“The product needs to have it’s own independent voice, it can’t just be there to serve development.”Paul Johansen, CTO

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Welcome to Driving Change where we go for a drive with leading technology executives and dig deep into their beliefs, habits, routines, and influences.

Today we take a ride with Paul Johansen CTO of Edmentum and discuss a variety of topics from the role of the CTO, product management, hiring, technology talent, advancement, and balance.

In this Episode:

2:02 What is Edmentum?

3:08 Defining the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

4:20 Why the role of the CTO is becoming more prevalent today.

5:37 Taking a look at the evolving role of the CTO

6:51 Discussing how to find great software product management and software development talent.

7:58 The success of moving from offshore software development to fully in house software development.

10:00 The what and how of propelling to the role of the CTO.

11:09 Changing of beliefs while moving through career.

12:02 Personal productivity apps – The love of OneNote.

12:49 Balancing work, life, and personal as a technology leader

13:25 Books of influence –  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable – by Patrick Lencioni


Paul would like to know what problems are other CTOs trying to solve and what is their process for solving the problem. What problem are you trying to solve?

For more episodes and extended versions visit Lead by Change.

Produced by Jeff Martin of Collective Genius

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Jeff Martin: Don’t run into anything. It would make a good episode if I crash —
Paul Johansen: Yeah, exactly.
Jeff Martin: The car or get pulled over.
Paul Johansen: Yeah.
Jeff Martin: I’m still waiting for someone to be a bad guest where I can put them in the back of the car.
Paul Johansen: Ha!

Welcome to Driving Change where we go for a ride with leading technology executives and dig deep into their beliefs, habits, routines, and influences. Today, we take a ride with Paul Johansen, CTO of Edmentum and discuss a variety of topics from the world of CTO, product management, hiring great talent, advancement, and work-life balance.

