A conversation with William Velez, Chief Information Officer at Harvard Maintenance, Inc.
In this episode of the HITEC Transform.ed Series, Marcelo De Santis, Chief Digital Officer at Thoughtworks North America, speaks with William Velez, CIO at Harvard Maintenance Inc., about the importance of digital transformation during turbulent times, Harvard Maintenance Inc.'s digital transformation journey and more.
Marcelo De Santis: Hello everyone, and welcome to a new episode of the HITEC Transform.edseries sponsored by ThoughtWorks. My name is Marcelo De Santis, chief digital officer at ThoughtWorks North America, and I will be your host today. Both HITEC and ThoughtWorks believe that knowledge should be shared openly. We have designed this series to provide you with opportunity to learn directly from C-level executives about their personal perspectives and experiences in leading the transformation of their organizations.
For today's interview, I'm privileged to introduce William Velez, chief information officer, Harvard Maintenance Inc. In this position, William leads information technology strategy and operations across the company with focus on business digital transformation. Prior to Harvard, he was CIO of Intermex Wire Transfer where he architected and implemented Intermex online processing and anti-fraud capabilities. Prior to Intermex, he served as a CIO of Abarca Health, a pharmacy transaction processing and health technology company.
He also held leadership positions at PWC and at Accenture, where he directed technology and strategic initiatives for many Fortune 500 organizations. He also served as the board president for STEM-focused not-for-profit organization. William holds a bachelor degree in electrical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, a master's degree in International Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's degree in business administration from Wharton School. William, welcome, and thanks for making the time to being with us.
William Velez: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Marcelo: Let's start with the first question, William. You are leading a transformation in a large company and I'm curious about what are the outcomes that you are going after. What's the main reason of that transformation and specifically, why is that transformation relevant for your organization?
William: I think in the end, digital transformation is a buzzword that you hear a lot and many times there's no real business value behind it. I think that it should always be about business value. It should ultimately translate to business value. Usually, digital transformation starts at digitizing a back office process, procurement or payroll. It's difficult sometimes to connect the dots and say, "Well, how does that transform into a business value?"
For me, that business value will eventually translate into efficiencies that will differentiate our services in the marketplace. What starts from a back office process will eventually get there through productivity increases, making it faster for us to innovate at the marketplace and ultimately better customer service with our end customers. That's where I see in terms of outcomes and why it is important for us or for any organization, it's mainly about delivering that business value.
Marcelo: Excellent. Many of your colleagues and our colleagues are always highlighting the importance of linking this kind of transformations to business value. Thanks for that, William. Let me ask a follow-up question on that one. In the current context, in what we are seeing, recession in the economy, how do you manage that? Recession puts companies sometimes on the corner. How do you manage to continue to invest and progress that digital transformation knowing that the environment is a little bit turbulent?
William: I think that's very dependent on the current company situation and ability and willingness to invest in innovation. When there is a very clear business value associated with a digital transformation project, that's usually recession-proof. If there is, for example, a digital transformation project that will allow the company to scale sales, for example, because maybe the processes are so slow because everything's manual, and if you digitize that process, all of a sudden we'll be able to add more customers quickly or with fewer resources, then there will be a positive revenue impacting outcome from continuing that project. If management is committed to that, that should be recession-proof.
I would say that most companies that are going through a process of evaluating what to keep and what to stop or what to continue based on potential recession or inflation risks should focus on those initiatives that will somehow bring that type of revenue impact or business value in a more tangible way.
Marcelo: Excellent. If I can summarize that, your guidance to our audience and colleagues is try to focus on those things that actually drive top-line growth, right?
William: Yes, top-line revenue is king.
Marcelo: Excellent. Thank you, William. Digital transformations typically are a team sport in organizations. It's not only about whoever is leading the transformation, in this case, yourself, but also, many, many different other executives and departments and functions that need to actually be part of. In that environment, how do you influence the required investments for progressing the digital transformation?
William: Yes, that's interesting because many of my colleagues call it shadow IT. When you think about digital transformation, many of our vendors, what we know from a technology perspective as the typical vendors in IT, are now chasing after marketing or other departments in the company that now have a budget for technologies in that space. I think digital leaders or digital transformation leaders should partner with the business, not look at it as shadow IT, but have a framework for the business to be able to say, "Hey, we want to pursue this." "You know what? If you want to do that, that's fine.
Bring me from the beginning, let me partner with you and I'll go along with you."
