Here's the One Trait that is Key to Channel Success

QAD executive Tony Winter tells what took him from a small child in Wales to CTO of a major software company.

To understand the journey that led Tony Winter to the channel, we have to travel back in time to the early 1970s—the days before personal computers, when he was a curious eight-year-old in Wales tinkering around with programming just because he wanted to see how it worked.

Unlike many in the IT channel, Winter started his career as a partner, running his own IT firm doing software recovery, hardware installation and desktop publishing in the burgeoning PC space by the age of 18. Discounting a brief flirtation with physics while at Staffordshire University, he’s been in tech ever since. And while much of his success can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time, it’s that same sense of curiosity he had at eight that’s taught him how to build—and maintain—a successful career in a space that’s evolving at lightning speed.

Though his first job out of college in the mid-90s was as a developer for a small software company specializing in retail and manufacturing, the most valuable things he learned there had nothing to do with programming. When you work for a small company, he says, there is ample opportunity to be exposed to every aspect of business. That business acumen he picked up has continued to advance his career and makes him well suited to service clients in the business outcome-oriented channel of today.

“The interesting thing is that a lot of things we did as a small business are the same things you try to do as a software developer today,” says Winter. “The perfect developer is someone who knows the customer, knows the inside out of the product and who can learn to write quality.”

Winter cites examples like Scrum methodologies and DevOps principles that are trying to bring the same thing to automation to show that the skills he learned early on are just as relevant decades later. Instead of staying siloed, end developers suddenly have that direct interaction with the customer again where they can push code into production and see its results in real time.

Right place, right time

Winter is engaging, even over the phone, regularly slipping smooth jokes at his own expense into the conversation. But his ‘just a small town Welsh boy’ speech can’t mask the sheer breadth and depth of his expertise, nor take away from the constant undercurrent of curiosity that’s propelled his career forward.

Several years after he joined that first software firm, for example, the company contracted with an outside provider that was trying out a newfangled technology: wide area networks, using Cisco routers, that were to connect the North American and U.K. operations. By chance, his desk sat right next to the boxes that needed to be configured. When the phone rang and a frustrated employee in a remote location needed to troubleshoot the network, Winter was by default the guy who figured it out.

It didn’t take long for Winter to move from software development into networking. Then operating systems. Then servers. Soon he was building entire systems and running projects from start to finish.

“And that—that served as the basis for everything I did for my career from then on.”

DevOps: the primer to IoT?

Like most of us over the age of 30, it still shocks Winter when he realizes he’s been at QAD, an enterprise software solutions firm based in Santa Barbara, Calif., for 17 years. His tenure there has spanned from the services organization to research and development to product architecture, all the time bringing new technologies to the company’s attention. Today, Winter serves as QAD’s chief technology officer, responsible for the QAD Enterprise Platform.

He’s come a long way from his university days, where he worked part-time for the IT department just to get “beer drinking money.” So too has the IT channel, and Winter says the key to long-term success in this space is the ability to continually evolve while staying grounded in the foundational skills that will always push businesses forward, the skills he learned at his first job out of college.

One of those core skills is the drive to make processes as easy as possible on the customer. With every new technology that bursts into the channel—and with every associated tool—comes an additional layer of complexity that IT workers are constantly trying to simplify for the 21st century customer.

“You’ve got to have all the ‘new’ coexist in one system, and you’ve got to continually evolve it. How do you completely modernize while not making it a giant step for customers to upgrade and stay current? One of the big trends for us and the industry is how to adapt to get people to stay current on software. Instead of these big steps of complex upgrades, now it’s more of an evolution.”

The rapid pace of technology translates to a constant test of an organization’s ability to adapt while also staying focused on the customer experience. In 2008, for example, QAD put their entire ERP in the cloud, says Winter. About five years ago, the company formed a UX team and a mobile first strategy.

Tech expertise: only one part of the channel ecosystem

It used to be that technological skills were enough. If partners understood business, well, all the better. But when you look at third platform technologies like mobile, cloud and AI, these days channel partners have to look at the entire pipeline if they want to be competitive. From the bottom up, a successful project looks at the technical aspects of how the legacy tech needs to adapt to work with emerging tech. From the top down, it’s all about customer experience and how to optimize the solution from a user perspective. But it only sounds complicated when you get in the weeds. The secret, says Winter, is realizing that somewhere there’s an existing template you can adapt.

Take IoT, for instance. Winter says that there’s such a degree of commonality between DevOps and the IoT space that partners can use the processes they developed when they switched to agile development as a cheat sheet for IoT. Back when the cloud opened the door to iterative software development methodologies, dev teams had to learn how to continuously monitor systems in the cloud and ensure that available resources met a certain service level. The same basic principles apply to IoT.

“Now I have all that data and I need to make meaning of it, so I start monitoring it. I start seeing trends and ultimately get to a stage where I have some level of patterns I can recognize. [Just like DevOps], I need a way to automatically recover if I see certain signals happening that I know will lead to a detrimental outcome.”

Curiosity is king

“I often look back [and see] there are so many skills as an architect that really form a great basis for general business. As an architect, you’re looking for abstraction all the time. I’m looking to abstract commonalities across a multitude of things.”

The same principle, he says, applies to the business world. To build an IT architecture, you have to know compute, storage, networking, servers, big data and more—and how it all fits together. When partners talk about wanting to solve for business outcomes, they just need to take that mindset and telescope it out to a broader level. If you can split your brain and see how the technical side fits with the sales team’s challenges or the executive team’s strategy, you’re golden.

The other side benefit that comes from being able to think in broader terms is the ability to adapt to change. Shops that are focused on the endless minutiae of IT may lose the bigger picture because of all the details. That isn’t going to change anytime soon, says Winter. Today’s accelerated pace of change means that what partners expected to do in a five-year period now has to be done in three, and it’s shrinking all the time. If you get lost in the weeds, you’re sunk.

The good news, says Winter, is that it’s very possible to train organizations to adapt to rapid change. Young workforces have an advantage. Millennials were born in and continue to occupy a world where the technology that underpins daily life is constantly changing. This mindset is essential to both the tech and the business world.

It’s something like the ‘take a deep breath and jump’ mantra. Organizations can be trained to accept change and live with continuous evolution, but leaders have to have the courage to jump in and try something new, even when they feel they haven’t been able to debate all of the minute associated details.

In the end, it all comes back to the trait Winter credits with his success in riding the various waves of advancement in the tech space: curiosity. When new trends emerge, you have to want to learn more about them, rather than dread the complications they’ll usher in. You have to be curious.

Like Winter, most of us were fueled by curiosity as small children. If maintaining that level of inquisitiveness is the key to success, maybe it’s time we all got in touch with our inner eight-year-old.

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