Careers: Interviews
David Donnelly: Award Winning Senior Technology Leader; Director of the Applications Development Services Department, UNIS LUMIN Inc.

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, FCIPS, I.S.P., DF/NPA, MVP, CNP has an exclusive interview with David Donnelly.

David Donnelly, I.S.P.As Director of Applications Development Services, Mr. Donnelly founded the department with teams of developers responsible for both consultative practices and commercial software manufacturing lines of business. David is responsible for the design, development, rollout, and support of the custom and commercial applications developed by UNIS LUMIN Inc. Notable accomplishments include the development of a web-based electronic medical record and injury surveillance system for a major national sports league; a fraud management system for a significant Canadian financial institution; a CRM/ERP system for internal use and commercial sale; and development of a five-year strategic plan and implementation roadmap for the Archives of Ontario.

UNIS LUMIN is a business solutions provider with a focus on unified communications, intelligent business applications, storage, security, and managed services. Holding both a Microsoft Gold certification and a Cisco Gold certification, the company offers a broad range of high technology oriented business solutions to assist their customers in achieving their business goals. The company also manufactures two commercial software products marketed world wide.

Prior to UNIS LUMIN, David served as IT Manager, Special Projects for TSB International and as a Senior Scientist for Ontario Hydro Research.

David graduated with honors from the University of Toronto with a dual major in computer science and statistics and holds the government legislated Information Systems Professional designation (I.S.P.) from the Industry Canada chartered CIPS, Canada's Association of IT Professionals (www.cips.ca). He serves on the Board of Directors of IRMAC and has also achieved numerous awards for outstanding service and performance.

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.
http://blogs.technet.com/cdnitmanagers/

Index and links to Questions
Q1   Often experience generates skills and insights that cannot be obtained elsewhere. What are your key lessons you want to share from these projects?
Q2   David, you actively maintain competence in technologies such as Voice over IP, mobile applications, Agile and .NET development. Can you pinpoint five areas that managers need to keep on their radar maps? Why?
Q3   Can you provide more details on these technology roadmaps?
Q4   Which specific skills do you look for in new hires to your team?
Q5   What are the essential elements to effective team development?
Q6   From your many years in senior management roles, which ten qualities and skills work best for effective leadership?
Q7   What are the top software development and platform issues that need to be addressed in business?
Q8   Which five resources would you recommend to IT managers?
Q9   From the IT leader perspective, how do you see technology integrated into business performance, strategy, goals, and objectives? What would be your key priorities for ensuring business and IT alignment?
Q10   What should businesses know about future trends in the Internet environment and in IT? What are the implications and business opportunities? Why should businesses care?
Q11   Amongst your many awards and accomplishments, which three are you most proud of and why? How can the readers learn from your stories?
Q12   What would be your ten career tips for the ICT professional and the reasons behind them?
Q13   Which three experiences most shaped your life and work?
Q14   If you were conducting this interview, what 3 questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?

DISCUSSION:

Opening Comment: David, you bring an enviable record of extraordinary accomplishment with notable contributions in business, technology, innovation, and leadership. Considering your demanding schedule, we thank you for finding the time to do this interview.

A: It's my pleasure Stephen. As the world of technology is changing so rapidly and covers so many areas, I believe that open communication between technology leaders, implementers, and consumers is essential and I am happy to do my part.

Q1: Often experience generates skills and insights that cannot be obtained elsewhere. What are your key lessons you want to share from these projects?

A: Well that's a big question. Every project is a rich learning experience, but let me pick one key lesson learned from each of several projects executed over the last five years.

  • Electronic Medical Records System for Professional Sports Leagues

    To define the requirements for this system, we had to deal with a group of medical doctors, athletic trainers, league representatives, player representatives, and other third parties. Seldom did any of the stakeholders have adequate time to work closely with the development team to crystallize the functional requirements of the system, let alone communicate them to our business analysts. The way we got through this project was to take all of the conflicting input, make well considered design decisions based upon what we knew and what we foresaw as the optimal use of the system, design, implement, and then defend the choices made. We did not wait for full consensus from all stakeholders as the result would have been paralysis. The project required strong leadership from the development team as the stakeholders were too geographically scattered and time-crunched to work through a normal development process.