Paul Johansen: Hey!
Jeff Martin: How’s it going?
Paul Johansen: Good.
Jeff Martin: Good to see you. Thanks for taking a ride.
Paul Johansen: Yeah, my pleasure.
Jeff Martin: So it’s a rainy day. It actually kind of stopped for you.
Paul Johansen: Yeah, that is kind of nice. I guess it’s about time we get some real fall weather.
Jeff Martin: So the game plan is we are going to drive to Sparrow Café.
Paul Johansen: Sparrow, okay.
Jeff Martin: Talk a little bit and on the way we’ll talk a little bit more, but I’m —
Paul Johansen: It sounds like a lot of fun.
Jeff Martin: But I’ve been trying to hit all of the coffee shops in town and there’s a lot of coffee shops in town.
Paul Johansen: Yeah.
Jeff Martin: But I’ve never heard of Sparrow Café. I saw some pictures of it, a lot of sparrows paintings on the insides. We might be for a fun experience here. You are currently the chief technology officer over at Edmentum.
Paul Johansen: That’s right.
Jeff Martin: For people that don’t know what Edmentum is, maybe you can explain a little bit.
Paul Johansen: Sure, yeah. So Edmentum is an online provider of education software that we sell directly to K-12 schools, so we produce anything from kind of elementary practice, go home practice your math, kind of putting worksheets online, all the way through high school, doing full courses. You might take an algebra course, sociology course, and high school course through our product. We have a lot of analytics and data backend and all that, and it adds a lot of value in the classroom, so it’s a pretty exciting industry to be in.
Jeff Martin: Yeah.
Paul Johansen: A good combination of software and content bringing you together and solving a great problem.
Jeff Martin: You’re the CTO and you’ve been involved in app dev and also product management. Is that right?
Paul Johansen: Yeah, so within my team, it’s kind of all your traditional IT organizations, so laptops, servers, as well as the datacenter operations, so the datacenters that host our products, all the application development pieces, database development, user experience, and then product management so kind of driving the product strategy as well.
Jeff Martin: So how do you see the role globally as a CTO? How do you define that?
Paul Johansen: Yes, I think for me, the CTO really has two aspects, right? It’s the part that deals with my team in making sure that they understand everything we’re trying to do as an organization, so the part I love the most about being part of a software company is essentially we’re the manufacturing are for the company. And so it’s incredibly as much or certainly even more so than in your standard IT organization, it’s so critical that my team understands what we’re trying to do as an organization, what we’re trying to get out of our customers, so that they have the right mindset and all the right pieces to build a better software the way they need it, to build up those features. So that’s kind of the key part is ensuring that my organization is prepared with the information that they need, as well as them kind of doing the same thing except for more upwards towards my peers in the executive leadership team, the CEO, our board, and investors, ensuring they understand what we’re trying to do from a product perspective, what we needed to do from a technology perspective, what things are important to do even if they’re not directly related to a feature we’re going to monetize but what sort of things do we have to do to invest in the software to make sure that it provides the user experience that we need, the uptime we need, and those kinds of things.
Jeff Martin: The role of the CTO is not always common in every organization.
Paul Johansen: Yeah.
Jeff Martin: A lot of organizations, larger organization who have CIOs?
Paul Johansen: Yeah.
Jeff Martin: CTOs are really common within software product companies?
Paul Johansen: Yeah.
Jeff Martin: But right now we’re starting to see CTOs come into play larger organizations as well.
Paul Johansen: Uh-huh.
Jeff Martin: I think that’s kind of interesting. Do you think that has to do with the amount of technology changing and ever changing within organizations?
Paul Johansen: Yeah, I think so. I always kind of viewed the difference between the CTO and the CIO is really the technology is a key part of the business model that drives the organization forward, that typically is going to be a CTO somebody that’s in charge of that, this idea or whatever that’s built within that technology that drives it forward. I think that you just it’s so hard these days I think to have any sort of product offering that’s getting more and more so that no matter what you’re doing, no matter what business you’re in, the technology plays an integrated role, so it’s not just IT of the past, or serving up, getting people printers and laptops. It’s a key part in driving revenue, driving the organization forward, so I think that in my mind, I think that’s what’s driving some of that expansion of the CTO role.
Jeff Martin: Have you seen the CTO role evolve much?
Paul Johansen: I think so in terms of and I think you’re going to see it the same type of evolution you’re going to see in any sort of IT leadership role, right?
Jeff Martin: Yeah.
Paul Johansen: It’s definitely less than in the past, I think CTOs are more in charge of kind of taking orders from the business, as you would say, right?
Jeff Martin: Yeah.
Paul Johansen: Here’s what we need to build and CTOs are in charge of kind of that production process, but it’s less and less, so of that and it’s more and more being integrated into the business.
Jeff Martin: Yeah, I think a lot of times I even remember like in the ‘90s where you take the CTO and lock him in a room and he’d be like the mad scientist.
Paul Johansen: Yeah.
Jeff Martin: Trying to come up with the new technologies –
Paul Johansen: Right.
Jeff Martin: The new things, but he is not interconnected with everything that was going on.
Paul Johansen: Yeah.
Jeff Martin: Yes, it was more of being technical cofounder.
Paul Johansen: You know I think they still have that in some companies today, right?
Jeff Martin: Yeah.
Paul Johansen: Where they have the chief technology officers truly the chief technologist and has may be they invented the proprietary technologies. I don’t think that that doesn’t exist today, but I think there’s a lot of organizations where it’s like it’s augmented as well where the executive leader over that technology team.
Jeff Martin: Products and then development, you see this in a lot of organizations, primarily software organizations. They’re being split and there is a real confusion about where the lines are drawn, where they overlap.
Paul Johansen: Yeah.
Jeff Martin: Should they fall into the same person, should they be separate.
