Finding talent in unusual places with Brian Hoyt


This week I’m joined by Brian Hoyt, the CIO of Unity Technologies. Unity is a technology company with a real-time 3D development platform.

In our discussion, Brian outlines how he engages with his CEO while still reporting to the CFO. Brian’s CEO attends his all-hands IT meetings and shares how his relationship got started. Brian also discusses his perspective on what he believes is the cause of most IT issues and how he is exciting people in such a competitive market. To that end, Brian shares examples of how he is bringing skillsets to IT that often don’t look like they belong in IT.


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Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Tim Crawford:               Hello and welcome to the CIO In The Know podcast where I take a provocative but pragmatic look at the intersection between business and technology. I’m your host Tim Crawford, a CIO and strategic advisor at a AVOA.

Tim Crawford:               This week, I’m joined by Brian Hoyt, the CIO of Unity Technologies. Unity is a technology company with a real-time, 3D development platform. In our discussion, Brian outlines how he engages with his CEO while still reporting to the CFO. Brian’s CEO attends his all-hands IT meetings and he shares how his relationship got started. Brian also discusses his perspective on what he believes is the cause of most IT issues and how he is exciting people in such a competitive market. To that end, Brian shares examples of how he is bringing skillsets to IT that often don’t look like they belong in IT. Brian, welcome to the program.

Brian Hoyt:                   Thank you very much. My pleasure to be here.

Tim Crawford:               Brian Hoyt, you are the CIO for Unity Technologies. Let’s start off by telling me a little bit about your role at Unity.

Brian Hoyt:                   Sure. So IT at Unity is really internally focused team that operates business processes and builds technology around them. I often talk about instrumenting business processes with technology and trying and understand what we’re doing and where we can apply automations or the like to make things happen. So I spend a great deal of my time working on problems of scale as the company’s growing quite rapidly, as well as kind of looking at some legacy things that we might have. Though we’re still a private company, we have some legacy as it has been around for a few years and taking data centers and putting them into the cloud and things like that. So it’s a combination of sort of transformation and some innovation and scale problems that we really focus on.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. And I think there are some things that have come out of our past conversations that we’re going to bring into this conversation. And one of those is you often talk about abstracting away the things that IT used to do. Can you talk about that maybe a little bit further?

Brian Hoyt:                   I think some of the technologies we work on have folded in some of the old things, like how we about the role of a database administrator or sort of a specialist on each level of an application that might get rolled up into a big enterprise-grade application and those sort of being combined and we don’t have to worry about those problems as much anymore really. We can really focus on what problems we’re trying to solve for the business and focus on the outcomes thereof. So I think about a lot of that and trying to build teams that look at business problems and the technology rather holistically. That’s of great interest to me and thing that we spend a lot of time on at Unity.

Tim Crawford:               And that’s one thing that we’ve talked about on this podcast and something I’ve talked a lot about, which is IT being business-focused as opposed to technology-focused.

Brian Hoyt:                   Yeah. I think, obviously, we have people that are more technical than business side, but I’d say whereas in the past, in an IT organization that would be the majority. For us it’s probably the minority. We have a lot of technical folks, but we have a lot of folks that are really embedded with different business units and understanding the processes and understanding why we should solve a problem and how the best way it might be to approach that.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. One of the questions that often comes up as part of this business versus technology focus is who you, as the CIO ,is the senior most person in IT report to. And in your particular case, you report to the CFO, the chief financial officer, but you have a real interesting relationship with your CEO. Can you talk about your relationship with the CFO and your relationship with the CEO and how the CEO engages with your team?

Brian Hoyt:                   Yeah, I have a great relationship with the CFO. I think in companies that are scaling rapidly, maybe possibly thinking about what it means to operate as a public company at some time, I think it’s kind of a nice synergy actually, because so many things are close. Plus it doesn’t ever hurt to have easy access to someone who owns the budget side, which we all need as technology leaders. I think it makes a lot of sense if our interests are aligned, I think it makes sense. And I think we have a great relationship. My CFO, Kim, is relatively new to Unity, I’d say about three months in. So during the time that we were recruiting her and during that search I reported directly to the CEO, and it was really a great thing for me to spend time reporting to him and understanding what are his priorities and how his way of thinking goes about it.

