Last week, we went to Tampa International Airport to interview Marcus Session, Hillsborough County Aviation Authority’s VP of IT. On top of having an awesome conversation that lasted 2 hours, we got a really cool ‘behind the scenes’ look of the airport.
Roxanne Williams: You worked at USF for a long time, and you attended USF as well. Do you believe that traditional 4-year degrees are the best way to go for IT? Or do you think certifications have their place?
Marcus Session: A lot of the problems I see are that people don’t have a goal. They say, “I just want to get into IT.” Well, IT is a vast variety of industries. If you don’t really know what you want to do, go to a 4-year institution, and figure out what technology tree you want to start down. But if you found your niche, then maybe go ahead and get your certifications and jump right into your career. The key is to think about your future career arc. If you want a management position, you generally will need a 4-year degree at some point. That’s almost pro forma, you just have to have it. But again, that’s only for management. There are some career tracks where you won’t need a 4-year degree. It really depends on the person, situation, and future career.
Some colleges don’t always give you hireable skills from day one. If you go to a 4-year institution, you should supplement that with something that’s hireable. There’s a misconception that when you graduate, you’ll find a high-paying job right away. I started out in helpdesk, working as a $10 an hour technician. Most people don’t want to do that these days. They’re like, “Well I should just go and start making a ton of money as a sysadmin.” But no one’s going to hire you as a sysadmin without experience unless they’re really in need. So, the gap that’s created is: you have jobs that need people with experience, you have new people that need to get to that job, and you don’t have a bridge.
I had a friend that got a 4-year degree from USF. He managed a T-Mobile store, so he made $50,000-$60,000 per year. Every IT job he could get as a new graduate paid less than that. He realized he’d have to take a big pay cut to get into IT, so he chose to do real estate instead. I don’t know how he got there [laughter] but that’s what it was.
On getting crucial experience
Roxanne: Wow. What do you recommend for that crucial ‘2 to 4 years’ of experience? Getting that helpdesk position just to get your foot in the door?
Marcus: There are a lot of small businesses that need tech help. However, they don’t have the money for an IT department. Get with some contracting companies, and get on some jobs. Do a couple implementations, deployments, and migrations. Any experience is good experience. When you go to an interview and you prove that you know your stuff, it bridges the gap a little bit. They’ll say, “Okay, this person knows the information, now we just have to train them on our particular thing.” So get with a contracting company, do some jobs, and get experience that way. You can also volunteer. There are non-profit organizations that can always use help with technology.
Roxanne: We have interviewed around 30 people so far and you are the first to bring up volunteering.
Marcus: It’s obscured from you. In your day-to-day, you get busy, you have all these things happening. You don’t think about how you can make a difference with what you do.
Somebody helped me get where I am. The way I look at it is, how can I give back and help someone else on that journey and bridge that gap? Maybe just sitting with them and talking to them for a little bit will get them that nugget of information.
Roxanne: Mentoring someone.
Marcus: Yeah. We’re all busy, right? But if you give back and you pay it forward, you make society better as a whole. I think that’s how we bridge the gap in this industry, because right now, IT is taking a beating. We promised all these great things, and the thing we’ve given you is changing TV channels with your voice. We all got into IT and thought we would be the Jetsons and we would have a car that turns into a suitcase, right?
Roxanne: Yeah, where’s my nice flying car, Marcus?
Marcus: I advocated flying cars until I realized people can’t drive in 3 dimensions.
On his teaching engagements
Matt Vaughn: To go back to what you said about paying it forward, do you still teach with Southern Technical College? Is that your way of giving back to the community locally?
Marcus: I taught at Southern Technical College. I don’t teach there anymore. Right now, I teach for Southern New Hampshire University, which is more of an online program. Initially, I started teaching because a lot of people would go to school, they’d read a book on CISCO or whatever, and then they wouldn’t know how to apply it when they got a job.
I went to the CISCO networking academy at St. Pete College. I learned about wiring closets and all this other stuff and I said, “Alright, I’m prepared.” When I got my first network engineering job, I went to the wiring closet, and it looked nothing like the ones they showed me in school [laughter]. There were brooms and spiderwebs and I’m like, wait a minute, this isn’t BICSI standard! There’s supposed to be cooling in here!
Matt: Cable management like spaghetti.
Marcus: Exactly. Yes. That’s when I realized okay, there’s some translation here. The other thing I realized that school didn’t give as much as I needed was the business side of it. We all focus strictly on the technical. Luckily, I combined what I learned at USF (a very business management-focused program) and St. Pete College (strictly a technical program). I merged those two skills.
