Half-million Dollar Education with Sean Walsh

/ entrepreneurs / technologists / leaders / students /


The goal is more people living a prosperous life than they are living it today.

Sean joins us to discuss his half-million dollar education in human centered design and what a more prosperous St. Louis looks like in years to come.


Transcript

Simon
Well, I'm excited for this interview. I'm a little nervous too. This is the first one I've gotten nervous for. So but I think, you know, we, we use the language here on the catch fire podcast of zooming past archetypes. So the kind of these labels that we, we use a lot and, and getting to a personal prototype, trying to unlock how we serve people and what we need to serve people and and such, and then there's a third piece of really cultivating space to do that in our lives, in our community. And to me, you're one of the people I've met that just does that space thing, the best you've created space for so many of us to find our prototypes and stuff like that. And I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about kind of how you got to be where you are and a little bit of your story.

Sean
Well, I've had some people, you know, it's interesting cause you know, my career is pretty long, you know, having started professionally in the early eighties as a co op at IBM. So I've seen a lot, I've made a lot of mistakes. I've seen leaders, you know, some who I admire and some who were by the measures of the world's successful, but when you got under the covers, you know, how they got there and the way they operated, I didn't really like, so later in my career now you know, I moved, I was in corporate for till 2003 corporate being large companies. So the first 20 plus years of my career, when you count my co-op during college, roughly 20 years after college get out of college, I was in big companies and I like the companies cause they can get a lot done, but there's an awful lot that goes on under the covers just to survive a large company culture that I made a decision in 2003 that I was done working in large companies.

Sean
I love working with large companies, but I prefer to work on the company as an outsider, as opposed to, and providing solutions to those companies rather than being on the inside. And so I, since 2003, I've been working in either pure startups or private equity or venture cap backed startups in the last couple have been where I was actually the founder. A couple of times I was brought in as the professional CEO, following a founder. And I've always wanted to create a company that recognize the reality that the company is the people I made the people then make the product, especially if it's a services company, which is 1904 labs is a consulting company. So our product is our people and the capability of our people. And so to be a good company, to be a company that clients want to work with, you have to be a company that people want to work for and with.

Sean
And so that's really what I focused on the last couple companies and intentionally intensely with 1904 labs. And so you used, that's why I asked you the question about the space. I wanted a company, we could all bring our whole self to the work so that we could unlock the capabilities inherent each of us and put aside the fiction that people come to work and then they come home. You know, the reality is even when people are at work, especially now in the age of COVID where you're working from home, it lays bare the fact that people are always there, they're integrated. And so there, you need to create a place that just admits that that's the case. And in the fact that we work to live, we don't live to work and it's and so that's just being very intentional about what that means. And as you add more people to the company, having them help us continue to evolve what that means. So it works for everybody cause I've always wanted to have a company that I wanted to work for. And so I was kind of taking bits and pieces of what I thought companies did well and have kind of put that together, you know, here in the last couple of startups, including 1904 labs.

Simon
Yeah. One of the reasons that I came to 1904 and then something that's continually been something that I've, I've tried to learn from since I've been here is about the idea of HTD agile in this process of human centered design and how we go about doing things solving the problems the right way. And what interested me as I started to hear some stories from those that work with us about how this HDD agile process, isn't just kind of pie in the sky. It, it sounds like you came to it through some learnings. And I wondered if you could talk about some of how you came to that.

Sean
Yeah. So in 2006, I was asked to follow the founder in a company that was kind of pioneering the founders. The two guys that started the company are geniuses, especially in this area of software development and they were developers and they said, look, we've come up with a better way to build software it's because we're going to build software with models not code and from an executive standpoint, that sounds pretty good. And it executive, because if you could build them with models and not code, you could go faster. And then that code could get deployed faster and working applications and to be easier to maintain because it wouldn't be code, it would be models. I had, they had been at it for a while and put, you know, they'd book, he and his founder and co founder. And then the major board member had made a bunch of money in a prior company.

