July 10, 2021

Tech Leaders Hiring Well featuring Computer Projects of Illinois


Episode Highlights

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On this episode of ‘Tech Leaders Hiring Well’, your host, Zac Colip (VP, Tech Practice at Hirewell) will chat with Paul Jones (Managing Director of Engineering at Computer Projects of Illinois). Paul has a fresh perspective with a background working with CPI, Nielsen, IAA, and consulting. Tune in and enjoy!

Episode Transcript

All right, let’s get started. Welcome Paul Jones to Tech Leaders Hiring Well, a content series focused on talking to tech leadership about how they go about hiring and what your experience has been, in that regard. Paul is the managing director of engineering over at Computer Projects of Illinois.


Thanks for joining me Paul. 


Thanks for having me Zach. 


So yeah. Wanted to get started by just asking some questions in regards to how did you get here? 


Sure. I started working for a software company when I was 19 years old.  I have worked in a lot of different places, ended up diving into the consulting world for a long time, kind of cut my teeth on projects all over the country- had that whole road warrior thing for awhile.


Really enjoyed the variety. I think that’s one of the parts of technology that’s always drawn me in was just lots of variety of many different things that we can do with what we have.  And the fact that you’re not dealing with something that’s just going to be at the same day in and day out.


The world is changing around us constantly and we get to drive some of that change too sometimes. So it’s a lot of fun.  Over the course of time, worked my way through a number of different roles in architecture and in some of the technology leadership roles over at Nielsen. And then started having some conversations with a couple of leaders over there about what’s the next thing? What’s the next rung on the ladder?


What does it look like? And learned at that point that, that’s kind of it for the tech ladder. You can continue to be a principal architect that everyone looks to for the final say so on all things technology or if you’re looking for a new ladder, you need to make sort of a diagonal or transitional role changing to something in the management space.


The advice that I was given, I’ll never forget which was “You need to let go of some of the technology if you want to make this change.” And at the time, I wasn’t ready to  make that kind of change. I really enjoyed just having my hands on everything that we had to play with, being able to get deep and involved. And a few years later and over the course of time, I finally started to get to a point where I said, you know, there are pieces of this management space that I think would be a lot of fun.


 There are new and different interesting things that are there. I’m not stepping away from technology.  In certain cases, I still get to make certain kinds of decisions from technology, which is great.  But I still now rely on other people to do a lot of the background,  and even sometimes teach me what it is that we’re working with and how that can be applied to new and different ways.


I still go home and write code from time to time. I have my own stuff that I play with just to keep up to speed and make sure that I’m not losing those chops, but I won’t call myself an expert coder anymore.  I’ve kind of moved into this new role, but it’s a lot of fun and new challenges, get to work with a lot of different people with personalities and there’s all sorts of things with technology, trying to figure out how to make it all work together and how to integrate different pieces of technology.


The same could be said for people. Just all, a lot of different types of people and personalities and finding ways to integrate those things as well. And then I still get to do with the technology stuff too. So it’s some fun. 


That’s great. That’s awesome. Yeah. And I should mention, Paul and I did have the opportunity to work together early on when we were both at Nielsen long, long ago.


So it’s been great to kind of see the evolution of how you’ve kind of grown in your career.  It’s been super impressive. So I mean, that background definitely gives you an interesting perspective. I imagine going the consulting route, working for big companies, working for smaller sized companies, how does that kind of influence your perspective on hiring? Is it a lot different based on how big the company is or what are your thoughts on that?


I don’t think it has to be different based on big and small. I think though that my perspective has changed significantly. In the consulting and contract world you’re looking for a very particular set of skills as we like to say. And you’re looking for that for most likely a short-term period, six months, maybe even a year or two.


But there’s some specific skills that you’re looking for and those types of interviews and what you’re looking for in those candidates are very tactical. But when it comes to hiring  I’ve kind of moved from that type of perspective into a different approach where, I mean, there are some basic thesis that you’re looking for depending on whether you’re looking for a junior and mid-level senior inside of those different engineering roles, whether it be testing engineers, whether it be, developers, whatever it might be.


You’re certainly looking for a certain set of skills. I mean, if you’re working in Amazon web services versus Azure, your emphasis is looking for some level of experience there. But I don’t necessarily look for, “Oh, well, this guy has three years and this guy has five years” because especially in technology and in the cloud as well, it changes so fast that five years of experience just means that you happen to be work on this stuff from before what we do now.


