Episode 166 – Learn to Empathize with Your Customers and Broaden Your Worldview by Exploring New Tech with Dion Hinchcliffe

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Dion Hinchcliffe is Phil’s guest on today’s show. He is an internationally recognized thought leader, enterprise architect and IT specialist. Dion is also a keynote speaker and the co-author of the best-selling books, Web 2.0 Architectures and Social Business by Design. He is currently a VP and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research.


(1.07) – Please tell us about the things you have been up to, particularly recently. Dion explains that he has always worked on large IT projects. For example, he worked as a lead architect for the Missile Defense Agency on their advance battle manager program. At the time, it was one of the biggest IT projects in the world. As a young man, he was chief architect for Rowe Price.

Dion recommends that everyone try to work on a government IT project. He explains that dealing with the red tape, bureaucracy, long lists or requirements and politics really hones your skills. It is challenging, but by the end of it you are far better able to realize change and lead.

More recently, Dion has been working with the CIO audience. His main focus is on helping them to apply technology strategically to modernize and transform their businesses. He develops digital strategies, ensures they work and guides firms through the implementation of them. Dion speaks and writes extensively about this and runs CIO workshops.

Importantly, he follows up with the people who are implementing his strategies to see how things went. Using their feedback he is able to understand how well each strategy works and tweak them if necessary.

(4.21) – Please tell us more about your speaking, blogging and writing. Dion explains that he sees himself as a storyteller who is working to fill a gap in the industry. He likes to go into detail and share in a way that ensures people can actually take action with what they learn from him.

These days, people in the industry are more willing to share what they are doing. But, in a way, they are still quite secretive. Their case studies tend to be high level. People end up hydroplaning over the top of subjects they don’t really explain how they got something hard done. So, Dion has tried to break that habit. He writes long-form, detailed pieces that include diagrams to help people to fully understand what he is sharing.

(5.29) presumably you get great feedback from doing that. Dion says that is the case. People especially appreciate his use of diagrams.

It is something few people do. But, Dion discovered early on that the best way to sell an idea, especially an expensive one, is to use a visual. Somehow showing them a picture makes it real for them.

(6.46) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? In IT your bedside manner really matters. You need to be able to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and communicate with them in a way that improves their understanding.

It is important to remember that this is probably the first time they have been through a technology roll-out. Or, if they have done it before, it was a long time ago. So, the whole thing is completely new and alien to them. They are relying on you to show them the way. It is up to you to help them to understand the process, manage their expectations and make them feel comfortable.

Looking at the situation through their eyes will really help you to do this effectively. You will be able to help them to see how their department will run once the technology is in place.

When you become more empathetic your relationship with your customers improves drastically. They find it easier to trust you. So, it is far easier for you to convince them of the direction they should take.

(8.42) – Is there anything in particular that you do to enable yourself to be in their shoes, as it were? Dion tries to think about the experiences they have gone through with IT departments. Doing this gives him an insight into what the customer is expecting.

(9.15) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Dion used to run a boutique consulting firm. They specialized in performance optimization. Often, that means turning failed IT projects around.

The first time they let one of their senior people to start an engagement. Unfortunately, the client called them and said they did not think things were going to work out. They did not feel they were a good fit. So, Dion had to let that person go. Basically, because they were no longer a good fit, which meant there was no work for them. It was very difficult for Dion to do this.

(11.01) – What was your best career moment? While working on a large government project, Dion and his colleagues came up with a way to apply Agile working principles to a large distributed team. They found a way to do the stand-ups, the user stories and put together fast feedback loops. A way to ship code every week and show customers what they were doing despite the team being huge, fragmented and distributed.

Getting there was tough. They had a lot of hard knocks. But, eventually, they were able to greatly speed up the pace at which the project moved forward. They still moved slower than most other agile teams, but it was a massive improvement on what had been happening before. Today, this way of working is common, but it was not back then, so successfully leading the way was exciting and a great achievement.

