Meet the Patrons Q&A with Technical Product Manager at Yum! Brands AJ McQuillen

Q&A with AJ McQuillen

Posted by Learnovate

Reading time: approx 9 minutes

As part of the Learnovate Centre’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to AJ McQuillen, the Technical Product Manager at Yum! Brands, the world’s largest restaurant company with 1,500 franchisees operating more than 55,000 restaurants in more than 155 countries and territories around the world. 

Headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, in the United States, Yum! Brands are globally recognised staples of the quick service industry and include KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and the Habit Burger Grill. The company employs around 900,000 staff across its restaurants and corporate offices in Dallas, Irvine, and Louisville.

A graduate in Computer/IT Administration and Management from the University of Louisville, AJ enjoyed an initial one-year stint at Yum! Brands in 2016 before joining another Louisville-based company, Bastian Solutions, as a Technical Support Specialist. He would later become Systems Analyst at YMCA of Greater Louisville before re-joining Yum! Brands as an analyst in IT Shared Services (ITSS) in 2018. He has held various titles as his career has progressed at the company, including Learning Technology Analyst, Associate Manager in ITSS, and now Technical Product Manager. 

As Technical Product Manager, AJ leads a 10-strong team managing the learning tech operations for all the company’s global brands – a vast project that involves close coordination with colleagues in countries across the world. He also manages the data warehouse and analytics teams and oversees their reporting. 

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

The most valuable thing I’ve learned chimes a lot with advice I received from my father: people tolerate people who are honest about failure. I find that if you’re honest and transparent about everything you’ve done in a development process, it’s perfectly okay to fail and pivot to the next step. I try to impart that on my team. It’s a fail-fast mentality, a mindset that allows failures to be identified quickly. I’ve seen it all the way through our organisation and throughout my career. I’ve also seen the opposite, at other organisations, when people would not be transparent and subsequently were left exposed when things didn’t work out, which happens a lot in technology in business. Those experiences, and my father’s advice, have been the foundation of my career.

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

I used to have a hard time unplugging from work. While that benefited me early in my career – when most would go home for the day to focus on family, I would be still working on problems and designing and testing solutions – that changed around the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’d had my first child in 2017 and my second in 2020 so when a lot of my peers were slipping into an always-on mode right at the beginning of lockdown, I noticed that I needed to create more of a boundary. I’m now a much better person, coach, mentor, and leader because I do have that boundary. 

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

If you care about your people, their career development and you have their best interests in mind, the rest will take care of itself. Yum says it’s not a restaurant company, it’s a people company. I agree with that. Yum really invests in its people. One of the programmes it offers young leaders early in their careers is the Leadership Development Programme. When I did it, our group had the opportunity to sit down with our CEO. Someone said: “How do you become a good leader? I struggle to lead, coach, or connect with my people. What do you do?” The CEO said: “As long as you care about people you work with you won’t have any issues connecting with them as individuals or coaching them in the right way.” That was a big takeaway for me.

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

The most useful tool for me is Microsoft Teams. As much as people in general have grown to hate meeting tools since Covid, I’m probably more connected to my team now through Teams than when we were in the office. In the office, everyone was in their cubes, on a headset, holding meetings with people from all around the world. Now it’s so much easier to connect with people quickly. You miss the watercooler conversations or a quick catch-up while passing in the hallway, but you can augment that easily with Teams. Some days, if I see that the team has 15 minutes free in their calendars, I’ll set up a Teams call and anyone who wants to join for a quick catch-up is welcome to do that. It’s a great tool.

In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities?

Yum is really focused on global expansion. We’re trying to build more restaurants internationally while also making sure that, when they open, these new restaurants operate like well-seasoned outlets. We can do that by moving talent from one restaurant to another, or by hiring new talent and developing their skills. We understand that training, learning, and operations are so intertwined that we need to make sure that we’re all on the same page. In one sense, our biggest untapped opportunities are in existing markets because there will always be a need for more upskilling.

On the content side, one area that advances in artificial intelligence can help us is with auto-translating. We have a footprint in 155 different countries and serve 40-plus languages. There’s a huge cost associated with translating content packages, so we think there’s an opportunity with Chat GPT and AI to integrate machine learning for automated translation. That’s where I would love to see more work done.

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?

Necessity is mother of invention, so they say, but it feels so much better when you’ve invented something before you need it. That’s what R&D does. It looks at a problem and searches for a solution, but it is also looks at what could be a problem in the future and tries to address that now so you can be prepared. The landscape is always changing – as everyone can see with Chat GPT and machine learning. R&D is ahead of all that right now.  

How should we prepare for the future of work? 

We’re driving towards more flexibility in terms of work hours. On my team, I might have several people that are in and out of meetings during the day. If I look at the clock at 1pm and I see they’re away or offline, that’s fine because we’re focused more on the work than the time. From tech perspective, it’s about making that work style accessible through things like better connectivity to our apps and messaging platforms. 

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

63 Innovation Nuggets: (for Aspiring Innovators) by George Barbie. 

It is one of those books where you flick through the table of contents and look for relevant nuggets. The other day I read one on business intelligence systems and it looked back over his thought processes about how they looked at business intelligence and their approach. It’s really relevant to everything we do. It’s a great book to look through. Not necessarily what they implemented because George is retired multiple times over and there’s been a lot of cutting-edge technology emerging since, but the thought process still holds true. 

Another book I would recommend is Trillion Dollar Coach by Bill Campbell. He was a former American football player and coach who became a personal mentor for Silicon Valley figures like Steve Jobs, Larry Paige, and Eric Schmidt. It’s a no-nonsense, but really caring, approach, which is indicative of his background. A great read. 

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

Recently we travelled to visit Learnovate at Trinity College Dublin and came away really impressed with their approach to R&D and tech. Their attitude is, ‘Let’s not do something for the sake of it’. They take a methodical approach. R&D is so important to staying ahead but most companies don’t have the time to invest in it. That’s why our membership of Learnovate is so important. Yum doesn’t have R&D for learning tech. We have for test kitchens and conduct research into how to better fry a chicken, but we don’t have it for learning tech. As Patron members of Learnovate, we get that resource.

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

So much of the Quick Service industry is either drive-thru or sit-down dining. The Covid-19 pandemic changed the meaning of a restaurant and how people order. We had to pivot very quickly and our success is testament to the desire of our operations to respond effectively to the changed environment. Online ordering and delivery really opened the doors operationally. 

From an organisational perspective, we were always in the office before the pandemic. Even if I was working all day with people in India and Japan and the UK, I was always on a handset in a cubicle in Louisville, Kentucky. And all my team were doing the exact same thing. During the pandemic, when we all started working remotely, my team was tasked with transitioning from our old learning system to our current experience platform. A million users were migrated, along with thousands of pieces of content in 40-plus languages, and we did it all totally remote, in time and under budget. It was a great success story for our organisation and it demonstrated that working remotely does work.

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