So it doesn’t matter quite the same. There’s certainly  experience and knowledge that you build on and you can start to develop an understanding of how this stuff evolves. You certainly build up a better  set of background knowledge to be able to build on for planning in the future. I start


shifting a little bit more towards some of the non-technical skills a little bit more when it comes to hiring because technology’s going to change and people are going to work around that. But as long as you have aptitude, as long as you have the energy to get involved and try to learn things and a basic understanding whether it be education, whether it be experience, whatever it might be.


Do you have the ability to jump in, become a junior developer, start building a career and see where things go from there? And then as you become more and more mature in this space, you start adding in things like does this person have a solid concept of how to work with the team versus just being an individual contributor?


Again, that building on aptitudes and experience maybe comes into that. And then on the senior side of things, then you start looking for more of that leadership and that ability to mentor and teach other people and help grow junior folks. You know, when you’re pushing, whether you’re working in waterfall or agile, whatever it might be when you’re pushing for leadership development especially in junior and mid-levels to continue to get them moving forward.   Agile concepts, like self managing teams are important regardless of whether or not that’s your project management methodology or whatever it might be. Self managing teams simply means that those teams can function in and of themselves and are capable of learning, doing all the different things, growing each other and stuff like that, and  it gives managers, in my opinion, the opportunity to be more hands-off. You don’t have to dig in all the time. You don’t have to ever get anywhere near concepts like micromanagement and stuff like that. Command and control style. You can just push that away and let the team become far more organic when it comes to that stuff.


Okay. Got it. Got it. That’s a interesting perspective.  When you are interviewing candidates  how do you vet them out? Do you vet them out for like their foundational skills or is it more, “Hey, do you have the personal characteristics to be successful within this organization?” Or is it kind of a blend?


I would say, first round on a phone call or something like that, let’s knock out the table stakes, right? Let’s make sure you have the experience that your resume said you had, which is why I picked up the phone to give you a call in the first place. Let’s talk through a couple of those pieces of technology to get a better understanding of the context of how you used it.


 We’re all prone to be a little more elaborate in our resumes then the actual experience may be. I call it salesmanship and I don’t necessarily look down on someone unless they’re just flat out lying about it. That’s pretty rare, but it happens. But making sure that when someone says “I have five years of experience using AWS to do this, that, and the other thing.” and then you start asking a question, a couple of questions when you start to understand that “Well, we had a team that did this and I was actually just writing documentation” or something like that. I mean, when you start realizing that those are sort of the cuts then, okay, you have passive knowledge of AWS-


I’ll give you that. But if I’m looking for someone who can stand up services and start building in there or understands the difference between how we create different types of buckets and where that data needs to live and whatnot and that there’s a disconnect on the technical skills.


So in that first phone call,  I try to vet that kind of stuff out.  But the next rounds, I focus a little less on the technology and more on some of those other skills. So when it comes to something like aptitude for example, I may ask you some questions about stuff that’s not on your resume at all, but things that are passively connected to those technologies or those ideologies, methodologies, whatever it might be.


So you have experience with one of the major cloud providers, I may ask you about “Do you know how other cloud providers do that?” And let’s see if that energy and aptitude lives in that person where in their free time, for example, they may go off and say, “Hey, you know what? I really want to learn how this works in Google cloud” for example. Or you’re a Java developer.


That’s great. Have you spent any time writing C-sharp? Can you talk to me about some of that stuff?  If this person has strong technical aptitude and the energy and drive in this type of industry to continue to grow themselves on their own, regardless of what their job experience was, those are great signs to be able to see whether or not that person’s going to be a good fit for the longterm as opposed to this person’s going to fit what I need today. 


How do you feel about like coding assessments or take home coding projects? 


I think they’re great for two reasons, and they’re not great for others. So if you are looking for a contractor or a consultant, short-term for a very tactical thing, I think it’s great. It’ll help you make sure with very little overhead and very little investment of time that this person said knows how to do what you need them to be able to do.  If you’re looking at a junior developer who may have some internships maybe right out of college, something like that, I like the concept of take-home projects because it’s double-sided. I don’t like just the straight up code assessment because frankly, if it’s just a code assessment- I’ve literally given people code assessments where they just copied something right off the website into the post-assessment and off you go.  If you’re doing interviews like that, people be aware – we’re recording keystrokes. I can create the record control fee just fine. So take on projects, is a little different though, because on something like that, I can measure the person’s ability to go and figure it out.