In most cases, we'll let them handle it and we just make sure that it's somehow compliant with cybersecurity, regulatory compliance best practices, data in particular. Let's make sure that we can have access to that data. In many instances, the business unit can work on that digital transformation initiative with very little interaction with IT. Just being part of the program or the project from the beginning, it's important.
That's how I influence digital investments that are outside of IT. In my particular company, most of the business units prefer to have IT as an instrumental partner and usually allow us to, in some cases, even lead the initiative and we're happy to do so.
Marcelo: Excellent. William, you said something very important, you're telling your colleagues, "Bring me early in the process, so I can actually be your partner, help you." From the leadership perspective, from your personal leadership style, what does it take to get invited early in the process?
William: I think you have to what I call generate political currency. What I mean by that is, as a CIO, when you start in a company, you have to deliver quick wins, and you have to demonstrate value early on, even with simple things so that they see that you're about delivering value and not just about the technology or playing with the toys.
In that sense, if I'm able to deliver value quickly, they'll realize, "Okay, this person gets it. Let's bring them in at the beginning," because they're going to see me as someone who's going to help them enable that technology in a positive way for their area and make them look good, as opposed to someone who might be dragging on or be the IT of know or someone who might be coming in to the project in a negative fashion. I think that's been the trick that I've used. Let me deliver value first and then with that, things will come.
Marcelo: Thank you for that. "Let me deliver value first." I think I can see a quote already on that one.
Marcelo: Let me go back to your transformation at Harvard Maintenance. Based on what you have done so far, what were the challenges that you found and how did you solve some of them?
William: I think as a national company with 10,000 employees, it's very difficult to come up with a digital transformation process that works at every single office. Trying to come in and say, "This is the way we're going to do it," is never going to work.
The main challenge we found was harmonizing all those regional processes, sometimes through acquisitions, you have regional offices that never really drank the Kool-Aid. To me, that was one of the hardest challenges and it meant delays in terms of designing the solution because we had to invest to make sure that everyone was aligned as opposed to trying to rush through and not getting that buy-in. I think that was the main challenge we found.
Marcelo: Excellent. Building the right relationships looks like is something extremely important for driving these transformations, right?
William: And truly and genuinely allowing those individuals to contribute to the design of the solution, not just as a checkbox, but they can actually see, "Oh, I actually recommended that." Or, "They changed that because of what I said." And again, you gain trust and you gain credibility that you get it.
Marcelo: Let's talk about culture. Many times I visit some of our clients or talk to some of our colleagues and we always say transformations are about a cultural shift, building this growth mindset or agile mindset. We can all describe what the mindset is. There are many, many different representations of that but tell us how do you really create the culture of transformation and specifically the right mindset within the IT organization to drive to those business outcomes that you were mentioning at the beginning of this interview?
William: I think IT departments have a history or a perception from the business side of they think that-- well, IT always thinks they know what's best or they think they're smarter than everyone else. Sometimes they sit at a corporate office and they don't interact with the operations or the field. Usually, I use a phrase to develop that internal empathy culture inside of IT. I basically, in every other meeting that I have, whenever we have new team members, I always say, "Well, just keep something in mind. Our operational and sales teams, they're out there in front of our clients. They hunt what we eat."
I pause for a second and look around and let them marinate those words because it's true. It's true. Well, you can argue that without IT, those functions wouldn't exist, but the other way around is true, without the business, IT wouldn't really have something to do. That is a very simple phrase that starts developing that empathy that they're the ones out there in the trenches with the bullets flying around, having the clients scream at them, and when we hear someone come in not following an SLA or asking for something at the last minute, the initial inclination as a human nature is to think, "Well, why is this person lazy?" Or, "Why is this person not following the procedure?"
When in reality, 99% of the time, there's a reason a client or customer, will let a reason behind that situation. When you look at it, when you position it that way, then it creates a change of a mindset that, "You know what? I need to help this person because it's not about us, it's not about them, it's about the client." Ultimately, that should be the focus of everyone in the corporation, to make sure the client is at his best.
I've used that internally in IT throughout the years in my different companies where I've been a CIO, and that has been very successful. It's a very simple phrase, but it is doing very successful at driving that empathy from the beginning and changing the mindset of a culture inside IT to more of a customer-focused culture. Even outside of IT, you also need to foster some of this digital transformation culture in the different teams that are going to be part of those initiatives.
