The Importance of Human Skills in Business Transformation

Gautham Pallapa, Global CTO of VMWare and DevOps Institute Ambassador shares his insight and experience on the importance of empathy and psychological safety as a key element of business transformation including tangible actions that business leaders and practitioners can take to improve team empathy and happiness.

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. It’s Jayne Groll, CEO of the DevOps Institute and welcome to another episode of The Humans of DevOps Podcast. I’m very excited today to be joined by Gautham Pallapa, CTO of VMware. And we’re going to talk not about technology, but we’re going to talk today about human skills. Hi, Gautham.

Gautham Pallapa:

Hi, Jayne. Thanks for having me.

Jayne Groll:

Why don’t you tell our audience a little bit about yourself and your background.

Gautham Pallapa:

Sure, glad to. Like Jayne mentioned, I’m Gautham Pallapa. I’m Global CTO at VMware. I focus on business transformations. And in my current role I work with and partner with organizations and enterprises who are going on their transformation journey and I help them from a strategic and a tactical way on how to use lean, agile and DevOps methodologies to achieve their business outcome. I used to be a customer of VMware, Pivotal and Dell Technologies and in my previous roles I have driven successful business transformations luckily, and then decided to join on the other side to help multiple other people.

Jayne Groll:

So you crossed over, huh?

Gautham Pallapa:

That was the right thing to do.

Jayne Groll:

Well, the interesting thing when you talk about business transformation is that particularly today when we use the term digital transformation pretty actively, the assumption is almost that digital transformation is wholly and solely dependent on automation. And I think particularly in the DevOps space where continuous integration, continuous delivery, all of the ecosystems that sit behind that, that there are businesses that believe their transformation will be successful based on their technical adoption. And you and I both know differently, right?

Gautham Pallapa:

Right.

Jayne Groll:

I think I mentioned to you before we recorded that DevOps Institute does an annual community research project known as upskilling. And that one of the things two years in a row that’s been proven is that human skills are considered as essential as technical skills for the DevOps human. So I think today what we’re going to talk about is the importance of human skills, particularly the skill of empathy in terms of business transformation. So tell us a little bit about your experience on the business transformation side and particularly about the need for those human skills, which some organizations think are organic and not necessarily teachable.

Gautham Pallapa:

Right, yeah. That’s a very great question, especially considering the situation right now. So if we look at how organizations have traditionally looked at business transformations or digital transformations, they have invested a lot in technology, (a) predominantly because technology is discrete and it’s easy to understand how technology works together. It’s not like people are processes because we are more non-deterministic and non-discrete. It’s very difficult to predict the behavior, how cultures work together and so on. So in the past there’s been a lot of emphasis on technology. And then we had lean and agile and DevOps come in and so we’ve made strides in the process aspect of things and, to some extent, on the people aspect of things.

Gautham Pallapa:

Where it becomes critical right now is because of this global pandemic that we’re all suffering from, suddenly we are disconnected physically from humans. We are working remotely in almost every sense of the word. And if you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and think of the pyramid that we have, what this pandemic has done is it has shaken the base of that particular pyramid. Because of the shelter in place because of the logistics problem and the supply demand problems, the physiological needs of food, water, and just being secure in that area has been challenged. And then on top of that, you have safety. So be it at home, the safety of an invisible kind of a pathogen that is within the air impacts us psychologically as well. And in addition to that, with the shelter in place, now we have suddenly lost the safety of going to a particular place and work and bond with people. And that impacts our love and belonging aspect, which is the third part of of the hierarchy.

Gautham Pallapa:

So in every sense of these, we have been disconnected. And when we have so much pressure upon us and fear that has been instilled, the psychological safety [inaudible 00:05:31] are tossed and so we get more stressed. And when we are really stressed we go back to what our core thoughts is, what our core safety operations are and so that prevents us from being as impactful and productive as possible. And so in this particular area, having empathy and having the ability to pull these people away from these stressful situations and coaxing them and making them feel comfortable in the psychological level and making them feel safe and secure is really important. And we’re seeing a lot of signs of those, especially within the tech community.