 And let’s be really honest- I don’t care if you figured it out by posting something on a form that you’re familiar with, whether you went to a couple sites and learn some things and grabbed some other people’s code, whether you wrote it yourself from scratch, whether you’d call the friend, whatever it might be.


All of those things are part of our learning processes. All of those things are your ability to use the lifelines that are available to you to put together the result. As a hiring manager I’m far more interested in the result than I am how you got there. So those types of assessments are kind of cool, especially like I said, for younger junior developers, maybe even those right out of college, to be able to figure out, okay, you read the books, you learn these things,


I’m sure you had projects in school, but do you have a network of people that you can rely on to be able to help you with something if you need it? Do you understand how to go out and search forums and ask questions?  Do you understand- I mean the internet is chock-full of a million different places to go figure out how to leverage this particular type of function in your code.


It’s just it’s all over the place, whether it be in the release notes for the actual language itself or whether it be stack overflow, whatever it might be.  Those are where it’s great, but when you’re talking about mid-level and senior level folks, I personally feel like it’s almost patronizing. Like you’re almost disregarding the fact that this person has really been doing this for years.  If I take a person who’s been doing this for 10 years and I say, “Okay, so here is a small C program than I need written” And the guy just looks at you like, “Dude, I’ve been writing C for 10 years.


You want me to go make you a calculator?” Right. Like, it’s almost patronizing and I wouldn’t want to have someone assess my skills that way any more than I would want to for somebody else’s skills that way when it comes to some of the senior folks. 


Yeah. That’s fair. That’s fair. I could imagine that ruffling some feathers. I know you’ve started recently at Computer Projects of Illinois. What do they do and what’s your role there? 


Sure.  Computer Projects of Illinois or CPI, is one of the largest law enforcement software developers in the world. We create software mainly focused here in the United States for state police departments, attorney General’s offices, municipal departments, federal agencies, armed forces, things like that to be able to do everything that you can imagine you would need to do in law enforcement. So criminal history checks, sex offender, registry, conceal carry, and firearms permits, all sorts of different things to be able to connect the dots between all of these different agencies. We live in a country that has a lot of states and a lot of states that control their own data.


There are challenges to be able to pull everything together at a federal level. The FBI does have their own stuff with fingerprint databases and all that. But when you want to run a background, check on somebody, it takes awhile because you have to go through all these different places. The company was founded in the eighties, and developed using things like message switches to be able to connect all those things together to have interfaces that were able to connect from one state to the next to the FBI.


You know, if I got pulled over for a traffic violation in Wisconsin, they need to be able to run my license to make sure that there aren’t a warrants outstanding. They run it through Illinois or something like that because my license is from Illinois. Wisconsin system needs to be able to connect to the Illinois system so on and so forth.


So that’s the type of software that we’ve built. There are front end applications, there are a lot of database applications and then there’s the switching application that has everything down to customized TCPI protocols. 


Wow. That sounds super interesting.  What’s your role there now as a managing director of engineer?


Yeah, the managing director title is always interesting, right? It’s like, oh, what exactly is that? It is very literal here. I actually manage directors. So there are five directors of engineering at CPI. We have folks that are managing different domains of the space, different application spaces in some cases, different parts of the stack, if you will. And so I manage those directors. My role on a day-to-day basis though, is focused on a couple of things. First of all, let’s make sure that all the different pieces of engineering are working efficiently together to be able to deliver to our customers what they expect.


We have product based initiatives where we’re building features and enhancements but we also manage all of the integration work to be able to get those implementations up and running. We have in our project management space, a number of folks that are very skilled at understanding the business and doing a lot of the research, but when it comes to writing code and doing the actual configuration for each one of the customers works through the engineering division.


And so we’re heavily involved in that. So making sure that we’re getting things done on time and working directly with the owners of the company to make sure that our focus is dead on and that the prioritization of the product work that needs to be done is pointing in the right direction as well.


Okay and where are you guys at as a company? Are you growing right now? What exciting things are on the forefront? 


Yeah, this role that I landed in here is actually a new role and the company has grown quickly enough that now there are a number of directors and normally, this company is pretty flat.