But the students I taught, they were older learners or learners who weren’t really traditional. They said, “Well, I work at a construction site. It’s back-breaking labor. I want to do something different.” So, I’m teaching them IT and I’m realizing they don’t have the business acumen. I’m like, “I want to update this server. How do you do that in a business?” They’d say, “I’d just run the update.” I explained that there are people that would be affected by that, and it would be disruptive to the business.
I provide mentorship to the students even when they get out of my class. They email me with questions, I meet with them and we have lunch. A lot of them are doing pretty well. They have jobs in IT.
On an average day at HCAA
Roxanne: Nice. So, you oversee the entire airport?
Marcus: In terms of technology? Yeah. The buck stops with me, for the most part.
Roxanne: What’s an average day for you?
Marcus: Every day around here can be pretty unique. There are some very rare days where I have no meetings. On those days, I can walk around and actually see what’s going on. But on the average day, I’ll get here and the first thing I do is check my email. Did anything happen overnight? Do I have any notices? Did my team get any critical alerts overnight from our systems that I need to follow up on?
We have a debrief meeting in the morning. I don’t always attend, but I make sure my staff does. We have about 70 projects that we track in IT at any given time, so I receive project status reports. I’ll read through and see what we’re supposed to deliver to the business, whether we have rollouts, etc.
We just finished the event space over by E. We host a lot of events over there, and people can rent the space. When we host events in the terminal and there are guests walking by, they go, “Hey, what’s going on there?” So, a lot of tech over there: speakers, outdoor terrace, things of that nature.
We just brought on Amazon and UPS. Those weren’t things we expected would happen. Amazon goes, “Hey, we want to start doing cargo, here are all of our needs.” Well, when Amazon comes calling, your project plan changes. Then, UPS decided to come over and start doing their cargo operations out of here. We said, “Oh, that’s another project.” So, it’s managing the unplanned work that’s coming in, and what we have to do to handle it.
We have 21 million passengers that come through here. There’s a daily report, and I look through it to see if there were any issues related to technology. Sometimes there’ll be reports of people calling in to notify they couldn’t get on the WiFi. Or, “Hey, the screen’s out. I couldn’t find my flight.” Or, “The information was wrong.” There are over 400 screens throughout this airport that present information. So I’ll sift through that report just to make sure there weren’t any overarching technology issues.
Matt: Do you guys have the POS systems on all the shops too?
Marcus: We don’t, but we do provide the network for them when a tenant wants us to handle their internet service. So, that’s another thing: are there any issues with any of our tenants and our partners?
Once I do my morning status checks to make sure there’s nothing overarching, I’ll settle in and go to my meetings and check in with the team. I spend a lot of time checking in with the team because we have a lot of tentacles in a lot of places. I have people that come in at 6 AM, and I have people that don’t leave until the last flight.
The last flight can be delayed, and I’ll have a person here until then. When you come to check in for your flight, you use the common use terminal (a kiosk where you can check in). We have people supporting those. If you can’t print your boarding pass at 9 PM, that’s a problem.
It’s kind of a lot to explain in order to show you the full magnitude of the environment. It changes day to day, but it all comes back to the customer experience. Making sure that the guests have what they need, and nothing is impeding their travel. Once that’s there, it’s almost like a normal IT shop. Just 400 screens and a bunch of security panels and things of that nature.
On the tech staff at HCAA
Roxanne: This actually wasn’t on the list but I’m curious now, how many IT staff do you have under you?
Marcus: I have 48 IT staff and several contractors. We have professional services we use as needed because sometimes, in aviation, there are specialized things you need. We kind of try to have that balance. Mostly staff, because we can train our philosophy on them. It’s a little bit easier. Not that contractors can’t do it, but–
Roxanne: It’s always different working with contractors.
Marcus: Yeah. We had some that didn’t meet the standard and we had to let them go. If a contractor does something, that’s a reflection on the airport. We can’t say, “Ma’am, look, that was a contractor, not an airport employee.”
Our 48 folks are very much in lockstep with what we do from a technology perspective. The contractors that come in, we ingrain the culture in them as much as possible. I’m pretty sure with you guys’ business, you see all types.
Matt: We’ve had really good luck and I’m very thankful for that.
Marcus: It’s that vetting process. That’s what it comes down to. The interesting thing too is, any time I do an interview, they ask me, “How many customers do you have?” I say, “We have 21 million customers.” Our passenger numbers have increased by 150% since 2010.
Matt: It’s the most stressful day of the week for all of them.
Marcus: There’s a significant number of people that only travels through here once per year. That’s the reason why there’s such a big emphasis on guest experience. If you have a bad experience one time, that’s what you’ll remember. I only have one time to get it right. The business travelers, I’m not really worried about as much. They know all the shortcuts, they know where to park, they know how to quickly get through. They don’t need to talk to anyone to find their way, they’ve got their routine down.
