[E15] People First: A CIO’s Pandemic Experience

By Jayne Groll  April 25, 2020

Sean Mack, CIO and CSO of Wiley, joins Jayne to discuss his experience pivoting a 9,000 person, 200-year-old company due to the pandemic, work from home security challenges, and how the company’s culture is helping the transition.

The lightly edited transcript can be found below.

Intro:

You’re listening to the Humans of DevOps podcast, a podcast focused on advancing the humans of DevOps through skills, knowledge, ideas, and learning, or the SKIL framework. Here’s your host, DevOps Institute CEO, Jayne Groll.

Jayne Groll:

Hi, everyone. This is Jayne Groll, CEO of the DevOps Institute, and welcome to another episode of the Humans of DevOps podcast. I’m particularly excited today to be joined by Sean Mack, who’s CIO and CSO of Wiley. Sean’s based out of New York, works obviously for a very large enterprise. Welcome, Sean.

Sean Mack:

Thank you, Jane. Great to be here.

Jayne Groll:

Sean, tell us a little bit about you, your background and, of course, tell us a little bit about Wiley as well.

Sean Mack:

Sure, Jane. Thank you for having me here. Great to be on the podcast. I’ll try and be brief, and give you a quick overview of my background. I’ve worked across a wide variety of companies driving technology leadership, technology transformation, everything from large financial companies like Experian to innovative tech companies like Etsy. I’ve worked in quite a few different areas of technology, from development to operations and now I oversee the CIO and CSO organization at Wiley.

Really, just getting started here at Wiley. I’ve been here about six months now. Loving it. Wiley’s is a really exciting company to be part of and a group place to be. They’re known for publishing, but really most of what they do and when you look at where their revenue is actually coming from is focused around research and a lot around online education.

You may be aware of the For Dummies books, which are Wiley publication, but what you may not be aware of is that Wiley is the backend for online education programs for major universities and also part of the Wiley online library, which kind of is a open way to share research around a research community.

Jayne Groll:

That’s awesome. We talked a little bit before we went online that if there’s any glimmer of hope in this horrible pandemic situation, it is the viral message of take advantage of online learning, take advantage of time, hopefully more well-spent learning something new, and it sounds like Wiley’s certainly supporting that.

Sean Mack:

That’s right. Its been amazing to see the uptick in online education in some of our big online learning platforms like Si books, like Newton. As folks pivot to that, it’s interesting also being a parent myself, seeing the entire scope of education transitioning in a matter of days to online. To some extent, the first step at least in schools here in New York has just been, “Hey, let’s transition to Zoom.” That’s only a quick supplement, so what we’ve been doing with a lot of our online education programs for a long time is really to figure out how to leverage technology fully to make education more accessible and more effective for people all over the globe.

Jayne Groll:

Yeah, it’s really fascinating. Sean, in your role, both as CIO and CSO, I’m sure over the last few weeks you and your organization have had to very, very quickly adapt to changing business requirements in work from home. Again, I’m sure part of that is almost like a split brain. There’s the part where you want everybody to work from home, but you also have to make sure it’s secure. Tell us a little bit about what that experience has been like.

Sean Mack:

Yeah, it is really been something else. Something, and it’s important to remember this isn’t something anybody has experienced before, so its been quite a experience. I’ve got to say, I’ve been amazed by what I’ve seen at Wiley. We have moved this company to online virtually overnight. In a matter of days we’ve brought almost 9,000 people into a work from home environment, which has really been something else.

It raises all sorts of security issues. I think we’re lucky in that a lot of them… Sorry if there’s something. You hear the sirens in the background. I’m actually across the street from a hospital here, so I’m on the front lines physically as well.

Back to the story of Wiley, I think it’s been amazingly successful transition. There’s all sorts of new security issues, but in so much as we already had part, some folks working from home, we’d address those. It’s more a matter of taking those security precautions, like endpoint protection, like ensuring that your data’s on VPN and ensuring its scales, and I’ll say for the most part we’ve seen that done very, very seamlessly.

