Shawn Usher, CEO of Sparkhound, on bringing business value to the internet of things

Shawn Usher set up shop when the internet was just getting on its feet commercially. (Sparkhound)

Shawn Usher, CEO of Sparkhound, has seen it all when it comes to the way technology has evolved in the modern era.

He started his IT consulting firm in 1998, as companies were just truly integrating the internet into their business strategies. “Many customers were just getting connected,” Usher told FierceCEO. “Most tech companies were more about selling hardware products—like computers, servers and phone systems—than they were about offering genuine business solutions.”

Today, “Our job is much different,” Usher said. “Customers are seeking solutions to their business problems and the technology decisions are often secondary.

Technology is “far more business oriented than it ever has been,” Usher said. “It’s about bringing business value quickly. And it’s about the ability to change direction quickly.”

A challenge for Sparkhound is “keeping the focus on what customers see as value,” Usher said. “We spend a lot of time getting to know this or that technology and when something new comes along it can be difficult to shift gears.”

And the way that business consumes technology, including speed of IT deployment, is changing fast, Usher said. “IT over the last couple of years has undergone a revolution of sorts.  We call it digital transformation and it is built upon the  cloud, mobility, and data analytics.”

Sparkhound’s role is helping clients recognize what technology can do for them and then to make it happen.

“Technology should be a powerful tool with big-time business impact,” Usher said. “We make it happen with experienced consultants, a proven approach and comprehensive services.”

One example of Sparkhound’s services is helping a customer develop an internet of things (IoT) technology that combines a cloud environment with devices in football helmets to help detect head injuries and prevent permanent damage.

Sparkhound has 200 employees operating out of offices in Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas and Birmingham, Alabama.

The company is challenged by the shortage of high-tech workers sweeping the country. The hardest to get are high-level tech workers. “There are times it’s difficult to find a person with specific business experience or a technical skillset,” Usher said.

In those cases, “We will broaden our search, possibly do a relocation,” he said.

“However, we have had no challenges,” Usher said, “finding smart people looking for an opportunity.”

But all employees must fit with the company’s culture, Usher said. “We want people who are committed to bringing value to the customer and working as a part of the team.”

Usher describes himself as “an outcome oriented” manager.

“I like to discuss an outcome, a general direction of how it might be brought about, and then give our team the freedom to accomplish those goals,” he said.

As part of culture development, the company focuses on building relationships between team members. For example, Sparkhound has quarterly offsite meetings to give company updates in a fun environment, taking employees to go-kart racing or bumper cars.

“Mainly, we look for ways to get folks together,” Usher said. “The things our customers ask of us can be tough, so everything we can do to build relationships that foster a team spirit brings value to customers.”

Fast Five with Shawn Usher

What is your favorite job interview question?

I spend the early part of the interview seeking to learn what career activities they truly enjoy. If you can align people with their talents and passion, great things can happen.

What is a key trait of a leader?

Being able to envision something great and then collaborate on how we can achieve it.

What keeps you up at night?

Is there something around the corner I don’t know?

On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 lowest and 10 highest) how much of a priority do you place on the following things at your company: people, process and technology?

  • People—10
  • Process—8
  • Technology—6

What is one tip for motivating employees?

You recognize their desire to make an impact and the talent they bring to the table; then, discuss the challenges that we have to overcome.