Paul Johansen: Yeah, and there is a million different ways to organize product. A lot of times you will see it paired up with marketing, sometimes you’ll see it as its own separate organization, like you said sometimes you see it with technology. We’ve went through a number of evolutions of that, even at Edmentum and it’s where each one of those scenarios has its own advantage that you see it’s synergy, but I think that having product and development together it just eliminates any sort of tension you would have if those organizations were separate. It’s like you said, I need to make sure that my whole organization understands what we need to do from a product perspective for our customers, and if the product team is bare and part of that organization, it just makes it that much easier to make sure that it’s done.
So I think when you look at one of the core tenets of my organization has is focusing on the user, and between that user experience team that I have as well as the product team, that really helps the organization truly focus on the user. You have all the voices of the user right there in the organization. We enforce that, ensuring from step one that when we start to write stories and FX, all the way through the release processes, and so just I think we make sure we drive the best product overall.
But the conduit isn’t the hard part, and there’s some great leaders on that team to help do it that product also don’t need to have an independent voice where you can’t just be there to serve development because that’s only one of many different areas that product needs to serve. We need to make sure we understand the market. We need to make sure we’re really the voice of the customer of the whole organization whether it’s the marketing part, whether it’s sales, and all of the pieces.
There’s a piece that you had to be very focused on in ensuring it stays independent. You don’t lose what is good or the good aspects of when that organization is sometimes independent as well. So we make a division between the product managers out there to define what we’re building and why we’re building it and the product owners, they’re integrated in the development process, part of the script teams are there to really define how, and so they’re there to write the stories and find how, what we need to do, actions that is going to manifest itself in the product; that delineation kind of works. It’s working pretty well, and there’s a grey area in this work, but that’s —
Jeff Martin: Yeah, managing the gray area.
Paul Johansen: Yeah, always, right? Like [unintelligible 0:09:58] that’s definitely the theme of everything.
Jeff Martin: With everything changing so fast now, business is changing, communication, you know what competitors are doing faster or more than you could before, technology is changing, platforms, methodologies, how do you know you’re making the right decisions?
Paul Johansen: You know I think the team is able to drive most of that themselves, and so I think a lot of how you determine that is having truly enabled that can help you determine that, help bring the new technologies out, but sometimes you have to, as the CTO, you have to step in and make decisions. So for instance, you have a lot of products that have been acquired over time and built on different technologies. We got to the point where it’s moving to this integrated strategy that we have to make a decision on the go-forward technology, we have to make a decision where we’re going to do that, and all the Microsoft .NET technology, and so that as the CTO is a decision that I have to make. To do that, you have to look at first and foremost I think it’s all about the people, right?
Jeff Martin: Yeah.
Paul Johansen: There’s a lot of things to do with the technology, but if you have the right people, I think for the most part, you can make any technology work well. And so you have to start by looking at the talent that you have, the talent to ensure that it’s there to support he culture you want to support, and making sure that whatever choices you make will work well with that talent.
Jeff Martin: So you’re talking about team and people. Talent is hard to find, right?
Paul Johansen: Especially —
Jeff Martin: On the product side and on the development side?
Paul Johansen: Indeed, yes.
Jeff Martin: So what do you guys do and what do you do to build, acquire great people?
Paul Johansen: I wish I had a great answer for it, right? It’s a long process that you have to go through to keep — we have certain standards within our team that we’re not willing to compromise on, and I think all the people in the team are doing a good job of hearing those. But it takes us a long time where we just [unintelligible 0:11:59] it’s really working through, getting the right candidates, trying to get referrals, trying to build a name for your organization as a good place to work. But it’s been taking us I’d say anywhere from 6 to 8 months to bring a developer on board in terms of finding someone, getting someone, getting offer letters out. It’s such a competitive market right now that until that person actually steps in the door, you’re not exactly sure where it’s at and how it’s worked, so it’s really challenging.
Jeff Martin: But you guys had an inshore-offshore.
Paul Johansen: We did.
Jeff Martin: You moved it onshore, all internal.
Paul Johansen: Yeah, so about 3 years ago, we were primarily, we did all offshore development with firm in India, and as we sat down and said, “What can we do to really make the next evolution in the organization to make that much better. The team basically came up with (1) – we could do – we certainly did Agile but we didn’t really do Agile. [unintelligible 0:13:04] Agile and let the guys at Waterfall and the second was —
Jeff Martin: You used to do Waterfall and you call it Agile, right?
Paul Johansen: Yeah, exactly.
Jeff Martin: A lot of people do that.
Paul Johansen: Yeah, yeah. Exactly but the second thing was if we decide that really all the pieces of Agile that are important in the collaboration, working together, being in the same office, that we could do it better. We truly believed it. When I was coming up with the way that are essentially talked to the organization about it or talk to our peers and executive team about it, it was really about trying to help everyone understand the difference between labor rate and labor costs like every day when you compare labor rates, of course an offshore partner is going to look that much better. The hard part always with software is how do you make software into a widget where you can put cost to it, so we spent a lot of time using stories and using historical data to try to make as many assumptions around productivity as we could. No matter how conservative we ended up being, the benefits from a quality perspective, the benefits from a productivity perspective, by moving that onshore in-house, the productivity is just multiple times better.
Jeff Martin: Making it to the role of the CTO is kind of a coveted role. A lot of people would love to be in that position. What do you think are some of the things or maybe a couple of things that propelled you early in your career to kind of make that track towards your current role?
