As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Cooper, CEO of NextUp Solutions.
With over three decades of technology consulting experience, Steve Cooper has founded three successful companies whose clients include Fortune 100 companies, leading federal agencies, and world-class non-profit organizations. Starting his career as one of the first experts in relational database technology, Steve’s focus is helping individuals achieve exceptional careers, and helping leaders build organizations around them.
As CEO of NextUp Solutions and the top-ranked Exelaration Center, Steve Cooper is a passionate champion of transformative learning experiences. The company’s award-winning Exelaration Center delivers world-class software using teams of senior experts and top college software engineers. NextUp Solutions is a top-tier Agile and Scrum training company, serving leading clients around the world. Through his leadership of NextUp Solutions, Steve is a champion of bringing the impact of Agile to teams in every industry, beyond technology.
Steve engineered the concept of connecting undergrad engineers to regional tech employers, which earned Exelaration Virginia’s ELITE grant (Experiential Learning in Tech Employment), now in force through Go Virginia. Starting with Exelaration, he’s building a community of world-class unconventional tech talent, tapping sources like undergraduate engineers, under-represented demographics, mature career-changers, high school software engineers, veterans, second-chance technologists, spectrum learners, and disabled engineers. Steve is a vocal leader in the crusade to invite more diverse and abundant participants to the technology workplace through internships, apprenticeships, and experiential learning.
Steve proudly serves Virginia Tech and Radford University in their efforts to bring experiential learning to every student. He’s also an enthusiastic contributor to the Northern Virginia economic engine, serving on Arlington Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Committee and as a Commissioner for Arlington Economic Development.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?
Sure! My two best subjects and my strongest interests were math and music, so naturally I studied those in school. I went to Hope College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, where I majored in math and minored in music. I planned to get my MBA, but after being told I needed work experience, I scrambled to get a job somewhere… anywhere! Fortunately, Arthur Andersen (now Accenture) was interviewing at Hope for their consulting practice and I got hired along with thousands of other grads that summer from around the country. They hired me into the DC office, and within about four weeks, I had become a COBOL programmer and learned relational database technology. When I was 24, I left Andersen with three colleagues and I co-founded my first firm, Perspective Technology, to build software solutions for large companies in and around Washington, DC. In 2002, I founded my second firm, Excella, and we managed projects in the federal space, becoming a leading Agile transformational services firm. Along the way, we built a strong software development internship unit at Virginia Tech to help us cultivate our workforce. Last year, Excella spun off that unit and our Agile training unit into a new company that I run called NextUp Solutions. We help large Fortune 500 companies and federal agencies run more efficiently with Agile, and our Exelaration Center builds the software engineers of tomorrow using today’s real projects. We were just ranked the #3 tech and engineering internship in the USA by vault.com; we’re also the #4 internship for Overall Diversity!
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?
When I got my DC consulting job at Andersen, I still had the van I had in college. Let’s just say the primer, wood paneling, and Astroturf carpet didn’t fully align with the consulting image. At client sites, I’d park it in the back of the lot, and hope that no one would link me with my vehicle. That secret didn’t last long, so my reputation as “the whiz kid who taught SQL” changed to “the guy with the van parked behind the trees.” Within a week, I maxed out my AMEX card with a down payment on a used Saab. The takeaway? Vans are practical but not without risks, friends. Use care when purchasing.
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?
For weeks, an early boss traveled around with me visiting dozens of companies as we peddled our firm’s new software product. I endured criticisms. I learned by doing. I witnessed how to negotiate a deal. I learned the psychology of business. But all those small lessons were dwarfed by one monumental truth: he cared about my growth as a professional and as a person.
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?
I used to think this didn’t matter, but boy was I wrong about that. People want to be engaged in work that matters, and they want to see and feel the impact of their work on the world. That’s why our mission at Exelaration is so vivid and compelling: we know that the world desperately needs more software developers to write software that saves lives and makes lives better. We also know that there are 20 times more vacant tech jobs for folks with just one year of job experience than there are for folks who have less than one year of experience. So we’re on a mission to get college-level software developers onto our real client projects, while they’re still in college. When they graduate, they’re mid-level developers instead of entry-level developers, and they can contribute from day one. This mission is so powerful that it’s contagious; our clients, communities, and universities want to be part of it.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Well, I described Exelaration’s mission in the last question, but I appreciate the opportunity to share the story of NextUp Solutions’ Agile Training business unit. It’s widely known that for the last 15 years or so, the IT industry has seen a sea change in how teams work and deliver products. Traditional, phased work plans have been replaced by Agile sprints. Instead of planning, designing, building, and deploying a large solution over two years, like you’d build a bridge, technology now lets us release features every two weeks and harvest stakeholder feedback at each iteration. This is called Agile, and it takes many forms, like Scrum and Kanban. But to re-orient a team to work this way requires behavior changes, new habits, and consensus. Our Agile experts at NextUp Solutions have transformed teams at federal agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and associations for years, and our training helps teams transform how they deliver. The results in improved productivity and morale are remarkable, which is what makes this mission so rewarding.
