Walter McAdams of SQA Group: “Companies must develop an appetite and curiosity about technology”

First, companies must develop an appetite and curiosity about technology. Keep your eyes open and inspire your team to stay abreast of shifting macro trends and the ways in which technology positively transforms business. Regularly ask questions such as, which technologies make sense for my business? Is the technology ready for prime time? Can it […]

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First, companies must develop an appetite and curiosity about technology. Keep your eyes open and inspire your team to stay abreast of shifting macro trends and the ways in which technology positively transforms business. Regularly ask questions such as, which technologies make sense for my business? Is the technology ready for prime time? Can it move our business forward? Don’t resign to a wait-and-see approach! Your business needs to get to a point in which you have said, “Yes, technology matters to us and we are ready to change to support the business needs.”

As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewingWalter McAdams, SVP of Solutions of the Rhode Island-based SQA Group. SQA Group is a technology and advisory services firm that partners with our clients to craft a culture of continuous transformation. We introduce a blend of disruptive technology solutions, new capability acceleration and consulting services to fuel our clients’ modernization initiatives.

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 original degree was in industrial engineering, so I came up from an engineering mindset. My first career was actually as a naval aviator and then later on as an intelligence officer. Much of the early part of my career started with the development of what they called command decision systems — systems that took a bunch of different inputs and consolidated data and presented it in a way that gave the commander a clear picture of what was going on. That engineering mindset and military discipline formed my foundational beliefs about the way to approach work and technology.

When I got out of the military, I went back to school specifically for computer systems engineering to become more specialized; I saw that as being the technology that would be most transformative; it has proven to be just that! Hundreds of years later, people will look back at this as the digital age — the age in which we went from trying a variety of techniques and methods to apply knowledge to founding our entire civilization around digital information. Today, technology has become so deeply ingrained in all we do that we have become unaware of its prevalence. We have truly become a digital society.

Over the last 17 years, I have been at SQA Group, a New England-based technology and advisory services firm helping our clients craft a culture of continuous transformation, currently as the SVP of Solutions Delivery. One of the things I love about technology solutioning and consulting is that we have the opportunity to help people solve challenging problems and innovate to their highest level of potential. There is an adrenaline factor to what we do. We are spinning up new capabilities and accelerating enablement, helping our clients achieve levels of impact, profitability, growth and scale that were previously out of reach.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

When I was in the military and graduating from flight school I went to Washington, D.C., to get my first assignment. I went to the Navy Annex to get my first assignment. I then headed back to the Pentagon to take the shuttle to the airport for my flight home to Florida. This was all during a time when military people in the Pentagon would wear civilian clothing. I couldn’t find the shuttle so I walked up to two gentlemen and asked them to point me in the direction of the shuttle. It turns out I was asking the Chief of Naval Operations and Head of the Nuclear program for directions — not everyday citizens! I was lucky enough not to be over-awed by closeness to power!

It happened again years later when I was working on a Microsoft contract with McDonald’s. I was standing at the copy machine and making small talk with the nice woman who was there. My colleague later told me that I had been making small talk with the Head of North American Operations for McDonald’s.

But to me, I always remember these stories fondly as a reminder that at the end of the day we are all human beings. As effective leaders and innovators, we need to have the ability to talk to and connect with all kinds of people. This ability to forge relationships has been instrumental in how I manage teams, client relationships and relate to everyone in my community.

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?

The person who always aimed me towards being the best I can be was my maternal grandmother, the first woman to ever graduate from her college. She was a professional educator and really a woman ahead of her time. She instilled in me a core value that I would always go on to educate myself and keep learning.

As an undergraduate, I went to Fordham University and my student advisor was a Jesuit priest who helped me consider that everything comes from reason-considered logic. That has played an invaluable role in shaping how I structure my approach to problems.

Finally, in graduate school, my graduate faculty advisor was a mathematician and a statistician who taught me the idea that everything is measurable and countable. Everything can come down to numbers.

All of these influences on my life — and the lessons they have imparted — have helped me embrace a whole-leadership approach to technology solutioning and have a deep understanding of cause and effect.

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?

