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Tampa Bay Tech Leaders: Jeff Fudge, Director of IT at Ashley Furniture, and Passionate Cloud Advocate

Jeff Fudge, Director of IT at Ashley Furniture - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders

Jeff Fudge is a passionate cloud advocate and prominent figure in the Tampa Bay tech community. He heads multiple meetup groups, including the popular Tampa Bay AWS User Group, the Tampa Bay Azure User Group, and the new High Tech Connect.

Jeff met with us at Bernini’s in Ybor, where we chatted about Tech, Tampa, and more over a delicious meal.

Roxanne Williams: You’re a prevalent figure in Tampa. I think anyone who’s in tech has heard the name Jeff Fudge. I’d like to know why you’re such a passionate advocate for tech in Tampa.

Jeff Fudge: I would say I didn’t start off being all that passionate. I say that with some reticence. I think I just started getting my passion later in life. As I moved up into further responsibility, management, and overseeing staff, I learned that I would have a much more productive and motivated staff by being passionate. I think it took me a while to learn to verbalize and share that passion because I had historically been more of an introverted person, but I was laid off a couple times, and I realized I didn’t do much from a branding perspective. I didn’t really share my passion very well, I didn’t update LinkedIn and then I learned, boy, I’m doing myself a disservice. I was new to the meetup environment, and I needed to hire PHP developers at one of my positions – that’s a hard position to fill. I went to my first PHP meetup a couple years ago and I thought, “This is great!” I used that to learn who the PHP skilled resources were in the Tampa Bay area. I was getting involved in the cloud and AWS, and I realized there wasn’t a cloud user group and I figured, well, I can complain that there isn’t one and there isn’t more community involvement, or I can be part of the solution and get myself involved. That kind of started the snowball going. I just thrived off of it. I loved meeting people in the community, and it’s a great area. I’ve been here in the Central Florida area since the ‘80s and so, just a lot of passion with this area, and I love to contribute any way I can.

Roxanne: That’s awesome.

Matt Vaughn: What do you hope to see in the next few years for Tampa Bay when it comes to tech?

Jeff Fudge, Director of IT at Ashley Furniture - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Talent

Jeff: I interact with many of the larger companies here, and not many startups, but I would say the biggest challenge a lot of companies have is they don’t understand that you get what you pay for. I think we have to do a lot from a salary perspective, and there are a lot of communities that have learned that the talent follows the salaries. I’m sure we have a lot of great technical talent in the Tampa Bay area, but they work remote because they’re chasing the dollars. Our salaries have kind of lagged behind, and any company I’ve been at, you fight that fight, and you want to be at least a little above market. I think Tampa Bay is below market when you look at other areas. I would hope at some point we’re smart enough to realize that we’ve got some talent leaving the area and we’ve got to fix that.

Roxanne: There’s no way for us to compete with remote work. But yeah, you’re preaching to the choir. We’ve done a few of these interviews now and it’s the same thing every time: we need to pay more.

Matt: Time for somebody to do what you did with the AWS user group and do something.

Roxanne: Yeah. Actually, this leads well into my next question. You founded the AWS group in March of 2017. What kind of growth have you seen since inception, how many attendees did you get then versus now?

Jeff: Well I was really nervous about that in my first one because I had never run a meetup. Your biggest fear is, what if you hold a meetup and two people show up? Do you hold it anyway? Do you just go to a bar and have a couple of drinks?

I would say we started off with maybe 30 people. On the larger side, we have maybe 130 people show up. What’s refreshing is that at the start of every event, I try to find out who’s there for the first time, and I always get new blood coming into the group. If I can see 10%, 20%, 25% new members every meetup then the word is being spread, and I think we’re doing something good for the community.

Roxanne: I think it helps you guys too that you have big names as guests – you had Malwarebytes recently and Verizon as well.

