Brought to you by VANTIQ
Episode 19
The Key to Transformation: Continuous Learning
Many employees with five years-experience actually have the same year, five times over. Join Tom Sweet, VP IT at GM Financial, for a discussion of his secrets for driving organizational transformation via the practice of continuous learning.
Chief Marketing +

Product Officer, VANTIQ
VP IT Solutions at GM Financial

Blaine: Joining me today is Tom Sweet, a Vice President in IT solutions at GM Financial. Tom is a global tech executive that has a real passion for solving business problems through the proper use of technology. Prior to GM Financial, he was director of global quality assurance at Maptek and also had a successful stint at Microsoft. Thanks for the time, Tom. We’re going to have some fun today!

Tom: Great. Thank you!

Blaine: Now, to be clear with our listeners, I understand that the views and opinions represented today are your own and do not represent the views and opinions of your employer, GM Financial. Is that right?

Tom: Exactly. Yes.

Blaine: All right. Just had to get that out of the way. Having said all that, tell us about your role at GM Financial. What do you do there?

Tom: GM Financial is the captive lending arm of General Motors. I lead a QA team that consists of software developers and QE analysts. We ensure the quality of our lending solutions and our internal IT solutions.

Blaine: Interesting. And how long have you been at GM Financial, for those that haven’t had a look at your profile yet?

Tom: Sure. I’ve been there since May of 2016. I moved from Colorado to Texas for it.

Blaine: How do you get the role leading QA and software analysts at GM Financial? What’s your back story?

Tom: I’ve done this for 20 years. I graduated college with a degree in civil engineering and I worked for the Massachusetts Highway Department for four years. I wanted to do something different. I talked to my boss and his brother had had the job I had had years earlier that was part owner at a consulting company. I went to interview with him and the first question was, “What do I have to offer.” I told him I have four years of experience. He said, “Stop right there. You have one year of experience four times.”.

That was an interesting start of a job interview that kind of set me back a bit. But he had a good point that I hadn’t grown in my role. Though I had a job for four years, I hadn’t really advanced four years’ worth of advancement. That’s something that I thought about off and on over the years.

I stayed in engineering until ‘97 and I had an opportunity to go to NEC computer systems division. Back then, Windows 95 came out. It was Windows NT 4, so I had my first job in IT playing with computers, installing software, making sure the laptops worked great. That was one of the best I’ve ever had.

I worked my way through different jobs as a contractor, went to work at a startup where I wore many hats. One of the opportunities at the startup when I was hired was they told me I get to work two days a week from home which was true. So, I worked five days a week in the office, two from home. I did that for three and a half years. [Laughter]

It kind of burned out. Family and I, we moved to Colorado with no job and we stayed with relatives. I found employment there, eventually worked my way into Microsoft as a SDET2, which is software, develop, engineer, and test. So, it was a really technical QA role. It was business solutions, office, SQL. Then, I had seen what I thought was Microsoft getting ready to close the office down because I had come across that three other times in my career. And it was true.

So, I wound up going over to Maptek which was software for mineral mining. They needed someone to lead up a QA team. Because I had an engineering background and I had all of the QA experience, I was selected to run that. I did that for six years and that was really great. I got to travel the world. I had a team that worked for me in Australia, one in South America.

And then, I worked my way over to travel for a short stint and then found myself at GM Financial. It’s been a long career. It’s been fun.

Blaine: Is your role at GM Financial now the way you started there or did that evolve?

Tom: It’s the same role. It’s the same role as when I started.

Blaine: Excellent. You gave me a couple of great lines I’m going to be using from now on: “working from home five days in the office, two at home” I love that one and “one year of experience four times over.”

To segue off of that one, in particular, that sort of brings me to the mind of the discussion about continuous learning and team transformation. I know you and I obviously talked prior to the interview today. I know this is really the heart of what you’re working to drive at GM Financial.

The reason that struck home for me so much is so many of the discussions that I have with CIOs and technical leaders starts out talking about transformations, digital transformations as being about technology always ends up being about people, culture, the soft stuff. That’s fundamentally how you get to where you want to go. Talk about the team transformation that you’ve been working to bring at GM Financial. I think that’s a really great topic and very relevant.