Jayne Groll:

What’s really interesting about that, is as you’re speaking, the thought that comes to my mind is about quarantine. So we’ve been in quarantine, what now, for five months? Sometimes it feels like five years and we think that the quarantine is purely physical, like I can’t go out physically. But from what you’re describing, there’s also a social and psychological quarantine that can start to happen when there are so many other factors that are affecting us as humans. You’re right, we have an invisible foe. We’re working remotely and alone so we don’t have that interaction. And there’s fear.

Jayne Groll:

There’s fear of so many different aspects of our lives personally, professionally and all of that. And so there is almost a little bit of a social or psychological mental quarantine that we’re at risk of that could affect team collaboration, can certainly affect the ability to inter operate as humans. Let’s talk a little bit about empathy because I think the concept of empathy is one maybe that we don’t understand. So how would you define empathy?

Gautham Pallapa:

Empathy, the way I look at it, is truly love and understanding for your fellow humans. It is a relationship that is born out of good energy and a sense of reaching out to people and making sure that we’re all collectively working together and being happy. That, for me, is an empathetic portion of things. When you can look at a human being, try to put yourself in their shoes and you can understand the pain that they’re going through, the stress that they’re going through and put their values and their happiness above your own. And that is the true meaning of empathy the way I define it.

Gautham Pallapa:

There are a number of other definitions of empathy and they all are good. But for me at least, this is my guiding principle. I want to make sure, and I’ve done this when I’ve been leading teams and I continue to do it with others when I partner with people, for me, it is to make sure that the people that I’m working with are happy, they’re less stressed and that they feel that love and belonging that elevates them to become self assured.

Jayne Groll:

Well, and again, I love that definition because I share a lot of the same principles. And sometimes it’s an effort. We know that, that putting somebody else’s needs ahead of your own. Any good relationship they say is never a 50/50. Some days it’s 90/10 and some days it’s 10/90. But also being able to step back and see the world through somebody else’s lens, to be able to understand what they’re going through.

Jayne Groll:

And I think equally important is to share in that happiness, whether it’s work happiness or other happiness, but to ensure a good experience for everyone instead of the classic them versus us or me first or all of that. And you’re right, in this situation, that’s important. How do we get there? It’s not necessarily organic. We would love to think that we’re all really good at this, but the reality is, well, we’re probably not as good at it as we think.

Gautham Pallapa:

Right, definitely. And we’re at that inflection point, I believe, in human evolution where we are actually going to tip over and start becoming much more sensitive to these things, especially because of the nature of the threat all around us. So how do we get to this? There are many ways that we can start doing it. The first one is to first acknowledge that you have life all around us and we need to accept the fact that there’s going to be intermingling and there’s going to be dilution of professional and personal lives. That’s bound to happen, especially when we’re on video conferences and we’re on team meetings and in a remote manner, life’s going to happen.

Gautham Pallapa:

What I relate this to is the fact that before COVID-19, before this pandemic, we actually had discrete different areas that we could go to. We could context switch and isolate ourselves. And for the most part, the context of one particular physical location never really seeped into the other. Now what has happened is because of this shelter in place, all of those physical locations have collapsed into one single entity. And so we’re not just working from home, but actually existing from home with additional people, with our loved ones, with our pets, with our children, there’s going to be interaction. And accepting the fact and embracing that reality is something that we want to do and take the first step.

Gautham Pallapa:

Most of the stress that happens, and that’s more like video conference fatigue as people call it, a lot of that stress is because (a) you’re really conscious about the life that is happening and operating around you and your fear that that would barge into a professional setting. Just embrace it. Everyone has something that will interrupt us. And when you see a child come in trying to interact with you on someone’s screen in the video conference, just appreciate that and feel happy that you are able to get a glimpse of their lives and then use that as information to then operate upon the productivity level, the collaboration level and an additional way to connect. That’s one of the ways that you can introduce empathy and start working, at least from a remote working perspective.

