Agile Businesses: Denise Brinkmeyer Of JUMP Technology Services On How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Never stop improving — Your phase one was just the beginning. Technological innovation is happening at a pace that takes my breath away. You will never stop pivoting or you will go the way of Borders Books.
As a part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Brinkmeyer.
Denise Brinkmeyer (www.jumptechnology.com) is the author of Project Orienteering: A Field Guide For Project Leadership and president of Jump Technology Services®. She has over 20 years of diverse business experience with various-sized companies and develops business consulting service strategies. Brinkmeyer focuses on the development and implementation of software project management and software design methodologies that dramatically increase both customer satisfaction and department performance.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory” and how you got started?
I was born as the oldest child of two oldest children so of course I was the first child, first girl of the generation in my family. Soon my brothers and cousins were born, but there were few girls. I had never let it bother me much until one day I was told that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. Well, that was enough incentive to make sure I did accomplish that goal and never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do something that I had set my mind to do. My mother says that I have always had a stubborn streak. At the age of 13 months old when she put me in my crib to go to sleep when I wasn’t ready, she said I would bounce myself on the mattress until I could get my leg up and over the railing. I shimmied down the side, ran down the hallway and glared at my parents for putting me to bed when I didn’t want to go. My mother called it stubborn, but I prefer the word tenacious.
That tenacity showed itself when in my early 30s I decided to leave my career as a teacher to raise my children at home. I wanted a good life, a rich life where I did what I loved and made a difference in the world. I always loved teaching very much, but I had no love for a system so influenced by politics where my monthly take-home pay didn’t leave enough money to take care of my children. People at school told me I was crazy to give up my career, but I thought, if I’m going to be broke, it might as well be with me staying at home with my children.
While at home, I started a homeschool co-op at my church and learned some basic html programming for our church and co-op website. Programming intrigued me and my children were older, so I decided to re-enter the workforce as a computer programmer. When people told me I couldn’t change my career from drama teacher to computer programmer as a woman at the age of 35, I said, “Oh yeah? Watch me.”
Growing up I had always thought that we all had the same ability to achieve or become anything that we set our minds and hearts to do. I didn’t understand when people would give up. I didn’t understand the fears that prevent people from pursuing a big idea. I never thought that I had some unique ability, only that when I really wanted something, I would keep trying until I achieved it. I laid out a plan to increase my studies, then pass a Microsoft certification test to prove I knew what I was doing.
The result: I landed a job as a programmer at a startup company and eventually moved to a job as a programmer at my current company. In 2001, I was one of 11,000 women in the world who held the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer credential. In just a few short years I had developed my skills to be competitive in an industry that didn’t really accept women. But I didn’t let the way I was spoken to interfere with what I wanted to accomplish.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways’’ you learned from that?
I wish I had a story that was funny. There was a lot of learning and takeaways from things that happened. I was observing and learning as quickly as I could. One example is on my first big assignment for an inventory control system. It was written by someone else and then handed to me when that person left the company. My job was to debug the modules installed on the office computers and then fly down to Houston with the team to deliver the software and collect payment.
Once on site, I was walking the customer’s team through the software and they were growing increasingly agitated. Keep in mind that I didn’t design the software. I had only fixed bugs that appeared in the operation. So, I began asking questions to get a better understanding of how the system was falling short.
The senior executive asked me if I’d like a tour of the operation and we spent the next hour walking the floor and discussing workflow. I could see quickly where the design fell short. He thanked me for being the only person in our company who appeared interested in the work they actually did. It left me a bit stunned as a new programmer, but I was also motivated to correct the issues. After a few more weeks we delivered an update to the software that supported the efficiency and automation that all of us had envisioned.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful to several people for their help. My friend, Angela, was a terrific coach. I met her early in my “Denise wants to be a programmer” phase when she was working for a computer training company. I shared my plan with her the day I walked in to sign up for a programming class, and we’ve been friends ever since. She cares very deeply about the people who seek her help. She goes above and beyond for everyone, never really realizing how incredibly rare that is.