Jeff: I try to invite companies that are truly leveraging that technology. Tell us how you’re using that technology for business advantage, give the community a chance to come into your venue, like Malwarebytes. What are you guys all about? Let them use that as an HR opportunity, like here’s why you might want to work for that company. We’ve had some great events at Nielsen, who has a great venue and great story to tell. So, I do try to invite other users and other companies to present, I try to include various managed service providers and ISPs, and I try to get the staffing companies invited. The more educated we can get our staffing companies in terms of the skills we hire for, the better. You see a lot of user groups saying, “I don’t want any staffing companies.” I take a slightly different approach. I want to educate the community.

Matt: We might be biased but we agree with you on that one. What other events are you tied to outside of the AWS group?

Jeff Fudge, Director of IT at Ashley Furniture - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Tampa

Jeff: I just started, with 3 other individuals, a meetup called High Tech Connect. As I ran the AWS and Azure groups, I realized it’s nice to put people in touch with other companies in the area. You start realizing, well I’m only introducing people to the cloud providers, and that’s just a very narrow segment. And so some of us were talking one day, and we were like, why don’t we do that on a broader scale, not just limited to cloud technologies? We had our first event a few weeks ago where we invited 5 or 6 local companies, made sure we had a non-profit involved, and what the model going forward will be is to try to get maybe a security company, a service provider, a local employer, a staffing company, etc. that have a great story to tell, and just over some food and some drink and some elevator pitches and meet and greet tables where they can talk about themselves, that’d make the community just a little tighter, a little smaller. I think Tampa has some disadvantage: you’ve got your pockets, you’ve got downtown, you’ve got Westshore, maybe South Tampa, you’ve got maybe the USF area. But we’re pretty geographically dispersed. I think the more we can bring the community together all across Tampa Bay and understand who the technology companies are, the better. High Tech Connect is all about trying to bring people together.

For that event, we had to cap our RSVPs at 125. I think we had 95-98 people show up. My experience with most meetups has been a 50% attendance rate, but this meetup had maybe a 78% show rate, which is great! This is something that resonates with people and something we want to keep doing moving forward.

Matt: Can you take me through the Cliff’s Notes of your career, what has brought you to today – any highlights, the companies you’ve worked for, things you’ve accomplished?

Jeff: Sure. I will date myself here. I started off as a COBOL programmer, which I used to think was very cool.

I would say I loved technology because I used to play trumpet and piano, which are creative outlets, and technology’s always been a creative outlet for me. I love technology because there’s not just one way of doing things. I’ve always catered to companies that would allow me to solve things in a creative way. I spent my early years doing mainframe development, but then I started getting into client server and things like SQL server and I guess when I really started getting passionate was in the heyday of e-commerce and the dot-com boom. I worked for Bealls for 19 years. We had a 56K frame relay connection, one server. Look at where they started and where they are today.

I love building things. I love facilitating business. I love approaching IT, not from a cost savings perspective, but from facilitating the business, differentiating the business. I don’t mind going into an environment that maybe needs a little bit of polish or fixing – I just love the challenge, and I love looking back and saying, boy, the team that I was able to build or the team that I worked with, we did some pretty great things! That’s just very rewarding to me. I don’t know if there are enough people that really are allowed to take pride in what they do. And I think one of the weaknesses any company I worked at has is that it’s hard to celebrate your successes. If you fail, you certainly get the feedback, and rightfully so – but sometimes, when you are successful, companies need to just take a break and make sure they recognize the success as well as they publicize the failure.

Roxanne: I’m so glad you brought up the whole coding as a creative thing. My partner thinks the exact same way. For him, coding is a creative outlet.

Jeff: I think people do need to realize that technology is all about creative people, and they need that creative outlet, and if you don’t give them any of that, they will find a company that does.

Matt: Absolutely.

Roxanne: So, going from that, how much tech staff do you have at Ashley right now?

Jeff: In total?

Roxanne: Yeah.