Sean
And so they were already pretty deep into this company. And so I joined and over the period of four years, not only daddy invest four and half years of my time, I put in fair amount of money myself, about a half, a million dollars only to find out over the period of time that, well, it sounded good to the executives. Developers have no interest for the large part of building software, using models. They like code, you know, people, if you think about it, people ask, say to themselves I'm an angular developer, I'm a react developer. I do, I love to do Kafka or I love to do X or they I'm a dev ops engineer and I'm good at using Jenkins and Kubernetes. And it's just the way developers identify themselves, nothing net good or bad. It's just the way it is.

Sean
And it took us four and a half years and another, probably 18, 17 million of which half a million with my own money to find out that we were pushing something that in the very end, that the key people in the creation of code at no interest in using. And so that was if searing lesson and had, we spent the time to understand all the different percents of fancy word persona, but all the different archetypes or types of people that are involved in, in conceiving understanding problems, designing a technology solution to the problem of software solution. If there one appropriate building that solution, deploying it, maintaining it. If we didn't spend time to understand the human at the center of that enterprise, the developer, the software professional, we would have saved ourselves a lot of time. And so nothing like a half million dollar personal education in four and a half years, which is more than I spent getting my electrical engineering degree at Purdue back in the day.

Sean
And believe me with a lot of people working for me all because we didn't pay attention to the humans, everything I do in my career, I've always wanted to say, okay, well my, well, what didn't go well, what did I learn so that I don't have to learn again. And so seared in my brain was I will never ever be part of a startup that we really don't understand that humans. And so once again, that kind of permeates 1,904 labs because why do you know we want to be a company of innovative people, so what innovative people want to do? So we make sure we understand what attracts and retains those kinds of people in 1904. And then how do we equip those people with a methodology that makes sure we don't fall in love with the tech because technologists love technology. We fall in love with the problem and the only way to fall in love with the problem and understand that problem and solve that problem is to fall in love with the humans who have those problems.

And the reason we used human centered design and not user experience, which is another kind of a synonym is as soon as you say user experience, people think about a screen, you know, user interface, but human centered design. And we still have that problem with HCD agile, but human centered sciences. We worry about humans who had what humans, what archetypes, what personas have the problem and what is the problem. And we stay into in our discovery process, which is the first phase of our ECD agile methodology. Once we get past the sow, the statement of work is until we want to stay with those humans and understand that problem. And then we also want to have the technologists understand the technology options so we can marry our understanding of the problem with what's possible on the technology side to begin to then form a hypothesis of, okay, if we did this, it would remove those problems and it would be intuitive and easy to use.

Sean
If you think about the democratization of technology, you know, with cloud and with all the open source texts, you don't have to buy licenses. You don't have to have a data center it's easier than ever to spin something up technologically, but what is, what is it you're spinning up and why are you spinning that up? You know, and you know, technologists by their nature are problem oriented problem solving, oriented, but aiming them with a mat, giving them a methodology that allows them to stay in the problem until they really understand it by coupling them with human centered designers who are good at understand that humans and doing the research necessary doesn't guarantee you're going to get the right thing done the right first time, but it gives you an odds on bad odds on opportunity to be right the first time and to not start building technology solutions that aren't anchored in the problem is the actual humans have.

Simon
So you've talked a lot about how you want to lead a company that has humans at the center. And then you've talked a lot about how we're trying to put people at the center with our HDD methodology. One thing that strikes me about both is there's a lot of empathy at the heart of both. It seems sometimes like empathy is the secret weapon there. Is that something that you resonate with or,

Sean
Yeah. You know the, as I said, that expensive half a million dollar four and a half year education I got in lack of empathy, I'm late. I was late to understanding that taking the time to put yourself in the shoes of the, of the various users that are, you're trying to build something for and not assume, you know, what they're trying to do is not a weakness. It's a strength, you know, and you realize, you know, maybe that's you get older and you're okay saying, because the older you get, you've heard this old Axiom, the older I get the less I know, because I know I, you know, the more informed I become, how much I realize, I don't know. And so why pretend, you know, just go ask, I've always said, one of the phrases I've always had is if you'll just ask the person what they need, they'll tell you, you don't have to figure it out.