There’s a guy I park next to. I’ve never met him, I just see his car in the same space. Sometimes that space is open, but I just can’t take it. I know this guy’s going to be here. He shows up on Mondays and his car disappears on Fridays. You just kind of learn these things when you start working in aviation.
There was a little girl when I walked over here for the interview. She stepped off the train and she tripped on the gap between the train and the floor. I’m like, “Are you alright?” That may be her first time flying. You just don’t know.
Then you see famous people come through here sometimes, and they’re incognito. I stood with Hulk Hogan one day.
Matt: Feels so hard for that man to be incognito.
Marcus: Exactly. It was literally, “Hello, Hulk Hogan.” And he was like, “Oh, hi. Somebody recognized me.”
It’s just really interesting. Flying is a stressful experience. If we can make that experience great, maybe it’ll encourage you to fly again. You’re not going to fly again if you’re like, “Oh my God, that was like pulling teeth.” But if you have a great experience, they say, “It wasn’t that bad. Maybe we’ll take an additional vacation or something.” So, that’s really where a lot of it stems from.
On the transition from education to aviation
Matt: Do you think it made your transition easier coming from a dispersed campus like USF?
Marcus: I actually think my experience at USF uniquely prepared me for this job. The reason I say that is because universities are very much like testing grounds, melting pots. They’re very much about experimenting, learning, and trying – iteration. The other part of universities is, they aren’t always funded well. USF doesn’t have the Texas A&M-size budget for their football team, where they’re making $100 million or whatever.
You have to get innovative. You don’t necessarily have all the resources to do all the things. Think about it, USF has 55,000 students, and between 10,000-15,000 faculty and staff. You’re supporting a lot of people. It was very demanding, and you had to innovate, because everyone was busy all the time. At USF, for example, there were three fires a day. I’d think to myself, “Okay, who am I going to upset the least? Your problem is the least critical. I’m going to have fix you last.” You had to really think on your toes and make decisions under fire in a lot of situations.
Coming here, it was a more specific industry. So, for me, there was now an ability to focus on a specific set of goals. It was fun working at USF and kind of getting all this vast experience and then coming here. This is very specific to aviation, but guess what? I have all these things I can now bring, and then also learn this industry and mix that experience together.
I think the key to it was USF being a public entity and the airport being a public entity. Working in the public sector versus the private sector are two very different animals. A lot of people come from the private sector to the public sector, and it’s like you dropped them into Alice in Wonderland. They realize, “Wait a minute, so everything in my email is public?” Yeah, we have to retain every record, it’s the public records laws, sorry. “Whoa, so anybody can request my email?” Yep.
It’s kind of weird when you educate people on that because they’re just not used to it. If they worked in the private sector their whole life, it’s an interesting transition. For me, it was very easy because I was used to it since USF was public sector. I already had a process of how do you learn something new, how do you prepare to support something new, because I’d done it. I went through several mergers of IT groups at USF, so I had to learn different businesses.
Think about it: college of arts and sciences, college of engineering, USF health. Inside of the USF health: college of pharmacy, college of medicine, college of nursing. All of these are little cities with their own political structures and their own technology and wants. I had to learn all that, so coming over here was literally just learning another industry and learning another group of people.
On his proudest accomplishments
Roxanne: Here at HCAA, what’s your proudest accomplishment? Is there a particular highlight that you can think of?
Marcus: The integration with the business, really aligning IT with what the business is doing. And, like I talked about earlier, our passenger numbers increasing 150% since 2010. We have 21 million passengers, we set a record. We have a brand new rental car center. One of the things at that rental car center that the whole team was involved in is the remote bag check. You can go there, check your bag at the rental car center, get on the train, and your bags end up on the plane and at your destination. You don’t have to come all the way to the terminal dragging your checked luggage anymore.
The beautiful part about that project was the technology component that needed to happen. We had to integrate with the airlines in order to do it, because there’s a whole common use system. But the key to it was all the benefits that came from it – and I didn’t even think about all of them. Joe Lopano, our CEO, said one of the goals is to decongest the curbs up here. If you can drop your bags off down there, you’re not driving all the way up here, so you don’t have this four-wide thing of cars. I thought about that: what annoys me when I go to an airport? It’s pulling up and getting out real quick, not getting hit, curb congestion, and having to lug my bags around.
But you pull up there, and it’s a high-tech solution. You print your boarding pass, you drop your bags off, and your bags meet you on the plane. Now you can just walk through the airport and you’re not lugging a bag around. So, now you’ve destressed the experience. And that involved all of our planning and development departments, maintenance, IT, and operations. Everybody was involved. I feel like it was an impactful thing that helped the community. Seeing the tangible benefit people experience every day, that’s one of the big differences in coming into this industry. I literally see the change. I’ll see people coming up here, they don’t have any bags, and it’s like, “Hey, I had something to do with that. I helped them have a better experience.”
