Season 2, Episode 5 - "How do I humanize IT?" with Jason James, CIO at Nethealth
Andrew: Hey, it's Andrew. And you're listening to season two of Network Disrupted where I help technology leaders trade notes on navigating disruption in our space. Today we're hearing from Jason James, or JJ as everyone who knows him calls him. JJ is the CIO at Net Health. Though I know him from years ago when we used to work together, he's always had an interesting view on IT's role in the business. And so today we're talking all about that. About how JJ was able to make decisions a while ago that helped enable Net Health to smoothly transition to work from home in light of the pandemic. What a smooth pivot says about IT teams and their role within the organization, about this thing JJ calls the humanization of IT, and also how an organization might consider disrupting itself by choosing who it hires. Let me know what you thought of today's discussion. You can tweet me at Network Disrupted, leave a review on Spotify or Apple podcast, please, please do, it would mean a lot to me. Or email me at andrew @ networkdisrupted. com.
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Andrew: So welcome. JJ, thank you for joining me.
JJ: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Andrew: It's good to see you again. JJ and I worked together for a short period of time when the company I worked for at the time, PTC, bought the company he worked for at the time, Servijistics. Was that 2000...
JJ: It was a lifetime ago.
Andrew: 2012? 2013? But anyway, so we had a little bit of overlap there and obviously we both moved on career wise, but you've continued to focus on SAS on digital disruption in general. So I'm just sort of curious from your perspective, this broad marketing term we all use today around digital transformation, but it's something that you hold tight. And in your words, maybe describe your view of digital transformation.
JJ: Well, it starts fundamentally as a cultural transformation. It's that embrace of change, which by the way, humans don't want to do, right? They've got systems that have been in place for years. They've got processes that have been in place for years. Why do anything new? There's a whole reason why to do something new. There's more efficient ways. There's faster ways. Security has changed. How we do things have changed. Where we do things from, we talk about that. Think about the digital transformation that enables us to have this recording today, right?
JJ: But again, it starts with that cultural transformation. You have to convince your executives that you found a need to evolve the business. Then you have to, with any good politics you have to get out there and campaign. And you've got to find those stakeholders and keep pushing that message of change. And why change.
Andrew: I think what you just mentioned is so critical and one we don't often think about naturally, but it's a critical part of the role. You're a salesman to some extent. You're selling value inside of your enterprise and if you can't convince stakeholders to get on the train, and therefore at the end of the day what value they'll get from it, then there's no reason to start.
JJ: Sure, absolutely. And I think for so long where traditional CIOs failed versus transformational CIOs and CTOs, they were just focused on the tech, right? Not necessarily the human aspect or the outcome, but what was this cool technology that we're enabling? And those traditional roles don't have a place in the modern sense. What you've found where there's traditional roles, especially traditional roles of a traditional CIO in pandemic. They weren't prepared. That's why you see so many of them changing right now because these transformational leaders saw this need. Keep in mind, nobody saw pandemic, right? If pandemic existed, it was a line item in a business continuity plan and nobody foresaw the need for every office to close. Take my organization, I didn't see pandemic coming. What I did see the need was that work forces were becoming a lot more remote. I'd been saying for years, work is no longer a place, but a thing. And so how do you get somebody to securely work from anywhere, enable them to use these tools to work effectively and securely and keep going.
Andrew: Right? You're at a company now Net Health, that is bringing that perspective to healthcare as well. With the outcomes approach, but also with things like telehealth and everything else. Did that create an obvious way to sell some of the value on the IT side of some of the disruption or transformation you wanted to do, because it was sort of part and parcel of the company's core values as it went to market? Was there a nice alignment there?