I’ll tell you, we have a daily check-in 7:30 every morning. It was really nice; this morning I was on a call before our discussion at 7:30 and I’ll say 90% of the check-ins was everything’s going smoothly. We’re getting back to normal. The volume of requests for help with VPN access, for help with set up for at home work have really gone down and we’re actually seeing in some areas that the productivity is actually increasing, which is great.

Jayne Groll:

That’s really awesome to hear because I think we hear a lot from people like me that are observers of the market, but we’re not on the battlefield, and you’re in the front lines. It’s funny because, I think you know this, Wiley’s not a young organization. It’s got a long legacy of-

Sean Mack:

That’s right.

Jayne Groll:

I think I told you my mother worked there in the early ’80s.

Sean Mack:

That’s right.

Jayne Groll:

It’s not a younger organization, and to hear you talk about pivoting 9,000 people in a situation that, you’re right, Sean, nobody is prepared for this. Nobody has experience with this, not at this magnitude, and to hear that things are starting to become normalized is really, really impressive.

What do you think the one lesson, if there is one, that has come away from your experience working with your team? As you said, you’ve only been there six months, so really talk about being in the infantry on the battlefield. Obviously you and your team have worked very hard to normalize this situation very rapidly and I think that that amplifies the fact that most enterprises now have had to assess their ability to adapt quickly. Agility takes on a whole new meaning. Was there a lesson or something that you kind of go, “Hmm, that was interesting.”

Sean Mack:

Where do I even start? I feel like I am learning something new every day still, just as we go through this transition. First, I’ll take a step back and say to the earlier part of what you said; Wiley is a 200 plus year old company and, at times like this, that’s a very comforting place to be. Wiley’s also a company that’s only been around 200 years because it’s been an innovative, because it’s been able to adapt to change, whether that’d be changing in market conditions like we see with print publishing or changing in global conditions as we see with the global pandemic.

It’s certainly good to have that legacy of adaptation and change. As a technology who loves DevOps, it’s exciting to be in a place that’s open to innovation and open to doing the right things and also that set us up in a lot of ways for making this transition a lot more comfortable than it otherwise could have been.

I’ll say in terms of learning or at least one thing I’d like to share with other folks who are potentially also going through this is that the Wiley leadership has made a real commitment to put people first. I think that’s critical, because there’s a very human element to this. I’m working from home, my wife is working from home and my kid is now doing homeschooling.

Personally, I see this every day and I’m, in very ways, in a very lucky position and thankful to be here with my family. We have to be respectful of employees that are single parent. We have, in my household, three adults and one kid. I know there are parents out there who are one adult and three kids, so we have to be… We have made a commitment to be very flexible, to put our people first, and that’s not to say we can take our focus off of our customers or our business.

At the same time, we have to go through some massive pivots as we see huge shifts in the market we’re in, that we’re already underway, that are now being accelerated dramatically by global change in our financial system. To your point and about agility, secondly, I’ll say that, and this goes back to some of the principles of DevOps that we look at is that continuous improvement, continuous delivery, the ability to pivot our business is and to build businesses that can change or build technologies that can change dynamically.

I’ll say, one of the very coolest things to see is in some of our platforms, like Si books, like Newton, where we’ve seen a huge increase or a significant increase in usage as people do quickly shift to online learning or say, “Hey, I’ve always been wanting to learn this. I now have the opportunity,” because we build those with DevOps principles starting with how do we not just build this feature but how do we operate it, how do we make sure it’s maintainable and scalable?

These systems have been able to scale up to meet the demand automatically in many cases or almost automatically in some cases, and we’ve seen very few issues related to significant changes in scale. That’s just been great to see. It’s great to see the fundamentals of DevOps, which you and I have been talking about over a long time, put to the test and come out successfully, and that’s not the human part. The technology part, that’s also exciting to be living through and going through.

Jayne Groll:

You bring up a couple of really interesting points. As you know, DevOps Institute’s mission is to advance the human elements of DevOps and never before has the human need or even humans as the critical success factor in being agile, I think, we couldn’t find a better example of that despite the fact this is a terrible situation. I think what you’re describing when you talk about Wiley, and I can hear in your voice, not just sharing it, but a pride, a pride in your organization.