Two books have been most impactful onmy professional career. The first comes from Dr. W. Edwards Deming who teed up the concept of total quality management in his first book on the subject, “Out of the Crisis.” This book formed the foundation of the total quality management movement, and its thesis is that quality isn’t something you test out of a product but rather something that you build into the product. You make quality not just the logical outcome but the only outcome of your objectives. That mindset has formed the core belief of our quality engineering discipline here at SQA Group — to drive quality and velocity into our clients’ software delivery life cycles.

More recently, I have been enthralled by “The Phoenix Project.” Even though it is about DevOps and digital transformation within an organization, what it captures so well is that the real problem you have to address with transformation is the organizational mindset that often gets in the way of successful adaptation of technology. To effectively solve technology problems, you have to first address people problems. This becomes particularly important as you consider the impact that emerging technology — AI, machine learning, robotics, IoT — can have on the business and the role people play in cultural and user adoption elements.

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?

When SQA Group was founded in 1999, theidea of quality assurance as a discipline was really not mature. There was an overarching assumption that quality code would be a byproduct of development, and we have all come to see in the last 20 years that that’s definitely not true. Two decades ago, we recognized a gap in the IT industry at the time and specialized in it, driving quality and velocity into the software delivery lifecycle.

Over the last few years, we have grown as our clients’ needs have expanded to support the larger-scale application and enablement of innovative technology solutions through our emerging technology, data science services, and compliance and risk management disciplines. In partnership, we team with the pacesetters that are our clients, introducing our technical and consultative hyper-specialization skills to make transformation self-sustaining. We use technology to solve some of the most complex and timely societal, civilization, human and business issues — from telemedicine to lab automation to data enablement.

What we did in 1999 was revolutionary and what we are doing now is revolutionary.

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

When we look at the projects we are working on, one of the areas we are most excited about is helping our clients leverage data as an asset and science to drive favorable business outcomes. There is a powerful intersection when it comes to the role emerging technology and data can play in helping companies elevate and reinvigorate their existing business models to position themselves to thrive in this new climate.

Another big thing we are witnessing is a client focus on robotics. We are looking at a new generation of industrial robotics and robotics being used in places they weren’t previously used before. Some of our most exciting engagements involve the pairing of robots with humans to drive business gains.

All of the trends we are seeing — and the recent conversations we are having with clients — connect to the fact that we are seeing a real rise in discussion and investment around artificial intelligence. We have come to accept in AI what used to be viewed as miraculous as simply common today. The way machines can beat us at chess; how Siri can respond to the questions we pose; how we solve environmental issues. AI has become so far-reaching across all industries, but we have only just scratched the surface. AI is not just going to be theoretical but rather practical, useful, and transformational.

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?

Digitaltransformation practically means applying technology to what you do in your every day in a way that will totally change the outcome — from the productivity of your business to the effectiveness of your workers to leadership organizational visibility to market penetration and competitiveness. Digital transformation is about the way technology changes, enables, and evolves the business and the people that make up the business; it’s never just about the technology.

To engage in digital transformation means taking new ideas and emerging concepts and making them actionable through the application of technology. It’s about layering technology atop a business strategy, navigating organizational change, and embracing the notion of a new realm of possibilities that open up.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Any company in any industry can benefit from digital transformation, especially as companies begin shifting their view and thinking of themselves as technology companies. In fact, it will become very evident soon that those that do not embark on digital transformation will be left behind.

We see this play out most clearly when we study the S-Curve in technology — the adoption of any sort of new breakthrough technology or any new process over time. At the early stages of something new, adoption and growth are typically very low because there’s a lot to prove out before the application of the new technology or approach is proven viable. As it’s proven viable, early adopters come forward to use the technology to drive some portion of their business. When they determine how to make that technology viable, we see the beginning of rapid acceleration and adoption. Pretty soon, adoption itself becomes the goal, and that’s when you know that you are well along on the S-curve. Technology starts to become mainstream and if you have not yet adopted that technology, you will be playing catch up.

Understanding the S-curve provides the capability to evaluate the risks, benefits and objections of adopting technology at any place along the curve. Naturally, the risks are higher early on, but very often that’s when the reward is the greatest.

As companies start developing their S-curve strategy, right alongside their business strategy, we will see a huge uptick in companies that truly embrace digital transformation. The companies that want to be the early adopters, break out of the pack, and position their business for long-term viability will be the ones that others look to as shining examples of what it means to usher in digital transformation effectively.

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.

