Sean [00:00:18] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.
Paul [00:00:28] Hey, Sean, how are you today?
Sean [00:00:30] I’m doing great, Paul. How are you?
Paul [00:00:32] I’m doing fantastic. I think the things that we’re getting into are really applicable, not just for product, but for a lot of leadership lessons in general.
Sean [00:00:41] Yeah, and it’s a special edition because we get the opportunity to interview two of our favorite people, people we’ve been working with for over a decade, two amazingly powerful product leaders, and learn some cool things from them.
Paul [00:00:53] Yeah, Lisa and Nancy are masters, I think, both in their own teams, at hiring hard and managing easy. I think we’ve got a lot of material for product leaders, for business leaders, but really just for a state of the industry and some really fresh perspectives on how to build an autonomous team.
Sean [00:01:10] All right. Let’s get after it.
Paul [00:01:12] Let’s get after it.
Paul [00:01:16] Well, hello, and welcome to the podcast. Today, we are excited to be joined by two very special guests, Lisa Young and Nancy Neumann. Lisa’s Young’s career in IT spans 35 years, over the last 15 of which at ITX. Her current role is VP President of Delivery. Lisa has built a world-class global organization of passionate technologists. Under Lisa’s guidance, her delivery team’s passion and expertise transform our client’s vision into reality by creating software products that solve their complex business challenges. Nancy Neumann has been actively engaged in the high-tech industry for more than 20 years. As VP of User Experience at ITX, Nancy leads our interaction design practice, which has become a key source of differentiation, thought leadership, and customer value creation. Under Nancy’s leadership, her group brings a passion for technology, an appreciation for UX as a problem-solving discipline, and a belief that experience is the product. Nancy and Lisa, so excited to have you and welcome to the pod.
Lisa [00:02:09] Thank you.
Paul [00:02:10] So let’s jump right in. You’ve both been deeply involved in software product development for most of your careers and have created incredible value for our clients, but you approach problem-solving through different lenses, Lisa from the delivery side, and Nancy, through your user experience. Tell me how you’ve coached and mentored your teams to merge those two perspectives and come together to deliver value to your customers. What’s your special sauce, if there is one? Nancy, we’ll start with you.
Nancy [00:02:36] Well, I think the special sauce is how very collaborative we are across departments. And I think one of the things that is very special about working at ITX is that the team has access to experts in every department like designers can go talk to architects, architects can talk to developers and QA people. We have very experienced leadership. We have very experienced product people. Oftentimes you see those things in silos. But at ITX, a designer has no problem talking to an architect or talking to someone from innovation. And I think that’s important because, one, all of the different perspectives, right? Like everybody’s approaching solving technical problems from a different angle. But we need to be aware of the constraints that everyone else brings to the table and the concerns that everyone else brings to the table, so by having access to those other experts and actively collaborating with them, we are just able to produce better quality products and better outcomes for our clients.
Paul [00:03:41] Excellent. Lisa, what about you? What is the special sauce to merge this work of blending user experience and incredible delivery to solve our client’s problems?
Lisa [00:03:51] Well, building on what Nancy said, I think the key is the collaboration and the access that we have within our delivery teams because our delivery teams work with product directly and with UX and with architecture. So we are a collective product team and that collaboration within the team is strong. And we also cut across teams when we need expertise we have outside of our team because it’s not just one team of one particular specialty.
Sean [00:04:21] Paul, you’ll probably agree with me, and I’m cheating here a little bit with this question because I have a little bit of inside knowledge. But collaboration is key. We all know that. But I think the secret sauce lies in something else. I think it lies in the curation of the teams that both of you have been able to create. So I’d like to know a little more, and I think our audience would like to know a little more, about how you did that. Like how do you find the right people? And let’s start with Nancy. What’s your trick for really finding the right people for the UX role?
