The Role of Technology in Business | President & CEO Tom Monahan & Jeff Miller | DeVry University
(bright upbeat music) - Hello and welcome to today's LinkedIn Live. I'm Tom Monahan, President and CEO of DeVry University. I'm delighted to be here today for another of our Digital Dialogues events. Today, we'll be talking with Jeff Miller. Who's a DeVry alumnus and Co-founder of PK, where he is still active as a Senior Advisor and Board Member. I also serve as a Board Member at PK and had the chance to work closely with Jeff for a couple of years now.
It's gonna be exciting today as we dive into how technology is transforming the future of work. For those not familiar with PK it is an experienced engineering firm with now more than 4,000 employees globally. It's routinely recognized as a global leader in putting a range of cutting edge technologies to work at the world's leading companies.
It lives with the absolute frontier of technological innovation. A few recent examples of where PK has gained recognition, our automation service line was just recognized as a midsize provider in the latest Forrester Now Tech, continuous automation and tech. We're recognized as a loyalty wave leader for innovating in applying technology and design skills to great loyalty programs in the retail sector and beyond.
We're recognized as a strong performer among RPA providers in the Forrester wave highest possible scores for vision, roadmap and accelerators. Forrester I think captured well by saying PK packs a big punch and approaches RPA services with both clarity of vision and extensive IP innovation. We could go on and on across any one of the most modern technologies supporting really leading edge digital experiences. Think about APIs, app modernization, whatever it takes to deliver a compelling experience for customers and PK is recognized as one of the most innovative and creative and compelling firms globally in these critical areas. I'm gonna ask Jeff a few questions about kind of both his personal career and how the vision that propelled he and his co-founders to building such an incredible business.
And I get his perspective on not only development in the technology arena but also how individuals, students, alumni and people aspiring to build either great companies or great careers in this area can learn from his experience. We're gonna save some time at the end for questions and we're gonna answer as many as we can just log them into the chat and we'll make sure that we get to questions before we wrap up but let Jeff, let's start with your personal story. You were focused on tech from the teen years, if not earlier, what drove you to be interested in technology as a career? - Well, probably science fiction movies I would say might be the first thing, but I was gifted in math and that's kind of directions some school advisors in high school were pushing for a career path and they offered a basic programming class, in my junior year of high school.
And I took the class and I loved it and I ate it up and I was addicted. So that's kinda how I got most interested in it. And fortunately for me, it's transformed a lot of businesses over many decades and I was right there with it. So it was very lucky to have that start. - You and I have talked about this before that the perception, the difference between perception and reality around tech careers may be one of the reasons that fewer people go into the technology field than either one of us would like, you made it pivot from being a kind of narrow technologist to branching out to all phases of the technology business, to sales, recruiting, general management. Can you talk about that part of the career journey moving from a narrow focus on technology creation to business creation and business application of technology? - Yes, there's this introverted perception of, what a computer scientist or an information technology specialist does.
I think with younger people in today's marketplace, and in the past decades, the statistic when early in my career was American universities were producing about 40% of the demand of talent each year that industry needed. Therefore we had to go to other countries to find the talent and bring them to the United States. So everyone, I think at that time thought, okay you're gonna sit in a dark room and you're gonna write code and it's a pretty boring career. You're not gonna interact with people. You're gonna be an introvert. It's not gonna be any fun.
We wanna do something more exciting. And that is absolutely not the case, unfortunately or fortunately for me, I should say when I first finished at DeVry and started working I got in one of those jobs where I was literally sitting at a desk writing code and I was quite bored 'cause I wanted to interact with people. I had studied project management and business analysis and design, and I wanted to do that kind of work.
I wanted to learn about the business and build solutions for the business, but it wasn't quite that way. I had a senior person giving me specs and I would write code and many times I didn't even understand the business case or didn't need to. So I left that very quickly and started recruiting, working for a firm, which became a Rapid Ime over the years and grew up through that business recruiting IT talent and hired a lot of DeVry graduates during that time actually.
- And you and I were talking about even the core production of technology has changed. Jeff and I have swapped stories about when we were young computer scientists, there was some dark room to it, but now in the era of agile and tight links to business, even the most technology focused job has a radically different level of exposure to teammates and clients, et cetera. - Yes, it does definitely. - That's gonna be an interesting shift. Maybe talk a little bit about, to fast forward a little bit from you grew Rapidigm to a sizable company and we're running a big piece of it, sold the business to Fujitsu. And probably at that point could have had any job you wanted in tech or tech services, but you decided to go all the way back to zero and starting a company with three great co-founders whom I know quite well as well, but that that's a pretty big risk to take.