JJ: I think we had an alignment with core values. We also had this big shift of basically a new executive team, right? So Net Health had acquired Optima. I'd been CIO there. The CEO and the board decided, Hey, JJ, we want you to come and fill this need and luckily we had executives that saw this need for change, had to evolve. We were not only a new team that had to come together. And by the way, when we talk about remote work, which we've sort of hinted about, I was in Atlanta and I'm still in Atlanta, they're headquartered in Pittsburgh. And so this idea was you're not going to be in the office every day. How do you still drive change throughout an organization and how you drive change in an industry? Because healthcare is one of those trillion dollar markets that for so long had not evolved and had not evolved in the same sense of traditional enterprise IT or consumerized IT. And luckily we were aligned to say, look, if we're going to do it, we're going to change it. Most of my executive peers are like me. They didn't come from healthcare. I believe in order to change this industry, you need people that have been successful outside this industry. And you're starting to see it. If you look at Blue Cross California, their new CIO came from Intel. Her background is not healthcare. The idea is how do you find people that are successful? Do they have a mindset to evolve a role? And we were lucky that we did that. There was a lot less politics involved when we were all on the same page. Now pandemic hit and it accelerated even our own internal roadmaps, much like a lot of organizations. And so I would say telehealth probably got rolled out to our products and our clients probably a year ahead of schedule, as a result. But if it were only me in that role, pushing the need for change, that would have been an uphill battle. Having the CTO that was aligned and having a CEO and a CFO that was aligned that made it a hell of a lot easier.
Andrew: What I keep thinking while you're talking is one, you're at a company now where a lot of what you were just talking about relates specifically to the way Net Health is trying to deliver its services. So that must be interesting just from a personal standpoint, because it sounds like you've found a place where your personal passions sort of line up with the company's mission.
JJ: Yeah, and it was sort of by accident. If you look at it, when the private equity company approached me, I said, I don't know if you have the right person. And they said, what do you mean by that? I said, no offense. I said, healthcare IT? I'm not interested. Healthcare is where IT goes to die. My entire career has been built on disruption and next generation technology. They said, well, that's why we want to talk to you. And luckily again, I look at my other executive peers and most of them came from other industries, but they all had this passion to change whatever industry they were in and so that's been extremely fortunate. But it goes back to sort of that humanization of IT. How do we look at tools that also enable our clients, right? Our mission is to reunite caregivers with their calling.
Andrew: Sometimes the stars don't align and you can sort of get lost in the technology side, who cares what this does. I had a friend who worked for an online gambling company for a while. And he was just absolutely thrilled with the coolness of the technology he was pushing, but was completely averse and just ignored the end product. And eventually it sort of caught up and he went somewhere else. I know lots of people love gambling and great innovation comes out of that space. But regardless, when it does line up that's fantastic. Maybe some specific things that you've had to change rapidly over the last few months, pandemic wise. And especially if there's a shift or reprioritization, get stuff done faster. We're really interested in also what you learned, what things worked well and what things didn't work well during the process.
JJ: Yeah. I would think one of the things that happened is you're seeing the role of the CIO evolve, right? So pandemic required that we not only have technology ready, but we realized what was on the other end of that technology, and that was humans. For me I worked with teams and we took current tools that we had and said, okay, our technology is our common denominator. How do we enable that to allow people connect when they can't connect? When four walls don't matter anymore, how do you enable them to come together in a way that's meaningful? And so again, we looked at our technology and it's that humanization of IT and said, you know, if we look at a Slack channel or a Teams channel, I get that they're using this to talk about updates and where we are in our development life cycle and security issues and things like that. But what if they were in an office? Well, there's sort of this water cooler approach. So we built these water cooler channels that might've been everything from people sharing pictures of their kids, to recipes, to their pets, to barbecue, to fitness. And the idea was if they were in a traditional office, there would be things that they would connect on and it wouldn't have anything to do with work, right? You bond with someone because there's a shared interest. And so we meaningfully decided we would create these channels. We would encourage this communication. We would allow people to come together despite being separated. What we noticed in doing this, like everything, we measure it. The number of Slack messages increased dramatically. The number of connections dramatically increased. And it was interesting because we had people connecting that would have never connected before in a traditional office, because some might be in Pittsburgh and some might be in Bend, Oregon. And all of a sudden they were coming together over this shared mutual interest and started connecting. Going down the chain what happens is as they build these types of advocacy or friendships or whatever you want to call it, relationships, that leads to better outcomes. And we notice productivity increased and interconnections increased, communications increased. People were bonding that way over something that didn't have anything to do with work, but we were seeing positive outcomes at work. And so it's this idea of how does a CIO evolve into something more than just the technology? How can you become more of a chief cultural officer, right?. I told people, as a leader, the one soft skill that you'll need more than anything right now is flexibility. Things aren't going to go right. People's dogs are going to be barking. People are at makeshift home offices at their kitchen table while their kids are trying to figure out how to do this online education while bandwidth is struggling. And so you just have to figure out that, hey, it's not going to be perfect, but we've got to get it to work and got to be really patient with people. The best tech teams, especially service desk teams, are ones that realize that you're trying to help somebody do their job. Long gone is the have you rebooted. And we joke about that, but it's like, no, meaningfully reach out and help them. They shouldn't feel like a task or a chore. You're there to do your job by helping them.
