Illustration by Matt Peet
No tech leader has the exact same job as their peers. Even companies with similar products that compete for market share can have vastly different approaches to solve the same problems. Some continuously chase the newest technologies to gain an edge, others have had the same tech stack for decades because it’s reliable and many fall somewhere between the two extremes. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the direction a tech leader moves their organization, but what about how these decisions are made?
For Mark Hopkins, CIO at Skullcandy Inc. decisions are data-driven, incremental and always led by what the customer wants and needs. It’s about understanding more than just the way your customers are responding to app functionality. Knowing how and why they buy, how the purchase is fulfilled and what they expect when engaging customer service is only the first step. The key, according to Hopkins is to know how to stitch together all these sometimes separated business functions into a seamless user experience.
“Throughout my entire career, I’ve focused on helping the business see what technology can bring by demonstrating the value,” Hopkins says. “But then also understanding a lot about the business and its customers so that you can paint the picture of how the business can use technology and get that value out of it.”
Hopkins didn’t get a degree in information systems or software engineering. He graduated with an economics degree, moved to Silicon Valley and put his education to use working on supply chain, forecasting and demand planning for the semiconductor industry. This first job gave him an overview of the entire business, and an opportunity to refine processes with multiple departments, including IT. “I really started gravitating towards the systems aspects,” Hopkins notes. “And I realized that in the supply chain, systems are key to making good decisions. So I really got interested in how applications and systems were used.”
We had the opportunity to sit down (over Zoom) with Mark to discuss his approach to leading Skullcandy’s technology arm and his strategies on staffing, continuous improvement and delivering business value.
Create a continuous improvement flywheel
Continuous improvement is not a new concept. To always get better is what any competitive company should strive for. But for Hopkins, it’s the foundation of his leadership philosophy. By starting his career in supply chain and demand planning he could see the far-reaching impacts of small cracks in company processes. And by looking at improvement as a cyclical movement rather than a linear one, he and his team are always reevaluating how they’ve been doing and what small tweaks they can initiate to make an impact, regardless of how slight. Hopkins believes process improvement is less about making big, far-reaching decisions. It’s about data, speed and tracking.
“So the concept is to drive decisions with data, make quick incremental changes and then evaluate what the impact is by looking at the data,” explains Hopkins. “This creates a flywheel of process improvement driven by information.”
What are the key elements to the continuous improvement flywheel? Hopkins lays out his framework in four key parts:
Understand data from the business POV.
Foster feedback and collaboration.
Master your integrations
Make an impact with quick changes
Understand data from the business POV
Data is a critical part of the current state of business, and it’s obviously something every tech leader has in their toolkit. But data can provide different learnings for each department or business function that sees it. In other words, a CIO may see customer service data very differently than a CMO.
This is where Hopkins’ role as CIO is unique to some of his counterparts. With many aspects of retail and consumer electronics being digital, he leads ecommerce and the direct to consumer arm of customer service in addition to IT and systems development. This gives him and his teams a different lens to view their data through.
“You can't find those opportunities unless you have the feedback loop—the data,” Hopkins says. “Being familiar with the business is critical.”
Not every CIO has influence in the customer service process or sales cycle, but collaborating with the stakeholders of these departments can offer you and your engineers the needed lens to see data in new ways. In Hopkins’ view building these bridges between departments is a critical part of creating continuous improvement.
“We recently tried an experiment because of some data our customer service team found, wanting to drive contacts from an expensive phone channel to a less expensive chat channel that has better customer satisfaction ratings. On our website, we have a little little chat window that pops up in the lower right hand corner. But it's not really front and center, so we just made a simple change,” Hopkins says. “We put a big green button at the top of the support page that shows up when chat is live. When it's not live, it's not there and customers can still submit an email or call. But it had an amazing effect. It increased chat by about 300%.”
Beyond user interface issues, Hopkins and his team worked with the digital and marketing teams to develop dashboards to quickly get a pulse on the results of their social media advertising investment and its impact on revenue and margins in the digital channel.
“We're using Facebook, Instagram and all of the Google tools to drive traffic to the site. We wanted to track the impact of advertising spend on revenue and margins to maximize profitability,” he says. “So we developed a real-time dashboard that correlates things like activity on the site, ad spend, revenue, our current sales promotions and everything that factors into the profitability equation. Now that tool is used by everyone up to the CFO and CEO because it provides transparency and a basis for making data-driven decisions.”