My kids were also incredible during this time. They knew that I was on a path to ensure that we always had enough money for food, housing, and medical visits. They adapted extremely well from homeschooling back to public school. It wasn’t easy, but they are resilient and amazing people. I am so proud of them.
I met my husband at JUMP. His expertise as a software engineer gave me confidence that my instincts were correct even when my experience was questioned. Who we are as a company today has a lot to do with our partnership. I like to say that my job is to identify the forest and describe its boundaries. His job is to detail the bark on the trees.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, and what was its purpose?
The company I joined actually focused on software for manufacturing. I find manufacturing fascinating, so I enjoyed my work, but when the .dot com bubble burst and there was not enough work, we won a bid on a custom software system for health and human services. It was this project that led us into systems for vulnerable adult investigations. Up until that time my husband and I didn’t know about home- and community-based services or adult maltreatment.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
We provide software as a service to state and county governments who provide services for older adults. These services include Aging and Disability Resource Centers, Senior Meals and services funded by the Older Americans Act programs, Long Term Care Ombudsman cases, and Adult Maltreatment investigations.
These programs use our software to support their operations and provide reporting to meet their local, state, and federal reporting requirements. Our customers interact with older adults as part of their daily mission. This means that our mission is to provide affordable software that helps them do their jobs without spending so much time behind the computer screen.
Our designs also collect very detailed information that helps program managers understand trends on interventions and outcomes.
Which technological innovation has encroached on or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Government programs prefer, as you can imagine, to control their data. Their responsibilities for privacy and security have always created a preference to keeping systems “in house.” As Software as a Service or cloud computing offerings became highly available to government programs, it became difficult for government programs not to take advantage of these systems because of the improved return on investment as well as total cost of ownership.
Just making the decision and following the process for procurement means one to two years before government programs even embark on projects for new technologies. These adoptions can take years to accomplish even though companies like mine with program-specific solutions can implement in a matter of months.
The next big area for adoption in government programs like social services will be integration of artificial intelligence to improve case documentation and improve the quality of services provided.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
In 2010, we made the assumption that the commercial trend towards cloud computing would be followed by government program adoption. This was an easy leap since government programs are always slower to adopt new technologies and cloud computing has a lot of advantages.
We are also working on concepts related to artificial intelligence, but we can’t really discuss that until we get closer to product launch.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
Our aha moment was really more that this technology would allow small, state-funded programs to collect data to help tell the story of vulnerable adult maltreatment and exploitation. It’s often said that “data drives dollars” when it comes to funding, but small programs had no data. They had no ability to collect data in their paper-based systems because they couldn’t afford what vendors were offering. We developed an affordable cloud-based solution with tiered pricing that helped even the smallest programs budget a data collection system.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
The product was launched in 2014 with the first customer in California. Today, we serve 54 government programs with that product, and have launched several other products to support Aging and Adult services across the United States.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
I’d say really that things worked out the way we had hoped in our support of elder abuse programs. Supporting these programs became our mission. Eight years later, there is more funding and awareness of the abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable adults. I am so happy to help Adult Protective Services demonstrate their outcomes through our systems.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
It’s very difficult these days to move as quickly as you need to because of the rapid change in technology. Leveraging new technology gives you a competitive advantage over your competitor, but only if you can move quickly enough. This means that leaders must be great communicators. If you have cultivated a culture of concern and interest in the company’s products and services, you can explain how new projects and development keep the products in demand. Teams need to know that continual improvement protects the company from obsolescence. I don’t mean that you have to scare them into thinking their jobs are at stake, but instead you can motivate them to always produce leading products and services for their industries.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Frederick Herzberg is quoted as saying, “If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do — an enriched job.” Leaders must be clear in communicating their vision for the future and how the work being done today by every role intersects with an important mission.
I think it is critical that everyone has a sense of the value of their contribution.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Remember your people are the company. Make them successful, and the company will be successful. If you can’t make them successful, one of you needs to change.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1. Chasing the technology instead of the solution — Some businesses find technology so interesting they invest everything in adoption without linking the investment to specific, measurable outcomes. Technology is a solution to a problem. If you don’t know the problem, you have no solution.
