Marlene and Greg went to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit the LexisNexis Technology Center. While there, they got a tour of the facilities and introduction to some of the business techniques implemented by the Lexis team. Jeff Pfeifer sat down and explained Lexis’ new rapid development techniques, including Sprint Design Thinking, and Agile Development Principles. This type of development processes means things move quickly, and problems are broken down into small chunks to solve. It also means that Lexis looks for developers who can collaborate and work directly with the customers to identify issues, and create solutions in days and weeks, rather than months or years.
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M: Today we have Jeff Pfeifer, Vice President and Chief Product Officer for North America, for LexisNexis Legal. Welcome to the show, Jeff.
J: It’s great to be with you.
M: You and I were talking maybe about a year ago, It seems that you are bringing in a real new approach, a new mindset, to LexisNexis Legal. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the things you’re doing in terms of hiring and new ways in which you’re creating new ways of thinking?
J: Sure. So a number of years ago, we started to think about what it would take to meet the challenges of lawyers, five years from now. So, if you think just five years out, what’s likely to be different from today? A few factors were immediately obvious. Data explosion continues… the rate of data growth continues… and we have new technologies available that weren’t available to us ten years ago. So, there were some unique macro trends, if you will, that we thought we had an opportunity to take advantage of to fundamentally solve some problems that have always been in the profession. But, we didn’t have easy answers to them previously. One of the things that we looked at was the kind of talent that we needed in our organization to address some of those challenges. We saw a need to hire new technology skills and to build out some facilities and other things to help us address some of those challenges.
M: What were some of the skill sets that you thought you needed to build out?
J: First, we needed both advanced skill – so people that were highly trained in things like machine learning and other advanced technology applications. But we were also looking for people who could work collaboratively. In tech-speak today, that would be the following of Agile Development Principles, or the idea of very iterative product development. Lean concepts in that you build things in small pieces. You test them with users, then you figure out if you’re on the way to something bigger. So we had to not only find skill, and we had to find people who work very well in that very collaborative environment.
M: And was that challenging?
J: It is challenging because some technologists are expert at coding. They just want to write great code all day long. But increasingly the challenge in developing in a lean methodology, or with Agile, is that you do have to have this highly interactive experience – often directly with the customer. For some technologists, that can be uncomfortable. But at the same time, we found that there are a lot of technologists that were really interested in that idea because engineers often have the idea of how best to solve the problem. So if they can work directly with the client, and understand the pain point that client has, they can come up with great technical applications that might solve the problem.
M: How did you do that? How did you find those people?
J: So we looked fundamentally for some skill sets. An idea that we emphasized in hiring is what I call collaborative creative developments. We were looking for people who expressed an interest in working with teams. That expressed an interest in direct customer interaction. You can imagine that this is something that sometimes a technologist may or may not be interested in doing. So we wanted to emphasize that in our hiring. And we also looked specifically at skills. So, what were the skills that we thought were going to be the most important in the legal market to address some of the challenges that we identified.
M: Did you put together a template of questions or a certain process that you followed to identify the right people?
J: We did. We’ve explored the use of some behavioral hiring. And we looked at ways that we would identify behavior traits that might be closely related to successful collaborative development. For us, that meant that we built a hiring profile. We looked at examining for the way that people work, in as much as their skill. So that hopefully we could bring together great technology folks with product managers, that could interact regularly and iteratively with our customers.
G: So you look for the talent, and you look for someone that’s interested in the collaborative work environment. Is that something that can be trained once they get here, or is that something that they need to have in order to get the job in the first place?
J: It can definitely be trained, but there are people that are innately drawn to that kind of work. We look for those individuals fundamentally. On the skills side, we look for technologist that possess what the tech community would call T-Shaped skills. That would be generally speaking some breadth and some ability to cover a lot of different tech challenges, but be able to go deep when needed on a particular task. The intersection between that and collaborative problem exploration is really a good fit. If you find a great general technology person that is eager to explore and solve problems alongside a product manager, we think that’s where you can do some neat stuff.
G: We’re here on the campus of North Carolina State University, once of the things that we went through in the past couple of days was some “Sprint design concepts.” That is something that you are using with your teams as well. Can you tell us a little bit about the Sprint design and how effective that is and what the results tend to be?
J: Sure. As you eluded Greg, we are on the campus of NC State University, where LexisNexis has our main technology center. We call it our Raleigh Technology Center. And we selected this environment because being on a university campus, we have access to great talent and can do some great research work. But we’re actually sitting in a lab space that we call our Experience Innovation Studio. And the goal of this space is to create an environment where we can explore problems and work iteratively to define, again in small chunks, ideas that might solve problems for our customers. And we’re big believers in design thinking. Design thinking is generally about explore the problem, come up with some potential solutions for the problem, and rapidly prototype solutions so that you can test those ideas with your clients. So we use this space to do exactly that. There are a lot of great methodologies. Jake Knapp for example, is famous for his book Sprint which looks at how you time-box activities over three days, or five days, and come up with some very tangible ideas. But for us, the bigger idea is that you rapidly find out whether an idea has legs or not. Is it something that is really solving a real problem? And if it is, that’s just the beginning of the process. From there, you go into much deeper discovery. You really learn much more about the problem, and you continue to iterate and develop an idea.
