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Kelby Zorgdrager of DevelopIntelligence: “Differentiate yourself by making life easier for customers”

Differentiate yourself by making life easier for customers. The pandemic was a huge catalyst for rethinking customer experience. If your customers can’t come to you, you have to figure out a way to bring your product or service to them. But many smaller businesses don’t have the infrastructure to support online purchasing, fulfillment or delivery. […]

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Differentiate yourself by making life easier for customers. The pandemic was a huge catalyst for rethinking customer experience. If your customers can’t come to you, you have to figure out a way to bring your product or service to them. But many smaller businesses don’t have the infrastructure to support online purchasing, fulfillment or delivery. Transforming your local flower shop or liquor store into a digital experience requires knowledge of technical systems to support a model that’s sustainable.


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 Kelby Zorgdrager.

Kelby is the Founder and CEO of DevelopIntelligence, a firm that provides technical training to software developers and IT professionals. Driven by a passion for helping people learn, Kelby has spent almost two decades preparing engineers for digital transformation projects. A serial entrepreneur, he has served as a CTO previously and a technical editor for the bestselling book, Advanced Java.


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?

During my junior year of college, I co-founded a regional ISP with two friends. This was circa 1994 and regional ISPs weren’t really a thing. I was studying computer science and taking classes on networking. My co-founders and I were struggling to figure out how to scale and fractionalize the large “pipe” we got to our office. So, as any smart college student would do, I booked time with my networking professor to ask for guidance. After sharing my challenge, the professor said something to the effect, “I have no idea how to do that. I’ve never had to do that.” Hmmph.

The following year, I was working on my capstone project, which was written in C++. At the time, I was struggling with virtual functions and inheritance. So, as any smart college student would do, I booked time with my professor to get some help. During the meeting, he shared, “I don’t know C++; I only know how to program in Pascal.” Hmmph.

These two interactions made me realize that learning technology should be easier, and it should be taught by people with practical experience in using the technology. I have been working in and around this mission since 1996.

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?

One of the biggest mistakes I made early on relates to email. I’m sure I am not the only person who has erred in this way, but somehow I crossed threads. We were negotiating a deal with a large company, and in the midst of the back and forth, an internal email went to the customer. In addition to killing the deal, this email also tarnished a bit of my and my team’s reputation. Moral of the story: be diligent with the “TO” field.

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?

There are two people who really stand out. The first is my wife Beth. She is the constant encourager and believer in me. It was her enthusiastic support that gave me the courage to start DevelopIntelligence. To this day, she still encourages me to pursue dreams and opportunities.

The second person is Rick. I hired him to be my VP of Sales, and I learned more from Rick than anyone about running a business, serving the customer and selling. Rick taught me the concept of being the “easy” button for customers and putting customers’ needs above your wallet. It was Rick’s wisdom that became the cornerstone of my operating model.

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?

Along the way, I have read many books with helpful insights. A couple that come to mind are To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink and The Little Red Book of Selling by Jeffrey Gitmore. More than books, however, being involved in a CEO peer group had the biggest impact on my success. I was part of Vistage for a number of years, and the lessons I learned from other CEOs were invaluable.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision and what was its purpose?

When I started, I just wanted to have a company so I could provide for my family. I didn’t have a world-changing vision. But I did have a simple one: to help people be better at their jobs, by meeting them where they are and delivering training that truly resonates.

This vision still underpins DevelopIntelligence. Today, we equip software developers and IT professionals with the skills they need for digital transformation projects.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m excited to help startups and and companies stuck in the 1–5M dollars range scale up. Most founders aren’t sales or business development whiz kids. They are usually experts in their field, and that expertise gave them the credibility to get started. Unfortunately, it can also hold them back. I’m exploring how I can help businesses identify and break past limitations so they can grow.

Another area of interest to me is health tech. We have only scratched the surface of how connected health devices can change lives for the better — by preventing stroke deaths, diabetic emergencies and so forth. What will the Apple Watch look like in five years?

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?

“Digital Transformation” is a loaded term — and all the rage right now.

Depending on who you talk to, the definition varies. Generally, however, organizations pursue it to achieve three goals:

  • Meet customer needs more effectively
  • Gain a competitive edge (or at least stay competitive)
  • Improve the bottom line

The path to reaching these goals is vastly different from organization to organization.

On a practical level, “digital transformation” refers to business processes, as much or more than technology. Organizations are changing the processes by which they develop and deploy new tech. They also are shifting corporate culture, individual mindsets and even how money is made.

The word “transformation” means radical change, not conservative change.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Most small businesses that have started within the past few years, especially in the tech space, are already on the bleeding edge and likely don’t need to worry about digital transformation.

Older companies, if they haven’t already embarked on digital transformation, most likely need to do so if they want to remain competitive. This is especially true for non-tech companies. And although not obvious, it’s also true for tech companies that are 10+ years old.

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.

Two particularly impactful transformations come to mind. Several years ago, we began working with a large brick-and-mortar retailer. At the time, they had three separate systems — one for their retail stores, a second for inventory management and a third for e-commerce. They were early adopters of the buy online/in-store pickup concept, and the disconnection of their systems interfered with offering a seamless experience for customers. Over the course of two years, we helped them reinvent their technology skill set and direction, allowing them to offer an integrated buying experience to their customers and enhancing their brand reputation.