Andrew: Right, one part of your job, certainly on the service desk side, is to facilitate other people doing their jobs. And I think I've certainly worked for a couple of customers where it seemed to be backwards. I actually mentioned this with a different interview where it seemed like they thought that our job was to give them stuff to service. It was sort of backwards. It was actually great in my company. Now at Blue Cat, we do a bunch of, we have somebody who has a ridiculous diversity of animals in his backyard, like a farm basically. And we do like a petting zoo with him as an example. So we do that sort of stuff. But what was really great was recently we were doing a couple of days of leadership training around managing remotely through this pandemic. The amount of love that came back for our IT team was pretty incredible. Because there's just all this recognition of what they were doing on top of everything else, in order to ensure that transition happened well and smoothly.
JJ: And make no mistake. If you were able to pivot quickly, it's because your IT team was doing something right. I tell people all the time, you should give a virtual hug, send a pizza or beer to their house, whatever you have to do. None of this was by happenstance, right? Somebody planned it. If it didn't go off without a hitch, they spent tons of hours trying to prepare, trying to react. But you're talking about IT being in the limelight. It showed the need to have really great skilled teams that had soft skills. Again, listeners, if you were able to work through all this, you make sure you reach out and thank them.
Andrew: Yeah. Thank IT, and do things in a pretty rapid transformation in that it's pretty amazing how many stories I hear of how well that went with obviously lots of concerns along the way. One of those being security, which we touched on a bit, and I know you're also an industry where at times like this, they're more likely than ever to have to deal with potential breaches and other security issues because they become potentially higher value targets or more targets. Is there anything you can share on that side?
JJ: Sure. Healthcare is one of the number one most targeted threat out there. And part of it has to do with the United States has an opioid addiction. All you have to do is read the news and you'll see just how bad the addictions got. I hate to use the term dark web, but your driver's license might be worth about 25 cents with the photo. Your credit card maybe 10 cents. Your healthcare record could be as high as$ 250. And the reason it's so high is taking that healthcare record, falsifying a pharmaceutical pad, they can open up prescriptions. Think about opening up a dozen prescriptions based on one user across 12 states in 14 or so different pharmacies to get 90 day supply at each pharmacy. You're talking about tens of thousands of dollars in painkillers on the black market, right? And it's just profit. That's why those areas are targeted. And it's just like the energy industry, right? Those industries can't go down. And so what we saw last month was a healthcare, a hospital chain in North America that had 400 locations, became one of the largest ransomware attacks in US history. Here's what just sucks about this. Is that threat actors didn't miss an opportunity to take advantage of a crisis. And so that particular healthcare provider, they get hit. You're talking about people were turned away. Luckily we don't have any known issues of a patient dying from a result. But if you go back and you look at the news, either late September or early October, there was a ransomware event in Dusseldorf, Germany that required a patient be redirected to another hospital. They died en route. So the German government is actually going to pursue murder charges against threat actors for the first time. But there's a real ramification of all this, right? Is that when this happens, it's not only that somebody's probably paying out ransomware or they're being disrupted or whatever, but patients aren't getting the care that they need. And that might be everything from elective surgery. And a lot of people tend to think elective surgery as a nose job or other plastic surgery. But if you're stage one cancer patient, they may, depending on your healthcare provider, consider that elective because you're not terminal.
Andrew: It can wait.
JJ: Yeah. If you got the news you've got stage one cancer and you're like, Holy hell, I want to get that done immediately. Get that taken care of. It's a huge risk for an organization like ours and others. We have all of the threats that traditional enterprise would have. And on top of it, we've got other threats because we have healthcare records. And so it's like the worst of both worlds, right? And so we have to be ready. These threat actors, man, they have not missed an opportunity. And in children's hospitals attack, there is no bottom, right? If they're willing to take down a children's hospital, they're also willing to take down your business.
