Jordan Saunders of NextLink Labs kicks off a new TechVibe Radio Podcast Series to explore all things Digital Transformation.
Interviewer (Johnathan Kersting): It is absolutely true, you are listening to the NextLink Labs Digital Transformation series, podcast with the Pittsburgh Technology Council with NextLink Labs. So, this is our first one of the series, I can’t wait to get rolling on this, because we will be talking about all things digital transformation over the coming months and the man on the scene is Jordan Saunders. You founded this company.
Interviewee (Jordan Saunders): Yeah.
Jonathan Kersting: You just got it off the ground, so I am excited for us to learnt about the company, talk about the company, you also brought one of your closest adviser with you Dan, Dan, you are no stranger to TechVibe Radio.
Dan: I love it here…
Jonathan Kersting: Dan, it is really cool, because you have been working with Jordan, helping him spin his company and get it off the ground, so I think it is going to be great to have you inside along with this as well too… So, NextLink Labs, really, freshly minted company. So, first of, what’s your website, because we want to make sure the listeners can go out there and check the site out as soon as they possibly can.
Jordan Saunders: Sure, I mean we could be found at www.NextLinkLabs.com.
Jonathan Kersting: I can actually remember that myself… And to remind everybody, this is coming the Huntington bank, TechVibe Radio studio… We love being here to have these types of conversations, just way too much fun. So, first and foremost, Jordan, tell us about your background really quick? I mean, you are a pretty smart dude and we are glad you are in Pittsburgh building a company.
Jordan Saunders: Yeah, I am excited to kind of spread my knowledge out to Pittsburgh. But my background has always been software and now it has kind of moved into more of the cloud space, cloud infrastructure and architecture, deep background in consulting, did a lot of work on the West coast, so trying to take some of that knowledge that we have acquired out there and kind of spread it out through the community here.
Jonathan Kersting: What brought you back to Pittsburgh?
Jordan Saunders: I mean, I have family ties here, obviously personally but professionally, I just see a big opportunity to kind of change the way some companies are working around here.
Jonathan Kersting: A lot of people would say, I will pick California and the West coast, and enjoy everything that is out there… but you are doing this in Pittsburg…
Jordan Saunders: It is not for the weather…
Jonathan Kersting: It’s not for the weather, that’s for sure. What are the advantages of scaling a company here?
Jordan Saunders: I mean, there is a lot of support in the community, I was lucky enough to link up with Dan and other guys, but everyone we have talked to, and the community has been really receptive, there is a healthy flow at the town, with the universities around here and it seems like there is some momentum building in the area, so that’s… it is nice to be kind of, at the forefront of that momentum.
Jonathan Kersting: Most definitely so. I know listeners are dying to know, so tell us more about NextLink Labs, what problems are you solving? And how are you making people’s lives easier?
Jordan Saunders: Sure, I mean, when you really boil it down… We are really well positioned to make some organizational change for our clients that engage us. We have some deep technical expertise, but we are entrepreneurs, we want to solve businesses’ problems and help them to get a good ROI in anything they are doing, and hopefully let them be leaders in the spaces they are working in.
Jonathan Kersting: And it is all about the point of leading edge technology to solve these problem, is what it boils down to, correct?
Jordan Saunders: Yeah, we like the old adage, the golden triangle of organizational change, which is people, process and technology, so without one of these aspects, you are not really getting the full picture and taking full advantage of an opportunity for change.
Jonathan Kersting: Absolutely. One thing that gets me really pumped up about Pittsburgh is the way our community works, companies find each other, so you are in black ice strategy and you are realizing, can we come together and use black ice as a way to get you off the ground… Anyone that has ever listened TechVibe Radio, Dan has quite been through a number of generations, he has helped so many companies in the Pittsburgh area. I have seen you guys hang out; I think it is really cool. So Dan, what has been your role with helping Jordan get NextLink Labs off the ground?