  • Fraud Management System for a Major Canadian Financial Association

    During the development of this system, which we host at our hosting center in Oakville, we learned the details and the importance of various best practice and regulatory processes around securing information from both internal and external attack. If a customer requests an audit of your development processes or hosting environment, be prepared to show how your internal processes and policies are designed to protect the customer's data from a malicious internal user as well as external hackers. It is the internal part that often gets neglected and then becomes a source of concern when the auditors arrive.

  • CRM/ERP System

    This was a long term product development project to conceive of, design, implement, rollout, and support UNIS LUMIN's own hosted CRM/ERP product called Promys (www.promys.com). Building immense systems requires a balance between considering the project's long term goals and overall system architecture and defining/implementing manageable pieces that deliver solid ROI via sub-projects that run for two to three months tops. I found that employing Agile principles was very effective in keeping the team from feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the overall endeavor. It also kept stakeholders connected to the ongoing development efforts as new functionality was made available to them on a regular basis.

  • Strategic Planning for the Archives of Ontario

    Strategic planning exercises have taught me that there is no one best solution, plan, or strategy in complex environments and that after listening to all stakeholders, you have to be prepared to put a stake in the ground and defend your position. I am not suggesting that you be inflexible or dictatorial. I have found, however, that one effective way to get to consensus is to let people wander mentally all around a task or problem for a while, collect the thoughts and musings, and then use your own best judgment to distill these thoughts into a well defined solution. Stakeholders will then push and pull at the solution until it has been morphed into something acceptable by most, but if you don't give them something to grab hold of, mental wandering can go on for ever.

Q2: David, you actively maintain competence in technologies such as Voice over IP, mobile applications, Agile and .NET development. Can you pinpoint five areas that managers need to keep on their radar maps? Why?

A: Looking forward 12 to 36 months, I see several areas that IT managers will have to stay on top of. These include:

  • Unified Communications: The notions of presence, the mobile workforce, single number contact, video conferencing, and web conferencing are becoming the expected norms rather than the services available to only a selected few. With Microsoft lowering the cost and complexity of the entry point for UC, more and more people will be demanding it in the very near future. My entire department is now using UC for better communications and collaboration.

  • Collaborative Software and Services: In the same vein as UC is collaborative software and related services. Our customers are expressing a desire to drive greater productivity from existing staff by providing them with the tools they need to work more effectively in a team environment. Document management, workflows, wikis, discussion boards, and similar tools are viewed as the means to do more with less, and customers are asking us to help select the tools and build the systems that allow their employees to work more effectively.

  • Development Environments: Over the past several years, there has been an overwhelming flood of new technologies, tools, and even perspectives in the IT development space. I have often been asked by members of my development team, "How are we expected to stay on top of everything that is new when we have our existing work to complete?". It has never been more difficult to find time for education and training, and with competitive pressures from offshore outsourcing companies, lower labour rates demand a higher percentage of time spent on billable work to cover expenses and margin requirements. I try to address these issues by appointing a practice lead in each principal area and allowing that person to do the research, prototyping, and experience the first-touch pain. Others within our group then feed off of this individual and his or her experiences to reduce their own learning time.

  • VOIP: As both a Cisco and Microsoft Gold partner, we have an insider's view of the battle for market share that is just on the horizon. We know the Cisco VOIP and unified communications suite extremely well. We are ramping up on the Microsoft offering at a very rapid pace. As an IT manager, you will need to stay on top of this matter, pilot intelligently to decide what is best for your company, call in external experts as required, and be prepared to be nimble as the future is still somewhat uncertain with respect to how the VOIP market will divide up.

  • Issues Around Leadership: In this world of collaboration, Web 2.0, wikis, and group effort, it is easy to provide the tools to the work teams and let them "lead themselves". While there will be some examples of very successful projects that will run this way, many, if not most, will drift aimlessly if not provided with vision and strong leadership. I do believe that well assembled teams can, through collaboration and group momentum, accomplish incredible feats, but you cannot expect teams to read your mind or the mind of the customer and teams will always have conflict. I believe that some form of hierarchical structure, clear responsibilities, and clear lines of accountability are, and will continue to be, essential, even in the best collaborative environments. As IT managers, our challenge is constructing the right balance between freedom and formalization.

Q3: Can you provide more details on these technology roadmaps?

