destiny and your own success.
Mike Vizard: Do you think employers are more willing to hire that talent wherever they find it these days because of the quote-unquote new normal, or do they still wanna have that development team physically located as close to the rest of the business as possible? What’s your sense in what’s going on?
Don Jones: You know, I think more companies have realized that the stark reality is, we have to be open to remote work. I think some companies are better at managing that, and that’s really what it comes down to, right?
We think about a lot of core business capabilities that any business has to have. You know, if a company is small and only has two officers, one of them is a CFO. We know we’ve gotta have Finance, we’ve gotta have Accounting, we’ve gotta have Benefits Management. So, we have all these base layer capabilities that every business just has. The ability to manage a remote work force should be one of those base capabilities. The ability to manage skill growth should be one of those base capabilities. We’ve never focused on that, so it’s always felt like kind of an ad hoc fire drill type effort, but those are base capabilities, you know? They’re here to stay.
Mike Vizard: The converse of that is, it’s easier for people to get poached. So, do you think that organizations need to do a better job of holding onto their talent, and what does that involve? Because all things being equal, salary, which may not be equal, people will leave anyway. So, how do I hold onto them, especially if they’re IT people?
Don Jones: Yeah, I mean, it’s a free market. And I tell people that, as an employee, think of yourself as a vendor. You’ve been hired to solve a problem, and if you don’t wanna work with that customer anymore, there’s lots of other customers you could go work for.
So, what employers need to do is focus just a little bit beyond just the cash outlay. It’s quality of life, it’s—you know, are people gonna be able to create the work/life balance that they want so they don’t burn out and that they’re productive? Are they contributing? Do your people genuinely feel and know and see that they’re contributing to the company’s outcomes, they’re creating something that matters? That’s what a lot of technology professionals really, really want. Yes, we all wanna have a salary, you know, we all need the right benefits, we all need the right time off and all those things.
But once those things kinda equalize, what we’re really after is a sense that we belong here, that we make a difference, that what we’re doing matters. And not all companies are really good at conveying that and showing it to people. You know, communicating, “Here’s what’s gonna make a difference, and here’s where you can be a part of that.” And again, that comes down to leadership. I think most technology professionals do make a difference, it’s just whether or not they can see that through how their leadership communicates with them.
Mike Vizard: What is your take on this great resignation phenomenon we’re seeing as it applies to IT people? Are people just going home and sitting on the beach, or is it really just, they’re shifting from one job to the next job, and they all happen to be doing it at the same time?
Don Jones: I think we’re seeing a little bit of both. For sure, there are segments of IT that are starting to age out. I think several years ago, the average age of a Windows administrator was in their mid-40s, which was how old I was at the time. So, you know, now we’re pushing 50 and stuff, and it’s probably too early to retire, but like, now, it’s in sight. Now, you can start thinking about it and planning for it.
And you’ve got folks who’ve been COBOL programmers since the ‘70s who are absolutely ready to retire. And this al happens and all of a sudden, they’re not in the office every day, they’re at home a little bit, they’re like, “You know what? Actually, I am tired. I do just—I wanna go sit on a beach and have a nice cocktail.” And so, I think we’re seeing a bit of both.
I know I’ve seen a ton of IT people shift from W-2 employment to 1099. They’re doing contract work, it lets them pick their job, they’re their own boss. It’s not the easiest life, always, but if you’re willing to make a different type of sacrifice, then it can be very rewarding. But I think it’s just kind of a generalized labor shift and how things are moving around.
Mike Vizard: I think we all feel like quitting two or three times a day, so—
Don Jones: It happens.
Mike Vizard: But we always seem to come back for more. So, do you think, though, as we go along that C level executives are gonna have to get more adept at managing a mix of full time employees and contractors and kinda plugging people in the gaps when they need to? That requires a slightly different mindset.
Don Jones: It does. I think so. You know, there are certain industries where you already see a lot of that. You get into the hospitality industry, and they’re used to this huge mix of different people filling different roles on a different employment basis. Most traditional companies don’t. Everybody’s a full timer, nearly everyone is on salary, and that’s not necessarily right sized.
You know, there’s a lot of folks who’d be like, “I’d really just like to hire these folks for six months to get a particular job done”—well, it turns out there’s people who would like to just work for six months and get a job done and then go do something else. So, we do have to get better at right sizing the labor force, right sizing our approach to skills, and really aim for what’s the outcome that we’re trying to achieve.
I see a lot of leaders who worry about their team size. You know, it’s always the fight to get head count, fight to get head count. Well, think about what the outcome is, you know? Go all the way down to whatever your business’ customer is. What outcomes are you creating for that customer, and then reverse engineer the type of staffing that you need to create those outcomes.