Andrew: Yeah. I think the mistake one would make is that assuming there's morality with thieves and throw that out the window, there's none. Just look at it from a risk profile and risk perspective and I think you've captured it correctly. The higher the value of the data, the more likely it is that somebody is going to try to get it, right?
JJ: Yeah, absolutely. For somebody in my role and others in a similar role, you have to look at, with anything managing IT, it's people process technology. The people aspect is the biggest factor. You have to not only have zero trust models, but you also have to have ongoing training. Recent study shows that this annual training is not enough. People forget it after six months. And so there has to be this constant ever reinforcement of training. That's something we've adapted to, but it's a shared responsibility. You know, security doesn't stop with just IT. It doesn't stop with the CSO or the CIO or CTO. Everyone is responsible. If you think about these organizations that get hit, chances are the ransomware came in for those organizations via email. I don't know any organization in the world that blocks email, right?
JJ: It only takes one, right? We joke that you have that one user that clicks on that phishing email and you have, what's called an RGE a resume generating event, right? It's that somebody's getting fired. It might be the CO, it might be the CSO, it might be a CEO, but it also may be hundreds if not thousands of people. There's entire organizations that have gotten hit with ransomware due to phishing. And that's it. Business is over.
Andrew: Did your tactics and strategy change as more workers obviously had to work remotely from home? Are there new gaps you found? Or did you find that your approach, your strategy on the security side could be flexed tactically to deal with this?
JJ: Strategy always has to evolve. And so what you find with organizations now is that data is no longer behind four walls, so to speak. And so you have to make sure, regardless of where it's coming from, that data is encrypted. This is me broadly speaking not just of us, but entire industries, is that you have to make sure that your organization isn't using consumer grade laptops, right? You need something with a TPM chip. And so it needs to be able to support encryption. You need to make sure that again a zero trust model is enforced. You need to make sure that if they're connecting, they're connecting over a secure channel. You have to look for solutions now that again are a lot more frictionless. Traditional VPNs have always been a huge pain. And so you've got solutions out there, like Always On VPN and other solutions that allow people to connect without realizing they're creating a secure tunnel. But also now your audit ability changes. So now you're auditing data and systems that had once been in headquarters or another location, are now outside those areas and you still have to monitor traffic. You still have to look at traffic. You have to audit traffic. The threat map is larger now. And so you just have to be ready and be evolving to that.
Andrew: Right? It sounds like from a tools and technology to meet security requirement standpoint, you were able to flex what you had.
JJ: Yeah, We were able to flex but what we find ourselves constantly doing is evolving to the threat landscape. As those threats change, our tools change, our services change. A lot of it becomes a lot more AI driven because no IT team, no security team can be large enough. They can't respond fast enough. So you have to lean on technologies, especially through pattern recognition with machine learning, AI that can respond a lot faster than any humans can.
JJ: So you also have to make sure you're partnering with providers that can provide an extra layer of security. That can be those eyes that can help with that threat analysis and that threat avoidance.
Andrew: Right. Specifically in that case, you mean more like a managed security provider. So other other humans involved.
JJ: Yeah, other humans involved, other bots involved. There is no single pane of glass, so to speak. There is no single provider. And so what you find is that more and more organizations are evolving to embrace those providers, embrace those tools. Moving away from traditional antivirus, into endpoint detection and response. The threats have evolved and the tools must evolve with it.
Andrew: Yeah. How many emails do you get a day starting with some sales pitch because of COVID- 19?
JJ: Yeah. It's everywhere. Yeah. It's because of COVID- 19 you need... And I understand you're under tremendous pressure due to pandemic... It's so funny and they're not only coming in through emails, they're coming in through LinkedIn, they're coming in through Twitter, and it's all noise.
Andrew: Yeah. It's impossible to separate any value from that level of noise in any sort of meaningful voice. So it's just delete, delete, delete, delete. I guess the point I was trying to make before is obviously there's flexes and changes. As you said, the threat landscape is constantly changing and it is, but part of the reason that security architectures are put together is with the expectation of some level of change. And it sounds like you had made investments in an architecture that didn't have to change dramatically with a pretty dramatic shift in the way people were.