You don't have to, you don't have to sit in a room and ruminate about what we're going to do for X, Y, and Z person. Just go ask them. And, and what I learned from smarter people than me on the human centered design side is in addition to asking them, cause people can't always tell you what they need is these tools like contextual inquiry, which is a process by which you watch people work and you would observe, and you don't say anything and you just watch them work. And then afterwards you ask them questions about why they do certain things is another way to help a person tell you what's wrong with the way the things working cause people, you know, people will get their job done, regardless of, you know, if we're talking about a system that you give them or a report you've given them or whatever, however, deficient it is, they'll still get their work done. And so that's why having the tools that the human centered designers bring to the table to understand and be empathetic in a structured way. You know, it's more than me just trying to put myself in your shoes, there's tools and techniques to do that

Simon
Back to this theme of putting the humans at the center. And you know, folks might be listening to this coming from a lot of different disciplines and some of the software agile stuff may or may not resonate with them, but as I've watched you lead through this COVID stuff, there's been a lot of times where at least for me, the theme has come away of that. It takes some courage to, to lead through this stuff. And I'm sure it takes courage, you know, without COVID going on. I mean, just being a leader takes courage, but, but all this other stuff takes courage. Is there an example that you could share with us of, of something that's happened during this COVID situation? That's taken a lot of courage.

Sean
I don't know if I'd use the term courage as much as flexibility. You know, one of the hallmarks of our culture was we kind of arrived at it over time when we first started, we were completely in the office because we were new. We were trying to figure out, you know, get everything right. But multiple people said, you know, we want more flexibility. And over time we evolved to what we call our two, three model, which is everybody in the labs on Mondays and Thursdays, and happens to be the days that we do innovation hours. And then they could be home from anywhere from one to three days, you know, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, depending on what the nature of the work they were doing with their clients and how the team kind of organized to, to meet the needs of the client.

And so we had a lot of people that were embracing that we had some people that were in the office five time, five days a week. Some people were in the office two days a week. And, you know, there are continuum between those two. And I thought that was a really good strength in the labs, you know, and as I look at, what's really good, what I think is going to happen with, I don't know, but I want to think it's going to happen post COVID is we're probably going to be more like that. You know, I, you know, you've had some people, really large companies make these grand pronouncements, they're going to be completely remote. And I don't think a hundred percent remote is healthy for our company. I think we need to be together. And so the hardest thing was to get, let that go during coma to say, you know what with surveys, with talking to people people are, are across the spectrum in terms of their comfort or not with interacting with other people.

Why we have this infectious disease swirling around us, cause everybody's got their own potential risk from it, plus people that they're interacting with. So it required a lot because I feel very strongly about our two, three model to just let that go and say, okay, we're going to go to our remote first due to COVID until such time. And I, and you've heard me say this it's in our rear view mirror. And I don't know when that's going to be based on reading. I think it's going to be sometime between summer of next year and the end of next year. And until that time we're a remote first company. So we're just going to flip ourselves around and we're not going to disadvantage anybody who says, you know what, for my own personal situation, I'm going to work from home until they, and, and to switch over and talk to our people that handle culture and the way the office runs and say, let's figure out how to hold onto our culture and things like that in a remote first world until such time that we can reimplement two, three when COVID is in our rear mirror.

And that just required letting go of something because the new reality was different as much as, I don't know, I don't like what's going on, but nobody does. So, okay. So now how do we have a healthy company at which starts with, you know, having people that are not being coerced to do something that's against what they believe to be their self interest in their what's good for them so that we can serve our clients. And, you know, we're still a work in progress, but it's, it required, you know, when we went away we all stood up and said, okay, on March 13th, this is our last day together. We'll get back in the early may and here we are in July and we're not back and we're not gonna be back anytime soon. It's just required. I would say flexibility. Don't hold on. You know, once again, it's all about don't hold on to the old way. So the old reality when new data presents itself, be ready to deal with that data, no matter whether you like it or not. And at the end of the day err on the side of what's right for the human beings and you know, from there, we'll figure it out.

Simon
Switching gears to something that I think we have in common is just a love for st. Louis and a love for the city. And you started something recently with 1900 was with several other organizations called lifting the Lu. Could you tell us a little bit about lifting the loo?

Sean
Yeah. You know we've always had a a mission in 1904 labs to give back may not, you know, take care of our people, people working together to take care of our clients and then have a robust enough company so we could give back. And one of the reasons we like being down in the cortex, although now we're physically not there much, but is because the cortex is so close to the need in st. Louis. And so on a personal note, I've been trying to get an understanding of what's going on in st. Louis North of Del Mar because, you know, in discussions with people on Facebook and just in person, you know, it occurred to me that I really did not. I had theories about what I thought was going on, but I said, you know what, let's go get up close and personal.