Aaaand the not-so-good moments
Matt: That’s great! On the flipside of that, what’s an example of an oh God everything is on fire moment that kind of sticks out from your time here?
Marcus: Hurricane Irma was an interesting thing to be a part of here. You have this hurricane, and it’s bigger than the entire state. And look, I’m a native Floridian. You don’t leave. You stay. Hurricane doesn’t run you out unless it’s category five, then you leave. [Laughter]
So, the uncertainty of the hurricane. It’s a typical thing. You don’t know if it’s going to hit, or what’s going to happen. In my regard, we kind of overthought the process. We said, “Well, let’s wait to see what the news says.” Every time we’d turn on a news report, the track would change. We already activated our emergency protocols, in the sense where we had meetings, we shored everything up.
The airport has a whole process where we all meet and every department goes down a roll call. For us, the IT department, we thought… Well, when do we kick off an extra backup job? When do we start doing this and doing that? As these things happened, I realized that we didn’t have any documentation on a crucial area. If a hurricane destroyed the airport fully, what did each department need to run their business? I’m pretty sure it existed somewhere, but we just hadn’t really thought of that. We just backed up everything, which takes a long time. We ran around asking people, “What do you need?” And in the moment of a crisis, you don’t want to be doing that. That really is what kicked off integrating and embedding with the business more.
Talent in tech
Roxanne: You’ve lived in Tampa for the entirety of your career. Have you noticed a positive shift in terms of qualified tech talent?
Marcus: Yes, I have. The funny thing is, I actually believe there’s a ton of talent here in Tampa. What I think we haven’t done a good job of, as the IT industry as a whole, is keeping talent here. I’ve traveled to conferences, I’ve talked to people in Silicon Valley, and they tell me, “Oh yeah, man, it’s cheaper to get workers from Tampa. You guys don’t pay anything over there.”
They’re coming here and they’re poaching the talent. To kind of crystallize that discussion, as I said earlier, I’m a native Floridian. When I meet people, they’re like, “Oh my, I’ve never met a native Floridian.” That means all the native Floridians are leaving. There are different reasons for that obviously, but in the tech sphere, graduates end up elsewhere. We need to do a better job at retention, because there is a lot of talent here, and we just don’t tap into it.
I’m part of an organization called SIM Tampa Bay – the Society for Information Management. It’s a group of IT leaders, CIOs, Directors, that level. We all meet and we talk about some of these things. The joke we always talk about is that Tampa has this hidden IT community. You have Silicon Valley, Austin, etc. People don’t normally associate Tampa with IT right off the bat. But we’re making a lot of strides.
Startup Week, Synapse, all these different things that are now happening – the startup community is really building big. But at the same time, if you look at all the traditional companies here, there are a ton of IT workers. Amgen come to town last year and they posted 360 IT jobs. They filled them. They have some openings now because of regular turnover, but they filled them.
Matt: I could be wrong, but I think it was 700-800 in total.
Marcus: Yeah. Some people they got from out of town, but they were able to fill them. It says something that a large company can open a huge office here and fill those jobs. There are still gaps, but the gaps aren’t necessarily city-based, they’re industry-based. We know information security and development have a huge gap in talent. It’s really difficult to hire and compete with some of the establishments of the large companies. But there’s a lot of talent here. We just have to get to it early and we have to cultivate it to stay here.
Once you’re connected to the community, you tend to stay in the community and help grow it. You know how it is in IT: people want to be at the beginning of something, not at the end. If you can say, “Hey, I can help build this community in Tampa and start it up and be a part of this thing at the beginning,” that’s more appealing than going out to California and joining the tried and true machine that’s out there.
Roxanne: To your point, my partner, incidentally named Marcus as well, used to work locally. He now works remote for a company in New York, making more than he would be able to make here.
Marcus: Exactly, yep, exactly.
Roxanne: Salaries are the problem. If you can’t keep up when it comes to compensation, people will look elsewhere.
Marcus: You’re right. The pay issue is the problem. You’re creating a job, but if the job’s not competitive, you’re doing one of two things. A, it’s just going to be a vacant job that no one takes. B, you’re going to basically get someone that’s entry-level, you’re going to train them, you’re going to invest time and resources. One day they’ll realize, “Oh, wait a minute, I’m worth this much more money?” And then they’re going to leave.
That happened to several companies. They weren’t paying anything. Amgen came to town and was paying pretty good salaries, and they poached a lot of their people. These companies had people that worked there a long time – 10, 15 years. They were integral parts of the business, but they never looked to see how much they were worth. They just felt, “I’m comfortable, I’m working, I’m doing something. I’m good.”
