Michael Garcia, CTO, Wall Street English, Hong Kong, China
ILLUSTRATION BY JOEL KIMMEL
ORGANIZATION: Wall Street English
LOCATION: Hong Kong, China
Like anyone leaving the family home, an organization separating from its parent company encounters both exciting opportunities and daunting challenges. So when two private investors brought language education organization Wall Street English in 2017 for US$300 million from education group Pearson, it led to a massive change project led by Michael Garcia, CTO. “It's been a renewal,” Mr. Garcia says. “We hit refresh—out with the old, in with the new.”
Founded in 1972, Wall Street English provides English-language learning for adults by combining online and digital media with traditional classroom methods. It has more than 400 learning centers in 28 countries.
As CTO, Mr. Garcia has two focus areas: product development, with a team of about 90 people based in India, and enterprise projects, with about 35 team members in China.
What did the project to transition Wall Street English to a standalone operation mean for the organization?
It forced us to rethink everything. It was a great but challenging opportunity to reflect on our business strategy, rethink the technologies we need, renegotiate vendor contracts and come away with a simpler, more nimble business. We rallied every-one behind the initiative so they have full ownership over our future direction.
What made it so challenging?
The amount of things that had to be done. The project had over 500 milestones involving almost everyone on our team, and they had to be done in a matter of nine months, from the close of the sale in March 2018 to the end of the year. Also, we had been part of a larger company where we had been consumers of shared services. Now we own them, and we had to develop the right skills.
How did you quickly bring your team's project management skills up to speed?
At the start of the separation, we relied on a consultancy to share best practices for managing a separation project. But after a few months, we weaned off them to save costs but also because I wanted to bring that work and responsibility back into our team. It was an amazing experience to see our project managers’ skills evolve. For example, seeing someone who had always managed application projects suddenly managing a project to seamlessly migrate 5,000 email boxes in a single weekend. Now that we've done this separation project, we have the confidence to do even more.
What has the separation meant for strategy?
With our separation, the leadership team developed a five-year strategic plan. We see a strong demand for English training, so we're focused on accelerating our growth. In our largest market, China, we have 75 centers in 11 cities, but we're looking to open more and expand our growth through digital channels.
What does the push for growth mean for you?
In technology, growth equates to scalability—making sure we have the right systems and processes to support that growth without a lot of incremental costs. We simplified and standardized our processes as much as possible so that we can easily deploy technology to a new center or territory and integrate it with the rest of the organization. We get it up and running and profitable as quickly as possible. That's been a big focus for us: Wall Street English in a box.
What types of tech projects do you oversee?
On the enterprise side, we deliver solutions to help our business become more effective, efficient and scalable. And on the commercial side, we develop and enhance our core product: the technology that sits in the hands of all our students, teachers and staff worldwide, whether that's delivering courses to students through online channels or providing teachers with the right tools to manage their courses. For example, we recently launched a digital, device-agnostic capability that allows students and teachers to communicate in a video-based environment.
What project delivery approach do you use?
In the development of our product, we've used an agile framework for three years now, and it's worked very well for us to ensure alignment across all teams. Every 13 weeks, we bring together our product owners and our development team to look at how we're delivering to requirements and to strategize for the next cycle. Our product owners constantly assess the market's needs and how our students use our products, and they communicate that to the development team. Throughout the 13-week cycle, we have standup meetings and progress checks. Then the process begins again. And every two weeks I get together with the product leader to discuss any changes to business needs that might change our delivery.
What's the primary challenge you face?
Above all, speed. English training, especially in China, is a rapidly evolving and developing market, and it's highly competitive. So we have to keep pace with our customers’ expectations and deliver projects and solutions as quickly as possible. We don't have the time or patience to wait through six-month or 12-month projects. We have to show results in weeks. In the China market, for example, we pilot some solutions in a few centers or maybe a city or region before scaling it out nationally or globally.
How would you describe the role of your project managers?
I look at project managers as mini-CEOs. They have to see the big picture and know the strategy, and they have to know how their project aligns with strategy. Communication and marketing are critical parts of their role. They have to communicate progress and risks, and they have to market the benefits of the project and make sure people in the business understand why we're doing it. And of course they have to deliver. At the end of the day, it's about results. PM
What is the one skill every project manager should have?
The ability to ask the right questions—not taking things at face value but digging deeper until you get to the facts.
What's your biggest pet peeve?
Not showing interest in business functions other than your own.
The value of the war room. If you get everyone into a war room to solve a project crisis, why not apply the same approach before the crisis happens?
If not your current job, what would you do?
I'd be center fielder for the New York Yankees baseball team.