Having had a lot of success in certainly having had a lot of opportunities to go all the way back to kind of ground zero and start from scratch. I'd love to hear that decision and what led to it and what led you to take that risk? - Well, my father, he wasn't an educated man. He never had the opportunities but he always told me if you ever get a chance learn a business from the bottom up save your money or find investors and start your own because those are the folks who have the most fun in life, have the most pleasure in life. So I always kept that in the back of my head and I did every job possible at Rapidigm.
And there were some things we did really well at Rapidigm. We caught a wave, which was the ERP wave and we were predominantly an ERP implementer but we saw very quickly, that the ERP providers were a couple of generations behind technology always. And it's just by way of nature of the product. They can't build something for everybody. They have to satisfy general population and get about 70% of the requirement down. So we decided to, when we left so there was another person Manish Mehta his one of the co-founders of ProKarma who had gone to college with Vivek Kumar and had, he and Vijay Ijju and Manish all had their first jobs in India together.
So they formed a bond. So the four of us started PK together and our focus was on leading edge technology and it was not on packaged solutions. So we took the focus completely away from the package products out there, like the SAP's and the Oracles. And we wanted to build custom leading edge software. And we were doing pretty much software for hire. So we were building it for the client.
They would own it when we were finished and we decided, okay, we're always gonna reinvest back into the business and have a technology team always focused on what's coming next. So we would stay about a half a step ahead of customer demand when they would talk to us about early things like mobile solutions, or e-business back in 2004 timeframe, we were ready and we were always experimenting. We were always building and we were willing to take on projects that maybe no one saw as possible. And we were smart enough to hire some great people. And there's some great technology visionaries in our firm, from the early days. And we were lucky enough to take advantage of that.
And we had clients who trusted us. They said we would just be honest and tell them we've never been here before but we're gonna try and let's do it together. And they knew that we wouldn't let them down. So most things that we were able to build for them were possible and they believed in us because it was more about the relationship with the individual leadership in each account than it was about, has it been done 10 times before? And I think people started to shift their mind frame Tom and their mind frame was more, not where have you done it 10 times before because that's what most clients would ask but they wanted to know, what do you know about this? And do you think it's possible? I've been thinking about this.
It might make our business leader's life easier, as an IT executive, I wanna do that. And I think we were lucky enough to get those opportunities with our clients in the early days. So innovation was always a focus. Now, back to your question about risk. I always laugh when people say that to me because they really, you took some incredible risks and your day, why did you do this? Why didn't you do that? Honestly, I always knew that I could get a job. And I always knew that I could get a fairly nice prevailing wage after I learned what I learned in my day, early days at Rapid Ime.
So there really wasn't a risk to it, Tom. It was what would I call? It is a large reduction in income. (laughs) So, we did have an angel investor. We paid ourselves about 10% of what we were making before. And we worked really hard and we were passionate about growing the business. And we were passionate about people and the four of us brought some of our best people we knew from the past with us.
And we hired a lot of good people and we had a great team, still have a great team. And that's the foundation for any good business is a good team. And I said the founding principle for me building a team was never be afraid to hire somebody better and smarter than you are. And, I've kept to that over time.
And I was never the smartest person in the room and I didn't wanna be, I think that if you do that in your business, you're short-cutting yourself. - One thing PK did that and continues to do that's really hard and most, I wanna say, I'll use the word. I don't wanna use the word lazy but many firms are too lazy to do which is staying on the leading edge.
You'll often see a company come in, on the leading edge in technology and then kind of just follow that technology and almost rise and fall with it but not innovate and stay on the leading edge. And we opened the college just to a series of recent accolades that PK has gotten for, again the kind of most cutting edge stuff. How did you all it's pretty deep in the ethos of the firm to be always on the leading edge, always able to bring the most modern technologies to bear on clients. I asked the question probably from two lenses how did you all pull it off? And anyone wanting to participate in the technology sector is trying to find a way to keep up with change and make sure they know what the leading edge is and make sure that they know what the most powerful technologies are. How did What advice would you have to companies or people looking to keep up in a fast moving environment like that? - Well, we have a secret weapon. I like to say when it came to advancement of technology and that was not just Vijay Ijju, one of the other co-founders but his team of field generals, brilliant enterprise architects, who really helped him take the right path down the technology line.
And that was one thing. Second thing is, we weren't afraid to take less money in payroll and invested into research and invested back into the business to make the business better. And I think that is the best advice I can give is have the smartest people. I remember for many years, we had this thing in our Denver office on the wall that said that little company can't build what you need to have built.
And we did it for less money, faster and better than the big players out there in the market at that time. And we were always hungry and we wanted to prove people wrong. We came with an attitude that, you don't think we can do it, but we're gonna make you wrong.