Tom: A lot of my team, about 80 of them are manual testers of some capacity. They have a title of Quality Assurance Analyst and there’s different grades of that role. As you probably know, manual testing is going away in industry. The concept of a person who does manual testing in a waterfall model has been replaced by automated testing years ago. It’s moving to dev ops and continuous delivery.

Companies need to go faster. And as part of that, we needed staff that allows us to go faster and has this skill set. Now, we’ve had really great employees who committed a lot to working at the company and they’re quite valued. What I’m trying to do is reinvest in them, help them reinvent and reimagine a different role. That requires them coming up to speed on a lot of different skills.

When you look at the background of the team, some of them come from manual test roles outside and from different organizations then hired into GM Financial. Others were employees in a call center or different business groups and showed aptitude and interest in testing and so they came into the quality assurance organization. What I’m trying to do is get them all up to a skill set which makes it more important for them to have this skill set and it’s great for the company.

Blaine: What kind of role are they being transitioned to? So, if manual testing and software testing is going away and being replaced by automated testing, what kind of roles are they being moved towards?

Tom: We’re moving them into what I’m calling a Software Development Engineer. As part of that, they’re going to learn a programming language such as Java or C#, most of them will be Java. Then, we’re making sure they have database skills, networking skills, advanced computer knowledge, web services, security, source control, and off the wall with testing tools.

Eventually they will be cross-functional. Right now, they’re focused mostly on quality assurance. Long term, what I would like to see is them be considered cross-functional. If the development team has a skill set deficit or they have people out of the office, they can take one of my team members and swap them out and my team can provide value in multiple areas, like as a full-stack engineer.

Blaine: That’s really interesting. I think in the default assumption in most people’s mindsets is if you’re going to hire software developers, they must have computer science or computer engineering degrees. In this case, I’m assuming these folks mostly don’t?

Tom: They mostly don’t. Now, I do hire computer science degrees. A lot of my existing software developers have that. But, there also is that opportunity for those who wish to transform to learn a lot of those skills.

Now, they may not learn all the data structures that a computer science graduate would have. But, we’re teaching them a great skill set where they can continue to learn and grow over the years. In order to be promoted into this role, we have a base criteria that must be met and it’s an objective criteria.

Sometimes, when you look at different companies, promotion between layer one two, they’re kind of vague. We have a very defined, objective promotion. When people do get promoted, it’s clear they have those skills. That makes it very democratic.

Blaine: Is the criteria based on some kind of test where they’re actually given a task and have to do it? Describe what the criteria would be.

Tom: They have to demonstrate these skills on the job. They can get certifications, but they could also demonstrate that by on the job experience and using those skills in their job. Then, what I’ll do is I’ll interview them and I’ll go through, what I consider, the fundamentals of this checklist and just ensure that they have it.

Blaine: Really, really interesting. What percentage of the folks that were doing these testing jobs before are you now trying to move into this other role?

Tom: I have 80 and I promoted two so far. We’re still in the process. It’s a long 18-month program. We’re not going to promote people prematurely. It will de-value the program. We’ll probably have a couple this year and then next year, the wave will start coming through as more people catch up. Some are already well down this path when I hired them.

Blaine: Do you have any sense of what percent of the group just is not interested in this path? I’m sure it can’t be everyone that wants to go down this path.

Tom: Maybe 20 percent. No one’s going to lose a job because of this. There will probably still be manual test activities. We really want to try that everyone is invited to partake in this. I want to be clear about that. Some people may choose that it’s not for them and sometimes there could be different roles within the company that they might move to. But, everyone on the team is invited to participate in this, so that’s what’s important.

Blaine: That’s amazing. That’s just an amazing program.

I assume, as part of this, it’s not just the one-time program or opportunity you’re bringing forward to this team, but you’re also trying to instill a culture of continuous learning beyond once they become Java developers and whatever, then it’s about how do you keep them always learning. Of course, anybody involved in technology these days has to be doing that or they’re going to be outdated very soon. How do you try to build a culture of continuous learning?

Tom: One way is I’m out there leading myself. I’m out there getting Amazon certified and getting security certs. I’m letting my team know that I’m doing that. I’m part of that journey with them.