Has a particular technological innovation encroached or disrupted your industry? If so, can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Sure — I’d look no further than the Agile revolution that’s disrupted the tech industry. Instead of spending months perfecting a database and program specifications before writing one line of code, teams spend two weeks delivering the most important elements of a product, show it to the stakeholder (known as the Product Owner), and then adjust and evolve it. It’s been disruptive because there’s literally no aspect of IT project delivery that is unaffected: budgeting, planning, team organization, design… they’ve all got to be done differently.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
We decided that the best use of our talents would be to help as many other organizations and teams as possible adopt this new way of thinking and doing. So we expanded our training offerings, built out our training operations capabilities, and now we serve an ever-expanding array of clients and teams, helping them deliver higher quality products more frequently, and in shorter timeframes.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
We recognized that this would be best done as a new company, free from the constraints of a larger company that had a separate mission aimed at a different audience. Spinning off NextUp and Exelaration into an independent company sharpened our focus on teaching — and there are few more engaging and rewarding missions than teaching teams of emerging engineers.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Great! With every company I’ve founded, we’ve faced adversity, from the recession to 9/11 to federal shutdowns in the past. In 2020, NextUp and Exelaration had to transform ourselves into a virtual training company and a virtual internship company. We had to reconcile ourselves to the fact that our clients became instantly hesitant to invest in technology and training. And yet, our extraordinary team has risen to the occasion. We’ve added more clients in 2020 than ever before, and our amazing training team now brings the power of Agile to teams across the globe.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
Over a hundred engineers have emerged from our Exelaration program since we started the center in 2009. Some of our alumni are now our clients. This is surprising and completely expected at the same time; our alumni know the power of what we can deliver, and they understand the compelling value of a professionally managed intern program that can do two things at once. We can deliver world-class software fast, while producing a workforce for tomorrow. Seeing our alumni lead today’s teams at the world’s top technology companies — you’ve heard of all of them — makes us realize that we need to bring the Exelaration model to every university and every company.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Transparency. Fear is the most toxic force in the human universe, and transparency and honesty are the most effective antidotes to fear. Teams and individuals have an innate sense for BS, and there’s no substitute for authenticity. Sharing the news — the good, bad, and ugly — is the leader’s most important job. Folks will accept uncertainty, direction changes, and deeply conflicted decisions, but what they won’t tolerate (for long) is stonewalling or concealment.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I’m not sure that seeking to boost morale is the right quest for a leader to be pursuing. Morale is going to suffer in a time of uncertainty, and owning that and admitting it is important. Looking for a quick morale boost is probably a fool’s errand. Uncertainty is largely about feelings, not rational thought. People have kneejerk reactions to uncertainty driven by fear, and to try to mask or placate that isn’t productive. However, as long as there’s not panic, the leader may have a shot at making one very important point: uncertainty is always there, even in good times. No matter how good things are, we live with uncertainty every day. A crisis like a pandemic or a recession merely universalizes it to all industries and geographies. This is where hope comes in: looking back at past crises, it’s always clear that those were times to invest and be confident in a recovery that brings a healthier, stronger, and more prosperous time for everyone. Counting your blessings and reminding people that our current environment may have fallen short of our expectations, but it far exceeds our worst fears.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
During turbulent times, the distinction between a disruptive attitude vs. an incumbent attitude isn’t about the people, because it’s the same people who work in both types of organizations. In fact, it’s common that disrupting firms recruit heavily from the incumbents’ workforces. The distinction is the orientation of the organization, its leadership and its culture.