Jeff: I’m going to have to ballpark this, but I’d say here at Ybor City, we probably have close to maybe 125 technologists. Company-wide, maybe more like 500-600.

Roxanne: Wow. Do you guys get creative time at Ashley?

Jeff Fudge, Director of IT at Ashley Furniture - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Creative

Jeff: I think just about every company has this challenge, especially when you run full throttle and are constantly evolving and re-inventing yourself. But I think we’ve got a good headstart on allowing people to be creative and we’re learning, sometimes the hard way, to allow people to be creative in their solutions. If you adopt higher-end cutting edge technologies, you have a greater ability to be creative. And the cloud is the perfect example. When you design systems on prem, you don’t necessarily have all the creative outlets or opportunities you have when you move into something like the cloud, where there’s not just one tried and true way of getting something accomplished, but a variety of ways that you can solve a technology. I think we’re learning. It’s a journey in a lot of ways.

Roxanne: Yeah. It’s definitely a big issue for companies that see IT in more of a traditional sense.

Jeff: Both from a retail and an e-commerce perspective, we’re all about the customer experience, and that also gives us a greater ability. You’re not just a back-end application that services the business, you need to keep up with your competition or exceed what your competition is doing. And that allows us to also be creative.

Roxanne: What kind of technologies do you guys leverage other than AWS at Ashley?

Jeff: Azure. So, we’re a big Microsoft shop.

Roxanne: Oh.

Jeff: My passion, historically, has been with AWS because I’ve used that at three different companies – but we’re all Microsoft stack on the development side. Our ERP is Dynamics, which obviously is a Microsoft product, and so Azure is a very good fit for us because Microsoft is a trusted and valued partner. We use Terraform for our infrastructure’s code. We do some Jenkins, but we like where Microsoft’s headed with their integration of Azure DevOps with the development platforms and the tight integration. I think if you can have a development pipeline managed by your tech stack from your development perspective that’s also the same as your cloud provider, there’s a lot of synergy for it. As much as I’ve historically loved Jenkins, when you go to one company to kind of own that whole lifecycle, sometimes there’s some synergies there.

We do a lot of IoT on the manufacturing side, as we learn to instrument our manufacturing processes. We’re doing a lot more and more with robotics inside of our manufacturing plants. For the repetitive work that a lot of our employees do, it’s nice to automate that with robotics.

Matt: With the talent that you have and the time that you’ve had in the industry, now that Tampa Bay is being more recognized as a tech hub, have you noticed the positive shift in terms of qualified tech talent in the area in recent years?

Jeff: I would say we’re definitely getting better. I don’t know if we’re better at retention. I think you see better qualified candidates starting out here. It’d be great to see some metrics on how many are retained and stay in the area. I think we’re doing a better job of fostering that talent and recognizing the talent when it’s here. I just wonder if we’re doing enough to actually retain it.

Roxanne: What’s the best path for someone who wants to become a cloud architect?

Jeff Fudge, Director of IT at Ashley Furniture - Full Stack Talent Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Cloud

Jeff: I’d say one is take advantage of any learning opportunity, even if it’s free. I’m on the advisory board for curricula for Keiser University, and they almost have to push their students into going to a meetup. I think networking is one of those aspects that they don’t teach in school as much as they could, so if you want to head towards the cloud, certainly take advantage of the free resources Microsoft or Amazon gives you in the cloud. There’s no reason why you can’t take advantage of those free platforms, but I would say get out there, volunteer to host a meetup, volunteer to participate, ask questions. There are a lot of smart people in the community, a lot of people you can learn from. Everyone wants to go to technology conferences and that’s great, but there are also a lot of ways to learn here locally that won’t cost a flight to a large city and a hotel stay. I would say just be open to sources of information, guidance, and don’t be afraid to ask people for mentorship. Ask opinions, go to the meetups, find out who’s who. There’s never a right way to break into any given discipline, but certainly you can take advantage of a lot of collective knowledge in the area.