Jayne Groll:

I was on a panel yesterday leading a panel for Skillup Day and one of the panelists had their dog walk in the room. And you know what? It was perfect because the entire panel, now it’s a Zoom panel, the entire panel stopped and just took a breath and went, “Oh, what a cute dog.” And we just continued on. So yeah, it gave you a glimpse into… Listen, people want to keep their personal lives personal, I understand that. But it gave you a glimpse into maybe a different side of somebody, because you know that they have young children or because the doorbell rang or because their pet jumped on their desk or walked in a room during a Zoom panel, but it creates a social relationship that’s different than probably we’d seen before.

Gautham Pallapa:

Exactly, and actually what I want to stress upon that is, let’s take the example that you just gave, Jayne. The pet walked in and everyone started to look at that, identify with that, feel happy and all that. Rather than feeling embarrassed that the pet walked in, what I want people who are interacting in these remote sessions to do is start feeling proud of the fact that they suddenly share so much of oxytocin remotely to the entire group. They made people feel better and happy and invigorated and positive. They introduced additional positive energy. And that’s why I say, “Embrace these events.” They’re not embarrassing. They’re actually positive things that you could use and leverage upon. And I guarantee you, or at least I’m sure that after that pet walked away or something, the level of energy on that call would have increased, right?

Jayne Groll:

Absolutely, and it’s really interesting too, because I also think that from a leader’s perspective, whether you’re leading a panel or leading a team, is that leaders have to learn a different level of empathy. So when you came to the office every day, your children were in school or in childcare or your pets were home and you might’ve talked about them, but nobody can see them. And your time management was very different. You were in the office from whatever time to whatever time, very predictably.

Jayne Groll:

And I think that as we move through this pandemic, in some ways it forced us into the future. I think we would have gotten here anyway. And I say that very often, but I also think leadership has to exhibit a different level of empathy knowing that there may be a young child in the room or knowing that it’s now more task than time oriented, that you’re not there nine to five, but you got to get your work done, however, you get that done. What are you seeing in terms of business leadership and empathy?

Gautham Pallapa:

That’s a very great point that you make, Jayne. So I’ll talk personally and then I’ll talk about what I’m seeing with the business leaders. So personally, I’ve been a huge fan of [iMalox 00:15:50]. So every day I used to go around, walk, meet everyone, talk to people, high five, have those hallway conversations and pump up my energy and the energy of the teams. And I get a lot of information through osmotic listening and through all these small tidbits of hallway conversations. I really miss that in a remote environment.

Gautham Pallapa:

And we have a lot of applications that are coming in to create that kind of a digital twin, but I think we’re not there yet. I think it still feels very artificial or forced because it sends you a timer. So something like Hallway app or Donut app, it schedules and sends you a timer, then you all get in. But when you get in, it’s not really a huddle, it’s a meeting. And so there’s a difference there. So I think the more we get used to it that we’ll feel more comfortable in having those conversations. So that’s one thing and I really missed oxytocin by having those high fives walking in the hallways and getting energized and energizing other people. So hopefully, somewhere in the future, we will evolve and have that as well as one of the digital twins.

Gautham Pallapa:

With business leaders, what I’ve started to see, and this is something very heartfelt that I’m seeing, is the humanization of people and actually considering them as people, rather than employees or team members is increasing in multiple industries and in different sectors. The business leaders now, because there’s always a constant face and they’re talking to people and they crave this kind of interaction, they’re actually being more involved in the conversations. They’re being more humane in their decision making. And there are a lot of business leaders who have demonstrated, even publicly demonstrated, that they value the health, wellbeing and the skills of their team members way more than the traditional business drivers. And that is something that I find really interesting and exciting is that we’re becoming a much more humane society, even though we are sheltered from each other.