Mike Vizard: So, let’s go at this from both sides. What’s your best advice to Digital CXOs about how to get more emotionally attached to their IT people other than, say, buying pizzas every Friday, but is there some way for them to reach out in a way that’s meaningful?
Don Jones: Yeah. Well, so, never underestimate the power of a good pizza, but I think really being transparent about these are the outcomes we need to create, this is the vision. A lot of leaders don’t paint a vision. Like, not the corporate vision statement vision, but really paint a vision for where you see the team and the company in four years, and then show everybody, “Here’s where you fit into that. Here’s how you are helping make it happen.” It’s not just me. Leaders, we don’t actually produce anything, right? We rely on the team to do it.
But if we can give them that vision and show them, “Here’s how you can make it happen and it will make a difference and we will recognize that when you get there,” that’s gonna create a real sense of belonging and purpose for people. And that’s what a lot of professionals really, really want.
And then I think the other piece is, don’t think of skills as a milestone that you reach and then stop, don’t think of skills as a perk you provide. Technologists got into this industry because we love to learn new things, we love change, we love playing with new stuff. Make that part of the business. You know, let your technologists drive some of the technology decisions you’re making and if someone comes and says, “You know, hey, there’s this great new software library that’s gonna make credit card processing easier and it’s gonna save us time”—give them some room to learn about that and play with it and make a business case about it. Because they’re gonna really feel invested in the business at that point and you’re gonna get a good outcome from it, and then skills becomes an inherent part of the business, not just kind of an add on or ad hoc operation.
Mike Vizard: Right, and training isn’t just something you do once a year when you send somebody on a conference to a junket to go hang out.
Don Jones: Hopefully not. I tell people all the time that, you hear a lot of companies, you know, we have a culture of learning, and that’s great, but it’s hard to be accountable for that. Or people will say, “You know, I’m a lifelong learner”—again, it’s a little hard to be accountable for that. Hopefully, you have a long life ahead of you.
I try to tell people, “You want daily learning, you want to recognize the value of learning one new thing every day, whether it’s related to your job or not.” Because you don’t wait until you need to pick up 100 pounds to pick up the 100 pounds, you need to go to the gym and build that muscle ahead of time, and you’ve gotta build it every day so that it’s there for you when you need it.
Learning’s the same thing—if you recognize daily learning, the value of something new every day, that does get your brain ready. And then when you need to learn something big and important and meaningful, your brain’s ready and you can jump in and do it. Having a team of learners, like, real professional learners is probably the most valuable thing any tech org could have, and don’t treat it as just sending someone to that conference once a year.
Mike Vizard: For me, the biggest issue is unlearning what I already learned, so I can clear my mind for something new and different.
Don Jones: Yeah, that’s part of tech, right?
Mike Vizard: Let me ask you the same question from an IT perspective—what is your best advice to those folks to get closer to the business? Because even today, you’ll talk to some of them and you know, you ask them a question and the next thing you know, they’re walking you through lines and lines of HTML code, but that’s not the question that was asked.
Don Jones: Yeah. Ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. If you don’t understand the “why” on something, ask why. Find a leader in your company who’ll answer at a business level, and ask follow up questions, get the, you know, if you’re using, “Oh, we need to increase our ARR and we’re really looking at our apples”—okay, what does that mean? Explain it to me. Go get a book if you need to. Learn why a business talks the way it does, learn about the business.
You don’t need to be an MBA, but more importantly, when you’re asking those questions and you find people to answer, pay attention to how they’re answering. Learn to talk at that level. Not every question is a code walk-through. Really kinda understand how to speak to business people and help them understand how to speak to a technologist.
Now, one of the best conversations I saw happen—a leader came in and said, “Why can’t we just add some code to fix this?” And I’m like, “Well, the deal is, every line of code we add is debt. We are gonna have to maintain that code, heaven knows it’s gonna be a security problem at some point.” So, we try to resist adding more debt unless we really know we’re gonna get a payoff out of it. And that really helped that business person understand, “Oh, okay, we can’t just write code on a whim, it’s a business investment when we wrote code.” And learn to have those conversations, really be connected with the business. The more you can be, the more valuable you are beyond your tech skills, and that’s important and it’s hard to find.
Mike Vizard: Alright. Well, there’s a bad old joke out there about, you know, how do you know when an IT person agrees with you or disagrees with you?
Don Jones: [Laughter] You’ll have to tell me that one.
Mike Vizard: If they agree with you, they look at your shoes. If they disagree, they look at their shoes.
Don Jones: [Laughter] Okay. Alright, fair enough. I’ve probably been that person.
Mike Vizard: Alright. Hey, Don, thanks for being on the show.
Don Jones: Absolutely.
Mike Vizard: Alright, guys, back to you in the studio.