September 27, 2022
CDW Exec-Connect: Seeking Tech Work for Good? Look No Further
Mike Kennedy, VP of Technology Enablement and Strategy, joins Tara Barbieri, CDW’s VP of Integrated Technology Orchestration to explore the four reasons why their skilled IT workforce stays engaged and building meaningful outcomes for customers.
Lifecyles exist in nature and in business
The orange, yellow, red and yes, sometimes even purple hues of fall foliage are on full display across the bike trails I ride weekly on the upper East Coast. Like clockwork, I can count on enjoying the spectacle every year. If you enjoy outdoor activities like me, you’ll find that the lifecycles of nature are often like the lifecycles of business. Even though they are quite predictable, it’s still likely that each season we’ll be surprised by something new revealed in old patterns.
But now, we’re in a season of business that is unlike any we’ve witnessed before. The innovation of cloud-based infrastructure has presented knowledge workers with the gift to work from anywhere, and now employees and employers across the world are redefining the way work gets done.
Distributed workforces are not new, but there are relatively few if any precedents for the magnitude of people now working remotely in 2022. While some employers are concerned this will lead to brain drain, remote work is ultimately a good thing. The freedom to work unrestrained by geographic boundaries is opening up pools of undiscovered talent for companies to explore and it allows workers to find value in their 9-to-5 (regardless of how they break up their hours) beyond compensation as they choose work that aligns with their values and lifestyles.
The global demand for a skilled tech workforce is also unprecedented. Our customers know what needs to get done in their industry, but they can't find the talent to get it done right and done faster. We recognized that to best serve the needs of our customers, the gap that we can fill for them is through technical services or fungible staffing. This choice was legitimized by a poll we administered to the audience at the CDW Executive SummIT series in August. An overwhelming 60+ percent said the biggest challenge they faced was recruiting and retaining skilled talent; not corporate culture, not facilitation collaboration, and not even secure connectivity.
We’ve seen a lot of success onboarding people who are more inclined to the gig economy. They want flexible hours, space between assignments and are looking to choose the job by project. Mike Kennedy, VP of Technology Enablement and Strategy, sat with me on a panel at CDW’s Executive SummIT Series this past August and we talked about the new paradigm that is being led by employees. Hailing from a military background, with professional experience paving roads in the cutting-edge field of autonomous driving, Mike understands better than most the benefits of empowering employees with the right tech skills, autonomy in decision-making, and uplifting work with purpose.
Here, Mike and I continue our talk from Seattle about the efforts we are both making in our respective areas of the business to establish a reputation for CDW as a pre-eminent employer in a competitive recruitment landscape.
How do you retain IT coworkers in a competitive job market?
Tara: We get that question a lot, right Mike? And we talked about this at the August CDW Executive SummIT Series event in Seattle. You had some great thoughts about the ways in which CDW has been able to stay innovative with recruiting skilled talent. Let’s dive deeper into that conversation.
Mike: That’s right. As far as recruiting goes, we are competing with everybody else in this nationally, now global market. Yet, in the Technology department we've seen success with retention. What we’ve learned is that it’s important to empower people and teams in four ways:
- By being transparent with the company’s strategic vision
- Pushing down decision making
- Providing clear opportunities for upskilling and reskilling, and
- Providing meaningful work
Tara: Upskilling has been one area where ITS has seen our retention rate skyrocket also via coworkers who were recruited through our Associate Consulting Engineer (ACE) program during the pandemic. Associate engineers focus on training, certifications, and apprenticeships with experienced engineers and technical leads to become CDW customer-preferred consultants.
There have been lots of iterations along the way. And one of the things we learned is to allow people to self-pace. We realized there were recruits who were dissatisfied with the rigor. They were moving faster than our regimented curriculum. So, we made changes. In anything you need to listen, make adjustments, schedule checkpoints, assess KPIs, and request feedback to keep your workforce engaged. Just like we listen to our customers, it is imperative that we listen to coworkers.
Mike, I think more organizations will need to give space for that sort of feedback and build processes around a more autonomous workforce. What do you think?