Dan: Well, he had been operating I guess about a year with kind of a keystone client, and we were talking about how to grow the business. What he is doing is really relevant to Pittsburgh, how he is doing it, bringing in leading edge or new technologies into the community is exactly the right thing to do, and so we just started talking about business building. What we really resonated… Jordan has the technical chops he needs, but he is an entrepreneur, he talks about building his business and understands that he has a team spot, there is more than one role required as you start scaling up the curve, and I think that’s where the fit really came from.
Jonathan Kersting: Definitely, especially someone with Jordan’s deep technical background, that doesn’t necessarily lend you business acumen as far as that goes, so how did someone like you who has built and scaled companies, you come together and kind of shown ropes, the obstacles that are along the way and you become that reinforcement for him?
Dan: Well, hopefully, he can defer his grew hair for a little bit of time… But I think one of the real values is, working together to position NextLink Labs and talk about the value proposition in English.
Jonathan Kersting: That’s what I am excited about, because I am a non-technical guy and being able to talk about these things, bring it to our listeners so they can digest, and even technical folks to be able to listen to this and have some good takeaways from it.
Jonathan Kersting: So, there are no acronyms allowed… So, really, can we talk a little bit about what we will exploring throughout this whole NextLink Labs Digital Transformation series, what are some of the key areas that you think we are going to be covering in the coming months, Jordan?
Jordan Saunders: Sure, I mean. We are going to be talking about Digital Transformation, but what that kind of boils down to is, we are going to be talking about somethings that have to do with software development, about organizational and cultural change, some growing trends when it comes to security and as it relates to everything else that we are talking to, changes in the current cloud infrastructure, the landscape out there, we hear that word cloud thrown around a lot, we are going to do a pretty good job with trying to define what that means in 2019, because it honestly doesn’t mean the same thing it meant in 2014.
Jonathan Kersting: Like men, we were thinking about this, now it is actually doing this, which makes your job super tricky, because you guys stay on top of all of that, because you’ve got people dependent on you to make that all work.
Dan: But that’s what is great about having a guy like Jordan to depend on, I don’t need to know as a CEO or as a CFO, what the next thing is, this is where Jordan comes in, that’s his job and he helps me solve business problems, generate more ROI.
Jonathan Kersting: Kind of like turn the light switch on, you are not thinking about it.
Jordan Saunders: Yeah, and we see that a lot with companies we work with, where they have kind of found out about some new technology and they are like, okay, what do we do? Do we need to go ahead and move forward with this, and you know, a lot of times, they need someone a little external to kind of look at their whole set of problems and see if it really is the right fit, there’s technologies that are going to come out in 2019 that might not be appropriate for your business for several years, that might not be a good fit and if you go based on buzz and make decisions based on things that are, you know current trends.
Jonathan Kersting: That can be bad sometimes.
Jordan Saunders: Exactly, we like to be solution-oriented.
Jonathan Kersting: Definitely. Plus, I think it brings to the table the fact that you are an independent third party so to speak, you are looking at someone’s problems outside of… the seem the force to the trees, or the trees to the force, I don’t know how the expression goes… but the idea is, you are going to look at totally different people who are involved in that business.
Jordan Saunders: Absolutely.
Jonathan Kersting: Because you having deep tentacles into the solutions that are out there and the ones that will be out there, in 18 months, you can say, we can start with this, but it is going to evolve to evolve to this, you can kind of build a platform and a runway and a plan, for these folks as far as that goes.
Jordan Saunders: Exactly.
Jonathan Kersting: That’s exciting, very cool. That’s why I am really excited to do more and more of this, as we bring this kind of content and this knowledge to our listeners, but I think what we are going to do today is really talk about what is digital transformation? I have just been hearing it everywhere and it has become a buzz word, that’s for sure, and the buzz words are fun and great, kind of cloud and everything else, but you really know what that means, you really know the nuts and the bolts of this, so can you like, demystify some of these? Can you educate me and our listeners about some of these?
Jordan Saunders: Sure.
Jonathan Kersting: So, where do we start? How do you make this thing happen?