Usually, that's done through basically going out there to the field and basically visiting the client sites, being on the field with them and just listening and learning from them when embedding those concepts into the solution and they see you as a peer as opposed to someone who's trying to tell them what to do. That culture, it's a little bit more difficult to influence, but it's not impossible, and definitely when you demonstrate value again, even with small things, it's definitely transforming in terms of culture.
Marcelo: In terms of what you said about visiting the customers and being close to them, understanding what they are actually experiencing with our companies, any example where you have seen that interaction has changed, or was an aha moment for your team, anything that you remember, some stories about that?
William: One time we had a fairly large car manufacturer in the Midwest, 2.5 million square feet of area that we needed to clean. For us, it wasn't really immediately impo-- we didn't really understand the importance of inspections. For us, it's a simple application, you take pictures, what's the big deal? They needed our report and it was a very urgent report about certain, what they called hotspots, so areas with issues that they needed to inspect often, and they wanted a very specific report that we didn't have a way to automate.
We actually had to have someone in the VI department manually construct a report. They were not very happy, it's like, "Why do we have to do this?" We actually flew to the plant and we realized as we were driving around the golf cart at 2:00 AM during one of the shifts that when the trash accumulated on the roads where all these cars are going through, these manufacturing plants are like mini cities, they were actually at a risk of stopping the production at a potential loss of $28,000 a minute because the trash was on the way of the carts moving supplies around, so the supply chain, the manufacturing line couldn't continue to work.
These inspections were business critical for us to understand which areas were accumulating more trash and why so that they could allocate resources accordingly to keep those lines flowing so that first of all, the client wouldn't be affected, and second, we wouldn't risk losing that contract. That's just an example, maybe a very critical and significant one, but just going to the field, even if it's with a small example, you can bring that back to your team or even better, you can send your team members to the field. They quickly realized that what we do here, even if it's a report, has a lot of impact and a significant one. There's no other better way than to go to the field and actually understand what our peers are going through.
Marcelo: Amazing example amazing example. Seeing reality from your clients shoes, it's definitely transformational for the culture of any organization, fully agree with that, William. Let me jump into your vision for your company and your organization. What do you think your company will look like in 2, 3, 5 years after the transformation you're leading has made all the progress that you're planning to thrive?
William: The janitorial services industry, it's traditionally very paper based, very manual, has been a laggard in terms of adopting newer technologies. I would hope that after a lot of the initiatives that we have right now in progress and in the pipeline, when those come to fruition, that we're going to be leading, that we're going to be innovating, that we're going to be ahead of many of our competitors in terms of the solutions that we're bringing to the marketplace to add some of those digital technologies to our field personnel, that again, will eventually translate into better value for our customers.
This is something that it's definitely not guaranteed, there's a lot of work required. I would hope that definitely within two or three years, we'll start differentiating our services in the marketplace through these technologies. Also internally, I expect that once our business peers realize we have all these tools and all these new technologies in place, juices will start flowing and they're going to come up with new ideas. There's going to be an explosion of change requests and different asks for innovation and new features and that's great.
That's what we're we're trying to plan ahead of time to set the proper framework and processes and infrastructure in place to be able to manage all that influx of requests in a way that we can prioritize, that we can have governance, and a good release processes in place, DevOps, et cetera, so that all of a sudden, all that innovation that we've built, we can continue the pace of innovation and we don't basically become a victim of our success. Looking forward to many good things in the marketplace, but at the same time preparing for a lot more work.
Marcelo: How do you know you got leadership buying?
William: That's a good question because sometimes you have it but you don't.
Marcelo: Sometimes looks like you got it, then after a couple of meetings, you are wondering, "Did I really get it?" Right?
William: [laughs] Especially depending on the culture of the company and the country. It is tricky. I think that's ultimately, it's a very American phrase, but the proof is in the pudding. You can have several conversations where everyone's like, "Yes, we're going to do that, but if we don't end up actually doing it--" sometimes you see pushback from the regional offices, where they say, "Yes, yes, yes," but when it goes down to implementing it, those regional leaders are facing corporate versus local, and they ultimately side with local.
It goes back to performance metrics and enforcement around those performance metrics. If there's no enforcement, and then you don't have a commitment to these new technologies, then they're bound to fail. The proof is in the pudding, and sometimes you have to navigate the political waters. Our CIOs are pretty good at that, and that's, in my mind, what defines a good CIO.
There are ways to identify those trends early on, and then adjust expectations accordingly, and say, "Well, you want to have this in one year. It's not going to happen. If you don't have those enforcement tools in place, it's going to take three years." It's slowly going to surely want to push it, but it's not going to happen as quickly. Sometimes they're okay with that because the political cost might not be worth it, and that's a business decision as well.