Seeing your enterprise as a technology organization doesn’t have to mean that everyone’s a propeller-head who has memorized most Star Trek episodes. Instead of seeing “technology” as a synonym for computers, leaders should see technology as a synonym for change. The wheel, the engine, and the printing press were technology’s former costumes. “Computers” is just technology’s costume for today, and tomorrow someone will disrupt that too.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
For an established player to remain innovative requires a continual “bet-the-farm” mentality regarding technology, and this orientation must be across the board, from platform to hiring. Seeing this as a “pivot” to stay relevant is the first step down the wrong path. An established incumbent seeking to incubate the next disruption must start with a tech mission born on a clean sheet of paper, and then generously staff it with technologists. Executive leaders should prepare for the inevitable clash of three C’s: cultures, compensation, and cadence. A successful disruptor environment will feature stark differences in all three of these. There are examples of disruptors who have stayed on top, and they are conspicuously clustered in mainly one industry: technology itself. Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon have remained disruptors because they are tech companies first. Network television, movie studios, and Blockbuster all saw themselves as media or entertainment companies, and they were all disrupted (in some cases out of business), most recently by Netflix, who sees itself not as a media or entertainment firm, but a technology organization.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
Reiterating some points made earlier, a leader’s five most important actions in the face of disruption are: exude transparency, run toward change, contextualize uncertainty, obsess about customers, and be conspicuous. And by the way, leaders are well-served to exhibit these behaviors all the time, not just in the face of disruption.
- Exude transparency. As clients reduced their investments with us, our financial security faltered. It was clear to me that we couldn’t survive with our current cost structure. My finance VP and I looked at a dozen ways to cut costs, and we executed every single one of them. They included a firm-wide salary cut, which was of course the most devastating action. I decided to share the bank balance and our performance with and without the pay cut with everyone, so they could see the challenge of our situation. Not only did they appreciate the window into our financial dilemma, the team enlisted themselves in the campaign to cut costs and keep them low.
- Run toward change. Compare Robinhood’s investment platform (more aptly called a trading platform) to Merrill Lynch’s. As Merrill has honed its competent trading interface with stronger linkages to Bank of America’s banking environment, Robinhood started with a blank sheet of paper and used technology to shatter the status quo: The accredited investor process that took days and involved notaries and faxes is now a simple click, and millennials and GenZ-ers seeking to trade options now flock to Robinhood. Disruption is revolution, and it’s not kind to incremental mods to the status quo. Starting with a blank sheet of paper and imagining a new world from scratch is a great (but rarely used) tool of leaders facing disruption. They should use it more.
- Contextualize uncertainty. As I said earlier, the world is always uncertain. But during times of extreme crisis, it’s human nature to idealize more stable times. Fearful teams crave a sense of control, and leaders can give that to them by reminding them that the world works because of people like them. Jobs, companies, and technologies come and go, but humans evolve. FDR’s brutal truth gave America hope when it needed it most: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Somehow we recognized that we are our own worst enemy, and if we can replace fear with power and choice, there is a better future awaiting all of us. Leaders who find ways to convey that truth authentically are leaders whose teams will find their way out of the darkness, especially during times of disruption. Disruption is not something to be defended against; it’s an opportunity to be seized.
- Obsess about Customers. Leaders face a plethora of issues every day. Personnel, marketing, facilities, and finance obstacles hit you in the face every morning. They’re a tempting distraction, because sometimes dealing with them offers quick, fun victories and plays to our best-developed strengths. But they’re a mirage if you’re not first focusing on who’s buying from you. This concept is easier to understand when you use sports as the analogy: winning solves all problems. The locker room of a team after a win is a team that can accomplish anything. Fan complaints, payroll issues, and marketing issues all evaporate when the team is winning. In business, that means dazzling customers. Customers distill your messages and issues into the simplest, most primitive elements, and a leader’s choice is to either ignore or listen. Winners listen.
- Be conspicuous. It’s instinctive to hunker down and shelter oneself during a disruptive period or crisis. But this is exactly what leaders should not do. James Burke, not a household name, was the Chairman of Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol poisoning scare of 1982. Instead of putting a PR person out front, or waiting until the investigation was complete, James Burke went on every TV station he could find, including Phil Donahue. He explained what J&J was doing to safeguard its medications, answered questions frankly and honestly, and in that six-week period, became one of America’s most familiar faces. Greater companies have been destroyed by such crises, but his leadership not only saw J&J become one of the most trusted names in medicine; he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton over a decade after the crisis. Leaders who run toward the disruption and embrace it are the ones who succeed, because their teams and stakeholders are watching intently.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You gotta serve somebody.” It’s unavoidable in life that everyone, no matter their status or position, must serve some entity. It may be a customer, a boss, a cause, or the public. It may even be a relative who funds your trust account, but you’ve got to provide some value or benefit to someone along the way. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett must serve their stakeholders. Given that universal constraint, you might as well find a way to enjoy this service and take pride in it. Sometimes, you may disdain stakeholder demands, but serving them is a rich source of self-worth and identity. Seeing your life through the purposeful lens of service is a clarifying and richly rewarding perspective.
How can our readers further follow your work?