Q&A with Des Anderson

Posted by Learnovate

Reading time: approx 8 minutes

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Des Anderson, the co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of LearnUpon, a company that empowers organisations to train their employees, partners and customers via its cloud-based learning management system.

LearnUpon was established in 2013 and now employs 270 people in Ireland, Serbia, Australia and the United States. Founded by Des, based in Belgrade, and Brendan Noud in Dublin, the company was grown simultaneously across the two different locations, a potentially challenging logistical problem made easy by constant video conferencing and Des and Brendan’s close relationship. 

Des earned his undergraduate degree in Computer Applications from Dublin City University in 2000 before going on to spend 12 years as an implementation consultant and web developer with WBT Systems, where he first met Brendan. 

He moved to his wife’s home country of Serbia in 2013 and believes the switch has been a net benefit to LearnUpon, pointing to Microsoft’s presence in the capital Belgrade as well as the city university’s track record of churning out high-quality technical talent. 

LearnUpon implements a ‘follow the sun’ model with hubs covering every time zone to provide customers with 24/7 support. After Dublin and Belgrade, the US is the company’s third largest employment base, with staff in Philadelphia and Arizona giving way to customer service personnel in Sydney, Australia, which then subsequently handover to their colleagues in Dublin.  

Des reveals that Ireland will be the biggest beneficiaries from a global recruitment push this year, with 60 of an expected 130 new roles being recruited in Dublin. 

Despite his title as Chief Technical Officer, Des says his role is “constantly evolving”. While he’s less involved with the engineering side of the platform, instead, he is focused on more varied areas, such as product development, customer relations and building on the “special” team culture at LearnUpon. 

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

Never stop learning. 

That is a big part of our culture at LearnUpon. There’s always stuff to learn. You might think you will plateau at some point, that you’ll know everything, but that never happens. Being curious really helps you step up. There’s always a day when you feel like you can’t get on top of something. Being curious can help in terms of getting to know new technologies that might help solve some of those issues or cementing over a skill gap to get you further along your journey and path. 

I’ve also learned that attention to detail always wins, and the importance of communication always prevails. Repeat, repeat, repeat the message if you want to drive it through. 

What was the best advice you ever received?

Tomorrow is another day. 

That’s all encompassing. It means that mistakes happen, don’t beat yourself up, just reset the clock. It’s okay to have an off day, sometimes you aren’t firing on all cylinders. And likewise, you don’t have to solve everything today. It’s not all about working at maximum speed. ‘Tomorrow is another day’ is what keeps me going most of the time. 

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

My work style probably hasn’t changed that much over the years. I’m a stickler for planning and making sure meetings start on time or happen in the right order of things. It’s an ongoing joke at LearnUpon that I game Zoom calls to be first on there. I like keeping things fluid and planned so one meeting doesn’t run into another and we avoid clashes. 

I can be ad hoc as well. I like to be agile and jump around into different issues but really I’m all about time management. My calendar owns everything that’s home related and work-life related. I intertwine the two together and that helps keep things in harmony. If you try to separate the two, they clash and that doesn’t work very well for you. 

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

It takes a long time to build trust from your team and only a second to destroy it – that’s probably the main thing. I find that management is about always being honest and open. Listening is sometimes all you need to do. You don’t always need to be the one to fix things. If you can encourage your team to be autonomous and solve challenges by themselves, that’s very empowering. Ultimately, as a leader, you’re there to serve, it’s not the other way around. You’re there to bring options and encourage positivity, give your team problems to solve, not tasks to do. 

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry 

The pace of change with technology means that it’s vital we keep abreast of new developments and understand how they can be brought into the e-learning space – especially if you can combine two different and already existing technologies to solve certain problems. That’s where the magic happens.

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?

Learning is happening everywhere now, not just in formal environments like written tests. Now it’s happening via webinars, meet-ups and virtual conferences. I think everything is trending towards shorter snippets as well. It’s no longer about long and drawn-out courses. Shorter learning modules is where things are going. 

Likewise, learning needs to happen when you’re in the flow of work rather than it being a thing that you schedule time for. There are a lot of platforms now that allow for quick, on-the -job learning about a problem you’re trying to solve at any given moment. 

How should we prepare for the future of work?

Polishing our presentation skills is key to preparing for the future of work. People in their roles are being asked to present and speak publicly more and more. They may not be necessarily comfortable with that so we need to find training so they become comfortable, first of all, and then later turn it into video snippets. Likewise, they’ll need training if they’re not used to using the tech needed to create the video/presentations necessary to deliver their message. 

It would also be useful if academia could prepare students more with on-the-job training and internships. When I was in DCU, I did a three-month internship in AIB. I learned more there than I did anywhere else. If students could do that during every summer of their four-year undergraduate degree, that would make all the difference. 

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people? 

There are two I always return to – The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier, and Conscious Business by Fred Kofman. 

The Coaching Habit teaches you about understanding people from a management perspective. It’s about the importance of listening and asking the simple question, ‘What else?’. That might apply to when you’re having a one-on-one with a team member, asking the question ‘What else?’ allows them to talk it out, which is better than you trying to jump in and fix everything. 

Conscious Business teaches you how to be a team player but above all being positive and forward thinking in all you do. People don’t think about that enough – even though it seems obvious. It’s about getting rid of your own personal agendas and seeing the bigger picture, which can apply to work and home life, too. 

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

We saw that it would give us access to an extensive learning community focused on many areas of innovation that we wanted to explore but couldn’t with the team we have. You can never have enough people so having Learnovate there supporting us and researching in new and interesting fields has been fantastic for us. 

They made it really clear where they can and can’t help. We knew then that they were the right partner for us. We also knew that they’d done this before with other partners. That gave us a lot of comfort. They operate in a very structured way and have a great future focus on projects. There’s a lot of stuff they’re doing extremely well. 

What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and your customers?

The pandemic has brought us closer to our customers. Some of our customers really struggled from a business point of view and we were lucky that we were in a position where we could help them, even just through discounts on their plans or payment breaks to help them through. 

We run feedback surveys every quarter and it’s humbling because some of our customers are saying that they couldn’t have survived the last couple of years without LeanUpon. 

More online learning happened during the height of the pandemic. There was more of a demand for traditional in-classroom training to be brought onto our platform. We quickly pivoted in terms of integrating Zoom and MS Teams on the platform. 

What have you/your organisation learned from your experience of Covid-19?

Internally, we’re communicating better. We’re better at writing things down. When everyone was in the office, you tended to pick up stuff because people are chatting out loud. Now we’re more conscious of what we write down and who we communicate to. We try to communicate at the right time, like when someone is maybe on holidays or they’re not around, we write things into Confluence and other toolings in a more structured way as a result. 

The other thing is that Covid put a bit more focus on the importance of human connections. While we can operate as a remote team, you can’t replace the human connection. We’re working hard on that. This year, people are coming in and out to the office a bit more. It sounds obvious but culture thrives on human connections. Virtual is a way forward but it’s a lost opportunity if you’re not getting your teams together. 

The pandemic has helped everyone appreciate the simple things in life that little bit more than they previously did. 

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