G: And I think this is a change from the typical design method where you may meet once a week… twice a week, and have a much longer span of time between the initial launch of the design and the completion.
M: Or, traditional project management.
G: So you compress that into five days. One of the things that Marlene and I were talking about was how in the world could we apply this at our firm? I couldn’t imagine pulling someone off of something for five days in order to do it.
M: In [the Lexis] environment, that’s their job to do. In our [firm] environment, we’re bringing people in who have another job, to help us with figuring these things out.
G: Although, in the great scheme of things, it might be a better process.
M: That’s true.
J: I think what we see is exactly what you describe. That we get better output if we go through this process. For your listeners, I would encourage them to read the book, Sprint. It’s a great exposure to an idea.
M: I just downloaded it on my Kindle.
J: Good, good. It has a lot of great ideas, because even if you don’t follow the entire process, you can think about breaking apart problems into smaller, more addressable, action items. I have traveled all over the world talking to law firms of use of ‘sprint-type’ methodology. It’s amazing to hear how many firms are using this methodology in ways completely different than we are, but looking for example at client service models… looking at redesigning litigation support teams… in order to provide better client service. So, we see the methodology as extendable. It works great in a product development environment, like we’re in here, but it also works great if you’re looking at breaking down a process question, and thinking about how you might make incremental changes that deliver better outcomes.
G: North Carolina State has a public-private type agreements with companies to actually be housed here on campus. What caused Lexis to set up their Technology Center here in Raleigh?
J: About four years ago we started to look, as a business, at this question – “How do we make sure we have the right technology talent to solve problems in the future?” And we started exploring different locations that might help us achieve that objective. We had a business presence in the Raleigh area previously, and as we explored, we encountered the folks at NC State, who had built a new campus, called Centennial Campus, where the focus is really to create an intersection between education and readiness for employment. We were really intrigued by that idea, because, number one, we had some interesting technology problems that we thought it would be great to get access to a world-class researchers at NC State to help us think through some of the machine learning / artificial intelligence challenges that we’re trying to tackle. But we also knew that it was an increasingly competitive market for talent. And, thus, the idea of being able to connect directly to the university and to rotate individual through on coop assignments and internships was really appealing to us. So we settled in a building on NC State campus that ironically, historically before us, housed Red Hat. Red Hat grew into quite a large organization out of this very building. So from a beginning starting point of about 200 people, we grown now to about 700 people that are located here in our Technology Center.
M: And you came in when?
J: I moved here about a year ago. I was asked to become our site leader here for the Technology Center last Fall. So I’ve relocated here.
M: That’s really quick growth.
J: Yeah. It’s moving fast. But, it is because we have had really good results. We can get access to great talent. The university is a phenomenal partner. In the building in which we are sitting, we can look across the street an area that they’ve dedicated to startup activity. Incubating and supporting startups that are working through early-stage growth questions. So, for us it’s a nice mix between a traditional academic environment, some bigger established organizations, like LexisNexis, and then some startup businesses that are really early stage in their business plan.
G: One of the things that I found really interesting was when you were giving us the tour earlier, was that you had mentioned that your clients will sometimes use the space here and come in and do their own design or other types of training. Is that something that you promote to the clients?
J: So, the space that we built here was really designed to be a co-collaboration space. What we were talking about before about our folks and how they work, we invite our customers to do the same. Sometimes that means working with us, in exploring an idea that might be beneficial to both of us. In other instances, we’ve invited other customers to come in an use our facilities and hopefully get some of the same benefits. The lab that we describe earlier was actually co-developed with NC State. So, they bring groups of students in here to collaborate and develop in this space. On a weekly basis, they bring their design class into the facility and explore different problems. It’s great space and we love to have people in. It helps our people also stay close to problems that our customers are facing.
M: I just love the idea that you are taking advantage of outside talent and ability and bringing that in here. I’m thinking in terms of students. They have opportunity… you’re benefiting, they’re benefiting, You’re reaching out to minds outside of Lexis to answer questions. It kind of goes back to idea that all of us are smarter that any one of us.
J: Well, there probably was a stage where many thought that you could really be the smartest person at the table, and develop the best idea, but the rate of change and the rate of innovation right now is so fast, that it is really not sustainable. So, for us it is really about creating an ecosystem where we’ve got outside people, clients working collaboratively, the best that we can hire, and bring those people together at the table at the same time, and start to break apart problems. There’s a lot of debate as you listen to other legal podcasts, about how will Access to Justice change, how can we improve the service and the delivery of legal services? We think that is largely about breaking these problems apart and understanding discrete elements, discrete problems that we can apply new solutions to. And so it will likely be a very long path. We have to keep doing that over and over and over. It’s not likely to be one big bang. It’s likely to be a lot of little things.