Brian Hoyt:                   And I think it was a very valuable time for me at Unity to understand what he’s doing. He’s been very generous with his time, not just with me, but with my team. He comes to meetings. If I invite him to a whole team meeting or an all-hands, he’s happy to show up. And that’s happened twice this year already, which I think is pretty unusual. It comes from knowing that our work is important and he’s clearly communicating that to the team, which I think is huge because it tends to be in IT that often we’re the last to know. But when you have that kind of access and level of visibility, it helps to bring you into conversations more I think. So it’s great to have that sponsorship. And we also meet and speak quite regularly, Unity’s a pretty flat democratic place actually. So I think that’s to be expected and most people at my level to meet very regularly with him. So it’s an interesting company.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. And I love the fact that you’re giving exposure to the CEO to the rest of your organization, because that’s something that I know myself coming up as a young person in IT, I never had exposure to the CEO. I mean I knew who the CEO was, but never had that exposure. And it’s something that you don’t often see, and so I commend you for both having that relationship, but also being able to bring that exposure to the rest of your organization.

Brian Hoyt:                   Yeah, it’s been incredibly meaningful for the team. I think I’ve had more than one person come to me and say like, “Wow, I mean I’ve been in IT for whatever number of years and I’ve never experienced that.” And it’s really great and I don’t know that I would take as much credit as give it to the boss actually, because he’s a really great example and really cares about people and he demonstrates that.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. And that was going to be a follow on question I was going to ask you is who started that conversation? Was he coming to you saying, “Hey, I’d like to be more involved in your organization, happy to come to your meeting?” Or did you approach him about the idea of coming to your all-hands?

Brian Hoyt:                   I think he extended a general invitation, and he does so over and over saying not only that, but, “What can I do for the team?” He knows we’re undergoing a lot of important work in what we do right now and what can he do to help keep people motivated and show that it’s appreciated. So I think there is a general invitation that he sent to make sure that whatever he can do, let him know and then I just tend to invite him and he shows up. So yeah.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. That’s great. Maybe a model that that others can follow too. So as you think about your organization and you think about the people and we have this conversation in this analog of do we have the right people on the bus, are they in the right seats? And you think about how IT has changed over time too. Do we have the right people and skillsets in IT today? And this is more of a question, kind of a broader question on your perspective, not necessarily specific to Unity Technologies, but from your perspective, do we have the right people in IT and skillsets? Especially considering you’re based in San Francisco, so you get to see a lot of different aspects to that, a lot of different components that come into that conversation.

Brian Hoyt:                   I think my perspective, which is not by the way based in any science, is that probably most problems that IT have come from not having the right people with the right skillsets. And I think it’s on us as leaders to be as open and honest as we can with ourselves about that. And sometimes I think we aren’t because of a variety of reasons that I think everyone can probably imagine, but I think we have to be really honest. The skillset that got us here, I don’t know, as an industry, is probably not going to get us to the next phase where the operations and technology functions are merging so close together. That trend is not going to stop, right? It’s going to get closer and closer. If we aren’t really ahead of that and pushing ourselves from the boundaries and into the actual operations of the business, not just sitting back and saying like, “Well, it’s on the business and tell us what to do.”

Brian Hoyt:                   We can’t think like that anymore. I think we have to be the first to stand up and try to solve and own a problem. And I think it’s a great place to be, by the way. I think we all ought to want to be there, but not necessarily in discussions around who the business owner versus a service owner is, because that’s just a very particular auger of time and energy. But I think in Unity, there was no concept of IT before really, and we’ve kind of put together some teams that were kind of distributed throughout the business, and we’re solving interesting big problems. So people are excited about it. And I think you’ve got to give people the freedom to get excited about new technologies if they’re not used to working on it, and not feel threatened by it. I think that’s a very IT thing to be is to be scared of losing your job because of a new technology, et cetera. And we as leaders have to help make our teams feel comfortable about that.