The one thing we’ve always talked about in DevOps is the importance of culture. That you can add all the technology, you could hire all the DevOps engineers, you could feel like you’re so full stack, but at the end of the day, we’ve always known that the differentiator in DevOps is culture and it sounds like 200 years. You think about a 200 year organization, 200 year organization could be mired in the past, “This is the way we’ve always done it. Therefore, this is the way we should always do it,” or as you’ve described, Wiley really looked at the important elements of moving forward, becoming digital, putting people first.

Yeah, I think the cultural element; tell us a little bit more about kind of pre-pandemic culture and current culture and how the two perhaps have aligned.

Sean Mack:

Sure, yeah. Yeah, first I’ll say that I’m not sure they would be around if they had a culture of doing things the same way, because things change. Things change usually less dramatically than they have in the past month or so, especially over any duration of time things change and companies that fail to adapt fail to be around. We’ve seen plenty of examples of that.

I think ‘the people come first’ has always been part of the culture here and that continues to be something which drives us forward. In the middle of this and uncertain times, it’s really nice to know that we’ve got a commitment to our people.

The other thing I’ll say is that, to the culture aspects of DevOps, I’ve always said that, if it’s nothing else, DevOps is about collaboration. Usually, if I approach anything DevOps and think about collaboration, I’m at least thinking in the right direction and from the start of thinking about just breaking down those silos, but taking that beyond that to how do we really build fully cross functional teams and embedded SREs and all of that. It’s all about collaboration and working together better.

We’ve always had that. I think the challenge today in terms of one of the things that’s changed is now we have to make sure we do that from our homes. In some ways, that’s presented new challenges we’ve seen, but we’re rising to the challenge. We’ve seen, I’ll call it maybe a 20% uptick in our usage of teams. There’s a lot more collaboration going on there. We’ve seen over a 100% increase in our usage of Yammer.

People want to know what the news are. People want to share. We had a great trending topic on my coworker, all about the pets that we share our living space with, like these great ways, new ways of building that community. We’ve always been a global or as long as… Wiley’s a global company, and we have businesses all over the world, but in a lot of ways this helps there because I think, what I’ve seen here as well as many other companies that I worked with is, when you’ve got nine people in a meeting in the room and one person’s on that phone, it’s very easy to forget there’s someone on the phone. It’s very easy to forget there’s someone in that video conferencing.

When all 10 people are on video conferencing it levels that playing field and makes for better communication and better collaboration. With us all being worked from home, it’s actually made us all realize we’ve got to be more inclusive in our communication, we’ve got to be more intentful in our collaboration and we’ve got to be more inclusive in that collaboration and find new ways to build community and collaboration that doesn’t focus on let’s just go down to the local watering hole after work. These new ways can really be ones that are more inclusive of a global community.

Yeah, I absolutely agree with you. DevOps Institute, our team, while much smaller than Wiley’s, is very globalized, I get a bird’s eye view into what’s happening in India and in different countries, in Europe and certainly here in North America. If anything, again, terrible, terrible human crisis, but in many ways breaks down borders. It does increase inclusiveness because oftentimes you don’t get to choose who’s on your hangout. I’ve seen more virtual happy hour.

I love the pet thing. I have my, one of my, so we have five cats and a dog, so I don’t mind saying that. One of my cats and my dog are in my office now even as we speak, but there’s a certain comfort and it fills a basic human need to connect with each other.

I would say one more thing and then I’m going to ask you a little bit about what it’s like to be on the front lines of New York. You would not be as successful as you are in this pivot if the other business units, the humans in the other business unit, weren’t as engaged. You can’t drag humans to new ways of working technically, particularly work from home. There has to be a mutual respect and a mutual cooperation, and it sounds like you’ve got that as well.

Sean Mack:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, but it isn’t effortless.

Jayne Groll:

Yeah. It’s not easy, right?

