A few years back, I had the opportunity to speak at several conferences on the theme of leadership. I based my presentations around the incredible education you can get from watching the United States (U.S.) television show Undercover Boss. If you are not familiar with the show, each week a “contestant” (business owner, CEO, or other executive in disguise) goes to their branch businesses to learn how the company’s values and processes are being upheld. The business leader is ‘undercover’ as a new employee.
What I always find so interesting is how many leaders are shocked to discover how different their view of their company is from that of their employees. Despite good intentions, communication, and employee training, leadership (in disguise in the show) often finds that things are not what they envisioned. The business leaders have a variety of ‘aha’ moments as they see the company from the lens of a new employee.
Last week, I had an unexpected ‘aha’ moment when I joined an event with Spruce Technology. Their leadership did not send anyone undercover, nor did they review an employee survey to reinforce what they wanted to permeate throughout the organization.
Instead, the leadership team celebrated the company’s fifteen-year anniversary by leading a five-hour UiPath Citizen Developer Challenge (also called a "bot-a-thon").
Imagine my surprise when I joined employees from across Spruce Technology to judge the Citizen Developer Challenge, only to find out this was not a client engagement. It was the entire leadership team of Spruce Technology expressing that they want to:
Empower lifelong learners
Create an environment that promotes creativity and innovation
Benefit from the value of automation ourselves
Talk with clients from a position of knowledge, not just brief a slide
The event was the brainchild of Spruce Technology’s executive team, organized by Sarah Knapp, Executive Vice President (EVP) of Business Development and Strategy.
Their internal, innovative, and incredible way to really understand automation is worth sharing. And who better to share it with you than Knapp herself.
Sarah, it is a pleasure to do this blog with you. Let me start by asking: why a citizen developer challenge?
"We are celebrating Spruce’s 15-year anniversary and wanted to do something special that brought together different teams from Spruce. While ‘together’ has taken on a new meaning over the past 15 months, we saw it as an opportunity to include people from all our locations across the globe. We were focused on ensuring that all levels and types of staff would be able to participate. And that the experience would provide an opportunity for teamwork that focused on creative and innovative technology, which is core to Spruce’s mission."
Ok, and why a citizen developer challenge with UiPath?
"UiPath was an obvious choice to us for numerous reasons. We wanted the event to be inclusive, accessible, and a positive experience for all involved. There are strong use cases for UiPath that everyone can relate to, and we knew even our non-technical staff would be able to contribute meaningfully to their teams. There was also confidence that the teams would be able to develop working bots in the relatively short amount of time we had allocated.
In addition, we believe in the power of automation to help organizations operate more efficiently and improve the quality of employee’s lives. UiPath was an obvious solution choice in the RPA [robotic process automation] space—both as a partner of ours and market leader."
By exposing more of our staff to the power of UiPath through the bot-a-thon, we equip them to identify automation opportunities within Spruce and for the betterment of our clients.
How long did it take to pull the bot-a-thon together and what were the logistics?
"It took the Spruce Business Development team about four months to organize and execute this bot-a-thon with UiPath using only in-house resources (resources that had other responsibilities to tend to in parallel with the planning). There was also substantial collaboration with our Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Albert Balcells and EVP of Professional Services James Mahoney to support the identification of use cases, team formation, establishing the judging criteria, and more.
There were many moving parts to manage for the bot-a-thon to be successful. As you know, we immediately reached out to UiPath and were excited to learn you were able to join us as a judge! We felt the external participation was important for our employees to validate the event and awareness of their efforts. I was also delighted at the show of support from our highest levels of leadership, with our CEO and managing partners all present for the event.
More tactically, we had to account for everything from a communications plan to forming the teams, to filling the roles required to run the event the day of, coordinating access to UiPath to develop the bots, to the structure for awarding winners and their prizes.
While running a virtual event provides the advantage of more geographically diverse participation, it required substantial technology planning beyond traditional in-person events."
On the day of the event, how many participants did you have? From what areas of the company?
"In total, we had almost 40 people involved the day of the event, between citizen developers, judges, and other key roles.
Participants came from almost every part of Spruce. It was about a 40/60 split non-IT versus IT roles. On the non-IT side, we had representation from Business Development, Recruitment, and Contracts and Proposals departments. From the technical side, we had a diversity of roles represented, including IT analysts, account managers, developers, and engineers."
One final question: do you have plans for similar type events?
"Absolutely! We are excited to work to annualize this event now that we have the first one under our belt."
Just like RPA, it was intimidating at first, but we figured it out and feel it was a success we’d like to perpetuate in the future!
I hope readers appreciate the entire citizen developer challenge was done in a few hours. I have to believe you have had annual offsites that lasted for much more time and probably produced much less.
It was so enjoyable to hear the teams’ briefs, explain why they wanted to automate what they automated, and then to present the robot to the rest of the team. Two statements made during the judging really struck me as powerful.
Like Undercover Boss, I won’t tell you why they were powerful, but let you think about them (then feel free to share your thoughts):
“I am not IT. This is scary.”
This came from one of Spruce Techology's employees, who comes from a staffing background but who was willing to jump in and learn something new. She was intimidated at first, but after working with her team, realized that UiPath was easy to navigate and not as complicated as she once thought.
“We can use this technology right now!”
This came from an IT analyst on one of the teams who saw just how usable their UiPath robotic creation was, and how easily it can be applied today after only three hours of work.
I enjoyed seeing the winning robot in the bot-a-thon because it showed what can be done by the business in the automation era. I am not in any way saying shadow IT. The CIO has to be responsible for the network, including providing standardized computers, the UiPath Orchestrator infrastructure, and ensuring protective credentials are used to mitigate cyber concerns around robots with roles roles-based access.
That said, a citizen developer who build apps for the Apple App Store or Google Play Store is free to imagine (and reimagine) work.
Standards, automated testing, and clear guidelines put in place ensure agility and scalability in the process, allowing citizen developers to create the millions of apps that make our lives better. Spruce Technology has found a way to improve their employees' workdays, their company has a great shared experience, and when they sit down with clients they will be able to talk as a trusted advisor and with authority.
Knapp and the team are “taking the mundane and making it sane!” Thanks to Knapp for being a great partner, innovator, and leader.
Oh, I almost left readers hanging. At the beginning of this blog post I mentioned I had an 'aha' moment during the Citizen Developer Challenge at Spruce Technology.
What was my ‘aha’ moment?
Well, honestly, it was a reminder from years ago when I was in the U.S. Army and stationed on the border between East and West Germany. The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) commander at the time was Colonel John Abrams. On a Humvee overlooking the border, he was empathic that leaders cannot lead from the rear. Bosses leading from reports are leading from yesterday’s news.
The leadership team at Spruce was certainly out front and you could see it in the eyes of every employee that volunteered and participated.
Sarah, thanks again for sharing and affording me the opportunity to see human leadership and UiPath automations all from one great event.
The impact and power of democratizing RPA is incredible. In 2017, the first RPA robot deployed in the U.S. federal government came about during a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) innovation kickstart contest.
Agencies that are having success with scaling RPA and change management are seeing that success immediately after citizen developer challenges. While Knapp did a five- or six-hour challenge, go see the results of three, 90-day challenges held by the U.S. Air Force.
The Digital Wingman Challenge showed acceptance and excitement by both airmen and government employee around automation. Of course, if you don’t have 90 days but you want more than an afternoon for a citizen developer challenge, follow the lead from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS dedicated a few weeks for their Battle of the Robots challenge.
Citizen developer challenges result in ideas, collaboration, and excitement around automation. Citizen developer challenges are not a heavy lift and we're happy to help.