Roxanne: Something we keep hearing is, school is great for the theory but you need that practical experience.

Jeff: Exactly. I think a tough lesson to learn is there’s a fine line between over-engineering and under-engineering, and in school, you might be rewarded for over-engineering something or making it look perfect. There aren’t a whole lot of businesses nowadays that are willing to wait for something to be perfect. Companies would rather fail fast. No one knows that better than Microsoft, where you come up with release 1.0, and you learn from it and you improve it and you work on making it perfect instead of waiting for it to be perfect out of the door. I think that’s a lesson that a lot of people breaking into technology have a hard time learning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be elegant, it just needs to be good enough to solve a problem.

Roxanne: So, this is a fun one. What’s the most difficult project you’ve ever worked on? Are there any particular, “Oh sh*t, I’ve deleted a table in prod” moments?

Jeff: I would say my toughest projects have typically been around PCI compliance, which is a nightmare. Compliance in any form, whether it’s HIPAA, PCI, GDPR – it’s never easy. Sometimes the rules are relatively vague, and a lot of times, it depends on who the auditor is when they show up. In just about any company in America, getting that sufficient security budget – so if you’re in charge of security, it’s hard to get a budget large enough to where you can sleep peacefully at night, because you know you have almost unlimited funding to make a company as secure as you need it to be. And it’s a fine line between overfunding and underfunding. So I would say that was the most challenging, not from a technology perspective, but just the fact that you have to coach your company, and bad things can happen.

Helping Bealls develop their very first ecommerce site was certainly challenging, and keeping any new solution up 24×7 with the ability to handle seasonal loads (all prior to the cloud) is certainly something that often kept me up at night. But I had a great staff behind me and I’m proud of what we accomplished in the early dot-com days.

I would say the hardest budget I’ve had to manage is just trying to make sure you have your security strong enough to where you are harder to attack than the next person.

Matt: Fortunately for consumers, in this day and age, we are starting to be more aware of breaches that are happening when it comes to personal sensitive information. It’s helping shift those budgets.

Roxanne: Back in AWS days, which service did you get the most use out of?

Jeff: I would say my favorite service was always Auto Scaling. I worked at Lazy Days as their CIO and we have had a website for quite some time, but they were releasing a reality TV show that was going to be filmed on location at Lazy Days, and the concern was, how much infrastructure do you need when you film a reality show and you drive people to the website? Is it 5x, is it 10x, is it 20x? You don’t want to get that wrong.

We’re not talking a Superbowl commercial, but still – you’ve got a lot of viewers, you know people are going to go to the website, and if you’re a technology person, you don’t want that website to crash because you don’t have the proper resources. And so, I think what I fell in love with was the auto scaling capability, the capacity on demand so that if you designed it right, it didn’t matter how many people the website because you could just go ahead and scale horizontally, you could just design it so it kept pumping out web servers and application servers and handle the load in a distributed fashion. I think that was one of my early victories where I said, okay, I’m pretty much in love with this cloud technology.

Roxanne: That’s awesome.

Matt: Especially with you being on for the advisory board for curriculum for Keiser, I think you’d have a good insight to this. Do you have any advice or tips for people looking to get into tech, whether students or career-changers?

Jeff: I would say take advantage of meetups and anything going on in the community. In high school, my son wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. I suggested he take a technology class in high school. They taught Java, not Javascript – not front-end web development, not something that you can say, “Here’s some HTML and some simple Javascript. You can render this on a phone. You can render this on your desktop. Isn’t this pretty powerful stuff?” Instead, it was really back-end Java. It was just into the deep in the weeds of memorizing data types and syntax, and I thought that was the worst way to try to get someone interested in technology because that was more about control. You got rid of any creative aspects of technology and said, “I want you to memorize all these things about Java.” And so, I think since technology is supposed to be a creative discipline, I think people should approach it that way. I would say don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. Any company I’ve ever been at, there’s a certain amount of “We’ve always done it that way.” So, when you get hired for your first job, I don’t think it’s ever bad to ask the question, “Why is it we do it this way? Are you open to different ways of doing things?”

