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Tim Vanderham of NCR: “You’ve got to fail, and fail fast, if you are going to succeed”

I don’t think anybody goes through their career without making mistakes or experiencing failures. You’ve got to fail, and fail fast, if you are going to succeed. For me, I think the one misstep that sticks out was not early in my career, but in the middle stages. It was around a new project that […]

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I don’t think anybody goes through their career without making mistakes or experiencing failures. You’ve got to fail, and fail fast, if you are going to succeed. For me, I think the one misstep that sticks out was not early in my career, but in the middle stages. It was around a new project that was a combination of hardware and software and I made the mistake. Having a background so tied to software, I ignored some of the hardware challenges of the project because I didn’t push myself out of my comfort zone.


As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Vanderham.

Tim Vanderham is Chief Technology Officer of NCR Corporation, leading NCR’s global Software and Technology organization. His teams include software innovation and software engineering, with more than 3,000 engineers building NCR’s current and next-generation products and solutions.

Since joining NCR in July 2018, Tim has increased overall development excellence within the NCR Software and Technology organization through improved processes and modernization of technology used to deliver capabilities to clients. Tim and his team are driving NCR and our customers toward cloud-enabled and cloud-delivered offerings, while innovation teams keep NCR on the cutting-edge of emerging technologies including data analytics, machine learning and distributed ledger technology.

Tim most recently served as CTO of the tax and accounting division of Thomson Reuters, where he was responsible for global technology strategy and product delivery. Before Thomson Reuters, he enjoyed an 18-year career with IBM, starting as an undergraduate co-op and eventually becoming vice president of IBM’s cloud platform services, known in the market as IBM Bluemix. Over his 20 years, Tim has spent time working closely with a range of clients ranging from major enterprises to small and medium businesses. He was an executive sponsor for clients at IBM including Aetna, Lloyds Banking Group, Boeing and others.

Tim has served in roles spanning development, services and support over his tenure at IBM including enterprise software offerings and working internally and with clients to migrate solutions to a cloud-based “as-a-service” model. Specifically, in his Bluemix role, Tim was a leading and driving force behind the modernization and cloud native initiatives within IBM for its Platform as a Service and developer experience cloud offerings. He leveraged this background during his two years at Thomson Reuters to migrate legacy tax and accounting software to a cloud-based set of services and offerings for tax clients globally.

Tim received his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from South Dakota State University.


Thank you so much for joining us! 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?

I grew up on a small dairy farm in South Dakota. My parents challenged me to use my brain and not my back. That was what led me to computer programming, at age 14, when picked up my first programming class of visual BASIC and Pascal. I was pretty fortunate to have a high school teacher who invested time and pushed the edge in a small school in South Dakota. So, that’s where it all started. I fell in love with technology; truly became passionate about the building of software. That carried me forward to my engineering degree at South Dakota State University, where I was fortunate to land an internship with IBM after my third semester. From there, I didn’t look back and I’ve been in software ever since.

What was the ‘a-ha moment’ that lead you to think of the idea for your current company, and can you share that story with us?

My ‘a-ha moment’ here at NCR happened in my first week. It was a sudden realization that we were not creating software with our teams to build business value-added services. The big question that jumped out at me was: “How do we build business services that support our banking, our retail and our restaurant customers?”

For me, that was a huge moment to just sit back and say, we shouldn’t be spending dollars where I can use things off the shelf from cloud service providers like Google and Microsoft. Instead, let’s take our domain knowledge around the industries we serve and build business value-added services for our customers. This was a big jumping off point that helped lead us to our transformation from a hardware company to a software- and services-led company and carve out my role within it.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even those things were so hard?

Everyone’s career goes through highs and lows. For me, it was the transition from technologist into management. I realized I wanted to get into management and be an executive leader to drive strategy that could help lead companies. I know a lot of people have to go through that transition, but in my first few management jobs, I had to go through the learning process of what it’s like to make hard decisions about personnel; why it is so important to have the hard conversations with people that work for you, largely on my own. I didn’t get directional feedback from my early management teams. They didn’t tell me that maybe my style didn’t align to the organization, and I feel that challenged my growth. I have tried to never repeat that same type of behavior as a leader. An important part of being leader is making sure that those who report to you get the feedback they need to succeed.

How are things going today? And how did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are awesome. I love being here at NCR. I feel so fortunate that I have the privilege to lead 4,000-plus software engineers who build amazing technology that touches consumers at hundreds of millions of touchpoints every day. For me, being a software technology guy at heart, having this type of job, I don’t see it getting any better. One the quotes I always share with my mentees is: “Your perspiration must match your aspiration.” What that means is you’ve got to work hard if you have a big aspiration, like getting to be a CTO of a Fortune 500 company. Growing up on a dairy farm, I’ve been fortunate to understand the perspiration component and I’ve carried that throughout my software career.

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?

I don’t think anybody goes through their career without making mistakes or experiencing failures. You’ve got to fail, and fail fast, if you are going to succeed. For me, I think the one misstep that sticks out was not early in my career, but in the middle stages. It was around a new project that was a combination of hardware and software and I made the mistake. Having a background so tied to software, I ignored some of the hardware challenges of the project because I didn’t push myself out of my comfort zone.