We recently partnered with a health insurance company in a space that was — for them — very well established and mature. This client recognized that if it were to keep up with its growth and expand into new markets, it had to do several things: reduce the cost of operations, reduce time to market for new features, and strengthen the customer experience in a way that stood out from their competitors. Together, we explored the impact that Agile development could have on their SDLC, the new technologies that needed to be introduced to automate processes, and the organizational redesign that was needed to support the new workflows.

When we first started, the client was experiencing a delay of 182 days from when the code was done to when it was deployed to the customer. Through introducing automation frameworks, Agile methodologies, and data quality frameworks, we were able to get that time down from 182 days to 24 hours.

Another example of a meaningful project is when we teamed with an AI development company to develop a machine learning-based virtual coach for a suicide prevention line help desk. The virtual coach listens to the conversation, relying on voice pattern monitoring of both the help desk agent and the person calling to understand the best way to adapt to the caller’s mood, sense of stress and urgency. The marriage of human and technical skill sets had a measurable effect on the interaction to ensure that the callers were helped and — where necessary — escalated to the next level of care at the time they were most in need.

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

Usually, the biggest challenge with digital transformation is shifting mindset so teams can start seeing possibilities. Leaders and teams need to recognize that there will be a change of discipline, organizational construct, skill sets, and a state of operating for transformation to work; digital transformation is not something you just bolt-on. Rather, to realize the true advantage of digital transformation, you have to understand deeply the supporting structures you will need in place to realize the full potential. We work with our clients through a hands-on learning approach to ensure that whatever is incorporated technology-wise is incorporated into the very fabric and DNA of their organization.

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.

First, companies must develop an appetite and curiosity about technology. Keep your eyes open and inspire your team to stay abreast of shifting macro trends and the ways in which technology positively transforms business. Regularly ask questions such as, which technologies make sense for my business? Is the technology ready for prime time? Can it move our business forward? Don’t resign to a wait-and-see approach! Your business needs to get to a point in which you have said, “Yes, technology matters to us and we are ready to change to support the business needs.”

Next, build a kitchen in which to cook… a place where you can examine a technology in a safe way without putting a lot of expectations on it in terms of cost-benefit analysis or rollout schedule. In your kitchen, you have a chance to see what the technology can do today, what it might do tomorrow, and be OK knowing that in many cases you might throw it away. That act of examining it and playing with it is how you can pick the ones that will be most impactful to your particular industry.

Third, allocate a budget for what you want to do in your kitchen. You will want to have the flexibility to move money away from things that are less promising and move money towards technologies that show capability, without having to wait a year to free up funds. Your ability to have a flexible, malleable budget will allow you to move as quickly as the technology and business needs require.

Next, you need to consider your timing. As you cook up different options in the kitchen, timing — and whether you are too fast or too slow — becomes critical. Pay attention to the technology and time your place on the S-curve. As stated above, you need to be watching. If the S-curve comes and goes and you missed it and technology is already mainstream, you will be too late.

Finally, once you’ve introduced the first incarnation of true digital transformation, don’t stop; Keep going and roll out the next. Continually think about where your business is looking to advance to next, how technology can layer onto compelling business strategy, and how your people will play a core driver in furthering your efforts. Focus on all of the elements — people, process, operations, strategy — that allow you to truly craft your culture of continuous transformation.

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

First, companies can model it at the very top, starting with their leadership team. The leadership team needs to pay attention to technology, get in the kitchen to “cook” up new recipes, and invest in technology in a way that creates a cultural norm in which innovation and disruption become the expectation. Leadership can model the way for all employees to lean into core values surrounding curiosity, adventure, and creationism.

In addition, companies need to screen for people who have a history of exploring boundaries and then build a culture internally that supports the exploration and pushing of those boundaries. As an example, consider granting your team the freedom each week to work on something not directly related to their job to activate their zone of genius and ideate. Reward team members who bring new ideas — especially the most daring — to light. Digital transformation has the power to change the world so encourage your team to imagine the impact they can have on the world.

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

Always want to know and understand everything around you. Always look at the world; keep your eyes open. The world is an amazing place, people are amazing creatures, and the society we have built is full of beauty. I think we are still emerging from our adolescence as a civilization, and there is so much more that we can and will do. I am excited about the world we live in and the possibilities ahead.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Readers can learn more about SQA Group by visiting our website:

My blog posts can be found here:


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