Mike: Definitely, Tara. The feedback loop is something that I was introduced to very early in my military career. Most people think that the military is very hierarchical. While priority is placed at times on command and control, most people don’t realize that more than many corporations, the military stresses the importance of decentralized teams being autonomous.
But ability to rely on decentralized teams comes from a strong common and repeatable process. As orders are developed, leaders focus on clarifying the task and purpose. For example, the “what” and the “why” of the mission but, there is always the opportunity for a team to ask questions, assess what they are being asked to do, and provide feedback, back up the chain of command. These feedback loops stress communication on two core areas: each team self-defining how they plan on achieving the objectives they were given, and also contributing to the plans of supporting teams. Combining the what, why and how through a collaborative process creates a cycle, in which you've got a kind of a top-down strategy and a bottom-up execution, working in concert. With this continuous loop of reevaluating and reassessing, it’s easy to see whether we're on the right track.
Tara: Feedback is key, but it starts first with leaders making sure that their teams are aligned to the business goals, right?
Mike: Absolutely. Our CEO has laid out this multi-year strategy and a big tenet of that is having the technology and the skilled workforce to make that real. For decentralized leadership to work there needs to be consistent communication all the way down from the strategic level to each operating team, creating the “spine.”
Within Technology we do this using a process called VSEM (Vision, Strategy, Execution and Metrics), a tool we use to provide a clear set of strategies, along with the measures by which we're going to track progress for the top initiatives that we must deliver on to be successful. We build our VSEM with input from multiple stakeholders, then cascade it down to the teams so they can provide greater detail around the “how,” which is then incorporated back to the Technology level. It allows us a common model in which everyone down to the lowest levels can see how their contribution rolls back up to the strategy. This way they have a clear vision of the what, why and how, which is going to make the technology successful, and by extension make CDW successful.
Tara: So, why do you see pushing down decision making more important in a remote work world?
Mike: The biggest reason I see is to meet the speed of the world today. Our systems and communications have enabled rapid inputs and our ability to act needs to be at the same speed. One of the biggest lessons I took away from the military was the power of sharing the what and why as broadly as possible. In other words, what are we asking you to do and why are we asking you to do it? Because typically the plan lasts about 10 seconds, right? And then the plan is out the window. But understanding what you're trying to do and why allows coworkers to improvise, it allows you to achieve the goal but maybe through alternative means. With people working remotely, many companies struggle with this level of autonomy, but I think CDW is really taking advantage of it, and employees appreciate it when they know they are trusted in this way.
Do tech workers care if their work is a meaningful part of building a better society?
Tara: During our presentation in Seattle, we talked about the Mississippi Department of Education Project. In less than three months, and during a supply chain crisis, CDW was able to put a Chromebook in the hands of over 240,000 students along with a cybersecurity protection bundle and professional development so that teachers who have never taught in a 1:1 environment could have the tools necessary to keep kids learning remotely. I remember Ashley DiCiurcio, the K-12 southern sales director, explaining that she and everyone working on the project put up a unified front to get this accomplished because they knew they weren’t just working to put food on their tables. They were helping parents and their children. I think that is a great example of how VSEM empowered our workforce to excel quickly under tight constraints.
Mike: That’s a perfect example! When I first joined CDW a year ago, I heard that story at one of the leader summits. My first thought was that only an elite company could pull that off. What struck me most, was that the story is not about a customer or delivery it is about solving a problem and making things better for people we may never meet. Everyone likes to be a part of a winning team, but it’s not enough to just win anymore. People want to win with heart. We hear over and over that skilled workers are no longer interested in just delivering products and services to our customers. People are saying to themselves, ‘I can make money anywhere, but what is it about CDW that either gives me some intrinsic value or allows me to contribute in a unique way?’ In addition to compensation, to retain coworkers we must involve them in projects that are sustainable and altruistic.
On the Services side, how do you make sure that your workforce stays engaged?