A lot of people have families. I have a family. I have yard work to do. I have to work at night for the office because we’re busy or I have to catch up and make sure my deliverables are being met, but I always make time to do this work to continue investing in myself. I want to make sure the team knows that I’m doing that too. You don’t reach a level like I’m at and then stop. It’s actually probably harder for me because I have more responsibility and have to know more areas.

We share the accomplishments among the whole team. We have a document that shows different certifications. When people get certified, whether it be a Splunk certification or an Amazon cert or Microsoft cert, we’ll send it out to the whole team and there’s a lot of encouragement.

Once people reach that software engineer one level, then we start training them a lot in cloud. We try to make sure we’re going to have Docker, Kubernetes, Amazon, and Azure. Those are of our continued learning path. The other thing is the officers that report to me have to get certified in Amazon. [We’re] making sure that everyone is part of this journey.

Blaine: It still strikes me as a little bit amazing because culture and these kind of transformations are the hardest, getting people to change. You’re trying to drive a pretty significant change from one job type and one skillset to another and then instill an ongoing culture of continuous learning! What’s the secret?There must be something you’re doing.

Tom: Perseverance. Also, balancing what’s possible versus – maybe a little bit of, “Here’s what’s going on in industries. This company here let their staff go or this other company, they’re having to train their replacements.” I never want that to happen at our company. We’re in charge of our own success. If we’re continuing to deliver value and we’re leading and improving, no one’s ever going to come to us and say, “We could probably do better elsewhere.”.

So, just letting the team know that A., they’re going to have a skill set that allows them to go anywhere in a country. If all of a sudden, they have a family member in Florida and they have to leave the company to go help that sick family member, they could get employment elsewhere because they have a current skill set. And B., making sure that we are in a good position.

Blaine: That’s really incredible. GM Financial must be a great company to work for to allow this kind of program to happen. Do you think for this to be successful, does it need to be embraced at the top?

Tom: I have support from my SVP and CIO. So, I do have support there which is really important.

Blaine: Yeah I can only imagine. How is this received by the other organizations? For example, the existing software developers who joined the company as software development engineers, and now they’re seeing this new group being cross-trained over. What’s the attitude in the company about this?

Tom: It actually is surprisingly good. I’ve worked at other places in the past where there has been maybe contention between dev and QA. Sometimes there’s a conflict. Here, it’s gone really well. I think part of that is the development team and their leadership has an opportunity to contribute to this checklist that we have. We have that checklist of all the different skills and they have opportunities to review it before we approve it, to add to it, actually pull something things out of it that maybe we’re a little bit too aggressive for the first layer level.

They’re onboard with it and they see the need for quality. They see, as we move towards continuous integration, continuous delivery in dev ops, they see that the skill set is needed. They also will like the idea that the QA team will go faster because of the automation that we have. It also helps the development team because if there is a break in production, better quality and better testing will help mitigate those and prevent those from happening. So, it’s actually good.

Blaine: It makes perfect sense. I know an analogy, not in a related domain, but I find the best salespeople are people who have been marketers before they become salespeople. They understand how it’s done, how the sausage is made. Then, when they become a sales person, they can empathize with the role. I can only imagine that’s true here. Some of the best developers would have to be people who were previously in QA who had to put up with finding and triaging all the bugs and issues, and now, they’re there writing the software.

It must give them a great gut feel or a sense for what it is they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

Tom: Yeah!

Blaine: Well that’s interesting.

Turning the topic a little bit more widely to how we transform organizations overall and drive digital or non-digital transformations, actually let’s focus on the digital transformation right now.

Tom: Sure.

Blaine: Often we talk about who should be driving it in the organization. Should it be IT, the technical folks, or should it be the operations side, the so-called “business side”.Who do you think should own digital transformation in a company: business or IT?

Tom: That’s interesting because I really don’t like the term “the business” I think IT needs to be an order shaper, not an order taker. I don’t know where I heard that. I’ve heard it at conferences. I’ve spoken it myself. I think it needs to really be a partnership because IT needs to be out there leading and providing solutions.

A lot of times, what happens if IT doesn’t really take that lead, the business partners will then look towards vendors to outshadow IT as opposed to really understanding why the IT department isn’t providing. I think IT needs to always step out there and be a leader. So, I think it should come from IT, though I think it needs to be a partnership.