Nancy [00:04:48] First of all, I say that I think that’s absolutely correct. It’s all about people. It’s people working with people to create software for people, right. It’s all around people. What I would say is that I really believe in hiring hard, managing easy. Right. I believe in really looking for the right person that is a fit for the work that we do. And the key things we look for is passion and curiosity. They have to have core competencies in what we’re looking for. For design, we are going to look at your work. We do want to understand what the process was for your work. We want to know that you knew what problem it was you were solving for, for whom, and what the business outcome you were driving for was, right. Your work has to demonstrate that. You have to have the core competencies and driving clarity and problems, understanding the user, also understanding the business and taking into consideration any kind of other constraints: budget, timeline, technical, whatever it is. But passion and curiosity are two very key things. We need people that have a passion for technology and they’re curious around where it has been, where it is today, and where it is going because that’s what’s going to drive innovation in digital product design.
Sean [00:05:56] So I want to pull on that thread because I think this is an important story to unravel for our users. So the trifecta: passion, curiosity, and core competencies. I love that. Inside of the way you define core competencies, I found, or I heard, driving clarity and understanding the user, and you know how I feel about that. What do you mean when you say understanding the user for a UX person?
Nancy [00:06:16] It’s understanding more than what it is they’re trying to do, right. So you definitely have to understand what they are trying to accomplish. But you also need to understand what their context is, right. The most important thing for a user may not be what they’re trying to accomplish in their task. It may be getting it done as quickly as possible to move on to whatever it is that is their top priority. So it’s really understanding the context of the person as well as the job that they want to do. It’s understanding, like for this particular product, are there any core traits? I mean, sometimes people look at demographics, sometimes they look at technical skill. Sometimes they look at, you know, is this something that’s going to be more social versus more of a business utility application? So it’s really driving in and understanding all of the various threads that make up that user and try to put them together in a way that we’re able to put them in their shoes, build empathy for that user so that we understand the experience that we’re delivering to them.
Sean [00:07:18] All right. So to summarize that, and then I’ll pass it back to Lisa, so people that can really drive clarity and have empathy for what the user is actually trying to accomplish.
Nancy [00:07:27] Yeah, that’s a very nice short way to say that.
Sean [00:07:31] But it’s important. So your trick is tapping into that key skillset of empathic user experience.
Nancy [00:07:38] Yeah, absolutely. And you have to have that curiosity in order to do that.
Sean [00:07:41] Yeah. And passion, don’t forget the passion. Lisa, same question to you. What’s your secret sauce for building a great team?
Lisa [00:07:49] Yeah. So I would add onto what Nancy was saying that the other thing we do, and I know she does it as well, is it’s very important when we’re hiring to find someone who is going to be a good fit for our culture and our values. It has to start there. If they don’t appear to be a good fit for our values, then they’re not likely going to be a good fit in our teams. And once we do find that, then the driving clarity is really essential, especially within the delivery teams. Like our ScrumMaster role, if they answer your questions with a bunch of clouds, that is not someone that is going to help us drive clarity for our clients, for the users that we’re creating the product for. So the clarity is essential. And then once we do get someone hired in, we spend a lot of time growing our people within the teams. So we do a lot of mentoring of developers into technical positions of leadership and we have quality assurance analysts that like to move into ScrumMaster roles, so we mentor folks from within the company so that they’ve learned our culture and the way that we work and how we solve these problems and they learn how to work together really well throughout that time. So within delivery, at least, our best hiring actually happens within our own company as we grow our people.
Paul [00:09:13] Totally agree. Yeah, that’s a great point. Both of you mentioned aspects of that where we screen for skills, but we hire for the traits. We will look for the culture and I think building that culture is really what creates that mentoring, growing from within, path that can exist. So that’s a really great callout.
Sean [00:09:29] I love Nancy’s line of, you know, hiring hard…
Paul [00:09:31] Manage easy. I’m going to use that.
Sean [00:09:34] Love that.
Paul [00:09:34] That for sure.
Nancy [00:09:35] And the culture is a big part of that. We have passed on people that look like they have really solid design chops. But when you talk to them, if they say things like they’re not really interested in collaboration and they’ll ask for help when they need it, it’s kind of like, “OK, we’re going to pass on this one.”
Paul [00:09:50] Yeah.