Jayne Groll:

It’s interesting because COVID-19 is a human crisis. So I think above all else, and I think I told you this to you privately, but I say it publicly a lot. The unsung heroes of the pandemic, well, certainly the healthcare providers and the grocery workers, but the tech community has had to really go the extra mile to adapt what might’ve been a different environment. And it’s not just the work from home. It may be capacity issues, infrastructure issues of being [inaudible 00:18:49] some kind of norm in an abnormal situation.

Jayne Groll:

And so I think you’re right. I think having witnessed now a human crisis, the leaders sharing some of the challenges. Those leaders, regardless of whatever role they sit in the organization, again, you’re a CTO, you might have your child walk in on a Zoom meeting, the same way that somebody on your team may have a child walk into their Zoom meeting or wondering how are we going to adapt to school or, “Hey, I’ve got to get my pet out.” I think there’s a lot of equalization in our humanity.

Jayne Groll:

The other thing is, and I’ll ask your perspective on this as well, the interesting thing about COVID-19, and we don’t want everything in the world to be about COVID-19, but today it is. COVID-19 is a global human crisis. So it didn’t hit just one region so you can’t close your eyes to it. It didn’t hit one business sector. It affected every business sector. And so again, I think there’s an equalization there that business leaders had to look at collectively, maybe not together, but certainly as one lens because they face the same challenges regardless of whether they had a vertical market or they were in the same geographical region. What are you seeing about that?

Gautham Pallapa:

That’s a very valid point, the equalization. And a couple of weeks back I actually wrote about it. And I looked at it from a slightly different way. It was the equalization of the digital landscape. So I do believe that, especially because this is a global pandemic and it’s an equalizer, that the pain across the entire world. What it’s also done is it’s made people aware of the same complexities in different verticals, in different domains, in different countries and they’re starting to together and they can empathize on a global level. So that’s one positive thing.

Gautham Pallapa:

The other positive thing that I want to bring up, and especially because you’re mentioning the tech industry and the tech workers, is I believe that this pandemic and its economic aftermath has resulted in equalizing the technology playing field. So what it’s done is for all the startups and other companies that have been advanced and that have made leaps and bounds because they had [Greenfield 00:21:18] technology and the incumbents didn’t really have an opportunity to move forward as quickly as they could because of their [inaudible 00:21:26] applications and their portfolio or their infrastructure management and so on, what it has done is it has given an opportunity for these incumbents to invigorate and allow and provide permission to the teams and the tech workers within these organizations to have the ability to do lean experimentation, to have more automation, to increase and accelerate their developer productivity and also to give them permission to fail.

Gautham Pallapa:

Even the fact of having a child come in and interrupt a meeting would have been considered a failure in their previous lives, but right now we all accept it. We’re okay with it. We move on. We feel happy about it. So the level of allowance or permission to fail is increasing in all these incumbents. And because of that, it’s going to be very exciting because the more you can fail and fail fast and fail cheap, the quicker you’re going to innovate, the more beautiful features you’re going to introduce into the market and there will be a collective positive event that will happen as a result of this.

Jayne Groll :

That’s really interesting to me because I think you’re right. I think that there is the great equalizer in so many different levels and that it opened up opportunities that perhaps complex organizations didn’t really see before or were afraid of. And it also, I think, creates you’re right, a collaborative global community. Again, it’ll be interesting to see as we really do start to come out of this, and we will, but we’re not going back to where we were, how much of this good spirit, how much of this humanity, how much of this we retain. And it’s my greatest hope that as we do start to find out what new normal looks like that we do continue to put humans at the center.

Jayne Groll:

I think you know at DevOps Institute, our mission is to advance the humans of DevOps and watching some of this unfold, I think, is really going to be fascinating, particularly again, in segments or regions where the recognition of… The term NoOps is a really great example of that. NoOps was never meant to be disrespectful, but there were a lot of people that heard NoOps and heard no job. But I think today there’s a really good emphasis that will be placed on the value of humans in the value stream and what that actually looks like.

Gautham Pallapa:

Definitely.