Blaine: To what extent do you think it is coming from IT?I think a lot of people would agree that it should come, and I don’t mean GM Financial specifically, but I mean more broadly.

Tom: I think it’s not and the reason is the creation of the Chief Innovation Officer role, the creation of the Chief Digital Officer role is partly a response to internal IT organizations as a whole not delivering and not understanding. I think that the resistance to agile or the reliance on all their processes is such that that may maybe holding companies back.

I often talked to the operations side of businesses and also to the CIOs and the so-called IT side, the non-business side. I know, from the operations side, they’re very skeptical that IT is doing anything other than cloud migration or implementing SAP, V7, or doing another security update, which is of course really important, but that doesn’t leave much time in the IT timeline for doing projects that are actually affecting the lines of business. I hear that over and over and over again.

I think that, a lot of times, IT leaders have to be in the industry as far as spending time at conferences, going to meetup groups. They need to work with not only their peers from other companies, but one thing that’s really not done as much as it should be is having these senior IT leaders go to individual contributor meet ups and start talking to the people that they want to hire; go to the Python users group go to the Java user group and start talking and finding out what their ideas are. I think that’s often missed.

Blaine: Just hearing you say that brings to mind another idea that’s sort of similar to that. I go and speak at a lot of events throughout the year, including you might call them IT oriented events, CIO groups, those kind of things. Then, I go to speak at domain-specific events like field service events, smart manufacturing events, smart cities events, etc.

These groups are not mixing together at the same event. You’ve got the business-oriented events related to the domains like manufacturing and field service and then you’ve got the IT-oriented events. They should go to the same events more often and be on the panels at the same time hearing each other. What an idea that would be!

Tom: That’s funny because when you go to a lot of these IT events, it’s mostly half the people there are applying for the same open CIO job [laughter] and not knowing that the other people are applying for the same thing. I recently joined an organization that that’s kind of cross-functional. It has CEOs, CMOs, Chief Financial Officers, people in IT. The whole point is to hire that difference of opinion. That’s what I’m trying to do to make sure that I’m not only hearing one side of the story.

Blaine: I think that’s a great idea. Let’s get ready to wrap it up here. Any technology or business predictions for 2019? What do you see happening in 2019 that’s interesting?

Tom: In 2019 I still see public cloud getting stronger. There will be less and less resistance to public cloud as more features are added. A lot of companies are still adverse to it. They have personnel that still like the data center.

When I look at Amazon and see what’s possible, I think more and more companies are finally going to start breaking away from, “We have to avoid public cloud at all cost” to “Maybe we’ve got to start looking at this”.

I see continued adoption of agile, which I know isn’t new, but a lot of heritage companies are legacy companies, they are still resistant to it. I see more adoption of agile.

Blaine: I think so. Another interesting term: heritage companies. I’m going to use that one next time I’m on a panel. I like that. That’s a good way to put it.

Let’s wrap up with what are some key takeaways or tips for a business leader that’s trying to drive some kind of transformation in her business?

Tom: I think he or she has to make a personal transformation; one has that empathy to what the employees are going to have to go through. It’s easy to say we’re going to reskill people or we are going to replace them if they don’t learn or we’re going to just get cheaper labor somewhere else. What is that leader doing him or herself? Is that investment there?

I think that personal investment is important to me. I was contacted last week. This company was looking for a CIO and they wanted a CIO who could drive it. It wasn’t a CIO who knew how to hire the people to drive it. They wanted a CIO who had that experience who could lead the whole company. They had a staff. They didn’t want to change the staff. That staff needed help and they wanted someone who had that skill set.

If you’re not up on technology, not investing in yourself, not growing, it is harder to have that report with the team.

Blaine: That’s great, Tom. I think what you said earlier about being a model for driving this continuous change, this cross training and upskilling, you’re not just telling them to do it or even encouraging them to do it, but you’re continuously doing it yourself. That’s a very powerful model, no doubt about it.

I think that wraps it up! Tom, thanks so much for joining us today. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Tom: I enjoyed it. Thanks.

Blaine: Those interested in hearing more of Tom’s thoughts should definitely check out his Sweet Talk video series on LinkedIn and also follow him at Thomas J Sweet on Twitter.

Of course, you can reach out to me anytime at [email protected]

Tom: Thank you.

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