The second example is an organization that completely integrated its supply chain and released a mobile app to “revolutionize online ordering and pickup.” In fact, the popularity of their mobile app has allowed them to become one of the leading payment processors in the world. This transformation is still ongoing, which raises an important point that many leaders overlook. Some organizations think that once they go through a transformation they are done. However, in order to stay competitive continually, tech-first organizations invest in ongoing transformation and growth.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

Digital transformation is challenging for most organizations. Change is rarely easy. It requires buy-in, commitment, investment, a growth mindset and a willingness to change. Transformation means going from something known to something new, and that can involve ambiguity and uncertainty.

Some leaders and employees embrace change with enthusiasm, while others may be resistant. Before embarking on a large-scale transformation, executives and their teams need to be onboard. They need a willingness to embrace new concepts and technologies, while incorporating (or preserving) “what works” in the business.

Leaders need to model the behaviors and mindsets they want to see from their teams. They need to help people “see” the possibility and how their organization will be able to serve customers better as a result of the change. Vision casting is important and quite often forgotten. Also, it can be very helpful to involve a change management expert to identify potential barriers to digital transformation and create a formal change management strategy with a well-thought-out communication plan.

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.

There are many ways organizations can use digital transformation to “up their game.” Here are five examples:

1. Differentiate yourself by making life easier for customers.

The pandemic was a huge catalyst for rethinking customer experience. If your customers can’t come to you, you have to figure out a way to bring your product or service to them. But many smaller businesses don’t have the infrastructure to support online purchasing, fulfillment or delivery. Transforming your local flower shop or liquor store into a digital experience requires knowledge of technical systems to support a model that’s sustainable.

2. Revisit infrastructure to facilitate employee productivity.

Employees are the lifeblood of your organization. Their productivity directly affects customer satisfaction, creative output, business results and more. Many companies with long histories of in-office cultures weren’t prepared to support thousands of employees working from home, hitting their servers from remote locations at the same time. These teams had to completely revamp their internal processes and procedures, security systems and permission structures. Many companies had to rethink VPN policies and support tools, update security measures and ship equipment to employees’ homes. Think about the transformation required to allow call center employees to work from home!

3. Gain a competitive edge by anticipating what customers will want tomorrow.

Companies at the top of their industry continually reinvent themselves by creating products and services that respond to emerging needs — scenarios most customers haven’t yet anticipated. This requires a data mindset — a thirst for gleaning insights from ever-expanding mountains of data. Creating a system that supports the collection, storage and analysis of data requires a digital transformation. One beverage company has built a core competency in data engineering and data science in order to identify new markets for their products.

4. Pursue digital transformation to reduce operating costs.

Many companies are shaving costs by moving from an on-premises data center model to the Cloud. This requires a huge internal shift, both in mindset and technical ability. Companies that move to the Cloud can reduce hardware consumption costs. Spinning up virtual machines and paying only for what you need is much cheaper than buying a computer and paying a flat fee for space you might never use. In addition, the cost of maintaining your servers is less when you rely on Cloud providers rather than internal staff and physical data centers.

5. Insource high-potential talent.

As many recruiters know, the market for software developers is tight. There are more jobs than candidates, and competition between employers is extreme. One way organizations are saving money on recruiting and onboarding is a different form of “digital transformation” — transforming non-technical employees into software developers. By insourcing high-potential talent within your organization, you can offer opportunities for career growth and retain valuable institutional knowledge. Many organizations in insurance, retail and financial services have adopted a “Learn to Code” program model, supporting a movement to digitally transform lives one cohort at a time.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

Every company is different. I suggest organizations leverage something that already exists in their language and DNA. For example, one company we’ve worked with has biannual hack-a-thons to drive innovation. We encouraged them to increase the frequency to monthly to facilitate more rapid innovation.

Another organization leveraged the concept of a “dojo” where they incubate new ideas and processes. Over the years, I have seen less impact from “think tanks,” because they are focused on ideation and not doing. You need a mix of ideation and creation to actually innovate and fail fast.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Here are three maxims that have really helped me:

“Stay Focused” — especially when you’re a younger organization, you want to change the world, but you can’t boil the ocean all at once. You have to stay focused on the long-term vision and execute against the most meaningful and impactful thing you can do today that gets you there.

“Customers and Revenue First” — even if you have the world’s greatest idea, you need to prove people want it and need it. The way this happens is you get customers and hopefully revenue. All too often, when we are starting or growing a business (or transforming one), we focus on our idea and our invention and forget about who is going to use it and whether they will pay.

“Build the ship while sailing” — you need to get really good at building just enough to keep moving forward. I say we are “building the ship as we go.” This mindset can be challenging for some. The concept is you don’t want to spend time and money on something that your customers don’t want or don’t need today.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can find me at linkedin.com/in/kelbyzorgdrager. Or, check out @DevIntelligence on Twitter, where we post carefully curated content related to digital transformation. I also encourage you to read our recent whitepaper, “Blended Learning in 2021: A key to successful digital transformation.”

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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