Jayne Groll:

So I wish we could talk forever about this. So we are going to run out of time. If you’re talking to a business leader, because you have so much experience with business transformation, do you have a piece of advice for helping them just get started looking at empathy and human skills perhaps in a slightly different way?

Gautham Pallapa:

Yeah, so business transformations are extremely complex. And I think because of the fear of transforming, it becomes way more complex than we have to. But the time is now. COVID-19 has become that compelling event for all of us to start transforming and start evaluating our existing processes and our methodologies and trying to move forward and move at a much more accelerated pace. And I’m with you, Jayne. The most important thing is to try to start, and to start doesn’t mean rip all the floorboards and start rebuilding and remodeling the house immediately. The most important things, and there are just three important themes, at least that I feel, or four themes that I feel are most important to drive this kind of modernization or a business transformation.

Gautham Pallapa:

The first one is impactful communication. We have a lot of digital communication or a lot of channels through which we are communicating right now and we’re overcompensating. It causes a lot of noise. And so what we want to do is make sure that that signal-to-noise ratio is not degraded, that we have more signal. And so prioritizing quality over quantity is really important in this day and age to help drive this kind of a business transformation.

Gautham Pallapa:

The second one is to focus on remote collaboration methodologies. We are going to embrace remote collaboration in some way, shape or form for a majority of the workforce and providing that kind of comfortable, safe environment for people to have remote collaboration and also innovate and be comfortable to run experiments and to fail is the second important theme that teams need to focus on, that leaders need to drive.

Gautham Pallapa:

The third one is enablement. We want to make sure that we are enabling our people and we’re upskilling our people to elevate the conversation and to have them focus on much more high value activities and allow the mundane activities to be performed by systems and by automation. But at the same time, don’t try to automate everything. That’s not really the objective of what we want to do. That’s number three.

Gautham Pallapa:

And all of this is going to be wrapped around team empathy. We want to make sure that we are empathizing with our teams, we understand and embrace all the stress that it’s going through, and we’re going to all work together and build the newer form of organizational culture in a remote environment. And if we follow these four themes, and especially with empathy at the core, I’m pretty sure that we can develop the new form of agility and operations and the mindset needed to have a successful business transformation.

Jayne Groll:

That’s fantastic and I love that because I think it’s tangible. I think it’s actionable. And I also think that it’s organic in a nonorganic way, meaning here’s some things that you could do that you could examine within your own organization. And I always say culture does not transform, people transform, when they’re inspired to do so. So that’s awesome.

Jayne Groll:

Gautham, thank you so much. I so enjoyed this conversation. I think that the listeners are going to get a lot out of it. I particularly respect the fact that in your role, and you have a lot of experience both as a practitioner and as a CTO at Pivotal and now with VMware, that you have such a good heart about this. And if you’re working with other organizations to guide their business transformation, then you’re going to share that heart with them. And I think that’s really admirable. So thank you so much for that.

Gautham Pallapa:

Thank you for having me, Jayne. It was a pleasure.

Jayne Groll:

And I also want to congratulate you. You just became one of DevOps Institute’s newest ambassadors. So we’re very much looking forward to ongoing contributions and conversations with you. So thanks very much again.

Jayne Groll:

So if you’re listening, this is The Humans of DevOps Podcast. I’ve been joined today by Gautham Pallapa, Global CTO of VMware, and we’ve been talking about human skills and empathy. And I really hope that if you’re listening, you take some of this advice for yourself and into your organization. Stay tuned. We’ll be doing more episodes of Humans of Podcast on a regular basis. This is Jayne Groll, I’m CEO of the DevOps Institute. And I wish you good health and good safety.

Outro:

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Humans of DevOps Podcast. Don’t forget to join our global community to get access to even more great resources like this. Until next time, remember, you are part of something bigger than yourself. You belong.

Join the FREE DevOps Institute Continuous Learning Community to gain access to exclusive member content!


Web | https://devopsinstitute.com/
Twitter | @DEVOPSINST
LinkedIn | /devops-institute
YouTube | DevOps Institute

Become Free Member