Lisa [00:09:51] Yep. And I would add, like we do the same thing. If we find great individual contributors that love shining on their own, that’s really not what we’re about either. We are about the team and the team collectively doing what we need to for the client. So if someone is very focused on themselves, that’s not something that we’re necessarily interested in pursuing. We need team players.
Paul [00:10:12] Let’s talk about your team’s success specifically. You each have grown your teams by two or three times since your time taking over VP roles here and you’ve been extremely successful at retaining people, which is the other side of the coin, and feeling the hiring process, the hiring hard managing easy, finding those smart people, passing on some, if they’re not a fit, but really emphasizing that culture. That’s really hard work. So I want to ask a two-parter. What’s been the secret to growing onboarding and mentoring as we’ve been talking about? But then how do we retain and emphasize this culture of leadership as we grow the organizations to scale?
Lisa [00:10:49] So I can start with that one because when I started with ITX, I think I was an individual program manager. And Sean, I don’t remember how many people we had at the time, maybe 40 total in the company, 30 or 40. We didn’t have the concept of delivery teams. So that came some years later. And one of the key ways of growing and mentoring and scaling up the team for me has been getting to know the people. I have invested a lot of my time getting to know who these people are, to the extent that I’ve traveled. We have distributed teams. We have a lot of people in Argentina. So I’ve traveled to Argentina several times and made it a point to pull all those teams together when I go down. It’s getting harder to do that now, not just because of covid, but because we’re so big and so distributed. But getting to know the people and care about the people and what is important in their lives in addition to the job is really important. That connection and showing that you care about them.
Sean [00:11:53] I think a key aspect of your leadership styles that I love about both of you, I’m having watched you both grow and develop over the years, is this capacity for caring, and not just your own capacity for caring and getting to know your people, to use your quote. It’s really about scaling your own capacity for caring amongst your team.
Lisa [00:12:13] Yes. Yes, absolutely. Just to add one more thing on that, I’ve enjoyed, Sean, seeing the management team, because our management team and delivery has been around for quite a while, and they do the same things with their teams. And it is extremely rewarding to see them doing that and having their team members grow into higher levels of leadership within ITX. And it makes people very sticky to ITX. So it’s not just our management team, it’s our delivery folks across the board and our designers as well.
Nancy [00:12:45] Nancy, same question to you. What’s your secret to retention?
Nancy [00:12:48] I think it really is empowering people, right? So nobody likes, well at least the people that we hire, don’t really like to be micromanaged or told what to do, and for designers, push pixels. Like they want to be able to solve the problem and they want to have ownership in what the solution is. So it really is empowering them. It’s giving them tools and giving them access to, as I said, talk to other experts and really understand what it is we’re trying to solve for and letting them do what they’re skilled at, letting them provide the value that they bring to the table. That is, I think the key thing, is giving them ownership of the work, empowering them to not only participate in our client’s work, but, you know, as you know, we have people participate in other things as well, initiatives not just within their own department, but across all of ITX. And I think that’s one of the reasons people like to stay here, is they like owning their own work and they like being empowered.
Sean [00:13:41] Yeah, if I can pull on that, one of the things I see in both your orbs is this concept of growth, right? People are growing here. The teams are growing. And I think the minute you stop growing is when the culture starts to die, right?
Nancy [00:13:53] Absolutely. We have so many leaders at ITX and it’s because they are growing, they’re continuing to grow their skills, not only their hard skills in their discipline but their soft skills in leadership, right, communication, and thought leadership and critical thinking, all of those things.
Lisa [00:14:10] Yeah, if I could… Is it OK to chime in?
Nancy [00:14:12] Yes, please.
Lisa [00:14:13] OK, one of the things that we’re not saying directly, but I think is really important in the growth of our people, is helping them to feel related to others. So that’s the collaboration, that’s the cross-team functionality that we have. Cross-team best practices meetings, like we have innovation and delivery meetings. We just kicked off delivery and UX meetings. So pulling our leaders together and learning from each other, so that relatedness and competence… And what Nancy was hitting on with empowering, I would say autonomy, giving our teams that choice to do what they need to do.