Foster feedback and collaboration
Nobody likes to be told how to do their job, and it can be insulting to have non-tech savvy colleagues explain to software engineers and IT professionals what they need to fix. But Hopkins and his team don’t see it that way. On the contrary, he welcomes anyone to challenge their decisions, and deliver feedback. To ensure the company understands this, he and his team make an effort to show their openness.
“We really want IT to be embedded with the business. Even in terms of where we sit in the building at Skullcandy. I mean we're sitting right there with the digital team and the customer service team.” Hopkins says. “If people don't want to approach you, that's a complete failure because you're missing all kinds of opportunities, so trying to be open and collaborative with the business is something that I try to foster.”
In his experience, Hopkins found that creating a collaborative aura around your IT and engineering teams requires people who have varied experience in aspects beyond the technical knowhow.
“I think what works really well is having a mix of team members that come from different backgrounds. You obviously need technical skills, and there's training and effort required to learn those skills. I’ve had very good luck hiring technical people and teaching them about the business so they understand the business and develop a curiosity about the business and how to apply technology to it,” Hopkins says. “But because of the path that I took, I know that it also works really well to take up someone that worked on the business side that has a desire to learn technical skills.
By understanding other departments and how your department plugs into them, it becomes much easier to empathize with their needs and bridge the divide between business needs and software solutions.
Master your integrations
Because Skullcandy relies on a blend of third party software and custom builds, Hopkins sees integration and monitoring as a critical part of his team’s responsibilities.
“When developing something custom you have to have your eyes open, because it's then that you're also responsible for maintaining it going forward,” he explains. “I do see a need for internal development, but we don't go hog wild with that stuff. We do it in a very deliberate way and we do have a few applications that we've developed internally that are delivering a lot of value for the company, but we’re careful about doing that because of the support infrastructure and overhead that comes with that.”
Hopkins takes what he refers to as the “control tower” approach, in which they purposefully limit large development lifts—instead opting for third party solutions when available, and specializing in the integrations among systems. This allows them to work more as traffic controllers overseeing all the moving parts of their tech stack.
“We have a hybrid architecture—some applications that are in house, some applications that are hosted in our data center, some applications that are hosted in the cloud. And all of that tech needs to be integrated together to create cohesive business process flows,” Hopkins explains. “So one of the key things that my team does is run and manage integrations between systems. So we have competencies in web services data mapping and making sure that the right data is flowing from system to system. It’s our responsibility to make sure all those integrations are functioning efficiently.”
Create steady impact with quick changes
With the right systems and team in place it might be tempting to go for ambitious projects and bring in more drastic IT or development changes. But from Hopkins experience, it’s often the small steps that make the big differences. He and his team opt for making very subtle changes, measuring results as they come in, and pivoting as needed.
“So we use this concept of driving decisions quickly with data, making quick incremental changes, then seeing what the impact is by looking at the data and creating this information flywheel or this flywheel of process improvement,” Hopkins says. “Without the data nothing else works. It's just a discreet decision that isn't repeatable or measurable over time. So it starts with the data and then you analyze the data, you come up with ideas, you try small changes and you watch what impact that has on the data. That's what that flywheel is.”
This data-driven flywheel creates the constant feedback to drive better results, and according to Hopkins brings the most value to the business.
“It's a very quick and iterative process to develop systems and put processes in place that deliver business benefit,” he says. “It's much more fulfilling when you do something and you can see the business value that it's delivering.”
Creating a maneuverable and quick technical team that operates in seamless unison with other departments takes time and will never be perfect. But through his unique pathway to becoming a CIO, Hopkins has found a way to successfully pull the business and technology sides of Skullcandy together with what he calls the continuous improvement flywheel. And it consists of these four steps:
Understand data from the business POV. Data is a critical part of business, but seeing the data from other parts of the business can open you up to new opportunities to help the business succeed.
Foster feedback and collaboration. Development teams should make themselves more available for feedback and collaboration from the rest of the organization.
Create more integrations and fewer custom builds. Not every solution has to be built in-house. Sometimes leaning on third party software can allow your team more flexibility and control by managing the moving parts and how they integrate, rather than building and maintaining custom builds.
Aim small, observe always and adjust often. The continuous improvement flywheel relies on a constant data feed and making small changes accordingly and measuring the results. Almost as one motion, this cyclical process moves the needle inch by inch in the right direction.
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