2. Helping “Number One” more than helping “Every One” — Some business owners or managers see the project as their chance to climb. This can have a very negative impact on the outcome because it is very difficult to hide. Teams aren’t motivated by narcissistic leaders. Sure, everyone wants to feel proud of their accomplishments, but it often comes for free if you can solve an important problem for people (see #1 above).
3. Being immobilized by analysis — Some teams are so good at structure and administration, that when faced with an important change, they can’t move quickly enough. Sometimes it’s because they allocate too much time to the decision-making process, and sometimes it’s because they invite too many people into the decision-making process.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Be positive about your ability to pivot — Pivoting doesn’t mean abandoning what you are doing now. It means beginning to move in a new direction while retaining some continuity from where you were going. No one ever said pivoting means a giant leap. Staying relevant means doing what is important or could be important to your customers. Everyone may be shouting at you to build a mobile app, but if your customer base doesn’t want to give up precious space on their iPhones, you may find that a simple addition to the website is all that was ever needed.
2. Don’t be afraid to say goodbye — If steps in a new direction create a conflict with a percentage of your business, this is where you need to ask if that is the business you want to keep. Just because you have always served a particular sector doesn’t mean you have to do it forever, particularly if it is on a downward trend. The key to saying goodbye to these customers and retaining your reputation may be to identify some alternatives for them. As we moved to our social services solutions, we chose to say goodbye to website hosting and search engine optimization. Website hosting had become too competitive, and I had been convinced that by 2006 search engine optimization really worked best when it was managed in-house by marketing teams who could integrate SEO into the marketing plan. These two areas of the business were consuming too many of our resources, which we were ready to invest in our mission to serve adult maltreatment investigations. We helped the customers identify new hosting providers and move their SEO in house.
3. Adopt a phased approach to implementation — I’ve heard it said that “perfect is the enemy of done.” Where I see this most is in projects that include too many objectives in their first phase. They try to eat the whole elephant in one bite. You should be very clear about the “why” of your project with a business case analysis. Business objectives will need to be mapped to project requirements. Then, listen to your team about the best route to achieve the most important objectives by mapping out the best route to success. In my book, Project Orienteering, I suggest you think of your project like a journey. If you’ve ever driven from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles without stopping you know what I am talking about. People driving that long without sleep risk their health and safety (not to mention the safety of others.) In similar fashion, a project that drives to a big goal without incremental releases may be risky to the organization. If you’re a fan of agile methodologies then you already know what I am talking about.
4. Celebrate success with your team — Let your team have time to participate in the celebration of a job well done, no matter what this looks like. I don’t mean to frame it like a “break.” “A break” means that you were driving them too hard. This is a celebration of accomplishment that doesn’t take a lot of expense to be appreciated. This seems so obvious, but driven business leaders sometimes (myself included) forget to stop and smell the roses with their people. If you don’t do it, you can wear your people out. They need to know that you are human even if everyone thinks you operate like a machine. When you do take the time, they will be refreshed and ready for the next challenge.
5. Never stop improving — Your phase one was just the beginning. Technological innovation is happening at a pace that takes my breath away. You will never stop pivoting or you will go the way of Borders Books.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I like to remember John Maxwell’s quote, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.” This means that every event is an opportunity, even if the opportunity is to learn to be better. I hate losing so much that it can derail me for hours, and I have too much to do to waste it on bad feelings. Since I started reframing loss as learning I am much better. It’s more than lip service, or something I say to myself. I look at the situation and say what could I have done differently to win, and then I do it. Some people say look for the silver lining in the cloud, and I do something similar. If you believe everything is an opportunity, then even when events don’t have the outcome you hoped for, if you look you might find an even bigger win hiding underneath the learning.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can visit my website at denisebrinkmeyer.com and subscribe to my new podcast, Tenacity Rules from Forbes Book Audio on Spotify, Audible, and Apple Podcasts. The first episode drops in early May.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you! I enjoyed it.
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