Interview with Todd Weidman, New Jersey, USA
Hi Todd, with all the change in the world, what has been the one constant in your life?
My love for the library. My father took me to the library every Saturday since I was a toddler. It became the place for me to explore different lives, cultures, history, all under one roof. Today, I look at the internet as the world's library, but I still visit my local branch. It has a familiar atmosphere where I can walk around, pick up a book, look at the jacket, read about the author. It’s tactile and experiential, and that keeps me centered.
What is your relationship with technology?
I've worked in Information Technology all my life, except for a brief detour into Accounting. I went to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, right down the road from IBM. Marist was a pipeline school for IBM. I started as a computer science major, but, at the time, I was no match for programming. So on my father's advice, I switched to Accounting.
That's quite a shift from computer science to accounting.
Think of it like chess. What takes one person 10 moves, might take another just one or two moves.
I spent just a few years in accounting post-graduation. I really liked it in the beginning. It made sense to me. There are clear governing rules and principles that all companies must follow. Computer science, while logical, is a more creative discipline. There's no single way to write code. Think of it like chess. What takes one person 10 moves, might take another just one or two moves.
I haven't heard computer science described as a creative discipline too often. How did you find your way back to IT?
At that time the rumblings of the internet began
It was my fascination with the internet that ultimately brought me back. After working a few years, I went back for an MBA and majored in Information Systems. At that time the rumblings of the internet began, and I read everything I could get my hands on. I could see the possibilities: the interconnectedness, the knowledge sharing, the world’s library where everyone contributes expertise. There were no classes with a focus on the internet, but I worked with Pace University to create a self-directed course of study, and wrote a thesis on how the internet would disrupt the world.
I can see how the idea of the internet as "the world's library" appealed to you.
Can you imagine the internet today without a browser?
That’s true. There is cool history on the beginnings of the internet. For instance, in 1991, there was an “internet”, but there was no World Wide Web as we know it today. There was no Chrome or Firefox browser. Can you imagine the internet today without a browser? Once the first browser - Mosaic - was released, things started rolling, as commercial networks (CompuServe, AOL) connected and offered access to everyone. Bulletin Boards, The WELL, UseNet groups all became easily accessible via the desktop. Everyone was given the keys to connect, collaborate on any given subject with anyone across the globe.
Did your MBA degree lead to a job in Technology?
I realized that developers did not just want to build something but were hungry to understand why they were building it.
Not right away. When I graduated, there weren't any jobs yet in the "digital space" as we understand it. But about a year later I talked my way into an opportunity with Merrill Lynch. I joined a group of passionate visionaries intent on building ML's first internet channel for retail clients. It was a very exciting time, and it was my first role at the intersection of business and technology. It was the first time I worked closely with developers. I realized that developers did not just want to build something but were hungry to understand why they were building it. They needed to understand the larger purpose.
Did you know that it's often difficult for business people to understand the dark art of technology development?
It often took months before the business got a chance to see and test the product
I understand this very well. I currently run the business operations of a Digital Factory inside a global wealth management firm. A good part of my job is building bridges between business and IT. I have a deep appreciation of both sides. Our technology partners are very smart, creative people who like to solve problems. However, there is complexity and challenges in building business solutions.
When I started out, there was a much larger gap between business and IT. Each side spoke its own language, which resulted in a long requirements and development process. It often took months before the business got a chance to see and test the product. Today, the process is much more iterative and collaborative. Agile methodologies now provide much more frequent touch-points, allowing for flexibility to make changes early.
Is Agile the panacea? Did it close the gaps?
...it does take people on both sides out of their comfort zones!
It's certainly not perfect. It requires a lot of adjustment to new ways of working together by both sides. Agile ensures transparency and joint accountability. This breaks down the us-vs.-them mentality, but it does take people on both sides out of their comfort zones! On the bright side, there's more trust between members, and much less friction in communications and decisions.
Sounds like we've come a long way. But how do you handle the human factor?
Its vital to provide support and coaching so a small mistake or misunderstanding doesn't grow into something that will take us off track
Whether our focus is on clients or employees, understanding people's perspectives and motivations must permeate our work. In the Digital Factory, our operating principles come from design thinking. Really understanding the needs of the end-user begins with empathy. Before we write a line of code, we invest time with our clients to clearly understand their objectives. We test our assumptions via focus groups and usability testing. Internally, even though we are an Agile Scrum shop, we do face conflict and miscommunication. It's equally vital to invest time to support our teams with empathy and coaching so a small mistake or misunderstanding doesn't grow into something that will take us off track.
