Embracing in Culture Change Horizontally and Vertically. Embracing culture change can be hard in organizations with hierarchy. We see this a lot with our military customers. Rank is authority- knowing who is in charge and who is the boss. Sometimes someone has a great idea but isn’t as high in rank and the idea gets overlooked. In order to reinforce digital transformation values, we have to encourage the opportunity for people, no matter who they are, to bring ideas to the table and the best idea for delivering the best value to the user wins.
As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Delali Dzirasa.
Delali Dzirasa is the Founder and CEO of Fearless, a full-stack digital services firm based in Baltimore with a mission to create software with a soul — tools that empower communities and make a difference. With a passion for programming, entrepreneurship and digital transformation, Dzirasa has grown Fearless to more than 130 employees and $40 million in revenue. Dzirasa has nearly 20 years of progressive responsibility managing programs within the Federal Government and overseeing the creation of sustainable civic tech solutions. He is a founder of Hutch, a civic tech incubator, and HACK Baltimore, a civic tech non-profit that fosters collaboration to develop sustainable solutions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My passion and entrepreneurial spirit started as a kid when I knocked on doors and offered to cut grass, mow lawns, wash cars, or walk dogs. The thrill of landing those few jobs gave me a taste of the entrepreneurial life and I was hooked. After graduating from UMBC in 2004 with a degree in computer engineering, I had one request when I accepted my first job after college. I would take a software programming job at Raba Technologies, but only if I could learn the business side. When the company won two $100 million defense contracts the next year, and a program manager needed extra help, I got the opportunity. The experience of advancing to a leadership role on a massive contract, with a good mentor led me to build a similar culture at my own firm.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The funniest mistake turned out to be one of our greatest outcomes- I failed to work with my partner and COO, John Foster, earlier and he was literally right in front of me. John and I attended undergrad together — he started a year after me and we were both computer engineering majors. After graduation, I got a job in Maryland. John was also in Maryland but did not get a job right away. He eventually got a job and moved into my basement, but was working in Atlanta Monday to Thursday. I offered to share his resume so he could get a job in Maryland and not travel so much. But he got another job requiring weekly travel, this time to Arkansas. After all that John finally agreed to try working together. It took 5 to 6 years to make it happen but it turned out that my partner was living in my basement for over a year.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s not just one person who helped me, it was the many mentors and role models who have helped me along the way. From that first boss at Raba who was enthusiastic about me wanting to eventually start my own company to the folks at the DoD Mentor Protégé program who took Fearless under their wing, countless individuals have touched Fearless along the way.
UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski was really instrumental in my growth for many reasons. His ability to connect people and open doors is extraordinary. Before my first job out of college, I asked for advice and feedback. I had some offers for jobs and he recommended Raba Tech, which is where I learned business skills — he brokered that introduction. I found out later that I was the only entry-level hire the company made before they got acquired.
I always try to ping him before major life decisions and when I thought about starting Fearless, he recommended people I should talk to and I received great feedback. He opens doors, not just for me, but for many others, and that is what I am trying to do for the next group of emerging entrepreneurs.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There are three.
The first, Purple Cow by Seth Godin, is the inspiration behind my business culture. If you saw a purple cow while driving down the road, you’d stop to take a closer look, post a photo, and tell your grandma, right? Seth Godin dreamt up this surprising visual in his book, Purple Cow. In a world full of brown cows, a purple cow stands out from the crowd, and people can’t help but take notice. It’s our goal to be exceptional in everything we do: from defining our ethics structure and turning down opportunities that don’t align, to offering our employees a monthly snack stipend, we strive to be a surprisingly different kind of company.
The second is Built to Last by Jim Collins. The book studies visionary companies like 3M, Marriott, IBM, and Disney to understand what makes a business last. One part made me pause and think hard. Those companies that have survived all determined who it is they wanted to be before they determined what to sell. The premise is that widgets change, customers change, but who you are will keep you going.
Finally, The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber, which looks at why a lot of small businesses fail. The example shared is someone who starts a business making pies after years of making them for holiday gatherings. Before long she finds herself doing a lot of different things — PR, sales, daily financial reconciliation — and no longer making the pies. The book emphasizes the need to set up the right systems for the business to operate and allow you to make the best product you can.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Fearless’ mission has always been focused on giving back. It took a few years for us to develop our tagline of software with a soul, but making the world a better place through software has always been at Fearless’ core.
I knew the place Fearless could have the biggest impact was within the government. The services local, state, and federal government agencies provide touch millions of Americans across all economic levels, geographies and backgrounds. Digital services touch every part of our lives but civic tools don’t keep up with technology evolution.
When we were a young company of two employees, we became HUBZone certified. Every founder and company talks about giving back when they get to a certain size or make a certain amount of revenue. HUBZone forces you to give back from day one and look at where you’re hiring and invest in the community and give back and support. Having the HUBZone requirements made us think about structuring the company differently than if we didn’t have the certification and requirements. What could be considered constraints, actually helped us in the long-run.
From the beginning, we’ve focused on creating tools and experiences that empower people and change lives.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
We are working with the Air Force on their efforts to modernize and infuse Digital Transformation into their processes. We are incredibly proud of our work with the Air Force software factory BESPIN and their Digital University portal. Currently used by the Air Force and Space Force, the Digital University platform is transforming the way the Air Force trains and recruits digital talent. By working with private industry partners like Fearless, BESPIN drives digital transformation within the Air Force. Custom training pathways developed by the Digital University team help users navigate the thousands of free classes that are available and assemble a curriculum to reach users goals. Over 18,000 service members have utilized Digital University since its launch. The platform enables America’s service members to prepare for careers in a digital age.
