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Our 80/20

Posted by Kyle Young

At Verizon Digital Media Services, we have the privilege of working on tools we’re proud of building.  But without a doubt, we are most proud of the team members who build them. We value our people, and create as many opportunities as possible for them to grow. At the core of this focus is our 80/20 program designed to harness growth potential. Many companies have programs they call “80/20”, where employees spend 80 percent of their time doing their main job, and 20 percent on passion projects. This is not that. We would like to share with you what and why DMS has created and adopted our own version of the 80/20.

TLDR?

The short answer: Employees are empowered to dedicate 80 percent of their time in their current position, while utilizing the other 20 percent to explore and gain skills in a new department. The heart behind it is simple: we believe by heavily investing in the future of our people, they will perform stronger and stay longer.

How Did It Start?

It began as a form of staff development in our Network Operations Center (NOC). The NOC serves as primary face of support to our customers. They are the first line of people to receive support tickets our customers send in. Support staff in the NOC were encouraged to get to know the different tier 2 and operational teams who solved escalated tickets. These teams work on a number of different areas, such as: our CDN Software, Data Centers, or Network Operations. Once a support analyst had advanced through the specific NOC training structure, they could ask their manager to initiate an 80/20 with a specific team. Staff who successfully transitioned from the NOC to a support team were referred to as NOC graduates, and to date we have about thirty NOC graduates at DMS. Owing to its success, the program quickly expanded and became a hallmark of our engineering culture. Good ideas are replicated, it’s that simple.

So why was the NOC the place that dreamt up the 80/20? Former NOC Director Gino Lang phrased it this way,

We know that this is an unorthodox approach to NOC management. In most of the NOC’s we have worked in before this, someone had to die or quit before a promotion was possible. In our experience, it was not the 10 year NOC employee that was striving to improve our processes or impress our customers. It was the hungry newcomer, eager to face a new challenge, learn new skills, and build upon their abilities. These were the guys that were knocking it out of the park, doing everything they can to delight our customers and improve the performance and stability of our platforms. Because when we invest heavily in the lives and careers of our support staff, they feel invested in the success of our business, and our customer’s businesses.

80/20 transfer paths

As Gino said, the 80/20 program exemplifies how highly we value customer service; by allowing employees who have been working in a customer- facing service-based environment to move throughout the company. In a relatively new field, this approach has been critical to serving our customers well. In many ways, it was a necessity. You see, around the turn of the last decade, CDN’s were still solidifying as an industry standard.  Almost any employee we could hire started from scratch in terms of their CDN experience. This meant we had to pay a large “down payment” on the front end for their training. The talent outlook was this, take the high risk for people with high potential, in hopes of high reward. This outlook was a huge moral boost for the team early on, since most training came from individuals helping one another. And if we took a chance upfront, why stop there? We wanted to continually give our team their best chance to grow to their full potential. When all possibilities are open to you as an individual, it is easy to believe the possibilities are endless for the team. Fast-forward the better half of a decade, and we are beyond proud of the growth we’ve seen in our colleagues. Today at DMS there are dozens of people who have worn many hats, which is fitting, because we as an organization have worn several as well. (Edgecast/Verizon/Aol/Yahoo/Oath).

The Risk Factor: Losses into Gains

A major point of push back on the 80/20 program could be financial risk. You could understandably be asking, can we really afford to allow 20 percent of time and money to spent toward retention? We admit, to allow paid work time for career development exploration can be a scary concept for the bottom line. But, what if that’s a wrong presumption? Stop and ask, can there be clear financial perks to such a program? According to a study by American Progress, it has been determined that finding replacements for employees can cost up to 20 percent of their annual salary1. In that light, you will lose 20 percent of an employee’s salary when they leave anyway, so you might as well plan and allocate that 20 percent as an investment.  It’s important to note that this 20 percent figure is for both resignations and terminations, so a loss is a loss no matter how you lose an employee. This also fails to factor in the cultural and morale losses that occur when well performing employees move on to “bigger and better” opportunities. Therefore, all the better to take a three fold loss and turn it into a three fold gain - to finances, personnel and morale.

Making It Official

Like all blossoming relationships, we decided to make things official. In 2016 we launched a structured 80/20, that would be accessible to all employees and perfect the process. We reviewed the typical pathway and found out how to remedy certain pain-points. This involved things like formalizing the timeline, allowing for regular check points, and assigning a mentor. The timeline removed uncertainty as to duration; to let the candidate and manager have expectations when decisions to continue or stop would happen. We scheduled baked-in performance check points along the way to facilitate conversation. The last and probably most significant addition is that we assigned each 80/20 a mentor. Ensuring all 80/20 candidates would have on-going training and support in the department they were exploring.

How It Works

The process is comprised of a few basic steps. An interview, a training and exposure period, and a potential transition period. Formalizing the program allowed us to widely advertise the qualifications for specific teams. For example: a team member in the NOC could view the qualifications of the Traffic Engineering or SysOps teams. Posted qualifications allow employees to be proactive and study the skills they may need in advance.  Interested candidates who want to initiate the process would inform their managers. Their reporting manager would connect with the manager of the destination team and decide when was the best time to move forward with the interview. An important disclaimer is that no 80/20 is a guarantee of a new job, only new exposure.

The interview is held to gauge the candidate’s competency and culture fit. We want all 80/20s to be a mutual benefit between the person learning, and the team mentoring. The interview allows for a non-awkward, expectation-clear time for candidates to be assessed. This creates space for either party to say no before the program begins. If the candidate is accepted into that team’s program, they move into a period of training, where they begin to learn specific skills or systems needed for their 80/20. This usually takes between three and six months, after which the candidate can move into an “exposure period” when they begin actually “working” in the new area.

The exposure period is usually where the actual “20 percent” part of the 80/20 really comes to life. The candidate is given specific responsibilities in the new department, that can be accomplished in one full day’s investment. Some examples of responsibilities include: championing a team’s support tickets, creating wireframes for a new product, or even engineering a new tool for our CDN.

In some situations, these exposure periods turn very smoothly into a transitional period. The transition period allows the candidate switches roles from their “origin” department to the destination department. This process is by far the least cookie cutter, and is almost always customized to the specific candidate. We value smooth transitions between positions, and never want to leave a team without the people they need. Leaving well can take time; anywhere from a few weeks to months. Candidates who fully transition are still known around the office as “graduates”, and we are particularly proud of our graduation rate here at DMS.

Conclusion

Over the next few decades, the world will need strong and well equipped leaders to truly shape the future of the tech industry. We love the 80/20 program for its potential to help meet this need. It is our hope a portion of them will be discovered and molded within our midst, because we desire not only to build tomorrow’s leading systems, but help form the people who build them. Over our next few posts, we will be sharing some real stories of our 80/20 graduates, and the the journey they took through the process.

[1] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2012/11/16/44464/there-are-significant-business-costs-to-replacing-employees/

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