JJ: Yeah. And I think it boiled down to this philosophy that people should be able to do their job from anywhere securely, right?. And that was the concept prior to pandemic. And that just seemed like a traditional evolution to me. I didn't feel like that was very controversy or something that wouldn't happen. But what I found during all this, being on national CIO calls with different groups and different organizations that I was part of, how many were not ready. There were people there were like, well, we can't find any more laptops at Costco. And I'm like, what the hell are you talking about? You literally waited till now to go get some laptops. What have you been, on desktops? It was interesting. And you're talking about not to shame them by any means, but some of these were like Fortune 1000 Fortune 500 companies that were not ready for this idea. It's interesting to me. And I've been talking about this with several people, is that it definitely feels like a certain demographic is ready to return to an office. And I'm not saying offices aren't great. I think what we're seeing is, if you're over 50, there was this idea of success that if you made it to a corner office, you made it. And that you kind of wanted other people to see that you made it. When I talk to executives that are under that 50 mark, they don't care. Me? I think about myself, I'd give up a corner office permanently for a home office. I'm not going to ask my employees to do anything I'm not willing to do. And I'm perfectly fine with that amount of time I get back by not having a commute is just wonderful. It's just interesting realizing how different the philosophy is. And I think what you're going to see is this big evolution that when people, and I don't use the term return to work, that's one of the things that just like, what do you mean return to work? What have you been doing for seven months? You haven't been working? What a ridiculous concept, right?
Andrew: Return to premises it should be.
JJ: Right, and so I think what you're going to find is that offices are evolving heavily. I think the open office, of course, is dead. But I think what you're going to see is the offices are going to evolve heavily. They're going to be more of what you would find in sort of a living room perspective. This idea when people do come together and it feels safe, that it's going to be a lot more meaningful. I think you're going to see much longer lunches when people can get back, more happy hours. But there'll be this long- term evolution where millions of people will not return into an office, Monday through Friday, nine to five. Might come in a couple of days a week. But the office will have to evolve in a way where you'll have to give somebody a reason to come back into the office, right?
Andrew: Yeah. For sure, the post normal is not going to be the same as before normal because we're finding in this, if you look at this as an opportunity, it's hard to even use that word, given that we're talking about a pandemic here. But now companies are investing in ensuring and facilitating working, we're using tools and tools in different ways so that we can ensure there's still the productivity. And if that productivity is just as high or not higher, then why bother bringing everybody back, especially if you're doing things like saving commuting time. There's so much you still lose, like those hallway conversations and you can have the water cooler conversation and the petting zoos, but you bump into somebody, both from a there's no reason I would normally speak to that person, but Oh my God I just remembered something because I see that person right now, to the just quick conversation in the hallway or at a desk to clarify something that doesn't require scheduling or a Slack or whatever the case might be. And part of that is quite good. And certainly from, if you work a great deal with end customers, as I've always done with my entire career, there's literally nothing that can replace a meeting at customer premises or go out for a cup of coffee or whatever the case may be. You learn much more, you create that sort of partnership relationship. So when finally the risk of infection goes down to the point where we're not worried about being in groups, yet I agree with you, there'll be a change and so therefore a lot of this technology that we're investing in today are investments that remain. And that's what I meant by the opportunity. It's a way to mature in many cases the way we work, the amount of hours lost commuting, the carbon footprint of commuting compared to people working regardless of vocation. And in some industries, that's always been the case. Certainly if you're working out in the field, it's quite different in a lot of cases. What about your data centers or you all public cloud- based or I would imagine you've got, especially given HIPPA and everything.
JJ: We're both. So we partner with world- class data center providers. We were in the public cloud as well, but in partnering with those world- class data center providers, they're the ones that are touching stuff, right. We're commanding from afar. And so very rarely do we physically go into data centers. So you have to have partners that have remote hands as needed.
Andrew: So you weren't going into those data centers?