How have you been able to support your people remotely during Covid-19?
What's happening now is probably once in a lifetime, but many of us have been through crises before
One of the key principles of Agile is that 'face-to-face' is the most efficient way to work. That's impossible for the time being. While Skype, Zoom, MS Teams give us the means to communicate virtually, there is naturally more friction in the process because we're no longer co-located. This is a time when leaders need to be more aware of the limitations of virtual communication and be proactive. Simple things can quickly escalate and resolutions can take longer when people are communicating via email. This is further complicated by having multiple teams in global locations.
Coaching has become an even larger part of my job. Since we're in a virtual work environment for, what seems to be, the long-term, it's critical to help people maintain trust, navigate conflict and politics, as well as manage their career progression.
However, it's also important to remember that we are resilient. What's happening now is probably once in a lifetime, but many of us have been through crises before. In 2001 I was working for Deutche Bank and traveling back and forth to Brazil. Then 9/11 happened.
We just marked the 19th anniversary of 9/11. Where were you on 9/11?
I could have read the registration numbers on the tail...
I was in New York. Our offices were in 3 World Trade Center - one of the lower-slung buildings on the plaza surrounding Towers 1 and 2. I've always been an early riser and usually at my desk by 7:30. That morning I dropped my son off at school and took a later ferry to New York. I was about a half block away from the office when I heard the plane overhead, and it was deafening. Then I heard it hit Tower 1, but I did not put it together. I thought it was an explosion of some sort. I was able to call home because my cell still worked at that point. There was nothing on the news yet. I tried calling people that I worked with. Then the second plane came directly over us. I could have read the registration numbers on the tail as the plane passed over my head. When it hit, you could feel the heat from the explosion. At that point it all came together and I ran back to Pier 11 on the east side. The Seastreak ferries took everyone on, no questions asked. We had pulled away from Manhattan when we saw the North Tower collapse.
Do you think that Covid is going to have a similar effect on the national psyche as 9/11?
we've had to make major adjustments both psychologically and physically
As with 9/11, there will be a 'Before' and 'After'. It was really difficult to get on a plane and fly back to Brazil after 9/11. We had to adapt to a new reality. Today, we are experiencing a new level of disruption. In the past few months, we've had to make major adjustments both psychologically and physically in our personal and work lives. We will need to continue to adapt to new ways of being, working, relating, communicating.
Should we expect a super-digitized "After-Covid" world?
to build something that’s intuitive and easy to use is really hard
Companies are already intensifying their shift to digital. Some things may change forever. For instance, take wealth management. I don’t think there will be much appetite to come into big fancy offices with oak tables and fresh coffee. Do you really need real estate to manage someone’s wealth? What you need is information, the ability to anticipate client needs and their reality, and you need to meet them on their terms. Services need to be intuitive and frictionless. But to build something that’s intuitive and easy to use is really hard. In order to remain competitive, companies need to excel in this space, and, therefore, become increasingly strategic about investing in digital transformation.
Who are your role models in the drive for Frictionless?
Think of disrupters, like Venmo. Who needs to write a check anymore? Amazon's ability to anticipate what I’m looking for and to make product recommendations keeps me coming back. Do you know why Zoom is a success? Because my mother didn’t need to ask me a single question to install it on her iPad and begin using it. Microsoft Teams is another example. Each product is an example of frictionless, well-designed software because it saves time and effort and is largely intuitive for the user.
There’s a lot of disruption going on. What might disrupt wealth management?
There's also an emotional component to any solution that requires collaboration, empathy, and human intelligence.
There is definitely potential for efficiencies, but there is significant complexity in managing wealth. You have a lot variability between client needs. There's also an emotional component to any solution that requires collaboration, empathy, and human intelligence. It's a little like my passion for the internet. Yes, it's the world's library and so much more, but the ‘world’s library’ just can't give me the experience of walking through a physical one.
I'm going to ask you 5 questions, which you have to answer very quickly with one or two words. Ready?
What offends you?
What one lesson do you feel most qualified to teach another person?
What makes you cringe?
When you're at your best, you're...
In the moment with music
What change are you working on?
It's been great to talk to you, Todd. Where can people reach you?
You can find me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tcweidman and when live music returns, at any live music venue in Asbury Park, NJ
The People Project illuminates perspectives and experiences that touch the heart and mind, create connections and expand our possibilities.