There’s not a ton of management around but it grew fast enough where there are now five directors and really need- once you get to five, somebody to kind of keep tabs on all of that and to be able to break ties and things like that. They were also looking for someone with my background for example, in being able to bring in process and methodology from large organizations into this company. The company is just under a hundred people but they’re all engineers. For the most part. We do have project managers. We do have folks in the services department division, managing operations and maintenance and things like that. But it’s heavy engineering focused, even folks in our project management space many of them have hands-on experiences either customers or in this  world,


but some of them even have been developers in the past. In doing that, you create a wealth of knowledge, experience and capability. But as a private company you don’t necessarily automatically start building in all of those rigors of process. The culture in this organization is not one where we’re going to be exceptionally rigorous on process if we don’t have to. For security purposes, we need to make sure that we’re being very careful and very tight in that area. How we do our work on a day-to-day basis though is simply let’s figure out what works for us. And so I was asked to help analyze engineering, figure out how we can do our work more effectively.


I categorize my job on a day-to-day basis as being two things. Number one, how do I help the people who work for me do their job as easily as possible? And number two, how do I make sure that they get paid as well as they can for that job? People ask me, they say, “Well then how are you actually helping the company and doing all of these things that managers do, making sure that our profitability is good?


And I say no, that falls into question number two because if the company is doing well, you’re going to do well. And so that’s making sure you get paid as well as possible. And sometimes  those two things clash, making sure that I can pay you as much as possible means that it might not be the easiest way to possibly there, but that’s where we make judgment calls and we try to make the right decisions.


The company is growing really, really fast. So as I said, this role was a necessity because of the growth. We have a number of positions that are open right now. Most of them are in the junior spaces- junior developers and engineers. We also have a role open for a  junior engineer in test. So, it is a new type of role. Not new for us, but it’s new in the industry as well where it’s looking for folks who have an engineering background who are looking to work more in the testing space. It would be a very strong mix of both. Testing is becoming more and more an engineer’s role anyway, through automation.


There’s a lot of coding that gets involved in it. It’s not just, I need someone to go open this window and click all the buttons and make sure that it does this, this and this. It’s not a lot of manual testing. There will always be some of that, but for the most part we’re looking for folks with an engineering background that can understand how all of this stuff works together and help to be able to apply that to a testing perspective. 


Wow. That’s great. Yeah. I mean, we’re seeing that a ton as a trend. It’s just everything kind of moving closer and closer to engineering or some type of coding. So that’s cool. That’s exciting stuff. I think I want to work for you, you know? I like that second policy of yours of always trying to make more money. 


I mean, let’s 


be honest, the guys who own this company are doing this because they enjoy what they do, but none of us would go to work if we weren’t getting paid to do it, otherwise they just call it a recess. And we haven’t had that for a long time. 


That’s the truth. That’s the truth. I know you’ve just been there for a little bit, but what do you like about the company culture? What’s like the big draw of working with CPI? 


I asked that question during my interview. So when I was  interviewed, a number of the directors who were going to report to this role, as well as the chief technology officer were in the room, chief technology officers, one of the owners of the company. Went through a whole gauntlet with them for about an hour and a half after an hour and a half or so the one guy who was one of the owners had to step out. So he stepped out and they said, “Well we’ve got a break here.


Do you have any questions for us?” And I said, “Well, since he’s not here anymore, let me just ask you straight up. Why are you guys here?” There are people who have been in this company for a while. 10, 15, 20 years. The owners of the company are three brothers who took over the company from their dad who started it in the eighties.


They were employees if I recall correctly, five, six, and eight or something like that. Like I said, we’re up to almost a hundred here now. So they’ve been here for a long time. They worked here probably during summer vacations in high school even. People have stuck in this company for a long time.


And I asked why? The answer that I got is the answer that I’ll give as well, which is the culture of this company and the importance of what we do is worthwhile. The culture of the company is “Let’s try stuff, always open to trying things.” I always worry that in a role like this where I’m talking about methodology and applying process to a place that doesn’t necessarily have a whole lot of process, that it’s going to be pushed back on, it’s going to be hard to sell it or something like that.


It’s not. From the owners to an individual contributor all top down, everybody says, “Hey, that sounds cool. Let’s try that.” As long as we’re willing to give it a shot and if it doesn’t work, throw it away. If we don’t like it, throw it away, change it to something else. But let’s keep trying stuff until we find things that we like, whether it be in technology, whether it be in the process, whatever it might be.