A: I could go on for hours discussing our plans for the above areas, but briefly, I would say that UNIS LUMIN is looking at Microsoft OCS and Exchange for Unified Communications and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server for collaborative work. For development environments, we are looking at many of the new .net based or related technologies. In VOIP, we will continue to focus on Cisco Call Manager and Unity but will be rapidly building expertise in Microsoft's Office Communications Server and all of its related components. We are, in fact, currently building a Microsoft based VOIP platform within our lab and working to integrate it with our existing Cisco VOIP system.

Q4: Which specific skills do you look for in new hires to your team?

A: From a technology perspective, the skills depend upon the expected role and tasks that the new hire will assume. We have .Net architect roles, developer roles at various levels, QA roles, MCSE roles, etcetera. Some of these people will also be, or aspire to become, team leads and practice area champions. In addition to technical skills, I look to cultural fit. I place equal weight on both of these elements.

Borrowing from an article that I recently wrote for CIO.com:

"When I speak of culture, I mean work ethic, dedication to task and team, loyalty, integrity and attention to detail. All those factors make individuals outstanding contributors to any community. Cultural fit is crucial when building a (team). I have worked with brilliant people who had egocentric personalities and did more damage to the team dynamics than could ever be made up for by excellent programming. I once had a peer who felt that humiliating less senior staff motivated them and enhanced his own stature. Of course, it did neither.

In every team, there will be a distribution of technical skills and levels but there can be only one standard for cultural values. There will be a tendency for people to migrate towards the lowest common denominator in cultural values, so set the bar high and lead by example.

Evaluating cultural fit is more art than science. A question like, "Do you work hard?" or "Are you a team player?" will elicit only obvious replies. I usually spend 20 minutes or more on topics like family, pastimes and hobbies. You're working on a relationship, not inspecting cattle. As your applicant relaxes and opens up, you'll get a much clearer picture the person, not just the interview mask that all candidates put on as they walk into your office.

Once you move past this first phase of the interview, describe your vision of the working environment you're building and your expectations of each team member. Don't hold back or dance around the fact that the bar is set high. The kind of people you are looking for will want that. If you see fear or hesitation, you're getting an early indicator that the person may not want to work to such high standards. If you get a bad feeling on the cultural fit, don't make excuses for the candidate. Whenever I've made that mistake, I've had to replace the person within the first year."

Q5: What are the essential elements to effective team development?

A: Once again, borrowing from the article that I wrote for CIO.com entitled Building Sustainable High Performance IT Teams, I would list the essential elements to effective team development as:

  1. Know your purpose.

  2. Consider your environment.

  3. Create a vision of what the team will look like.

  4. Plan your compensation model.

  5. Build a recruiting plan.

  6. Select and interview candidates.

  7. Integrate new hires into the team.

Managing the team after it has reached maturity is another whole topic, but I have repeatedly followed the above steps to construct effective teams.

Q6: From your many years in senior management roles, which ten qualities and skills work best for effective leadership?

A: In my view, leadership is often about finding the right balance between conflicting drivers.

  • A strong personality is essential, but don't be overbearing or abrasive.

  • Passion and a love of your work are inspirational, but don't let passion blind you to other people's concerns and priorities.

  • A leader must make difficult choices quickly without undue vacillation, but don't be reckless.

  • Always be in control, but do not try and do everything yourself or rob people of their opportunity to make decisions and take responsibility.

  • Balance the needs of your company, clients, and projects against the needs of your team. You won't be able to satisfy your customers if your team members are frustrated, discouraged, or departed.

And some rules that I live by:

  • I give my team members as much autonomy as they can handle and all of the respect that they deserve. I am their cheerleader and their promoter within the company and amongst our clients.

  • If any project goes wrong, as far as the world is concerned, it's my fault. I own the team so I take responsibility. Internally, we sort out what needs to be fixed, but I believe that you should never blame your subordinates to shift criticism from yourself.

  • We all make mistakes. Leaders recognize them, acknowledge them, and correct them. Don't look the other way and hope that your mistake will correct itself.

  • I once heard the quote, "work on your business, not in it". If you want to be a hands-on person, you can lead up to a certain level, but if you want to take the next step, accept the fact that you have to give up the hands-on component. If you have built a strong team underneath you, you will be surprised how well things work without you making every key decision.