M: And it will change as things go along. And you’ll have to adjust.
J: Absolutely. And, there’ll be new technology that’s developed and delivered. And there’ll be new ways we can leverage technology or service delivery. And that’s going to ultimately, we think, deliver better service if we can continue to iterate. There’s an idea that is very prominent in the tech world right now, that’s referred to as “duel-track development.” It’s the idea that you’re developing at the exact same time that you’re conducting discovery. And we’re big believers in that idea. So, as you learn, and as you process information, you’re developing at exactly the same time, so that you can rapidly iterate and bring ideas to market.
G: So since you’ve been here, a little over a year, what’s been the most pleasant surprise with this type of operation?
J: I would say that the most pleasant surprise has been how you can do things a lot faster. We had historically been an organization that had looked in long time frames. We were often asked by clients like you, “what’s coming?” and “when?” and “what’s that delivery date?”
M: “Years from now!”
J: You would want to know next year… what’s coming to Lexis Advance next year? And, what I’ve found to be the most pleasant thing is that we can rapidly iterate and develop new ideas. In fact, we had a working session here were we came up with five or six really interesting ideas that now, we can take those ideas right back. Start to explore. Put those into a development backlog, and potentially deliver them in weeks. So, that’s a huge benefit. Our employees love that. They like being able to be more responsive. They like to explore the problem iteratively. And our clients have told us that they like it because it shows that we can be responsive, and we can deliver things more quickly than saying “hey, that’s going to come in nine months.” When so much can happen between now and then. It’s really helping us, we think, deliver better service.
G: Well, that does then beg the question… has Lexis turned the corner that instead of big launches, there’s lots of incremental change, and that people won’t realize that there’s been a number of things that have been advanced over time?
M: How do you communicate this? We don’t have big reveals like we have mid-year at AALL [American Association of Law Libraries.]
J: There will always be some of that, because there will always be big ideas that you want to put the spotlight on and help people understand when something might be more transformative. But we think… and we look for inspiration from companies like Microsoft and Facebook and others, that can release somewhere between 20 and 30 feature enhancements a day. And the idea in both of those organizations is to make those changes so transparent and tweaked that the user doesn’t need training. That there things that the user adjusts to on the fly because they are not such as significant to their user experience. So we’re not there yet. Our goal would be to getting to regular weekly release cadence. So that when we have issues that we want to address, we can push those out more quickly. But I think when you look at the broader industry, that is the current trend. Push out a lot of little things, and in many cases, most of those things don’t need training. They don’t need the traditional adoption hand-holding that some of our bigger releases might have needed in the past.
M: So two things come to mind when you are talking about that. One, I’ll go out on a limb here, you’re sort of acting like a smaller company or a startup, so that you can move very quickly, and release things very quickly, as opposed to what you see with larger companies. It’s harder to do that. They have to take a longer time because they are a bigger company and they have more people involved in decision making. The other thing that you brought up was that people don’t even have to be trained. They almost don’t even realize that it’s something new. And that struck me because adoption is a big discussion point at least in our world. And part of what we’re finding is driving successful adoption is the ease. You don’t have to go to training. It used to be a big deal. You had to make sure that everyone went to the training and make sure everyone did it and understood it. If you can release something that is so intuitive, that people can just pick it up and say “yeah that works and that helps me,” That’s tremendous in terms of generating adoption.
J: As you walked around our building, you may have seen some of the signs up that say things like “Think and Execute like a Startup.” We don’t say, “be like a startup” because there are some downsides to being a startup. But the elements of being a startup that relate to execution and moving quickly, are admirable traits that we want our teams to think a lot about. We, frankly, have some giant advantages because we have scale as an organization. We’ve built an enormous content collection. We’ve built a broad research service, Lexis Advance, that people increasingly know how to use. So we can introduce new ideas that follow those same user paradigms. So that the user is able to adopt new ideas, because they already know how to use something. So for us, it’s a balance. We want to get our people thinking in iterative path development. In chunks. In bites, if you will. Like a startup would. With some urgency, that you are really are moving fast to respond to the problem. At the same time, we want to leverage the things that, frankly, have made us a big player in the industry over the last 50 years. Our scale, our content, and the fact that we now leveraging technology at scale, that gives us some opportunities to deliver great insights for our customers.
It’s been great to have you both, and some others from the community here with us because getting people in, and talking, is really what this is all about. It’s really about that idea of co-development, co-collaboration, which I don’t think that our industry has always been great at. As we think back over the past twenty to twenty-five years, we’ve definitely had an opportunity to improve there and really focus on how do we work together to solve these problems, rather than create these big unveilings that demonstrate these new products or new ideas. To the degree that we do these things together, we create a lot better product on the other end.