We're gonna show you that we can so I think that was the secret. - You know, it's funny. I don't think I'm telling a tale out of school but at the onset, Jeff and I are colleagues on the board of PK now. And at the onset of the pandemic, we like every other company we had a board meeting to discuss what to do in the pandemic and unlike every other company, the question wasn't let's pull back. The question was, we've got to do more investment in front the board meeting, PK went the exact opposite direction, which is okay, this is, the world's gonna change, the pandemic is gonna change the world.
Technology is gonna accelerate. We have to invest more in R&D and that's just pretty deep on how you all have built the company and built the culture. And obviously it's paid huge dividends. You've got, given your success you've probably got a steady parade of young entrepreneurs or not young entrepreneurs but new entrepreneurs or people looking to build a great company showing up on your doorstep, asking you for advice. How to build a great company, how to launch a great company. What's your talk track? What do you tell would be or new entrepreneurs to focus? What he encouraged them to spend their time on? Like, how do you help someone learn from your experience? - Well, first I'll digress a second and say that's one of my new passions is to try to help people learn what I didn't know earlier in my lifetime and try to help advance them.
Especially if I like them, it could be acquaintances, friends, whatever. But one of the things that I tell them is you need a mentor. And I think everybody needs a mentor. It doesn't matter what stage you are in your life.
Your mentors do change. It's funny because when Manish Mehta one of our co-founders turned 40, we were talking we got a little bit emotional with each other and he says, you were my mentor. And I said, it's really funny because you're smarter than me. And you learned everything that the business had to offer through some of my teachings but then you passed me and then you became my mentor. And he taught us all a lot. But I like to tell them that they've got to work harder than anybody else out there that they're competing against.
Their mindset has to be, oh my gosh I'm not talking to my client today, is my competitor? I'm not in front of them or I can't sit back and take too much time to congratulate myself on something well done. I got to worry very quickly what I'm gonna do next. And I think the bigger part of all that is centered around never getting satisfied with what you're doing take a week, each year to celebrate your victories and your successes but make sure you take 51 other weeks outworking and outsmarting and out thinking and reinvesting back into your business. I don't like to work with people who are in what I call lifestyle businesses, where they build a business. And you mentioned something about this earlier, Tom where they ride a technology wave until it's almost dead. It's like riding a horse till its very last days.
And the horse is limping along. You can't do that. You've gotta switch horses, you've gotta change your path and you always have to be innovating. So that's my best advice.
The other thing, a lot of people come to me without a plan. They don't have a solid plan and they don't think about bad things that can happen in their plan and how they're gonna respond. And they get very discouraged early on and they exit their businesses and go back to a regular job. And I think that the other advice I'd give them is it's gonna be hard. It's gonna be really hard.
And there's gonna be times when you wanna give up but you can't. So, and then the other thing I tell them is make sure you were more well-funded than you ever imagined you needed to be because you can make money on paper but if you can't flow your cash, right your business is not gonna last very long. So those are some of the pieces of advice that I give to young people, young business owners. - Jeff, you spend a lot of time, to this day spend a lot of time interviewing and selecting talent.
It's something you have great passion for, attracting great people, selecting them. One of the real challenges I think that PK has overcome as it's grown is not only being a fast growth company, but having that same strong culture that the four of you probably had when it was just the four of you. And that that's hard to do.
So when you're hiring someone, what do you look for? What do you look for to ensure you're bringing the right talent into an organization? What are the key markers of future success that you've learned to try to push for and probe for when you're interviewing somebody? - First, I look for someone who has a lot of responsibility and they can't afford to fail at the job, that could mean a number of things. It could mean a home, a family, children, kids in college. It could mean a lot of things. So they have to have that.
Second I look for job stability. In the early days of IT, back in the '80s and the '90s, everyone, there was a rule, "Hey you need to stay at each job at least a few years." And there were people that would last a one place for a year and then go on to another. Sometimes people did that intentionally to advance their salaries because it could raise from their current employer without changing jobs. So I look for jobs stability, but more than that I look for people who are scrappy. I look for people who come with an attitude that they're gonna prove everybody else wrong, that they think that they're gonna fail or they're not good enough or they can't do something.
I look for hungry people who are really interested in making a big difference and outperforming the norm. So that's what I look for. And then I also, I trust my gut. If your gut tells you that something doesn't smell right or look right, nine times out of 10, you're right.
You should trust that gut instinct. So, and then I look for validation. Someone can tell you the example I use all the time and is driving a car.