Fearless is also working with CMS to update many of its legacy tools on the main CMS website. This ongoing project to make the CMS website more accessible and helpful for Americans, includes updates to the eligibility premium calculator, Accountable Care Organizations, and Medicare helpful contacts sections of the website. It is critical for the government to deliver information to its citizens, especially during a pandemic.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?
Transformation is an evolution. People are evolving in their journeys. We’re all transforming- getting older and wiser. With digital transformation we look at how a business is evolving in the digital era. There are companies still sitting on large scale mainframes. While others are exploring how their business might incorporate AR and VR. Everyone is on a spectrum of the transformation journey. We assess where they are and help them move forward in their next stage — there is a standard growth pattern and trajectory and we figure out where they are and how to move them along. For those early in the process, we have to spend a lot of time coaching and helping them to understand what it looks like and why it isn’t scary. For a lot of organizations, agile is weird. They are used to 6 months of planning, then 6 months to design, then they build, test, and evaluate. This is a waterfall model, and it works well when you are physical building something like in the construction industry. But it doesn’t work like that with software. We can get quick iterations, pivot and adapt based on what’s working and not working for the user. Transforming doesn’t always have to do with technology — often it is the modernization of culture, teaching a business how to deliver technology and business value.
Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?
All of them. The world is always transforming. It keeps evolving and affects how we reach people. If you have a capability, whether it’s a widget or service, it is your job to deliver that capability in a way to drive business value wherever people are- laptop, in their home, with distractions. Whatever way it takes to get people to engage with your service and product.
We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.
BESPIN- Business and Enterprise Systems Product Innovation- is the start-up business created in 2018 by a group of airmen to look at the technology systems used by the Airforce. They want to improve technology capabilities and upscale the airmen’s technology capacity. First, we had to break through the normal barriers of the military — rank, proxies, the process for creating new products. Through discovery we learned about the challenges of the various users. One example is those on the flight line doing maintenance. They are out in the field but they don’t have a tablet that works so they have to take notes on a piece of paper that is then taken back to an office to be transcribed by someone else onto an app on the desktop. This is a slow process, prone to errors, and labor intensive. We worked with them to develop the technical capabilities so that the airmen would have the devices and apps they need no matter where they are, speed up the process and reduce errors. We also created a Digital University to help airmen understand technology trends — how to leverage the cloud, trends in development and cybersecurity — all with the goal of helping them improve the development of technology that works for them.
Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?
Tech is easy. Culture is hard. We need to rethink many of the behaviors we form over years. Security, for example, is always a challenge when creating an agile culture. Their job is important — they have to prevent hacking and ensure that secure info is not stolen. With an agile approach, however, we need to get a product out to the user as soon as possible so we can get feedback. The feedback loop is critical in creating software. Frequent feedback allows us to make corrections efficiently and develop a product that works for the user. When it comes to security though, you build something then they want to do an assessment that could take 6 months before the product is approved for release. At this point, the product may not work for the user. We help security teams learn how to approach their work through a transformation lens. The more frequently we look at coding, the more secure we actually will be. We can catch errors early and fix the isolated problem versus waiting until the end and having to start all over again.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Continuous Improvement Habits in the Workforce. The worst thing that can happen is not getting your capability to the user to get feedback. Let’s say you have the best product to meet a business need. You built what you think will be the best video conferencing software but you didn’t test it on different user groups or situations. Then COVID hits and everyone needs your tool but it doesn’t work for everyone — it doesn’t work for students, or people at home with background noise like kids and pets. You can’t build software and let it sit there. You need to have continuous feedback loop so you can react to changes in the market make improvements and meet the needs of all potential customers.
- Coach and Measure Progress. Digital transformation is not just about tech. In fact, the bulk of it is about culture change. You can’t change culture unless you measure and track progress. We talk about playbooks and organizational values. But they have to be more than a plaque on a wall. What do they look like, sound like, act like. What are they not? They have to be baked into every area of operations from onboarding to reviews so that they can be reinforced over time.
- Supporting Cross-Functional Teams and Executives. You have really smart people who work for you and just need you to get out of the way and remove blockers. Blockers could be artificial policies or security issues. Removing these doesn’t mean you are not secure or not compliant. It just means that you have to restructure and develop policies so that compliance can be aligned with delivery.
- Compliance Must Align with Delivery. Often we have compliance and security at the top of the pyramid, and we change delivery to support those. We say let’s flip it. The user comes first. Delivery comes second. And everything else follows. You have to empower delivery teams to deliver your capability to the user in a way that is secure and compliant.
- Embracing in Culture Change Horizontally and Vertically. Embracing culture change can be hard in organizations with hierarchy. We see this a lot with our military customers. Rank is authority- knowing who is in charge and who is the boss. Sometimes someone has a great idea but isn’t as high in rank and the idea gets overlooked. In order to reinforce digital transformation values, we have to encourage the opportunity for people, no matter who they are, to bring ideas to the table and the best idea for delivering the best value to the user wins.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be lazy! Bill Gates was quoted as saying, “I always hire lazy people at Microsoft and give them hard problems. Lazy people always find an easy way to get something done.”
When I was in college, I was lazy. I was bored. I created a program that did my homework for me with a click of a button. As you think about innovation, some of the most lazy people have come up with the most interesting innovations in technology.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!