The company is in it for the long haul and it’s in an industry that’s not going anywhere. We are one of, if not the largest provider in the United States, when it comes to this by state division, I believe we probably are. But, um, the industry is not going anywhere, but what we do matters, um, regardless of your political ideology about law enforcement, uh, it, it is necessary.


We need someone to enforce the laws of our country, whether or not we agree with all of the laws or how they’re enforced, not the question. Um, but in doing this work, uh, we can put the best tools in the hands of those people as possible. We can make sure that we can save lives. Uh, we can help keep dangerous people, uh, out of the way.


Uh, we can. You know, we can really contribute to just the general wellbeing of the society that we live in today. And, um, It actually means something to the people who work here and myself included. Uh, it means something so creating something of value, um, especially, you know, that was, that was something that I started to see becoming a trend.


Uh, in, in the millennial generation, when it came to hiring, um, a lot of folks came in and they said, you know, I want to do something that matters. You know, back then, um, gen X, the rest of us, we, we just kind of look at it and we’re like, you know what, it’s a job. Pay me. Well, let’s go do it. You know, we were all born during the yuppie age and stuff, go off and, you know, go, let me go earn my Ferrari and everything will be good.


Um, and, and lately the shift has, has been really hard. Towards, I want to do something that matters. I want to do something that contributes to the general society and wellbeing of where I am. And this is a place where you can take all of that cool technology and you’re not creating another word processors.


You’re not building a webpage that helps you sell more, whatever it is you sell. You’re not doing things that frankly feel a little bit more frivolous than, than others. You’re doing stuff that, that really helps to. Make this country better than what it was yesterday. And, uh, you know, whether you’re, you know, nationalists, that’s super hyped on that, or whether you’re someone who is more keen on the fact that we need to get better, we’re doing those things.


Both, you know, they’ll play appeals to everybody. Um, the culture here is really laid back and relaxed. Um, you know, my door is open all day long. Boss’s door. The owner’s dog doors are open all the time. Um, they come out, everybody knows each other. We talk to each other all the time. There is no, that’s a terrible idea.


There is no I’m too busy to talk to you. You’re not important enough. None of that kind of stuff. The politics don’t really exist. Um, do we always get along perfectly? Of course not where people, you know, it only works when you start replacing us with robots, but. I don’t plan on hiring any of those any time soon, but that’s great.


That’s awesome. Yeah. And I mean, it seems like a really great thing, you know, where we see data being optimized everywhere in the world, you know, why not in this space where, you know, could got a real use. So, um, fantastic. When it comes to how to interview here, um, I would say, let down your guard, just be a person.


Um, when I’m interviewing folks, that’s the first thing I try to do face to face is, you know, let’s just, let’s just not worry about stuff. If you came in wearing a jacket, take off your jacket, relaxed. If you’re, if you’re nervous about this, don’t worry about it. If you’ve got stuff that comes up and you need to take a phone call or something like that.


I think it’s everybody, when they interview myself, included gets really stressed out about this stuff. And so I would just encourage folks to relax, be yourself. Um, it’ll be a lot easier for us to say, Hey, you know what? This is somebody who I want to hang out with on a day to day basis. And then, um, really start, you know, talk to me about not every single piece of technology that you worked on, but talk to me about, uh, How often you’ve changed technologies that you’ve worked on, how quickly you pick things up.


Um, how do you like to work with teams or not willing to work with teams? What are the different parts of the spectrum that you work on hardware to software, to, you know, whether it be networking and infrastructure, whether it be particular languages in cases of software. Um, talk to me about, um, different project management methodologies that you’ve worked with.


Talk to me about the variety of stuff. I believe that a breadth of knowledge is great because it allows you to then have the basis to do a deep dive in anything that you might need to do a deep dive in going forward. That’s great. Yeah, no, I really liked that approach. Um, I think too often we see people come in so nervous and like kind of.


Not themselves into interviews. So having a kind of an icebreaker or, or just a moment where, you know, that lets them breathe. I think that’s super important. So, um, awesome. Well, Hey, this was a super insightful perspective. Um, I really appreciate your time, Paul and, uh, yeah. Best of luck as you continue on your hiring path, I’m excited to see where things go at CPI.


All right. All right.


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