  • The most critical balance is the balance between personal and professional life. I expect people to be ambitious, driven, and work very hard while they are at work, but I don't want people to sacrifice their health, family, or sanity. If you must think materialistically, consider people as valuable investments that must be nurtured and properly cared for, not pieces of disposable machinery that you use up and discard.

Q7: What are the top software development and platform issues that need to be addressed in business?

A: The two things that are top of mind for me are the rate at which technology is changing and the nature of software development work.

As I stated earlier, many software development professionals are feeling overwhelmed by the variety and complexity of new software tools and platforms being released by companies like Microsoft. Complex by the nature of their richness and functionality, these packages take significant time to understand and master. Bearing in mind that most professionals have development work to deliver on demanding schedules, learning time tends to occur after business hours or in short but intense periods between projects. It used to be manageable before the pace of change accelerated so dramatically, but now it's becoming a real problem for many IT managers and their staff.

The other thing that I see is the paradigm shift from building systems from scratch as opposed to starting with a rich and adaptable platform like Microsoft SharePoint and building on top of that. It used to be that products like SharePoint were considered the poor man's solution. They were relatively inexpensive and just adequate in terms of what they did, but no serious business that had access to budget and resources would choose this path over a custom application.

As platforms have matured, we now ask ourselves why we would not start with an appropriate platform. If you were building a house, you would not start by cutting down the trees and milling your own lumber. Why do we need to design every database table and write every line of code? This is a paradigm shift for many software architects and developers and I see significant resistance to this shift. As an IT manager, you have to lead through this transition and obtain buy-in through education and rational arguments surrounding costs, time to market, reusability, and the reduction in tedious design and coding. These tools free the developer and architect to accomplish greater feats rather than diminishing their roles. That's the message we need to drive home.

Q8: Which five resources would you recommend to IT managers?

A: These are the things that I depend upon:

  • Google - my starting point for information about anything that I need information on. Wikipedia is also a hugely valuable resource.

  • My own team - brilliant people filled with knowledge, insight, and ideas; tap this valuable resource on a daily basis.

  • Vendor support teams - specialists in certain technology areas who are very motivated to help you understand your options and solve your problems.

  • Forums of peers - learn from what others are doing, thinking, and planning.

  • Selected publications - online publications such as CIO.com and printed magazines help to give me broader perspective on what is going on in the world of IT.

Q9: From the IT leader perspective, how do you see technology integrated into business performance, strategy, goals, and objectives? What would be your key priorities for ensuring business and IT alignment?

A: Too often, I have watch business and IT evolve like two separate civilizations living within one organization. They speak different languages, apply different paradigms, drive towards different goals, and complain about each other incessantly. With egos at play and empires to build, these competing civilizations interact to one degree or another, but both want to be autonomous masters of their own worlds.

To ensure business and IT alignment, you have to start by ensuring that the basic relationship between these two groups is well defined and accepted by both parities. IT exists in most companies to serve the needs of business. That's it! As an IT manager, you must keep that concept in your mind and in your heart and make sure that your staff understands their role in the company. To say that IT serves business does not demean IT or make it less important. It gives focus, purpose, and clarity to the mission of the IT department.

With respect to IT initiatives linking to business performance, strategy, goals, and objectives, ask yourself how each initiative serves current business needs, clears future barriers, or enables business processes that have been identified as important by business leaders. Don't guess what business leaders need, presume to know what is best for them, or assume that if you build it, they will use it. I can't count the number of systems that have been built by IT departments that were never adopted by business users because the systems were never identified as important and did not effectively serve the needs of the end users.

Q10: What should businesses know about future trends in the Internet environment and in IT? What are the implications and business opportunities? Why should businesses care?

A: In a word: collaboration. The pony express, telegraph, telephone, and fax all changed the way that businesses collaborated and accelerated the rate at which business was conducted. The Internet is a similar phenomenon, on steroids. The first wave of the Internet has come and gone. The second wave, more stable, better understood, and more accessible to end users is now ramping up.

Call it Web 2.0 or any other name you like, there is resurgence underway within the Internet that will make people forget about the .com bomb. Through web based collaboration, unified communications, high quality low cost video conferencing, and similar phenomenon, people from around the world will work together as though they were working side by side in the same office. I just had one of my strongest team members move back to Moscow for personal reasons, but he didn't leave our team. Now he works remotely, but with powerful collaboration tools at our disposal, it is almost the same as if he was working here. This is the future.

