Dell’s digital boss on being a change agent for transformation

Jen Felch is leveraging her deep knowledge and experience from 17 years at Dell to manage change, drive collaboration and supercharge innovation
Dell CDO Jen Felch

What’s the secret to achieving as smooth a digital transformation journey as possible? Taking your people every small step of the way with clear communication and, more specifically, letting them help plot the route. This insight is shared by an expert perfectly placed to offer an opinion on the subject: Jen Felch, Dell Technologies’ chief digital and information officer.

In September 2019, she took on the dual roles for the first time in the computer technology company’s 37-year history. Back then, like everyone else, Felch had no inkling of the coronavirus-induced disruption that lay ahead. 

During the pandemic, from her home in Austin, Texas, she has been at the helm to navigate the organisation’s road to recovery, driving the strategy, direction and delivery for Dell Digital, Dell’s IT arm. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Felch combines her responsibilities as CDO and CIO alongside “the emerging role of change agent for digital transformation”. No wonder the 53-year-old has taken up hot yoga to help increase her physical and mental flexibility.

Aside from an eight-month stint with Boeing in 2010, she has been employed by Dell since April 2003. Her deep knowledge of the company is hugely beneficial to steering digital transformation, particularly in a period of epochal change. Felch has access to all areas, is a trusted ally and understands various stakeholders’ pain points.

“I started my career as a software developer and spent two years working in the Dell factories as part of a development rotation, and it was a fabulous experience,” says Felch. “That hands-on operational experience is invaluable and I still leverage it today. I don’t have to imagine what it is like in a factory because I have first-hand knowledge.”

Digital transformation: a never-ending continuum

Felch boasts a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an alumnus of the Leaders for Global Operations Program at MIT, where she earned her MBA and a Master’s in computer science. She continues: “Thanks to my 17 years with Dell, I can make use of a network of people across the company. 

“I can pick up the phone to find out what is really happening in a certain area and what people are truly thinking. By understanding what they are trying to achieve and how we can make them more effective, employees are less resistant towards technology adoption and change.”

We might have great technology, but it is having highly skilled people who are available and have the environment in which to innovate that makes the difference

Indeed, when asked about the biggest challenge to successful digital transformation, Felch is quick to answer: change management. “You need the right mechanisms – people, tools and processes – for managing and leading change. You need people within your organisation who will champion change, interact with the business and with the technical teams, and drive understanding and solutions to opportunities.” 

She posits it is “human nature” to find change daunting, hence why there is resistance, at least initially. However, Felch acknowledges the irony of IT professionals needing to be more communicative, collaborative and, well, human in 2021. Man and machine must comprehend one another and stride ahead together to enable an optimal digital transformation journey.

“Today, IT all depends on developing the right engineering culture within an organisation,” Felch says. “At Dell, we are highly dependent on how we engage with others and we have to draw out those latent needs, so we understand where we are going and innovate accordingly. 

“We might have great technology, but it is having highly skilled people who are available and have the environment in which to innovate that makes the difference.”

Little surprise, then, that Felch views digital transformation, both for her company and its clients, as a “continuum that doesn’t end”. She explains: “For us, digital transformation is much more than upgrading a server rack; it is about a mindset to keep the whole business performing and moving forward. As we look ahead, we’re finding the balance between security, privacy and ease-of use, which I believe can be accomplished with good design.”

Further, she is a “firm believer” in Dell’s lean and agile methodology concerning development that drives transformation. “Our iterative approach is delivering great results,” Felch says, lauding a more open, collaborative mindset across the business and also with trusted partners. 

“It’s incredibly powerful when you pair strong technologists with strong business partners and modern IT, like a developer experience rooted in self-service, to drive transformation. That’s where you see multiple wins of creating better experiences, improving employee satisfaction and driving out cost.”

Lean and agile development: delivering results

The outcomes are impressive. She claims that by eliminating redundant work and reducing manual tasks or testing, Dell Technologies has shifted around 10 per cent of its workforce into the development team to “be able to engage with our business partners directly to develop new solutions”.

The company has also reduced its cycle time to deploy new capabilities by 30% and the number of incidents - when a user calls for help - by 31%. It has done this, Felch says, through a focus on user experience, fixing the root cause of existing problems and driving quality in new capabilities.

“The net of it all is that we’re getting faster and more responsive, quality is improving and we have better engagement with our business partners. That’s what digital transformation is all about,” she says.

Finally, Felch stresses how business-critical it is for organisations to “embrace digital transformation”. Those that do not, and are closed to change and constant evolution, will fail – and sooner, rather than later.

“Digital transformation can drive growth opportunities, enhance customer experiences, better connect employees and continue to accelerate positive change within a business,” she explains. 

Given Felch’s wealth of knowledge and experience, it’s worth heeding her words of wisdom.

Felch’s top five tips for leading through digital transformation

  1. Start small
    Find the people who are willing to drive change and solve their first problem. Solve it, celebrate it and let that be the example that you build upon for broader transformation. Having people who can step back, see the larger opportunity or problem that could improve other areas or be replicated, and interact with designers, developers, and so on, can serve as powerful change agents within your organisation.
  1. Focus on the end user experience
    Take the time to listen and observe the problem or opportunity. This avoids the “telephone game” and helps surface latent needs that will delight the user.
  1. Invest in your own processes and team
    Create and embed common ways of working and interacting for the entire team so that it is easy for people to focus on the problem. Have common processes for tracking status and priorities so that people can bring their expertise, whether that’s in DevOps, design, or user experience, to solve the problem efficiently. 
  1. Stay connected to your teams
    Keep providing context and communicate priorities left and right, up and down, to help keep everyone pulling together in the same direction. Stay close so that you can jump in to help remove obstacles, celebrate successes and to remind people that change can be hard. Mistakes will happen but if we commit to learn quickly and to move forward together, driving real change is hugely rewarding.
  1. Be optimistic
    Stay flexible, agile and be ready to pivot. Be optimistic about the present and excited for what transformation will deliver in the future.