JJ: No, we weren't going into those before. And to your earlier point, I think those hallway conversations are important. I think those lunches are important. I think in order to build real advocates, you have to have face time more so than video. The problem with video is then you don't pick up the same kind of nonverbal communications as you would do face to face.
Andrew: Yeah, for sure.
JJ: But with that, I think all that's coming back, I think what it's going to be is a more hybrid approach. It won't be as frequent. There'll be large teams that you probably will never see as much anymore. But there'll be teams that come in and now they'll come in from time to time. Your events, when you do get together, will be a lot more meaningful. They'll also be, especially I would think the first year or so, a lot more social feeling, right? Because when you've had such a distance apart, it becomes a lot more celebratory. But you know, some of this is not new for organizations. I've managed entire global operations and at one point I had a team within 31 countries. I wasn't flying to 31 countries. And so there might be teams that I saw once a year. There were entire teams I never saw. And it does change how you lead. What happens is you have to be a lot more meaningful. You have to be a lot more approachable, even virtually, right? I've worked for publicly traded organizations and I'd be second in command and I would still have to go through an assistant to book lunch for the CIO. I think what you're going to see is a lot more democratization of leadership. And so leaders will have to be a lot more approachable regardless of size of organization and be a lot more connected to what's happening. I think what pandemic showed us is that people were more than just their job.
Andrew: Yeah. That's a super good point. It's part of certainly what we're trying to push on in our company as well. Not that we were not allowed to go speak to the people over there, their executives or whatever the case might be. But yeah, that approachability, I think is huge and keeping that sort of human contact, even if it has to be over video. But I think that needs to and it's a great thing for that to continue in the hybrid model. It's really difficult to understand the culture of the organization, where the organization needs to go. If your view of that is through your first- line managers and what they're telling you about what's going on, or if your only view of it is based on surveys. Literally nothing approaches having conversations with people that you don't normally have conversations with and just human conversations about how things are going, where they're unguarded. I want to learn just as much as I'm hoping you'll learn from this conversation, as opposed to how are you going to use my valuable time? Where's your agenda for this meeting? Which are things that have people have said to me in my past, certainly when I was younger. You don't book a meeting with so- and- so unless you have an agenda. Okay, I just wanted to talk about something. There's no action items here. Regardless, I think you're right. I think that must continue or be facilitated in a different way than over video calls in the future. In the meantime, it's using the technology that we have today to try to create that same level of spirit and culture. And as you said, celebration, which is always critical and probably more critical as well now.
JJ: And certain cultures have it, right? I've worked in Japan quite a bit. And there was this idea of when you were at work, you worked hard and then in the evenings you would go out with management and members of your team and there would be this interesting, like passing around a beer and drinks, and almost a little too much.
Andrew: Yeah. There's pieces of my liver in Germany and Japan and Taiwan and a variety of places.
JJ: Of course. Absolutely.
Andrew: Which as a visitor and not somebody who lives there all the time, enjoyable and fun. You get to know people super well. The flip side, especially when you're traveling, is then when you're home, you go home and have dinner with your family. But regardless, this is a little inconvenient at the end of a conversation. But I've got this customer conversation in two minutes. So I've got this wicked hard stop right now.
JJ: Sure, that's fine.
Andrew: So I'm going to have to end this abruptly. JJ, it has been great talking to you. What comes through speaking to you, and you don't get this from a lot of technologists, is no matter what we were talking about. You were talking about the human side of it and the culture side of it. And I don't know if you're specifically sensitive to that now because of the pandemic or just your belief and your passion always, but it's a part, especially in the world of technology, where we can all get just so embedded in the technology is sort of forget about what's going on around you. And I really appreciate that. And I think it's amazing. Just sort of how human centric you are. I really enjoyed the conversation.
JJ: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Today I’m joined by Jason "JJ" James, a three-time IT VP, and current Chief Information Officer at NetHealth. In this episode, we’re going to focus on IT's ever-expending role in enabling smooth strategic pivoting, aiding efficient teamwork, navigating industry disruption (as always).
JJ is an award-winning innovator, and a true believer in driving advancement through human connection - as he has coined the "humanization" of technology. Enjoy!
Let me know what you thought of today’s discussion! Tweet me at @netwkdisrupted + @awertkin, leave a review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about Jason on our blog.