Jordan Saunders: Digital Transformation is really a new concept, it is really just this concept of organizational change, to meet changing business requirements, but it is doing so in 2019 where we live in a digital world, and so, taking these concepts of organizational change that has been around for a long time and seeing how they apply today, which means increased automation and more of a focus on your end-customers, considering security, considering data and how that affects business decisions. So, again, it is not this new concept, but it has kind of gotten branded as ‘Digital Transformation’ and that’s just the new way of referring to it.
Jonathan Kersting: But it seems like a really big catch hole, I am assuming there’s lots of verticals inside of there that constitutes digital transformation, because there are different digital solutions based on the problem that businesses are trying to solve. What are some of the more common problems that people are using “Digital Transformation” to solve these days?
Jordan Saunders: Yeah, I mean, like I said before, it really varies based on kind of what a company is focused on. So, for a company that their biggest problem… if they are a software company and they are delivering software, they are going to want to evolve to be able to deliver software more efficiently, more cheaply, and better software. For some bigger businesses, most of their focus might be on making their internal operations operate more smoothly. So, their digital transformation would be focused around that area. So, it’s really going to depend on the type of company and what their focus is.
Jonathan Kersting: How about manufacturers, we have a lot of manufacturers in the Pittsburgh technology council, a lot of our listeners are manufacturers. I always say, technology and manufacturing, they just go hand-in-hand, like you really can’t separate them…
Jordan Saunders: Absolutely.
Jonathan Kersting: Many times, manufacturers are a couple steps back at having the latest technologies and I am sure they are hearing the buzz term of digital transformation, and they are wondering, how is this going to help my business? There are certain cases where they are manufacturing, kind of like really old legacy systems into the “Modern Times”…
Jordan Saunders: Absolutely and it really depends on where they are at, like you said, for some people in the manufacturing industry, they might be a little bit further behind, but they still have improvements they can make to the processes that they are doing, they still can train the people they have there, to take advantage of these new processes, and they can enable innovation through combining people and technology, and so they can take some of that new technology that is out there and bring it into the organization, and really streamline what they are already doing as well as hopefully create some sort of competitive advantage within their market.
Jonathan Kersting: Very cool.
Dan: And I think it is important to note that DevOps is not putting a technology quart of paint on existing processes…
Jonathan Kersting: I like the paint stuff…
Dan: It is a metaphor, or a simile… But triaging the processes themselves before you apply technology is a really important part of this, and overlay that with new kinds of employees in the next generation of employees, is a lot more than the tech itself, the tech itself, I don’t want to say it is secondary necessarily, because it is hard to implement, but you got to automate the worst process in the world and just get more crappy results faster and that’s not what this is all about.
Jonathan Kersting: It is not crappy results faster…
Dan: That’s not our tagline…
Jordan Saunders: Yeah. And that’s something we see out in the field a lot where companies would bring a bunch of new technologies and they will say, hey, look, we are set up for 2019, we are set up to scale, but if you take all those technologies in, and you don’t change the way you are doing business, you don’t educate your employees on how these changes work, and then put in some process to kind of be the bridge there, then like Dan said, you are kind of going to run really quickly in the wrong direction, or you are going to have a bunch of work that doesn’t ever really yields result and ROI.
Jonathan Kersting: Then you just spend your wills at that point, you have wasted money at the end of the day…
Jordan Saunders: That’s right.
Jonathan Kersting: …and potentially take some customers off and employees and the other kind of fun stuff. So, it is so important to have that expert be in there to make sure the parts are knit together, and it is happening seamlessly as far as that works. So, what else is going on out there within digital transformation, we are talking about things like cloud and DevOps, so what’s happening in those areas?
Jordan Saunders: Yeah, so I mean there’s been this shift, it’s been a long time coming, you go back as far as when things used to be on Mainframes, we went from everything was on a Mainframe, to kind of the client-server type of thing when Windows came around, and then basically all these companies build up their technology stacks and have these massive applications. And with the cloud and making it very low friction, to speed up new resources in the cloud and scale, it has kind of changed the opportunities, they have made it much easier to make a lot of small applications and kind of just change the way software is developed, maintained, and scaled, and that’s led to a lot of change in the way people are doing things.