I think if you can remain open-minded in your career and listen before you speak, it goes a long way. That was one of my hardest lessons when I was growing into management and moving from being a hands-on provider to a leadership role: always listen. I sometimes have preconceived notions of how things are going, so I think if you’re management-level or even if you’re just starting out, listening is one of the skills that is rarely taught and probably mostly underappreciated. Listen, absorb, and then react, as opposed to reacting without the intent to understand.

Matt: That’s great advice, and not the boilerplate one we usually get, so thank you. This is probably my favorite question: who is a person and/or an organization that you think is doing something great and innovative in the area outside of Ashley Furniture? Who’s your local shout out, somebody doing something cool?

Jeff: I’ve had great success interacting with Nielsen. Nielsen has a great venue up in Oldsmar, they do a great job of promoting community-based events, and certainly they benefit from that, but it’s just the passion that they do it. They don’t do it half-heartedly, they really go all out. And so, whether I need to do an Azure user group or something with AWS, they’re always open to listen, always willing to get involved in the community, very supportive of what the community needs, and again, there’s just the passion when you talk to them. You can tell they’re passionate about their company, passionate about helping the community, and passion is one of those attributes that is probably lacking at a lot of companies and a lot of individuals, and I may be as guilty as anyone. Some days, you just don’t feel passionate. But I love dealing with companies. If you’re trying to sell me a service, if you’re not passionate about the company you represent, that makes it hard for me to understand the vision and see you as a valued partner. So, if you come to me with passion, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to buy from you, but it’s a heck of a lot better conversation when we’re both passionate.

Matt: Any further thoughts or insights, anything you want to share, anything exciting coming down the pipeline for you, for the company, or for the user group?

Jeff: I would say any company that wants to get involved in our High Tech Connect meetup, we’re going to try to do this monthly and introduce members of the technology community with all the various companies in the Tampa Bay area and such. So, if anyone wants to get involved and hear what we’re all about, I’d encourage them to reach out to me or any of our other organizers and just all work together, just make this a tighter knit technology community.

About Tampa Bay AWS User Group:

Whether you are an avid user of Amazon Web Services today, or you just want to find out more about the advantages of using AWS, the Tampa Bay AWS User Group welcomes you to join a passionate group of enthusiasts who want to exchange ideas, thoughts, best practices and questions in a comfortable setting where everyone is welcome.

They are passionate about AWS and the cloud. The primary intent of this group is education – not sales. All presentations will be educational in scope. That being said, the AWS ecosystem includes many roles – technical users, service providers, staffing, training and others. All are encouraged to participate and contribute!

About the Microsoft Azure User Group:

The goal of the Tampa Bay Microsoft Azure User Group is to provide a community-based organization to build our collective knowledge of the benefits of Azure and also provide networking opportunities with like-minded individuals and organizations. All are invited to attend: end user companies, MSPs, staffing agencies, or anyone else that would like to learn more about Microsoft Azure and the cloud.

Instead of just having sessions on technical deep dives, the group has a strong focus on successful case studies, so attendees will not only learn about the technical aspects of Azure, but also how local companies are leveraging Azure for competitive advantage.

About High Tech Connect Group:

High Tech Connect is a meetup group that focuses on facilitating connections within our local technology community between the great many tech-focused companies that do business in Tampa Bay and the members of our group.

For their members, they help you network with your peers, connect with service providers, and to educate yourself at the same time, while enjoying complimentary refreshments.

For their sponsors, they bring 75+ members to every event and give your company a chance to present an elevator pitch about your company and services. They also provide you with a table so that you can have more personal discussions with the group’s members to help you gain exposure within the community.

Roxanne Williams is the Marketing Director at Full Stack Talent, a technology staffing agency in Tampa, FL. Find her LinkedIn here.

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