Sean [00:14:49] Did I just hear self-determination theory described?
Lisa [00:14:51] You sure did, Sean.
Sean [00:14:52] Our heroes, Ed Deci, Richard Ryan. That’s great. All right. I got one more question for you. So I want to take advantage of the fact that you guys both have huge, multi-decade histories in this space, building software products. And I just want to ask you both a simple question about what you see in terms of trends. What’s really been the biggest thing that you’ve seen change since the beginning of your careers? And what are you most excited about going into the future? So we’ll start with Nancy on that one.
Nancy [00:15:19] Let’s see. You know, I think voice is really key. The way that people just interact, the way that software has become part of daily life. You know, it’s not just something that you go down and you sit down at a desk and now you’re booting up an application to do something. It’s just so integrated in the day-to-day life of people. Voice is key in that.
Sean [00:15:40] Cool. So I love that, like you can stop right there, that’s enough for me. In the beginning, it was like a novelty, you know, and you did the computer thing at work three decades ago. Now, you’re right, it’s become fully integrated and the UX challenges are completely different.
Nancy [00:15:53] And it hasn’t been a really long time if you think about it.
Sean [00:15:57] Right.
Nancy [00:15:57] Like when I first started, you may or may not want to include this, but I remember my partner and I would go around visiting wineries. We developed one of the first, well the first, I think, e-commerce system for wineries specifically. But we had to go around to each of the wineries. We had a handle bolted onto the top of the monitor to show them what the Internet was. Like, that wasn’t that long ago, you know, when we did that. I mean, think of that acceleration. My career spans around a couple of decades from literally having to take a monitor and show people the Internet to where we are today. Incredible.
Sean [00:16:36] How about you, Lisa? What’s your answer?
Lisa [00:16:37] Well, Nancy had me thinking back to my beginnings and I think we had what we used to call punch cards and these great big computers. I remember working in a college laboratory on them. User experience. What was that? It didn’t exist. I think that, besides the fact that software is everywhere, it is everything that we do in our life, the way that we create it and get it out there has changed. It’s become very agile and it’s frequent. We have to get what we’re doing out into people’s hands to find out what’s working, what’s not working. And it has to be a great user experience. Even just five years ago, user experience was… I talk about that with my kids all the time. They actually mock me about, “oh, the user experience sucks.” That has become ever more important. We need to make people’s jobs easier, not harder. So the agility, the user experience, and being able to respond to change really fast.
Paul [00:17:39] That’s awesome. You know, before we wrap, I wanted to take a moment to offer our sincerest congratulations on your appointments to the ITX board of directors. We can’t think of two more qualified individuals to help ITX craft and realize its long term vision. Your experience, your amazing achievements, your passion for service and for our clients and our users and our teams… We’re so happy for you and we’re excited for the future of ITX.
Lisa [00:18:02] Well, thank you very much, Paul. I know when I first started at ITX, I came here because of Ralph and Sean and the joy of what they did and my introduction to them at Xerox. And it has been an amazing 15 years and I’m so excited to be involved in the strategy of this company moving forward. So I’m looking forward to another 15 years maybe.
Nancy [00:18:27] Yeah. Thank you. It is really exciting. I think one of the benefits of ITX is the board has always had diverse opinions and perspectives, right. I think that’s one of the things that’s really fabulous about the five partners/original board members is everybody brings something different to the table that is a new perspective and that is of significant value. And, you know, I hope that Lisa and I can add to that, you know, give another perspective and talk to things that maybe have not been talked about in-depth, you know, in the past. We’re excited.
Sean [00:19:01] I’m counting on that. And I’m super proud to have you guys join us.
Paul [00:19:04] Here. Here.
Sean [00:19:05] Thank you, guys.
Paul [00:19:06] Well, thanks so much for taking the time.
Lisa [00:19:07] Thank you.
Paul [00:19:08] We really appreciate your insights and I think it’s been a real tremendous value to hear the journey, the insight, the values, and the culture that you’ve built here. So cheers.
Paul [00:19:20] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency in listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.