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Invest in your internal game changers

Amy Larson
“There has to be a better way.”

The great brands—those that thrive and maintain relevance long after their competitors lose steam—are born from this idea. They start with the customer and think, “What could be better about their buying journey? What product could fulfill their need better than what’s currently available? There has to be a better way.” 

That better way is almost always enabled by some advance in technology. That’s why it’s imperative for companies to have access to a steady pipeline of talent with the latest tech skills ready to solve the next friction point. 

That talent must have a vested interest in your company, extra motivation to lend their expertise and passion for your brand. After all, the competition for technically skilled employees is fierce, and great ones even more so. On-site salons, snacks and espresso machines have become table stakes in recruiting talent.

The only way you can create a deep bench of skilled and passionate employees is by implementing continual technology skill development for everyone in your organization—from the call center to the C-suite. Sound like an undertaking for HR or L&D? It’s not. To set your organization up for speedy, constant innovation, today’s tech leaders are on the hook. Here’s how it works. 

1. Happy employees beget happy customers, so shift your focus

If reducing friction and providing value for your consumer is the endgame, recognizing you can’t take care of every customer’s needs all by yourself is the starting point. You can’t take care of every customer, but you can take care of every employee—and that level of investment in your people will pay dividends.

So, as a leader, it’s your job to clue into what makes your employees excited to be with your company. If you focus on what makes them care deeply about the success of the brand, they will make better decisions for the company and the customer. This can’t be limited to one team or department; it must permeate the entire organization and be the foundation of every decision you make.

Employee satisfaction often comes from working with a diverse pool of other talented people, being really passionate about the job at hand and feeling like there’s always an opportunity to learn. People crave teammates who lift them up, not only because they’re great to work with but also because the caliber of the talent around them makes them better. So develop a business strategy that’s really rooted in professional development—specifically, technology skill development—and you’ll see results that spread from person to person across the entire organization.

We applied this theory at 1-800 Contacts and built a skills boot camp of sorts called CTAC University. Anyone within the company with an interest in upleveling their technology skills can apply, and there is no cost other than their commitment to the program. Applicants participate before work hours through classroom skill development led by instructors who double as software engineers and developers within our organization. Participants receive supplemental tools and materials for measuring and stretching their tech skills, and when they graduate they can apply with confidence for the next step in their careers. They report feeling supported and invested in, and we have instant access to talent that’s ready to apply the latest technologies to our cutting-edge products. 

Employee satisfaction often comes from working with a diverse pool of other talented people.

2. Unify

Technology skill development done right starts at the top, championed by visionary leadership, and it reaches across all teams and all departments. Traditional organizations operating with an IT side of the house and a business side of the house need to consider the barriers that kind of structure creates. Instead, the whole framework of your company should be scaffolded by technology skills—one unit building toward your goals.

To implement your technology skill development strategy, make sure business and IT are comprehensively aligned and that the two teams aren’t pulling in opposite directions.

With unity you’ll find speed and efficiency. We were able to deliver Express Exam—a renew-from-anywhere vision prescription tool unlike any other—to the market faster than if the two sides of our business were competing for priority.

3. Align teams to objectives

Next, get clear on your objectives with your leadership teams. We’ve already identified the challenge: a lack of skilled, diverse talent at a time when rapid innovation is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have. Align your teams to the company’s overall goals and give them the autonomy they need to reach those objectives. That will often require they learn new skills, and it’s important that you support them in that journey. By doing all of this, you’ve empowered your team to achieve defined business results through their own innovation. The results? Trust, ownership and pride in their work and in the business as a whole.

4. Give them the space (and tools) to experiment

Success happens when employees are given a testing ground to use technologies that may not be directly in their typical career path, but can be valuable for the progress of the individual and the company. Consider creating an in-house skills boot camp that gives anyone who participates access to new skills via instructor- or mentor-led training and/or supplemental video courses, assessments and hands-on learning experiences.

Another way innovative companies identify and grow untapped talent is by hosting regular hackathon events. Consider setting aside two days per quarter to encourage employees to apply what they’re learning to solve friction points within the company or within the customer journey that they’re most passionate about. 

5. Measure your results

For the individual, participating in your skill development program or hackathon events can be role changing. For the company, the ways your employees apply themselves will be game changing. We’ve seen an app overhaul, AI- and VR-powered solutions like Express Exam, and an engaged, committed, diverse and self-replenishing pool of tech talent come from our commitment to our skills strategy and CTAC-U.

As you roll out your own programs, take time to measure success in areas such as speed to production, quality of releases and delivery of new, inventive solutions utilizing emerging technologies. Know who to turn to for expertise in a given technology, and enjoy having a broader base of talent that’s up-to-snuff on the skills required to drive meaningful change.

With rigorous, org-wide technology skill development in place, managers should be able to more easily put the right people on the right teams to solve business objectives. Leaders will be empowered to have more meaningful one-on-one conversations because analytics show where your employees’ passions and skills lie.

Finally, by building a company-wide foundation for technology skill development, even your hourly or entry-level associates will have a clear path into a new career, fostering loyalty to your company and a much-needed diversity of perspectives.

When you clear the way for every employee’s tech skill development journey, you’ll experience:

  • Learners who are highly engaged with content relating to the latest technology skills. They’re deeply dedicated to innovation on behalf of your company and customers
  • Talent that is readily available in-house to pull off the “next big thing” in your industry
  • Diversity of thought, both in your organization and the tech community as a whole

Some of the best tech talent isn’t on the other end of that job posting you just published. It’s in your distribution center. It’s in your call center. It’s your rockstar front-end developer itching to try something new, only this time on the back-end. Upskilling your internal game changers versus trying to out-recruit the competition is your key to succeeding amid the next wave of rapid technology change.

Showing employees that you care about them should be, by design, for the benefit of your company and your customers—and now you have a blueprint to do just that.

Amy Larson has been Chief Technology Officer at 1-800 Contacts since 2019 and brings a record of using technology to drive business results through a relentless focus on customer needs. Since her appointment, Amy has focused on driving increased associate engagement and aligning resources to deliver business value at a faster rate. Her team of technology experts drives innovative solutions across ecommerce, mobile app, telehealth and business development initiatives.

Amy’s 20-year career has spanned the fitness, optical, apparel/accessory and non-profit industries and her work has been recognized with several awards over the years, including two Webby’s, an Appy, a Cannes Bronze Lion and the Internet Retailer Hot 100 four times. In 2016, she co-founded Liingo Eyewear, which was subsequently acquired by 1-800 Contacts. During her spare time, Amy enjoys being with her family, riding her baby-blue Harley Davidson and being the world’s okayest Crossfitter.