Paul Johansen: You know I started out in the software development side. That’s where all my background is from a technology perspective, and I think certainly the most if you want to move into the leadership roles in technology, I think one of the big parts is understanding that I had a really great mentor in one of my first jobs who really helped me understand there’s really a science to management as well where you can study being a leader and you can study being a manager just as much as you can study being a great developer. Early in my career, that’s what I wanted to be; I wanted to be the best developer; I wanted to do really amazing things from a technology side to really help me understand that there is more to it than just that. I also had aspirations to be a leader, so I kind of focused on understanding both of those. I think those are the biggest things.
Jeff Martin: Is there something that you perceive differently now than you did earlier in your career, a belief that changed?
Paul Johansen: I think over time, it’s been the power of the people and the power of the team. I think that early in my career, I was just really obsessed with great technology people. I think you see it in a lot of traditional IT organizations even today, right? You got a guy whose fantastic at technology but maybe he’s a jerk, or he’s hard to work with, or he’s toxic to the team, and in the past right in my mind, it’s amazing from a technology perspective. You put up with that sort of thing, right?
Jeff Martin: Yeah.
Paul Johansen: I think today really my philosophy is the opposite.
Jeff Martin: With the trends changing in your industry and trying to be on top of the industry, how do you stay on top at least on top of like everything is changing?
Paul Johansen: Yeah, so from a product standpoint, industry standpoint, like one of the things that it’s one of my favorite things in the world to do is go out and meet our customers, so I try to do a lot of visits, go out with our services team, our sales team, or even customers. We do a lot of market research for people together, focus groups of teachers, user experience testing of students, so that’s some of the best footage you’ll ever going to find is you got a first grader telling you what sucks about your software. That’s a pretty cool thing, so I think you know that’s the biggest thing in terms of the industry. It’s just getting out there and seeing how our customers are using it. There are 8,000 school districts like I said millions of users, so there’s a lot of opportunity to get out and see it. I think it’s surrounding yourself with the type of people that can help expose you to different ideas and different pieces.
From the technology perspective, that’s really the biggest thing is having a network of people that you can bounce things off of, you can understand what they’re working on through, and how that relates to what they’re doing. There’s tons I think the great thing about being technology is that you have tons of opportunities for conferences, going places, doing things, finding those opportunities to learn is there. On top of that, you got blogs, podcasts, and all sorts of different things that you could use to keep track [unintelligible 0:18:06].
Jeff Martin: From productivity like personal productivity, is there any apps that you like to use like Evernote or something like that?
Paul Johansen: I’m a big OneNote fan.
Jeff Martin: OneNote?
Paul Johansen: Yeah. I love OneNote. We actually use it within the organization a ton these days in terms of it’s almost — it’s really replaced what SharePoint traditionally has been for us as an organization, so everybody uses OneNote. It’s where we manage our projects. It’s is how we do our release cadence, and the beauty of it I think what’s really interesting with Microsoft and how it’s changed with such being at the head is I can use that on any device. It works on my iPad. It works on my iPhone. Of course, it works on my Windows machine. It seamlessly sinks in. It just it almost has an Apple feel in terms of how well it works.
Jeff Martin: So, work-life balance, tell me a little bit about how you manage that or maybe don’t?
Paul Johansen: No – yeah. I guess who you talk to, it might be more of the don’t, but it’s tough, right, and I think it’s trying to have at least from my perspective and certainly from the role that I live in, trying to live under the illusion that there is like a strict black and white line of work and life. It’s just not realistic, right. It’s also about making choices as to when things, what’s going to take priority and what’s going to be the priority of that time so there are definitely times where I completely disconnect to focus on my family, and do things with my kids. There’s other times where something comes up and it’s 9 o’clock at night, I need to hop on a call and it is what it is. But on the other hand if it’s next week when it’s my 4-year-old Halloween parade at their school, I’m going to –
Jeff Martin: You’re going to be there.
Paul Johansen: I’m going to cut out of work and go there as well, so I think it’s having that flexibility on both sides.
Jeff Martin: Yeah. From an influence standpoint, is there any books that you’ve gifted maybe to your team or books that really influenced you?
Paul Johansen: Yeah, I think one of the biggest things for me was a book by Patrick Lencioni called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It’s a pretty short, easy-to-read book. It’s kind of written as a business novel, but I think the simplicity and the concepts are really great. It’s about establishing a team that has trust, and once you build that trust, you can actually have productive conflict on that team, and the more conflict you can have on a tem in terms of they’ll drive to a better solution in the end. If you have that trust, you feel open to questioning other people’s ideas or coming up with new things without being criticized.
Jeff Martin: I have one last question for you.
Paul Johansen: All right.
Jeff Martin: The question is really for you to ask a question. Other CTOs and tech leaders out there that are watching the show, if there is a [unintelligible 0:21:01] in the future, what question would you like to hear them answer?
Paul Johansen: Yeah, I think you know what’s most interesting to me and it may sound a little odd is what problems are they trying to solve, right?
Jeff Martin: Yeah.
Paul Johansen: What are the big things you learn so much from what are the problems in the organization they’re seeing, how they’re going about solving them, both from maybe I have the same problem I’m trying to solve and you get it, or the way they’re solving, it might be a little bit different that would help you enhance yours, or maybe it’s a problem in my organization that I don’t even know exists I need to understand. To me, it’s always and I ended up getting together with peers, it seems like that’s where we end up going a lot of times just talking about —
Jeff Martin: What is their problem, how are they going to solve it.
Paul Johansen: Yeah, you know, and we’re really concerned about tech use of the size, so I think that’s —
Jeff Martin: That’s a really interesting question.
Paul Johansen: Yeah, it drives us in cycles.
Jeff Martin: Great. Hey, well thanks.
Paul Johansen: Yeah. Thank you.
Jeff Martin: I appreciate it.

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