Tara: Well, there is no end to the number of projects in education, healthcare, or otherwise where coworkers can find an opportunity to make a positive imprint at CDW. For our existing workforce, we’ve put in place tools to automate routine or mundane tasks, so that engineers and developers can focus on emerging technologies, the needs of tomorrow and work that they are passionate about. Automation, whether through processes or technology is not a new idea, but it gives the teams breathing room. Also, because of our ACES program, we can offload lower-value tasks—which also helps as a learning opportunity—to those new to the pipeline and free up space for seasoned engineers to reskill.
Where should employers look to find skilled IT workers?
Mike: It’s not easy today but we are finding success by redefining what recruitment means and how the power of the CDW mission resonates with candidates.
At CDW, we’re asking ourselves, how do we look for people who have the right combination of skills but who don’t have the specific experience yet? And how do we put them in a place where they can make a meaningful impact. Take as an example, CDW’s Legacy Excellence Fellowship program, which was launched at four premier Historically Black Colleges & Universities this past spring and invited 16 students to intern in Chicago. The graduates there are competitive and already being sought after by many corporations. By funding the computer centers and by partnering with the university on infrastructure improvements our investment is not just to develop our 16 CDW HBCU fellows, but the overall program. We’re looking to establish CDW as a brand early in the careers of future students so that as they’re looking to make their career choice, CDW is top of mind. We also target veterans and other nontraditional candidates, who maybe didn’t come up through a university but who have the skills we need—grit and resilience—the ability to execute on time and manage stakeholders.
Tara: I think our secret is that whether it’s a gig worker, an upskilled coworker, a candidate trained through ACE, or a college student enlisted from a CDW recruitment program, when people feel they’ve been invested in, they are likely to stick around because they recognize this as a place that values professional development. And they know CDW is going to continue to provide them with learning opportunities. How do they know? Because that's literally, how they joined the company, through a learning opportunity.
Mike: I wholeheartedly agree. When employees are engaged both mentally and emotionally, they can do anything. They'll move mountains. And the way technology keeps changing, the sky is the limit. I think the world is in a place of continuous transformation. It’s like my previous industry—autonomous driving—where everything was new. There was no right way forward because no one had ever done anything like that before. Now, with virtual working, there is no formula for this. This is untread ground. We're going to have to cut some new paths. Part of that is going to be through trial and error. But one thing is for sure, it’s going to be the coworkers who have the final vote on what works.
About the Authors
Tara Barbieri is general manager and vice president of integrated technology orchestration for CDW. She is responsible for the development, management and governance of CDW services. Orchestration teams include Services Operations, Warranty & Renewals, Strategic Programs and our IP engine with R&D and CDW Built.
Tara joined CDW-G in September 2003. She served as director of program sales where her team handled demand generation, opportunity development, capture strategies, proposal preparation and contract negotiations for all segments of the CDW business. Prior to working at CDW-G, Barbieri’s career spanned nearly a decade, including roles as an account manager and concluding as director of contracts for Micro Warehouse, a direct reseller of branded IT products and services to business.
Tara is an executive sponsor of the BRAVE business resource group focused on equity for LGBTQ+ coworkers and an active sponsor for CDW’s Women’s Opportunity Network, which helps to advance the careers of women in IT through mentoring, facilitated networking and formal leadership training. She is also the Chief Steward of the CDW Strava club where you can join and follow along with our monthly focus and friendly competition.
Michael Kennedy is Vice President of Technology Enablement and Strategy for CDW. In his role, Mike is responsible for the planning and delivery of the multi-year technology roadmap and leading the strategic transformation program across processes and technology.
Mike joined CDW in 2021 and brings over 20 years of experience in business transformation, product management, and corporate strategy. His experience includes developing new digital products and creating go-to market strategies in markets ranging from online marketing to autonomous driving. Before joining CDW, Mike was the Senior Director of Business Planning for Highly Autonomous Driving at HERE Technologies. Prior to that, Mike served is a series of leadership roles for global products and services at The Marketing Store, Navteq and Constellation Energy.
Mike is a veteran of the US Army, having served 5 years as an Armor Officer. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.