Q11: Amongst your many awards and accomplishments, which three are you most proud of and why? How can the readers learn from your stories?

A: We have all designed things, constructed things, and delivered things that we are proud of, but in the end, they are things, and like dust in the wind, they will vanish and be forgotten as they reach the end of their serviceable life.

The things that I value most are the letters and e-mails from past employees who believe that I made a difference in their lives. By creating opportunities where none existed, trusting in people who just needed a chance, mentoring, teaching, counseling, invigorating, encouraging, and then reveling in their success, I have achieved great satisfaction in my life. If each of these people go out into the world and achieve great things, then I will have contributed to the greater good in a way that far exceeds anything that I could have done as a code warrior.

Q12: What would be your ten career tips for the ICT professional and the reasons behind them?

A: Not is any particular order:

  • Seek out an environment that meets your current needs and helps you to grow - don't be attracted to bad jobs simply for the sake of high salary.

  • Select areas of technology that you want to focus on and stay current within these areas. It is a lot of work, but you will be left behind if you do not invest in yourself.

  • Re-evaluate your above choices and make adjustments every year or two if needed. Don't get complacent.

  • Share openly with your team members, collaborate, have fun, and learn from each other.

  • Recognize end users as your friends, your source of inspiration, and your reason for employment. No matter how frustrating they can be, they are not the enemy.

  • Achieve a balance between work and life. Lose the balance and you risk losing everything that matters to you.

  • Don't be reckless, but don't be afraid to take well considered risks. Some failures are inevitable, but the greatest failure is the unwillingness to try.

  • Get out of the office as often as you can to attend seminars, workshops, and other learning and networking opportunities. You may be surprised at what is going on around you that you should be aware of or involved in.

  • Develop your communication and presentation skills. You will need these if you want to go beyond the level of programmer.

  • And finally, don't sacrifice personal honesty or integrity in any circumstance. If you are pressured to do so, it is time to be looking for a new opportunity.

Q13: Which three experiences most shaped your life and work?

A: In chronological order, the three experiences that have most shaped my life are:

  1. The discovery of the computer in grade 10, almost 33 years ago.

  2. Marriage to the woman who I have been married to for almost 25 years.

  3. The adoption of our two children from China.

These things have help make me into the person that I am, and for me, the underlying person is core of all accomplishment. The ability to "do" is acquired through hard work, study, and experience. The drive to "do" comes from within.

Q14: If you were conducting this interview, what 3 questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?

A: In addition to all of the excellent questions that you have already asked, I might add the following:

Q1: What external organizations do you belong to and what value do these memberships bring?
A1: I belong to a number of external organizations including CIPS, IRMAC, and IAMCP. In addition to informative seminars and similar events, I find that these organizations provide excellent networking opportunities. I have made both personal friends and significant business contacts through these organizations. Networking regularly helps to keep us from burrowing too deep into our individual work-related holes and keeps us abreast of what our peers are doing, thinking, and struggling with. I encourage all ICT professionals to find an external organization or user's group and to get involved.

Q2: What was your greatest challenge in moving from a technical to a management role?
A2: As with many managers who started as developers and architects, my challenge was letting go of the hands-on technical work and leaving that to senior members of my team. After years of being in complete technical control, it was not easy to let go and trust. The temptation is to stay too deeply involved, but with only 24 hours in a day, you have to choose between working to develop your business and working to deliver it. When I finally made the leap and let go of delivering, it allowed me to focus far more time and energy on growing, shaping, and controlling the business.

Q3: What do you see yourself focusing on over the next 12 to 24 months?
A3: As I mentioned earlier, we see a wave coming around unified communications and collaboration. Over the next 12 to 24 months, I will focus on building out our capabilities, our reputation, and our market share in these areas. Specifically, we see our relationship with Microsoft as strategic with huge opportunities around products like SharePoint and Office Communications Server. We intend to be at the leading edge, and that will take concerted effort for an extended period.

Closing Comment: David, I thank you for sharing your time and valued experiences with our audience.

A: It has been my pleasure.

Copyright Network Professional Association® 1994-2017. All Rights Reserved.
NPA Privacy Statement