Sean Mack:

Yeah. I’ll say, especially in terms of the lines of business, they are all adjusting to massive shifts in market. We’ve had to be very intentful in our communication teams. We’ve been working hand-in-hand with our communication teams on a daily basis. They’re part of these kickoff meetings. We have to do all sorts of communication around security.

One of the biggest risks we saw up front on the security front was fishing and spear phishing attacks where people were trying to leverage the anxiety, panic and confusion around global virus outbreak, so we had to do a lot of communication around that and we are continuing to, on a weekly basis, send updates, mostly focused on how to ensure that your work from a home environment is safe.

We’ve also been doing training. Not everybody was using teams every day. The collaboration tools team has done a whole series of training. They’ve had 12 different trainings on teams. Over 2,700 attendees through these trainings, so there’s been a lot of work to make sure that everybody is using the tools we’ve got, is onboard and working together. It seems to be working

Jayne Groll:

Good, I’m glad.

We’re going to run out of time, but I do want to ask you, because you are unfortunately in the epicenter of the US outbreak in New York City. Tell us a little bit about, give us a little bit of a frontline view. What’s it like right now?

Sean Mack:

Yeah, we are very much right here in the center of it. As I mentioned, you might have heard the sirens go by. I live across the street from a hospital right in downtown New York. There is now a tent up 50 feet from my front door, which certainly brings it home, brings home the, like you said, the human element of this. This is a strong, tough, resilient city and it’s, let’s see, it’s also heartwarming to see the city coming together to support each other from a distance, to come together, support each other, support the healthcare workers and the firefighters and the people, the EMS teams who are on the front line.

There’s something that’s just very powerful and beautiful about getting to see them that and there’s something frightening. I think, as we go into every day, I keep in mind that we are all going through this together and that there is an emotional impact on ourselves and the people around us. As leaders, we need to check ourselves and then make sure we’re reaching out and checking with our employees and the people we’re working together with because we are going through this and certainly being here in the epicenter on the front lines really brings that home every day.

Jayne Groll:

It’s interesting because, as you know, I’m a former New Yorker as well and, you’re right, there’s a backbone to the city that very few other metropolitan areas have.

Sean Mack:

Yeah.

Jayne Groll:

Unfortunately, New York is no stranger to crisis. I think that it is, you’re right, it’s scary and it’s beautiful and it is just historical to watch a city like New York terrified, I’m sure terrified, by what’s happening every day, but also coming together to support the city. The New York mayor, the New York governor rather, has been front and center and sharing all of that. Of course, we all wish you and your family and your employees well and safety during this crazy, I promised I wouldn’t use the word unprecedented, but it is unprecedented.

Sean Mack:

It is pretty much, yes.

Jayne Groll:

A little bit of an over-hype word. Anyhow, thank you, Sean. Thank you for your transparency.

Sean Mack:

Absolutely.

Jayne Groll:

Thank you for really giving us an inside look at the enterprise level; what is it like to pivot a 9,000 person, 200 year old company on a dime?

Sean Mack:

Yes.

Jayne Groll:

Three weeks ago we were different, whether we revert back to the way we were, I don’t think we’ll revert all the way back. I think that’s a little naive, but keep doing what you’re doing and stay in touch with us. I appreciate that.

Sean Mack:

Absolutely, Jayne. Thanks so much for having me. Always great to speak with you.

Jayne Groll:

Thank you. For those of you listening, this was Sean Mack, who’s CIO and CSO for Wiley Publisher and online education, 200-year-old company. This is the Humans of DevOps podcast. If you are a human of DevOps, I invite you to register for one of our upcoming monthly micro-conferences known as skill up days. You can find the registration up at the DevOps Institute website at www.devopsinstitute.com.

Wishing you all well, wishing you all safety no matter where you are in the world, and please know that DevOps Institute’s mission to advance the humans at DevOps is something we take very, very seriously. Stay tuned; we’ll be doing more of these podcasts as we go forward. Again, wishing you all good health. I can’t even say good times, because that’s unfortunate, but wishing you safety. Thanks

Outro:

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