It ended up costing us several months on delivery time and I think it made me understand that you should probably spend more time where you’re not comfortable to make sure you don’t underestimate from where challenges may come. I have responsibility across all of NCR and I never assume I know where all the challenges are, or where problems might exist. I make sure to dig in and immerse myself as deeply as possible. I’ve learned to ask as many questions as necessary and listen to the voice of the customer to ensure we plan and execute appropriately.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think NCR stands out because we’re at the heart of commerce. We keep commerce running. When you think about what we do across banking, retail and restaurants, it’s truly incredible. When COVID-19 hit, we all went to work and tried to help the world transition from less of a physical one to an even more digital one. We’ve been at the heart of digital transformation for a number of years and COVID-19 just accelerated that.

NCR was able to respond quickly with the solutions we had built and were able to keep commerce running. What I enjoyed the most was helping our customers withstand the massive shift in transactions to a much more digital world. We saw this heavily in the restaurant space, but also within the retail and digital banking spaces, with an uptick in digital interactions.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not burn out?

Until you realize what your passion is, it’s hard to be successful in your job or your career. To succeed, it’s all about having a routine that is a bit flexible and lets you still have a little bit of fun. For me, I wake up between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. Some days I work out, or I relax and watch a recap of the news or sports. Other days, I go into the office to get work done. It’s important to have fun outside of work so you don’t burn out. I think that’s something that has helped me thrive throughout my career and I hope I can continue to do it in the future. I think being a good leader involves embedding this type of thinking in the cultural DNA so people feel valued and can come to work every day at their best.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are and can you share a story?

There are three things I focus on when I talk about my success. One, which I’ve already mentioned, is my “your perspiration must match your aspiration” mantra. The second is you must focus on the customer, and that’s what got me through some of the challenges I talked about previously. The third I like to rely on is that you have to have a little bit of luck. What I mean here is having some great mentors. For me, that person was Beth Smith. I worked for Beth over a number of years, in several different roles at IBM, and the story I love to tell is how she looked at me one day and challenged me by saying, “I don’t think you’re ready for that next job. I don’t know if I see you in that job.” I asked her to give me a chance and prove myself to her. She helped me along the way and, within 12 months, I was in that job because she helped mentor me and teach me to be the leader I am today. That’s the kind of luck I’m referring to and I believe a critical component of success. It’s recognizing those lucky moments and seizing them.

Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have?

We have thousands of customers across our three business units of banking, retail and hospitality. The great thing about NCR is our customer base ranges from Fortune 500 companies to locally owned businesses. I love how we serve small and medium-sized businesses that might sell juice or be a local bike shop. Across the globe, we do business in 160 countries. Our diverse customer base has empowered us to build software that can serve the vast majority.

We have done much of that by building software and platforms that have open ecosystems. The idea is they can be accessible by someone who uses a vehicle as their place of business, all the way up to the largest banks, the biggest retailers or the world’s biggest restaurant chains, which serve millions of consumers a day. We are able to do what we do because of how sharply we focus on service and supporting our customers in ways that help them thrive.

How do you monetize our customers and have you considered other options and why did you not use those?

Many of our customers want to pay for the value they derive. That is a subscription to our software and that they pay by the click, the order or the transaction. While we’re not all the way there yet on all of our software packages, this is the transition we’re making as an organization.

I think a little bit further insight into where we’re going is around data and data monetization. When you talk about privacy, I’m a big proponent that consumers own their data and, eventually, this will be at the heart of how consumers and merchants or banks monetize this data. Ultimately, consumers will control data monetization by what they allow to be enabled in the ecosystem. I think this question of monetization, of value around software and data, will only continue to heat up in the next two to five years.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know to create a very successful app or a software as a service company. Please share a story or an example for each.

For me, there are three fundamental tenets. One is you have to understand the customer problem you’re trying to solve. What is the value you’re going to provide to the customer or the consumer in what you’re building? At the end of the day, it should be an outside-in design process and you have to start with the customer problem and the customer solution you’re going to provide. The second area is ensuring you have an open ecosystem when building a software as a service (SaaS) platform or offering. It must be accessible to everybody. Accessibility and an open, collaborative mindset are key, no matter what business you are in. The third thing is you must have support and availability around the platform and around the application. You can’t just build it, offer it and then not support it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

It’s humbling to hear someone refer to me as being a person of great influence. I take great pride in the role I have and I often think about starting a movement. I’m kind of living my dream job right now here at NCR and have the privilege to lead so many incredibly talented engineers. The movement I want to create is to continue to excite all the engineers we have here at NCR, along with future talent at universities we hope to bring here one day.

One of the ways you can think about this movement taking hold is through hackathons. Hackathons bring people together in ways that catalyze amazing ideas. There’s an energy that comes from the event and an excitement that drives innovation. We started a global hackathon here at NCR and the program just completed its second year. This summer, we had more than 2,400 participants from 27 different countries and had 350 submissions after 48 hours of work. Nurturing this kind of energy around a movement like this, to me, is critical to driving NCR and innovation forward.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I use LinkedIn and Twitter. I’m probably the most active on Twitter about what we’re doing day in and day out and what’s happening. I’m @Vanderham on Twitter and my LinkedIn is https://www.linkedin.com/in/tim-vanderham-68940b/.

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