“I came back to Aptima really excited about product development.” Ryan Marceau
When High-Performing Alumni Return: Re-hiring Former Employees
A national survey of more than 1,800 human resources (HR) professionals, people managers, and employees by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and WorkplaceTrends.com, shows a changing mindset about re-hiring former employees.* Where nearly half of HR professionals claim their organization previously had a policy against rehiring former employees – even if the employee left in good standing –76% say they are more accepting of re-hires today than in the past. In fact, there can be tangible benefits for both the re-hired employee and employer. In addition to the mutual familiarity, a known and proven body of work, and the need for less training, there’s also the additional experience and perspective the re-hire brings back to the fold.
That was all the case with Ryan Marceau who initially joined Aptima in 2006 as a freshly minted Masters graduate, worked here for eight years, then left to explore other opportunities from 2014 to 2016. Ryan sat down with The Human Factor after being re-hired in May 2016 to talk about his early years with Aptima, his time away, and how he’s applying the lessons learned to his latest role here within the company.
Human Factor: Looking back to your first hire date in 2006, how did you begin at Aptima?
Ryan: I was leaving a full-time internship that I had at E. Rogers Associates, a Management Consulting firm that specializes in Leadership and Organizational Development at the time. It was a great internship to have coming out of grad school. Aptima reached out to me after seeing my information on one of the Industrial-Organizational Psychology lists. I was very excited looking at Aptima’s website, with its focus on the Department of Defense (DoD). Unlike a lot of people who had come out of modeling and simulation, I didn’t have any DoD experience and was really intrigued by it.
Human Element: Do you have any memorable stories from those early days at Aptima that stick out?
Ryan: Certainly our work at the military bases wasn’t as glamorous as traveling to Las Vegas! The Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms in the California desert felt like it was 120 degrees, but was always a blast! [Laughs] All the Marine Corps work was always really interesting.
One project that stands out was work we did with the Army looking at how to better train drill instructors in these intangible attributes that would encourage confidence, accountability, and decision-making skills in their students, the actual soldiers. We did that through a marksmanship course. As part of that, we were able to spend time in actually taking the course ourselves. Courtney Dean, me, and a few other Aptimists at the time spent a week learning how to shoot rifles with the Army with retired special forces Soldiers as our instructors. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had.
Human Element: So after eight years of fun, interesting work, you left to pursue some new opportunities and ended up at Pearson. How did you benefit from your time away from Aptima?
Ryan: At Aptima we usually worked on several projects at any given time so it was an interesting experience to have that level of focus on one project across a large number of people. At Pearson what I learned most was how to be a very focused product manager working on an individual product, where you have teams of engineers all working towards the same goals. You can still end up getting fragmented, but it’s just within one problem space.
The ability to understand the full development cycle in a large company was a great experience. Managing an engineering backlog, from conceptualization all the way through implementation, to collecting usage data and tweaking the product based on the results, whether from Google Analytics or focus group interviews. Learning, understanding and experiencing how product management and scale works in commercial product companies was helpful.
Another valuable experience was seeing how a large technology company operates, one that’s mostly focused on building technology and less so on services. There’s a lot of coordination that product managers have to do in those types of organizations, especially if you’re on a platform with a lot of different teams contributing to the same product. Everybody’s trains have to arrive at the same time in order to get a feature out that spans across all those teams.
Human Element: How do you think these experiences and insights impact your current work Aptima?
Ryan: I came back to Aptima really excited about product development. It’s a very different experience working in a large organization that’s building a lot of products very rapidly, or one product very rapidly, versus working in an organization like Aptima that’s doing a lot of different things in the R&D space. But one thing that’s consistent across both companies is trying to understand the customer’s problem. What problem are we really trying to solve? Whether you’re working on the evolution of digital textbooks or trying to solve problems related to higher education at Pearson, or you’re working on something in the DoD space, that understanding of the problem is paramount.
The emerging direction of product management is—instead of focusing more on features and feature backlogs—to focus more on the jobs your customers are trying to perform, and how to solve the problems that are associated with those jobs. Everything is framed around the problem we’re solving, not the feature we’re building. This approach changes the focus. Aptima is already moving in this direction, but I’d like to take it even further when we think about the technology we’re building, or the services we’re providing.
Human Element: Since returning to Aptima, what are you working on that excites you?
Ryan: I’m leading Aptima’s internal “Tangibility Challenge.” You hear people talk about “minimum viable products”. An MVP is anything where you can get some valuable data about your assumptions. It doesn’t have to be a functioning piece of software. It could be a drawing on a napkin—it doesn’t really matter. It can be any information that tells you you’re going in the right direction, or if you’re not. Learning that you’re going in the wrong direction is just as valuable as knowing that you’re going in the right direction.
This is really relevant here at Aptima, an R&D company that is like a group of startups. Every Aptima capability is like its own startup organization. You’re not just replicating some existing template or some known business model that you already know works. You do some research and determine what works. But in order to do that successfully, you need to recognize that you’re making a lot of assumptions all the time.
You have to avoid the urge to jump straight to solving the problem as you think you understand it, start to recognize where your assumptions lie, and test out your hypotheses against those.
That’s really one of the keystones of the Customer Development approach born out of Silicon Valley where you seek to validate everything as you go along the way as quickly as possible. Then you can pivot if you find something that you weren’t expecting. This is what is meant by “validated learning.” This goes to the heart of Aptima, its strength in research and development, and being able to test and validate given its scientific pedigree.
Human Element: And given everything you know now about marksmanship, product development, and MVPs, who is going to play Ryan Marceau in the Aptima movie?
Ryan: [Laughs] That’s a tough question. I try to bring levity to a lot of my interactions here. I always have, and even at Pearson people told me this, too. I’m thinking of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters because I remember watching that growing up. He was a scientist, but he was always the one goofing off, kind of joking around a little, but he was still really smart. I feel like I try to bring that to the table sometimes here and anywhere.