Matt: That one time they find out. The seed is planted.
Marcus: It’s funny you say that. One of the companies had a motivational speaker come in, and I guess they didn’t vet the topic or didn’t think it would have this effect. The person came in and spoke about doing something like bettering yourself. They basically were talking about knowing your worth, having your values, but not getting screwed over either. It doesn’t have to be about the money, but look, we know it’s about the money. Essentially, the whole theme of it told people, “Just go do an exercise. Use one of these salary websites. salary.com, payscale.com – see what you’re worth.”
People realized they were vastly underpaid. It woke the dragon up. One of them actually went out and got another job making 40 grand more. So, it planted that nugget that it’s ok to know your worth and to move on.
Matt: Cut to a shot of their parking lot with a tumbleweed going through. One of the things that is causing a lot of disparate salaries is improper compensation when given a raise. One of my friends came into a company as a project coordinator, moved into a project specialist role, and then became a Scrum master. He left because he kept getting small raises when promoted instead of new salaries comparable to his responsibilities. What do you guys do to combat that here?
Marcus: Part of the problem with IT – well, it’s a good problem and a bad problem. The good problem is there are a ton of different types of jobs. It’s just vast. The bad problem is that IT moves so quickly that nothing stays standardized for a long period of time. Go back several years, it was, “I’m a system administrator 1, I’m a system administrator 2, I’m a system administrator 3.” But now you have DevOps engineers, systems architects, network engineers, network administrators. What’s the difference between a network administrator and a system administrator?
Then you have these very creative positions at these different types of companies. Depending on the company, they have different names for things. There’s not even an equivalent sometimes to compare it to. If you go into one of the job search engines and search for network engineer jobs, you’re going to get a smattering of different titles. You won’t even know if all of them are apples to apples.
Matt: Especially in the public sector. I mean, you’re looking at most county work, it’s “IT generalist,” like an architect-level person.
Marcus: Exactly. Here, we’re actually going through a reorganization of titles. What we’re trying to do is really base it off of function. “What do you do for your job?” “I do networks.” “Okay. You’re in that vertical. Now are there other things outside of that that you want to do? Do you want to be an architect?” Then you have that very clear definition of what each one is.
If people don’t understand what their job actually is or what they’re ascending into, it’s very difficult for them to know what they’re worth. Are they paid appropriately? What should they do on a day-to-day basis? We know how it is: if we’ve got a person that’s very high-functioning, what do we do? We keep throwing things at the person until the person says no. But what we try to do is just make sure we give clear definitions of what you’re supposed to do in your role and have it match that.
Not to go back to the HR trope of ‘what your job description says is what you should do, with that 5% other,’ but that’s really what we try to do. I don’t mind having the portfolio of positions, even ones that I would say are tombstoned. I have some positions on the books that we’re creating that are going to have no one in them. As we mature as an organisation, or maybe the business has needs that change, there will be something that fits that position. But now it’s on the books, it has expectations with what it will be doing.
We’re looking at the future, because most people just build their work plans and their staffing plans for the current situation. “Oh God, we’re doing more cloud. We need some cloud engineers. Let’s make some cloud engineer position titles.” But what is it going to be in 5 years? I try to plan for what are we going to need so that we can at least have some kind of definition and be prepared if things go that way.
That’s really one of the transitions we’re going through right now. We’re changing people’s role because of cloud. In the aviation industry, there are some organizations that are doing cloud, there are some organizations that aren’t. Here, we didn’t have any cloud positions where it said cloud. Whoever initially started with a project owned it. Now we’re trying to make sure we define specifically who does what and what that arc is, and then we just kind of tie it to what the industry’s doing.
Here’s how it’s going to help you in your career. Microsoft Azure, AWS, these things are very highly-valued skills. Not that I want you to leave, but my job is also to develop you and prepare you, not just to support this organization but also put you in the best situation to be a marketable asset. Things happen. If I’ve armed you with the skills to be marketable and have a job somewhere else, then I’ve done my job as well because the organization had a great employee and circumstances brought it up where you had to leave and go somewhere else.
The good thing is, we don’t have high turnover in terms of staffing. When it comes to public sector companies, a lot of them are very similar in that regard. The bad side of that is, if you don’t have anybody leaving, nobody has the opportunity to move up. Here, hierarchy is not the only way to move up.
See that little drawing on the whiteboard over there? That was me explaining product management to some of the team. Being product teams rather than “I’m a network team.” So, you have the functional hierarchy because you have to have that. But now we’re going to break that out and say, “Alright, who supports this service or this system?” Okay, you know what, it takes a cross-functional team of three people. So although you have those three verticals, there’s a cross-slice of these people that are supporting this product. That’s another way for people to get skills, compensation, benefits, and we can say it’s a skills-based thing rather than just function.
