Tanning Technology Corporation has come a long way since president and CEO Larry Tanning started the company in his basement.
The Denver, CO-based IT services provider brought in revenues of $59 million in 1999, and recently earned the top spot in the technology category of Forrester Research’s ranking of e-commerce integrators. With a client list that includes Ameritech, Blockbuster, Qwest, E*TRADE, Federal Express, MCI WorldCom, and USWest—as well as nine offices in the United States, England, and India—Tanning is poised to become the leader in its field.
Larry Tanning believes that building relationships—among his employees and with clients—is the key to success as a provider of technology solutions. He discusses these views in the last part of this interview.
In the first installment of Freedman’s interview with Larry Tanning, CEO of Tanning Technology, the discussion centered around Tanning’s philosophy about the Internet economy and his method for measuring e-commerce success. In the second part of their conversation, they talked about the origin of Tanning Technology, the company culture, and the role of a client partner.
Developing and retaining the ideal Tanning employee
TechRepublic: I’ve seen your comments that you plan to grow Tanning significantly over the next few years. How do you take folks who haven’t been with you from the beginning, who perhaps come from a very different consulting culture, and steep them in your culture and methodology?
Tanning: It’s within the DNA of our core group of leaders and technology experts that we have in the company, and I’ve been really fortunate to attract top technology people. Our beginnings were in benchmarking, and I hired people who ran the performance and benchmark testing centers for companies like Sequent, Pyramid Technologies, and Kendall Square Research. We found that people of this caliber are talent magnets; they attract that breed of consultant who really wants to work on the complex projects. We don’t hire out of college generally; the average experience level is ten years. I find that the people coming out of a Cap Gemini, for example, are ideal candidates, and we have hired a lot of people from the CSCs and the Oracles of the world. We then put them through a rigorous orientation program we call TOPS—Tanning Orientation Program—where they spend 10 days getting immersed in our methodology and our culture. We’re also very focused on managing our utilization. It blows me away to go out on the analyst tours and hear some of the upstarts in our sector talking about 90 percent utilization and being proud of it. For someone who’s been doing these types of projects for ten years, it’s obvious to me that you can’t do 90 percent utilization and sustain it.
TechRepublic: It makes you wonder if they understand the business well enough to be thinking about things like consultant development, training, retention, and burnout.
Tanning: You shoot for 70 to 75 percent, and I get concerned when it gets above 75 percent because it sends a red flag that you’re not giving people an opportunity to have a life, let alone the kind of training they need. I’m delighted that we’ve just hired the former head of training and development from JD Edwards. This individual has done that for a company with 3,000 employees, and he’s come to us now with our 400-plus employees. A guy who has the grand experience in ensuring the right kinds of learning and development opportunities, and who's putting the right knowledge management capabilities in place across our network so we share and collaborate with our best practices and new kinds of vendor-partner relationships.
TechRepublic: You’ve got to figure out a way to leverage the experiences of the consultants who are out there in the trenches every day, so folks aren’t reinventing those solutions.
Tanning: It’s tough. How do you add leverage into the IT services model? We struggle every day with the question of how you add leverage beyond the time-and-materials, people-oriented growth model. The solution approach, the knowledge management approach, and reusability approach are critical. It’s all about leverage, and about keeping people up to speed on the latest and greatest technology.
Relationship skills key to success
TechRepublic: For readers who may not be in your area of specialization, what do you think are the critical success skills in the IT services and consulting industry, on a general level?
Tanning: If you’re a consultant, I believe without question that the most important skills in life and in business are relationship skills. This is just basic people interaction. I’ve met many successful technologists who may be the best nose-down programmers in the world but never go anywhere because they can’t communicate with people. I feel like if I could impart anything, it’s that people like to work with people they like and trust, so you have to be genuine. And secondly, it’s important to set the right expectation. Stuff happens, and you’re better off to confront it and be open about it than to hide it and disappoint. I’m a pretty simple person. The technologies often change, and people migrate to the technologies they need at the time, but the one enduring thing that is going to impart success on anybody in their career is the ability to establish relationships. I’ve seen too many talented technical people who’ve only achieved a fraction of their potential because they couldn’t establish productive relationships with their co-workers, customers, or partners.
Helping people become better people
TechRepublic:Do you experience a skills gap in the softer skills? Are you finding that some of your talented technical folks may not be as comfortable or as skilled in doing things like articulating a strategy or delivering a presentation, and how do you deal with that?
Tanning: A very relevant question. You raise a very interesting challenge and opportunity. When you deal with left-brain-right-brain dynamics, I believe that in the technology world you find a lot of left-brained engineers who view life differently than a right-brained, relationship-oriented individual like myself. What we’re trying to do with our culture, we’re trying to figure out how you can impart the softer skills of life. Our new development officer’s vision is to do something very special with our company—to make it a place that provides not just professional and career satisfaction, but actually teaches leadership, relationship, and other skills that will enhance our lives both in and out of the marketplace and workplace. In effect, we want to help people become better people.
TechRepublic: So you believe that you can’t retain people without looking at them holistically, and figuring out what’s going to make them satisfied and competent in their lives.
Tanning: A lot of that is in developing soft skills, interpersonal skills, talking-straight skills, where you have to learn how to tell it like it is and not hold back. By speaking straight to people even when it’s tough, you’re a lot better off. What a legacy, and what a special place we can be in if we can transcend the normal, “I’m going over to that company to get more options because the grass is greener over there.” What more is there than having the chance to become a better, more well-rounded person during the course of your work and your play with your fellow workers, and having the training and the facilities to see that happen. It’s a daunting challenge. I find, having grown a company from one and two people to a couple of hundred people, that I like this concept, because that’s really what it’s all about—helping people to become actualized and satisfied, and a lot of that is not just in their career but in their basic core life.
TechRepublic: When you get a chance to have a former employee tell you, “Those skills I learned from you made a real difference in my life,” that seems to be the most fulfilling part of being a manager or a mentor.
Tanning: Think of all the projects that were the most important thing in the world, those three-ring binders full of documents that are now in some long-forgotten file cabinet. The advanced skills, the relationship skills, last a lifetime.
Rick Freedman is the author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and the upcoming The Internet Consultant, both published by Jossey Bass. He is the founder of Consulting Strategies Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills.As a supplement to his Consultant Master Class column, Freedman periodically interviews a leading executive, practice manager, or consultant from the top IT professional service firms. According to Freedman, the practicing consultants out there every day, selling, planning, and delivering projects for clients are the real masters. By giving them a chance to share their concepts, techniques, and lessons learned, he hopes to build consensus among consultants on the industry’s best practices and methodologies. If you have a question for Rick, e-mail us.
Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile practices and migrate successfully.