Crossing the Chasm of Remote Work with Innovation to Retain Top Engineering Talent at University of Phoenix

By Todd Johnson, Vice President Cloud Infrastructure & Core Services, University of Phoenix

As technology focused companies, we often find ourselves at the crossroads between stability and innovation. This applies to our engineering talent as well. Over the last few years, there has been a rollercoaster of talent moves, including the great resignation and the fact that most companies went to some level of remote work. These and other factors then put pressure on tech higher wages as companies outside traditional high-tech corridors had to fight to keep talent from fleeing their organizations. 

In the tech industry and tech-heavy companies, I have observed that we are more focused on technology rather than the people running and developing it. As a result, good technologists often do not focus on people management and development well as they climb the management layers.

In contrast, at the University of Phoenix (UOPX), we have embraced a number of tools and an overall approach that helps us attract and keep talent engaged, satisfied and delivering on the technology front.

It started about four years ago when we shifted to eliminate layers of management across the technology organization. The concept was simple; implement an approach known as Agile People Manager or APL. In this approach, APLs focus on recruiting, mentoring and retaining top talent.  While they perform many of the typical routine management functions, they are singularly focused on the talent with the precision of NASA scientists. The APL span is broad, typically across six or seven Agile teams is not uncommon, but this is because the teams are self-managed in their day-to-day work. The APLs are not giving technical direction; they are primarily focused on the soft skills of mentoring and helping each engineer, software developer, architect and other technical roles to reach their potential and beyond. Certain skills are needed in each team and as individuals progress in their skills and abilities, they can contribute at a broader level. APLs track these technical skills and training as evaluated by their engineering peers, which gives a nice combination of growth opportunities and challenging assignments to the organization’s technical staff. 

Remote work and retaining talent will always come with their challenges.  Equally challenging is keeping an eye on innovation and balancing the everyday technical support and routine environment hygiene work that each team is responsible for in our DevOps model.

We also implemented an approach to enhance the workplace culture by creating a dynamic and challenging environment for all participants where technologists are partnered with the operations and functional area experts to deliver technology solutions to real everyday problems of running an online University. We did this by structuring events like Hackathons, Deep Racer events, Technapalooza days, and other in person events. It all makes for a great place to work on Technology. The tech teams are organized in what we call two pizza teams – they vary slightly in size, but, for the most part, two pizzas will easily feed any of our 40 or so technical agile teams. Strategic priorities are set for the quarter, referred to as a program increment, and teams are given problems to solve from those priorities. 

Even before the University moved to a remote workforce in February 2020, technology teams had the autonomy to schedule their work for both remote and in person workdays. Most teams opted for 3-4 days per week in the office and 1-2 days working remotely. This was a good combination that helped set the tone for in person collaboration and high touch days for innovation but afforded independent workdays that also fostered a good work-life balance. When the pandemic hit the US in March 2020, our agile teams went 100% remote almost overnight. The teams adapted well under the circumstances, but over time there was some concern that we might be missing some of the in-person collaboration that fosters innovation. Office space was reconfigured to more conducive to collaboration days where teams were periodically come into the office for high collaboration workdays. Teams can still decide independently how often they come together to meet in-person; some do 1 day a week, multiple days in a month, or targeted times over a quarter. 

We implemented events that bring everyone together for specific areas of focus or large sections of the tech team together for things like the AWS Deep Racer event that gamifies learning of AI and ML technologies. 

Technapalooza days bring the entire tech team together for a day of innovation and learning that include a keynote kick-off session followed by multiple breakout sessions on various technology topics like API Security, AWS CodeArtifact, The Future of VR in engineering collaboration and higher-ed, Creating Serverless Function, Kafka Madness, and System Trends from Team Maturity Assessments. 

Hackathons are also held quarterly, with moon-shot ideas encouraged and cross-team collaboration where engineers work with engineers from other teams for two days to bring their ideas to life. As a result of the hack-a-thon events, the University incorporated winning submissions into our operations that streamlined student services activities and provided us a savings of time and money. Not all Hackathon ideas make it into production, but the thought process is to foster outside of the box mentality and time away from some of the routine technical work to think big and take on a new idea or two. 

Remote work and retaining talent will always come with their challenges.  Equally challenging is keeping an eye on innovation and balancing the everyday technical support and routine environment hygiene work that each team is responsible for in our DevOps model. The “you build it, you support it” approach keeps quality high as we focus on our students and university staff’s needs. This overall approach has helped the University of Phoenix in its quest to retain top engineering talent and keep them engaged on meaningful problems to be solved that ultimately benefit the students we serve.