Marcelo: Totally true. The role of a CIO requires a lot of political savviness, and you describe it very well. Tthank you, William, for that. Let me ask you a different question. Let's say that today, let's situate ourselves in today's environment with all the headwinds that we have, with all the tailwinds that we have also. There's always opportunity in front of us. Let's say that you get a blank check with a certain amount of money, sizeable enough to make you interested in having the check in your hands, and you can invest that check in a capability for your digital transformation. Only one, you cannot choose two. What capability would you invest on?
William: Change management. By far, that's the most difficult capability to implement, in my experience, when affecting digital transformation. It's difficult because sometimes you want to throw bodies at it, and it's just not possible because there's a cultural issue. Change management is multi-dimensional. It's training, is communication, is buy-in. The change management component of any digital business transformation strategy has to be at the beginning.
You have to map ahead of time what are the different change management dimensions that you have to work with, depending on that particular company culture situation, and you have to have it from the beginning. Unfortunately, that's usually where you get the least amount of funding for because it's less tangible. If I were to get that check [chuckles], I would probably invest it in change management, change enablement, training, communications, and being creative around some of those things.
When I was at Accenture many years back, I remember we had this diamond with the strategy at the top, technology, and process in the middle, and then change management at the bottom. We would start an SAP implementation, which was two years. We were buying pencils and writing down slogans from the first day of the project. Every now and then they had brownie bodies.
All these things start getting everyone familiar with the transformation that you're going through, but unfortunately, we don't really get budget for that. In IT or most companies, just think it's fluff, when in reality, I think that's very important, if not the most important part of a digital transformation.
Marcelo: The change management. I will keep thinking about that. I agree with you, there is this school of thought that says that it's about being digital or doing digital. Many people say that it's more about being, and being means changing organizations, changing cultures, as you said, influencing, communicating, communicating, overcommunicating. Thank you for that, William. Completely different question, I know you are a huge supporter of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. I know you're part of organizations not only HITEC, but many other organizations that are actually advocating for more Latinos and Latinas to be on boards in the technology industry. Why do you think diversity and inclusion is important for the technology industry?
William: I think I've noticed a tendency that from a generational perspective, a lot of the newer leaders in technology tend to be very diverse, and a lot of those are Hispanic. I think that boards and companies' leadership teams will benefit in general from just general diversity. That's always statistically shown to be better. Also, I think that the newer generations tend to be more diverse and they bring with them a lot of the new expertise that that diversity will help in a certain way put a different lens on how to look at, how to use it, how to implement it, and the value of it that probably other non-diverse forums will see differently or will not see at all.
I think the initial benefit that I see is that most of that technology savviness and technology expertise is coming from that diverse pool and companies that leverage that are more successful. They're more innovative, and they show better return of investment, better financial performance, so we go back to the proof is in the pudding. It's just a matter of making sure that more companies can benefit from that.
Marcelo: Thank you, William. Let's close with a question and I would say maybe your personal contribution to the colleagues that are listening to this interview. What would you say are your personal words of wisdom for those that are in a similar transformation journey to the one that you're leading?
William: I think that as technology leaders or business digital transformation leaders, we tend to focus on the technology. I would say focus on the human side. Those humans are the key to the success on those projects and not necessarily the technology. I think it would be anything from getting that operational buy-in, training communications, getting good at those things.
Don't look yourself as a technology leader solely on the technology side, but also be someone that can talk with HR about newer communication or newer training trends or talk to someone in operations about some better ways to influence change in your workplace or in your workforce. I think that the human side of things is as important, if not more important.
At some point in any CIO's career, there's that tipping point where you realize it's all about the people. I've gotten the expertise that I need from a technology side to be dangerous enough to understand what my team is telling me and make sure that I'm providing direction, but it's really all about the people. That's what we do. Those words of wisdom would be focus on the human side of things. With that, you'll be successful.
Marcelo: Thank you, William. This was the last question. I would love to stay here talking with you and getting more thoughts from your experience, but unfortunately, we have to finish today's episode. I really enjoy every second of this conversation, William, and I know we will be reflecting on taking care of driving transformations, taking into account the human side of change, as you said.
Thank you William Velez for joining us today and thank you to our audience for watching this interview. We look forward to connecting with you again for the next episode of HITEC Transform.ed series to hear from other executives on their experiences in leading the transformation of their organizations. Thank you. Take care and stay safe.