Tim Crawford:               And that’s something that has come up in past episodes on the podcast. In fact, one of my past guests had mentioned what got you here will not get you there. And they were very specific about that. And you’re echoing something very similar. How does that get shaped, especially as you think about kind of the genetic makeup of your team and the skills? And what I mean by that is if you go back over time, we’ve been focused on the hard skills, focused on, “Do you know this technology or that technology? Are you certified with this technology or that technology?” How has that evolved both for your organization, but maybe also bring in your role too? How has your role and the skills that you’ve needed to develop over time changed too?

Brian Hoyt:                   Yeah, like I mentioned, I think the most important thing is to realize that we’re truly solving operational problems, and if we don’t understand the operational inefficiencies or the things that we’re trying to work on, then we’re not going to be successful in solving them. So I try to bring in people with skill sets that don’t very often look like they belong in It. Like I often say when I’m looking for business analysts that work in the accounting systems team that I’m looking for reformed accountants or something, like accountants that had an operational accounting role and are really interested in the systems.

Brian Hoyt:                   And because the technology has gotten to a point where you don’t necessarily need to be a computer scientist level coder to maintain, operate, and iterate on an ERP, you just have a really good understanding of what the technology does and how it works and what the problems are you’re trying to solve. So who better than to find someone who is from that operational side to bring that in? I believe that these technical skills now are very trainable. So I’ve hired people that have been in operational HR roles and operational accounting roles and they’ve been great. And it’s amazing how quickly they adapt to the technologies as well, and learn it and master it, frankly.

Tim Crawford:               You talk about how you find talent in those unusual places, because quite often, we talk about, “Okay, we’re going to bring an IT person from another part of the IT org, or have them advance through the organization.” But you’re talking about bringing someone from outside of IT into IT. I’m going to be a little provocative here and say there are a lot of people who would say that’s the last thing they want to do is join an IT organization. Especially if they’ve been outside of IT. What makes someone want to join IT?

Brian Hoyt:                   I think it’s we’re working on interesting problems in this case. If you’re working on interesting work, if you’re not just sort of watching a dial, you’re really building what’s going to be the future landscape of operational platform of the company, it’s an interesting thing. I think giving people the freedom to build their sort of relationship with their business counterparts and iterate in a way that is meaningful, it can be a meaningful relationship and a meaningful professional experience. And I think for people that have been in operations functions, like I said, I think the technical part is getting so close. It’s not as out there as it probably seems, at least in my experience it’s not. But I think also you build a great team of people, a great team. The people on our IT leadership are just, they’re fantastic people. They’re good people to work for and they care. And also, Unity’s a fantastic company. So that helps too.

Tim Crawford:               How do you stay competitive in such a competitive market like San Francisco? And I know that you’re split, right? You’re split where part of your organization is in the San Francisco Bay area and part of it is in Copenhagen. But if we just focus on the Bay Area for a minute in that competitive nature, what are you doing that is magical to try and develop and retain that talent in such a competitive market?

Brian Hoyt:                   So I don’t know if there’s magic. I think there’s a couple of things though. First of all, if you work for an organization like Unity, it’s going to appeal to a certain person, especially in the Bay Area because it’s really, as a company, not necessarily in IT, but we’re really working on interesting technical problems that are probably going to be very important in the next generation of computing. And that’s going to attract a lot of interest anyway, because our company’s pretty interesting. We’ve done pretty well. So I think that helps. Beyond that, I think from my perspective, I think you treat people like adults. I give them a lot of freedom and responsibility to solve problems and then you give them interesting problems to solve and you kind of step out of their way.

Brian Hoyt:                   I don’t know that there’s any magic. We’ve had such great success in finding great people and there’s not any sort of magic playbook or anything that I have. It’s just outside of those three things, it’s really articulating the large problems we’re trying to solve and letting them be solved. And I think there’s a big accountability aspect to it too. I don’t understand not meeting a committed deadline. This is something that I think my whole team is pretty good at, like when we say we’re going to do something we do it. And I think often in the past, in IT especially, those deadlines were very mutable terms somehow, sometimes for good reasons, but I think that kind of accountability, people like candid feedback and they like to be held accountable for things and appreciate it I think because it shows respect.