We do a good job here from an HR perspective of providing people with opportunity. Our organization believes in giving merit increases, bonuses for performance, and organizational goals. In the public sector, there are many places where the feeling is, “Are we getting a bonus this year? Hopefully.” You’ll go 3, 4, 5 years without getting any kind of bonus or any kind of merit increase. You’re just stagnant.
Here, it’s a company thing where we want to make sure we’re recruiting the best and the brightest, as much as we can. Can you make a Microsoft salary? No. But I think we have a compelling offer. We go after talent, and we hit most of the targets we go after. We are able to be fairly competitive, and we do try to offer a decent bonus.
The tech stack at HCAA
Roxanne: Into the tech stack of things, you mentioned AWS and Azure earlier. What tech stacks do you use here?
Matt: You don’t have to give specific figures, but how much is infrastructure versus development side?
Marcus: Little to no dev. We’re a huge operational shop. We’re probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 85% on the operations side of the house. I’m not just saying from a standpoint of ‘all we do is turn servers and widgets.’ We have an applications team, but they focus more on integrations and implementations. We don’t really do any product programming. They did that before I got here, but it was all done by a small amount of people, and the main programmer is not here anymore. Now, we just get off-the-shelf products, and customize them to our needs.
We do integrations, and a lot of work on our ERP. The aviation-specific systems require a lot of integrations to bring data points together. So, data analytics, integrations with different applications, bringing a lot of data sources together, and obviously the base requirements we’re supposed to have together for the FAA. Then, basic IT operations like networking, servers, virtualization – and then cloud is one of these things where it just depends on what we’re doing. If it’s a particular application, we analyze if it’s a good use case for cloud or if it’s a better fit for on-prem, then we make decisions based off of that.
That’s a new process we’ve implemented since I started here. Looking at, and analyzing, the portfolio as things expire or as things need to be upgraded to see what decision we make on the technology stack.
Matt: Do you guys end up having to tweak absolutely everything, or does most of the out-of-the-box stuff tend to work because it’s geared towards what you’re doing?
Marcus: There’s a saying in the aviation industry: once you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport [laughter]. They’re very different. They look different, they operate differently, they have different cultures, they have different politics. I’ll give you the easiest comparison. Atlanta’s airport has 100 million passengers per year. LA has 88 million. We have 21 million. The technology stack at LA is going to be very different than the technology stack here. LA has 200 people in IT. I have 48. I talked to their CIO a couple of weeks ago, and she has 50 vacancies to fill.
She was like, “I have a bunch of developers that I have to hire.” They’re doing development work because some of the solutions in the industry don’t scale or fit exactly everything they need. A lot of the things off the shelf do fit at a base level. But the needs of your airport are very specific to your airport, because the airport almost takes on the personality of the city. Tampa is very different from Dallas, which is very different from Atlanta – so most of the solutions that come in need some level of integration or customization to really give the full business value. Off the shelf, they can do most of the things you need to do, and then you probably have some manual processes. I’d say probably 60-70% of the time, there’s going to be some integration or some customization you’re going to have to do.
Pain points for HCAA when it comes to hiring
Roxanne: Is there something on the infrastructure side that you have a ton of trouble hiring for?
Marcus: It’s not necessarily that you have trouble finding infrastructure people, it’s that you still have this kind of disconnect between traditional on-prem IT infrastructure people and cloud infrastructure people. We’ll post a position for a network engineer or a system administrator and we get a ton of resumes, VMware, Dell, server, SANs. The traditional stack. But you don’t see a lot of cloud. So then you post a position for a cloud engineer and half the people you can’t afford, because cloud is hot right now. Then the other ones, they have cloud, you bring them in, but they don’t have any server.
The industry’s constantly shifting. When you try to get the talent you need, you almost have to figure out which side of the coin you want to jump on. My philosophy is: hire the soft skills, and hire people that are trainable in the technical skills. I think that’s really what Tampa’s missing. We have a lot of practitioners, around the gamut of needed skills. But the issue is I don’t have access to raw talent that is primed to learn technology. The good part about it is that’s happening organically, so this problem will probably be better in the future, because kids run circles around older people when it comes to tech.
Roxanne: They have iPads when they’re four.
Marcus: Yeah, they grew up with it, so they’ll be technically inclined already. Now, the types of jobs will have changed, so the mix will be different. But right now, we’re in this period where the old infrastructure type positions are changing somewhat, infrastructure is commoditized more and more. I know infrastructure people cringe when they hear that, but it’s not that the skill will not be needed. It’s more about a pivot to move you up the value chain.