I can tell you, I know how to drive. And it sounds really good when I describe it to you, Tom. But until you get in the passenger seat with me, you have no idea if I'm good at it or not.
So I need to talk to your customers who've ridden in the car with you. And predominantly I get involved in hiring salespeople and predominantly I get involved in checking references when we're doing an acquisition of another company. And that's what I look for is I look for people who can actually validate, what I've been told or what I may have learned in the interview process. - Question on the one thing that I think about as a university, our job is to supply great talent to businesses. And I hear from business leaders that you hear great things about DeVry graduates but you also hear, yeah, "Hey, I wish the university system would do more "to prepare people, et cetera."
What advice, in some sense, the bar of people coming off off of university campuses out of university programs, what advice, or what areas of focus would you like to see universities spend time on so that more people are ready day one to have impact in the workplace? - Well, I think a lot of universities these days are too focused on the student (clears throat) and I think they need to spend more time with the employers. And of course, you go after the large ones first but I think the universities, owe the student the opportunity to show them that they're gonna get life skills and get marketable skills in the process of the education. The advice I give the student is look at each job opportunity as an entry point into the career. And the career can take you so many different ways.
I see people today who are, work their way up in IT and move over to the business side. And they become heads of marketing. They become, C level executives through the IT path. And information and technology has a much larger, experience in any business today than it did 10 years ago, or much more than 20 or 30. In that time technology was a necessary evil. They needed us to do their accounting and file their taxes each year and tell them how much they sold and how much money they collected.
Today they need us to run the business and they needed us to run the business day to day and there's much more involvement. So the other thing I would, the advice I would give a fresh graduate is try to work in getting jobs with the leaders in their industry space. So, in our case, we were very fortunate, a couple of shout outs to some of my favorite clients, T-Mobile is recognized as the innovative leader in the telecom space.
And we've been working with T-Mobile for more than 10 years and they keep throwing problems at us that need to be solved with technology and we were able to do it because we have a great team and they're a very supportive partner. And it works well because if we go call on their competition they're excited that we've worked with T-Mobile already. And I would tell your graduates the same thing, try to be employed by the leaders in their space. And I think that will open a lot of doors for you for one thing, the other thing I would tell them is, embrace the opportunities you have to learn about the business because that will make you more valuable.
If technology without any business knowledge you're not as valuable as, if you really understand the business that you're in. And I think that's where our staff is a hit, they're very hungry to know about the customer's business. Even our people who are offshore in India or in Mexico, or in Argentina, they want to know the customer. They want to understand the customer's problems.
They want the customer to visit them. They want to visit the customer locations. And I think they're all anxious to get back to that kind of business, post pandemic because I think that's where our staff and our clients have suffered the most is through, lack of in-person interaction for this time.
- Question that came in from Dolly is, how do you transition into the technology field? What is the advice for someone who maybe is in a non-tech job wants to transition to a more tech technology oriented role in their company, or maybe track down a company that is on the leading edge. What's the best way to kinda make a career pivot like that? - I think you gotta go to the people in the business who are on the technology side and talk to them, make your interest known and ask them, what would it take for me to get an opportunity transition. It could be education. It could be taking a couple of classes potentially, most people think, oh, no you have to have four years of education and learn how to write code and learn how to build software. Well, you can move to IT in a business analyst role and still be part of the IT department and be a business expert helping guide the development process and the engineering process from a business viewpoint. So it's not as difficult as most people think to transition from the business to the technology side.
You could become a software tester to start, because you understand the business and you're being handed working code or working software that needs to be thoroughly tested. Not only just from an accuracy standpoint but from a regression or a load standpoint. So absolutely, it's an easy transition. - Great, okay, I'm getting the signal that we're bumping up against time. This has been terrific.
I'll first and foremost thank you. Thanks for sharing. We covered a lot of ground from career stuff to business building, to future of technology and it's been super helpful to me and super helpful to our audience. Special thanks, not only Jeff but of the audience for joining in you can follow Jeff and I on LinkedIn and obviously PK's site has a ton of information. I went through sort of a limited set of the recent recognition that PK has gotten for a leading edge client impact and leading edge technology. But if you check out the PK site, pretty much every day something new is happening. (laughs)
So that's another great place to, it's a shameless plug, Jeff, but when we talk about staying on the leading edge of technology, if you just sort of hit the PK website and see some of the case studies, that's a great example of what the leading edge of technology looks like and how people are putting technology to work. So I will thank everyone. Please follow DeVry on LinkedIn so you can hear about future dialogues and we will have other events like this featuring alums, business leaders, and technologists who are shaping the future of work. Thanks for joining. And I hope everyone enjoys the rest of day. - Thanks for listening everyone, have a great day.
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