Tim Crawford:               But in some ways arguably, and you have experience as an IT leader for some period of time as well, but that isn’t the typical approach that an it organization takes. And so maybe that is the magic. Maybe that is the secret sauce of bringing those components and the way that you treat people to the forefront?

Brian Hoyt:                   I would say when … Though I started my career in IT literally answering tickets, I sort of spent the middle part in consulting and implementing software solutions. I think when I started this journey to get to this level, I didn’t set out to say, “I’m going to become a CIO and run a big IT organization.” It was like, I don’t know if it looked like an in-house consulting business or something like that, but the ambition wasn’t sort of, “Okay, we’re going to go and run IT somewhere.” It just kind of seemed like it was a good fit. And I think the Bay Area sometimes fosters that kind of creativity and flexibility, because if you join a company and suddenly you find yourself with a thousand people within a year, and then you got to get pretty real and like, “Oh man, somebody’s got to take care of the wifi too.” So maybe that’s a difference. I didn’t come up through a big IT pipeline to this role, but I think what we’ve done so far has worked. So I’m going to continue.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. No, if you have something that works, absolutely. All the more power to you. One of the things that I know you’re passionate about is research and development. And you talk about innovation, you talk about operations, R and D comes into this. Share with our audience a little more about your thoughts around the importance of R and D, and making R and D teams successful.

Brian Hoyt:                   A company like Unity is obviously invested really heavily in R and D. It’s, I think probably one of the most, probably, I’m sure by far the thing we focus most on is from an investment [inaudible 00:16:28]. And there’s an incredible amount of intellectual horsepower that goes into building a product like Unity, all of our products. And it means that as technology leader in IT, often I’m not the most technical person in the company.

Brian Hoyt:                   Which in some other businesses, CIO sometimes is, but we have lots of people that have PhDs in graphics engineering and all kinds of really talented computer science folks that are solving next generation computer problems. And man, I’ll tell you what, the last thing they want is IT stuff in their way. Because if you put something that doesn’t make sense or it doesn’t work, they’ll tell you. And I want them to tell me. I want them to. But building the relationship where they understand that I’m not here to try to contain their creativity, or to put things up in their way, or I’m not going to I’m not going to push out a technology just because an auditor says so, or something like this has happened. We’re going to try to find the best thing for us and make it work somehow.

Brian Hoyt:                   And that’s one of the things that I really love most about being in IT and technology companies. You learn a lot of things that may just sound like grousing but really come from places of trying to do really, really hard work. And I like enabling that type of success for people. And it’s pretty easy to know, I think, if you’re doing it wrong or right. And that’s if they’re asking for help for you, inviting you into conversations, then you’re doing it right. If they’re trying to get around you, you’re probably not.

Tim Crawford:               So kind of on that, and as we kind of wrap up this episode, one of the questions I always like to ask folks and love to get your take on this is what excites you most about the role of the CIO today and where do you think technology kind of fits into that? If it does?

Brian Hoyt:                   I think technology is always going to be core to what we have to do and understanding it. But I love the fact that I can spend a lot of time hearing from up and coming companies, speaking to the folks that work in the VC world that want your opinion on, “How do you think this would work and would it be meaningful to you?” It feels like you’re … I think it’s really interesting in the role that really feels like you’re shaping the future of what this technology may be in the next generation or so.

Brian Hoyt:                   I think the opportunity to continue to focus on that is really wonderful and also trying to shape it towards what I really think is that the operations functions and the technology functions kind of merging into one thing. I think it’s really interesting. I love that about my role, that I think the team gets such a great view across the company of what’s actually happening. It’s probably one of the best informed teams as far as what operational problems are out there and where their pain in the businesses and how can we solve it.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. Brian Hoyt, CIO of Unity Technologies. Thanks so much for joining on the program today.

Brian Hoyt:                   Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Tim Crawford:               For more information on the CIO In The Know podcast series, visit us online at CIOitk.Com. Or you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Don’t forget to subscribe and thank you for listening.

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