IT people are very task-based. It’s almost like the void is not just people who are open to technology, but it’s also people who can think strategically and then apply that to the technical. We’re not missing technical skills, we’re missing soft skills. If you can’t, in this day and age, understand how the business works and why you’re doing it, it’s going to be very difficult to be continuously successful. The days of IT guys working off tickets, “Closed my ticket, I’m good. What do I do next?” Those days are slowly winding down. You have to really be integrated with what’s going on, and that’s what we had success with here.
I feel like network and security are the only other areas I would say are a little rough.
We’re fortunate enough to get people that left the private sector. They didn’t want to do network engineering in the private sector anymore. They wanted to come into something that was more stable and predictable and where they could have a better quality of life.
In the security space, we have some of that too, but it’s more along the lines of ‘can we afford the people?’ As an organization that can’t compete for certain positions on salary alone, I have to pay people what I can pay them, but I’m asking the market to give me a mid-tier model of talent that’s very good. How do I solve this problem? The way we do it here is, we try to offer more quality of life, more of a stable environment. Yeah, it’s demanding, we do a lot here, but if you need to take off and you have a family thing going on, you’re going to get a yes, the team will pick you up.
One time, we did a security recruitment and we only got 15 applicants. I mean, it’s a security position, only 15 people. We did a recent one and we got 75. So, something changed. Maybe we recruited differently? But that goes back to the whole thing of where is the talent, and how does the talent see your recruitment? Companies like yours, obviously, bridge that gap. But also, I had no idea when I was coming up about how the recruitment and headhunter thing worked. I was like, “But I heard they take your money and they negotiate this [laughter] percentage.” Because you only hear these weird negative things, “Yeah, if the job’s paying 80 grand, they’re going to make you take 40 and then they take the rest.” Right, and that’s the myth.
Roxanne: Oh, no.
Matt: In defense of that, there are some sheisty companies on the less-experienced people side where it’s like, “Yeah, we’re going to get you this $15 an hour job and you have to pay us 5 of that.”
Marcus: Yeah, and as a young practitioner starting out, that’s what I heard about headhunting companies. I was like, “No, I’m not doing that. They’re not taking my money.” If I wanted to apply for a job, I literally had to go to different company websites and look for their careers section and apply.
Roxanne: We’re not all evil.
Marcus: Evil empire.
Tech in Tampa
Matt: What do you hope to see in the next few years for Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?
Marcus: Well, I’d like to see more integration. I think we have a lot of tech companies here, and a vibrant tech community that’s just really starting to be uncovered. I’d really like to see more collaboration and integration with each other. I believe that we can make this Silicon Valley East if we want to. The conditions are right for it, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to really build something.
With some of the advances in technology, could we apply that to public transportation and solve some of the problems that we have in the community? I mean, look, I-4, all you have to say is I-4 and everybody just cringes!
Marcus: Commuting is not fun. If you live in Florida, you have to drive a car. So, can we solve some of the transportation issues? Being in aviation, I’m a part of that puzzle, sure. But ours is very easy – the skies aren’t as congested.
Matt: Give us our flying cars we talked about earlier! [laughter]
Marcus: Exactly, right. That’s really what I’d like to see. The tech community coming together a bit more and trying to solve some of the community’s problems, and creating a vibrant tech community. I just think it needs to be structured. What’ll end up happening is you’ll have people going off on their own tangent, and then you get this muddled message of what’s actually happening. If you say, “What is the tech community in Tampa Bay? What does it mean, what is its value?” I don’t think we have that answer just yet. Startups are really taking off here, but what does that mean? What is the end goal?
We have the Tampa Bay WaVE and other incubators and organizations that are doing great things. But if we’re solving problems in the community, I think it builds the tech community, and that’s really ultimately what it is.
Marcus: No. I had too much going on that week.
On his involvement in the tech community
Roxanne: Gotcha. What is your involvement in the tech community? Do you try to attend all the events? Do you go to meetups, or just larger conferences?
Marcus: I try to attend as many things as I can. As I said, I’m involved in SIM, I’m on the board there. I figure if I can get a group of CIOs together, I can figure out what do we do with this.
We really believe in integrating with the community. The airport is obviously a big driver of the community, not just from an economical perspective, but from engagement as well. If you see people from the airport out there, it’s a familiar brand and people understand it. I think that shows we’re engaged in the community and that we’re buying into Tampa and we really believe in the area. It’s not just, “Oh, we just work and collect a check and go home.” I guess you can say we’re kind of looked at as public servants, but our public servants are engaged and they believe.