Sean
Let's get to know these folks that are struggling and understand what they need. And then as part of our give back how can we, how can we as a company make a difference in st. Louis? And so we've always kind of focused our efforts with organizations. And it's always been my belief that rather than trying to figure out what to do ourselves, cause you know, there's nothing worse than the immature hour at the helping thing. You know, cause we're consultants, we're experts in technology and experience design and we're not experts in how to help children, but we're not experts in how to help. There might have people in our company that, you know, have spent a lot of time there. So they might be individually experts, but we're not as an organization. So our goal was to partner with other organizations who are doing that.

So like lift for life Academy, Northside community school in terms of kids, a mission st. Louis in terms of those that are, have been involved in the justice system st. Patrick center and pop bangers for unhoused. And most recently the tabernacle development corporation up in Jeff Bandelou area who were trying to help them house and the kids and just the neighborhood and trying to stabilize the neighborhood. And so lifting the loo came about because we don't run to be about 1904. We want it to be about helping people, you know? And so creating something that we can collaborate more. And so last fall, we kind of created lifting allude as an organization that we as 19 and four could participate in, but not be center stage. Cause we're not trying to be the hero here we're trying to help. But the idea is to have lifting the loop, be an organization it's not a five and one C3, but we want to be a connector that connects people and money to need and to organizations and B help raise the spotlight on these great organizations that we've partnered with and to try to get more people aware of what they're doing and get them involved, get them involved with their time, their talents and their treasure.

Simon
And then this has been the question I'm most excited to ask. What's your dream like lifting the Lou goes, goes on for the next 20, 25 years and maybe longer, but what does our city look like? What's different because of things like this,

Sean
The board I just joined the board of cortex, which is the kind of organizing organization of the area, that geographical area between SLU and WashU with, which we sit in, our company sits in. And they've just done a, the new 10 year plan. And what's emerging is to help reinvent st. Louis as a place that uses all of its talents, not just the natural talent and I'm really jazzed about that. And so whether we keep doing lifting the loo or we've throw our energy behind something, maybe that cortex does once again, the goal is to increase prosperity and reduce despair. If you look at all that lifting Lulu website, it's this Island, you know, cortex is an Island of prosperity, kind of the Grove is another one, although it's been hit pretty hard by the COVID and the retail and all that stuff.

Generally, these are islands of prosperity in st. Louis. Jim McCarthy's organization is kind of setting up that new corridor with NGA and, you know, T-Rex is down there and that's another emerging Island of prosperity, but there's a lot of islands of in the st Louis city and not everybody's participating. And the goal of cortex over the next 10 years is to be less of a, I mean, it's still going to have a physical presence and a lot of real estate, things like that in this where it is, but it's also going to hopefully be an engine to create more prosperity across the region for people that haven't been participating. And that's the goal. I mean, if you were to, you know, sit back 10 years, 20 years from now I don't want to wait that long, but you know, as you think about it, looking back in the rear view mirror, more people are experienced prosperity.

You know, they've got a job that uses their potential. Their potential has been, you know, they went and get back to those kids, more kids who get out of high school and have op options because they've been properly educated and mentored along the way, or folks that didn't get that done and they get another try, they get another bite at the Apple to kind of get on a right path and there's things for them as well. And to me, that's the goal. More people participating in prosperity and not everybody's idea of prosperity is the same, you know, but it's as a human being, I, you know, the one kind of foundational definition of prosperity is I'm able to use my talents and achieve my goals, whatever they are on my own or with help, I'm able to realize my potential and live, you know?

Yeah. I went to live and not, not be constrained. And as I said, it's not one size fits all everybody's definition of prosperity. I mean, there's some common things, you know, I want to be able to have a place to live and I want to have enough to eat. And I want my kids, if I have choose to have kids and want to have my kids have a shout, I could education that kind of stuff, but there's other dimensions to it as well. And that the goal is more people living a prosperous life than they are living it today.

Author Bio

Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh

Managing Director of 1904labs