(13.04) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that technology budgets are growing is exciting. It will enable companies to move forward at a much faster rate.

This extra cash is opening up all sorts of possibilities for exciting, life-changing projects. So, working in IT is certainly not going to be boring. There is no longer any need for IT professionals to spend their life working as drones, in some back office. Unless, of course, that is what they want to do. Today, the IT team is likely to be involved in every aspect of the business. To touch every department and be an important and integral part of every team. If you are a cross-disciplinary technology specialist, now is a very exciting time to be working.

(14.21) – So why do you think that change from a predominantly maintenance function into more of a change delivery function has taken place? This is mainly because the statistics show that those firms that do not digitize will simply disappear. Firms have no choice but to change and they need IT professionals who can deliver that change.

(15.04) – What drew you to a career in IT? As an 11-year-old Dion realized that with a computer you can create your own world with its own rules. He found that exciting, so just kept on learning and ended up following his passion and working in IT.

(15.39) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? That advice to try new things and push yourself out of your comfort zone is the best advice Dion was given.

We all have a tendency to gravitate towards the technologies and platforms that we know. Those times when you try something that is completely unrelated are when you learn the most. It also really broadens your worldview. So, deliberately go out there and try something different. Getting into this habit has turned Dion into a novelty seeker and fuelled a lot of his writing.

(16.57) – Conversely, what is the worst career advice you’ve ever received? That advice came from his father. He had been around in the 50s. At that time, there ended up being a glut of engineers and was worried that the same thing would happen with tech professionals. As a result, he questioned whether it was wise for Dion to work in the industry.

Fortunately, Dion did not see things in the same way as his father. He felt that the possibilities for tech were endless, which meant there would always be work for IT professionals. So far, he has turned out to be right. The tech industry has negative unemployment and will have for the foreseeable future.

(17.41) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Dion says that he would probably learn more about business. He focused too much on the technology and not enough on how it would be used. If he had done so at an earlier stage, he feels his career would have progressed even faster.

(18/17) – What career objectives are you currently focusing on? Dion says that he wants to write more. It is a hard task and finding the time to write can be difficult, but it is really rewarding. His aim is to publish three or four more notable books. Books that really unpack everything that he has learned in his career to date. One of them will definitely be about digital transformation.

(18.54) – What’s the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? For Dion that has almost certainly been his people skills. Most IT folks are not great with people, but the direction Dion’s career took forced him to develop good people skills. These days, being able to talk to customers is essential for most IT-related jobs.

(19.50) – What do you do to keep your own IT career energized? Being excited about new things creates momentum. It keeps you moving forward.

(20.51) – What do you do in your spare time away from technology? Dion has 4-year-old twins, who keep him busy. He really enjoys spending time with them. When they are older, he is hoping to get back into rock climbing.

(21.32) – Phil asks Dion to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. In the past, people learned a technology and kept much of that knowledge to themselves. They set themselves up as the gatekeeper of that technology, so people would have to come to them for information. It was a way of creating and holding onto power.

Today, setting your information free and sharing what you know is the way forward. When you do that, you get your knowledge working for you 24 hours a day.

Even more people realize that you are the go-to person for that technology. They are able to understand how it works and how they can use it. That means that even more people look to you for understanding. Importantly, over time, others absorb your knowledge, explore the tech and become experts. They start to share the load.

Sharing your knowledge gets you known and shows you in a favorable light.


(2.05) DION – “I recommend anyone go through some government IT projects. You will learn so much.”

(4.20) DION – “Speed is really the biggest issue that IT departments and technical teams are having to cope with, right now.”

(7.03) DION – “It’s absolutely critical to be able to put yourself in your customer’s place.”

(13.03) DION – “People going into IT today are not going to be stuck as drones in the back office. Unless they want to be.”

(21.37) DION – “Learn to set your knowledge free and benefit from doing so.”


Twitter: https://twitter.com/dhinchcliffe

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dhinchcliffe

Website: https://dionhinchcliffe.com

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