I show up and try to support organizations and show, “Hey, I’m in technology. I’m a geek at the end of the day. So, what’s going on over here? And how’s that built in Tampa?” From the airport perspective, we have things that we want to optimize, we want to improve the guest experience. Are there things that the startup community is doing, and that tech companies in Tampa are doing that may be on the horizon that could help us? Are there partnerships that we can do that will–
Roxanne: I have some stuff for you. You talked about IoT. Get in touch with Gooee, that’s exactly what they do. You also talked about the CIO group. Another thing you could do is High Tech Connect, that’s run by Jeff Fudge. He does the AWS and Azure groups as well. Jeff Fudge should definitely be somebody you talk to if you haven’t talked to him already.
Matt: Yeah, he is pretty much the Cloud Networking King in Tampa. As far as looking for cloud professionals and/or tips on cloud tech, he’s a good contact.
Marcus: That’s really what it comes down to – it’s all solving problems. At the end of the day, we all have similar problems, but different issues in the industry. We’ve talked about staffing, we’ve talked about pay, we’ve talked about motivating people, we’ve talked about education and the pipeline. All these things are very similar across the spectrum, so we can all connect into that. I definitely want us to be engaged, understand what’s going on in the community, and if we can solve some problems along the way then even better.
Matt: Who is somebody that you feel is doing something right and innovative for the tech community in Tampa?
Marcus: Luis Beaumier – he’s the CIO at PwC. They’re going through a transition where they’re trying to change the paradigm of IT. One of the things he talks a lot about is, it’s not IT, it’s Technology. The growing expansion of all things.
There are industries that are technology verticals that weren’t traditionally IT. It’s almost like you have “IT” and then you have this “Other” – and he’s bringing in all that “Other” stuff. We talked about IoT before, well where does that live? So he’s started to really operationalize that throughout the organization. They don’t say IT anymore, they say Technology. Anything that is tech-based falls under this portfolio.
The problem IT always has is, it spends a lot of time getting people not to do things, or to comply with things. So it’s taking a more holistic approach and bringing it in and saying, “Look, we’re all one family here, let’s break down the silos.” They’re doing a lot of DevOps over there. He’s figured it out and now he’s operationalizing it there.
Matt: Tying everything together as a whole, are there any further thoughts you’d like to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline for you or for the airport?
Marcus: We’re doing phase two of our $2 billion dollar master plan program. The main focus of that is the south building, where the airport staff is going to move. We’ll all be together in the same building on the same set of floors, and that’s going to integrate us more with the business. The exciting part about that is it’s going to give us an opportunity to be a bit more embedded. It’s kind of hard with most of my staff over here to say, “Hey, you should understand what’s happening with the operations team.” Well I have to board the train, go over there, and find them in the building. They’ll be able to now literally go see what’s going on, be in the thick of it. We’re all going to be together.
Also, it’s going to be an expansion on our curbsides. Dovetailing off of that earlier discussion, we talked about how the bag drop enhances the curbs. Now we’re going to expand the curbs up here at the terminal, make them wider, make express curbs, etc. Part of that is to prepare for what may happen in the autonomous vehicle space. You have to have a lane for them. We’ll have an express lane where people can come and have drop-offs that are really quick, so the lanes will be a little more purpose-built to be more organized. Remember, if you get the curbs where they’re not congested, it reduces stress.
Airlines are doing a lot of interesting things, and the thing I’m most excited about is biometrics. It’s something we’re going to be piloting here, probably within the next six months. There’s a new FAA requirement now when you’re leaving the country. Instead of giving an agent your boarding pass and passport and them scanning everything, you basically walk up to the biometric terminal, it scans you, and you walk out.
Before the end of the year, we’re hoping to have that in a pilot fashion on a couple of airsides. So, that’s going to be exciting. Several airports are piloting it, we’ve gone and seen it, we’ve talked to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about it, we’ve looked at the technology, and it’s fast. The recognition comes back in a couple of seconds. It has the potential to load a plane quicker. It has the potential where you don’t even have to have your boarding pass out. Think about how that’s going to destress the travel experience. You won’t have to keep up with this little piece of paper that’s crumpled up that you’re scared won’t scan.
Matt: “Oh God, my phone died and I had it screenshotted and I don’t have it printed.”
Marcus: You can’t leave your face at home! [laughter]
About the HCAA / Tampa International Airport:
Tampa International Airport is consistently ranked among the world’s top airports, serving more than 21 million passengers annually with routes to more than 80 destinations around the world. In the past few years, the airport has received top awards on the state, national and international levels, including the No. 2 domestic airport in reader polls by both Travel + Leisure magazine and Condé Nast Traveler. Tampa International recently completed the largest construction program in airport history, expanding its main terminal and opening a 1.4-mile people mover extending to a new, state-of-the-art rental car facility. It is also undergoing a complete concessions redevelopment, adding 69 new shops, restaurants and services with an emphasis on local flavor, brands, and designs.
Tampa International Airport is the flagship airport of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which operates all publicly owned airports in Hillsborough County, Florida.
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