Jonathan Kersting: Very interesting. What is your insight on that Dan?
Dan: Well, if you think about some of the concepts, and I am not technical, but some of the concepts are very descriptive, like micro services, that to me implies a little chunk of code that has a very specific aspect or job, right?
Jonathan Kersting: Absolutely.
Jordan Saunders: And if it goes down, it doesn’t bring the whole system down. Concepts like that are what Jordan talks about a lot whenever he is out there talking to clients and talking to potential new clients, so it is really processes, architecture and then implementing in the way, with the ROI in mind. And as we do more and more of these podcasts, you are probably going to get tired and will say ROI, just another buzz word… But that’s what’s so interesting, this is another tool, a great tool to increase the value of your business, to increase customer satisfaction and make sure that the team inside the company is really feeling good about what they are doing day in and day out.
Jonathan Kersting: Absolutely. I mean, every situation is different out there, every business has different problems that they are trying to solve and different technical capabilities, is there kind of an expectation that we can set as what it means when you do engage in a project, is it something that becomes all encompassing? Is it something where you as the expert, or Jordan are able to come in and lift that from them a little bit and then pin back and forth and they can go about business as usual, where you kind of solve the hard, complex stuff, or how does that work?
Jordan Saunders: The most successful projects, I have been a part of is an organizational-wide shift, I mean, it kind of comes back to when we talked about that if you have just made technology changes and don’t include that cultural changes go along with it, you are not going to be successful.
Jonathan Kersting: That’s a really good point.
Jordan Saunders: So yeah, we come in, we assess how the business is currently operating, we provide kind of a roadmap for moving forward, but the more buy-in we get from the client, the more successful that engagement is likely to be, because… and that’s a mistake again, that companies, when they do it on their own, they might put technical organization in charge of digital transformation, but if you don’t tie it into the rest of the business, and the other parts of the organization, and then you are probably not going to be successful, because they are only going to be focused on that tech aspect, they are not going to be focused on how it changes, how they do sales, how they do marketing, and how they run their operations. Again, that’s the benefit to having a third-party take that holistic view…
Jonathan Kersting: Absolutely. So, what if you are a company out there and you started your own digital transformation, you are maybe neck deep into it and the water is rising and you are like, wait a second, I need someone to bail me out, you can come in and for a lack of better word, rescue a digital transformation project.
Jordan Saunders: Absolutely, and we have seen this a few times…
Jonathan Kersting: And it is like don’t be embarrassed about it…
Jordan Saunders: Exactly, I mean, a lot of these tooling is really new, a lot of these organizational shifts bring about their own set of ‘people problems’ and ‘process problems’ and they are things like, just like anything else, you have to spend time doing to get better at them, and so, we are happy to jump in and really on this stage and provide our expertise and we have learned from being out in the field… There’s been some challenging problems that we have had to solve and they are not unique to your organization, they are things that happen at any organization, this stuff is a new developing area and there is not just one way to do things.
Jonathan Kersting: Very cool. Is there a sweet spot for a company that you typically work with? It can be super small, super large, or anything in between, like…
Jordan Saunders: Yeah, we work with usually mid-market companies, generally tech-enabled companies, so they have some set of tech prowess already. But we have worked for some companies before that were kind of maybe how you described the traditional manufacturing company, just you need to make some improvements.
Jonathan Kersting: Very cool, I am glad you are here in Pittsburgh building this company; NextLink Labs, very cool, I am excited to be exploring all these issues around digital transformation, it is always great to have Dan Steven stop by the show…
Dan: This is my favorite spot.
Jonathan Kersting: Absolutely man, it is great stuff all the way round, I just encourage you all to go to NextLinkLabs.com and learn more about it… and don’t be embarrassed. If you have screwed up your digital transformation project, many of us do, call on the experts if you need to, as far as that goes. So, great stuff. Too much fun hanging out here at the Huntington Bank, TechVibe Radio studio, bringing you the NextLink Labs digital transformation series, this is Jonathan Kersting with the Pittsburgh Technology Council.