Otto Berkes is currently CEO at Acendre, a leading provider of talent management software solutions for government and regulated industries. An Xbox co-founder, he had an 18-year career at Microsoft where he drove groundbreaking hardware and software innovation in computer graphics, home entertainment, mobile devices, and cloud services.
He moved to HBO in 2011 to build the HBO GO streaming service, and as CTO, to lead the technology division and champion the company’s overall digital transformation. He subsequently joined CA Technologies as EVP to spearhead new product incubation and to direct the company’s shift to subscriptions.
Otto is co-inventor on 13 patents, a recipient of Microsoft’s Xbox Founder Award, an Emmy Award, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and is a published author. He is currently an advisor to Airtime, a director at Acendre, and a trustee at the University of Vermont.
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We are thrilled to have you join us today, welcome to Valiant CEO Magazine’s exclusive interview! Let’s start off with a little introduction. Tell our readers a bit about yourself and your company.
Otto Berkes: Thank you for inviting me to join this conversation. My name is Otto Berkes and I am a technologist turned CEO.
I was born in Hungary and lived in Austria before moving to the United States with my family as a child. My passion for problem-solving and creative expression led me to Middlebury College, where I graduated with a degree in physics and a minor in music performance. While there, I developed an interactive software application for the recently launched IBM PC to analyze radioactive particle emissions. This first experience as a software developer convinced me that digital technology was my calling. I returned to school and earned an MS in computer science and electrical engineering from the University of Vermont.
My creative interest in computer graphics sparked my overall interest in computers. I had the opportunity at Autodesk to write the graphics engine and user interface for the first Windows-based version of AutoCAD. My experience as a Windows application developer sparked a desire to work on Windows itself, and I joined Microsoft in 1993, where I led pioneering work in computer graphics both as a programmer and as a manager. In 1999, I had the good fortune of working with three other creative individuals, and together, we founded Microsoft’s first gaming console, Xbox. It was a thrill to bring mind-blowing content to living rooms everywhere. I also championed the mobile computing technologies that paved the way for today’s touch-based devices.
After 18 years at Microsoft, I joined HBO to guide a non-technology company through digital disruption. We were successful in the company’s overall digital transformation, which included the HBO GO video streaming platform. HBO GO grew from a nascent effort to one of the most popular streaming services in North America.
Subsequently, I joined CA Technologies – a $4 billion enterprise software company – to help other non-technology businesses succeed in the digital era. Two achievements there stand out: the creation of the CA Accelerator, an in-house incubator developing new products to address emerging customer needs, and leading CA’s transformation to a modern subscription-based business.
Following Broadcom’s acquisition of CA, I founded Bog Bridges LLC as an outlet for my continuing passion for writing software and belief that a technology leader should never be too far removed from actual code. In December 2019, after serving as one of Acendre’s Independent Directors, I took on the role of CEO at the company. Acendre is a leading provider of HR software solutions for government and highly regulated, complex industries. Much of what we’ve learned about simplifying the complex is now being synthesized and refined for the broader market. It’s an exciting time to be in this role because we have the opportunity to help transform the way companies think about human potential. As a company, we believe that one of the biggest shifts (and positives) to come from the pandemic is how organizations see the unique people that comprise them.
Who has been the most influential person(s) in your life and how did they impact you? How did that lead to where you are today?
Otto Berkes Xbox co-Founder: I have to give credit to my partner in life, my wife, Maggie. We met at Middlebury College, and from the very beginning of our relationship, she has supported me and encouraged me to take risks – even when doing so was hugely disruptive to her life and our children’s lives.
Maggie is the one who pushed me to seriously consider HBO’s offer. I had been at Microsoft for 18 years and was very comfortable there. My family was rooted in Seattle, and taking the job meant moving back across the country to New York. Seattle and New York are very different kinds of cities, and I wasn’t sure about the move. But she’s smarter than I am. Maggie convinced me it was time to try something different. HBO was a greenfield opportunity – the opportunity to create something truly new again. Video streaming wasn’t a well-known thing back then. I ended up winning an Emmy for that work with the help of my team.
When the Board asked me to take over at Acendre, Maggie was right there, encouraging me to take my first CEO role. Having someone believe in you – someone who helps you see things from a different perspective – is extremely helpful and important.
2020 was a challenging year for all of us, particularly for businesses. How did the pandemic impact your business? Please list some of the problems that you faced, and how you handled them.
Otto Berkes: I mentioned before that as a company, Acendre believes that how organizations view their people is one of the biggest shifts to come from the pandemic. Businesses have become a bit more “human” over the last two years, and most are starting to think differently about how they work, and about how they acquire the people to fuel their mission. Organizations of all types are thinking differently about the need for their people to understand their mission and believe in it. And we are changing our thinking and our behaviors as a company ourselves.
One of our challenges has been integrating several different companies into one. The pandemic made it much harder to get to know people and bring teams together. One of the ways we’re addressing that is by recalibrating our vision and mission and collectively defining our company values. Having everyone involved in the process drives collaboration, which we believe yields better results and gives everyone ownership of what’s most important to us. We approached our OKRs in a similar way, leveraging technology to align everyone’s priorities and goals around core objectives. Technology helped simplify the process for this.
We’re looking at our business very differently today than we did before the pandemic. We’re in the midst of repositioning ourselves and focusing on a broader segment of our market than we have in the past. We’re building new software to help organizations recruit, hire, onboard, and train people so that they can hit the ground running quickly. Technology can help simplify (and humanize) the process for this too!
In fact, another challenge we’ve faced during all of this is recruiting. It’s difficult to find people now. What we’re busy building at Acendre will help us just as much as it will help our customers!
The pandemic led to a myriad of cultural side effects, including one that was quite unexpected that is informally known as “The Great Resignation”. Did this widespread trend affect you in any way?
Otto Berkes: Absolutely! It’s a large piece of what’s driving the changes we’re making in the solutions we bring to market. People are so much more than “resources” or ”capital”. They’re the heart of an organization and what will ultimately make or break you. Acendre has been in the ”talent management” business for a long time – focused on attracting, developing, and retaining top employees. But it’s important to note that “The Great Resignation” is not a total surprise. People feeling like widgets or cogs in a wheel instead of contributors towards an important mission isn’t ideal during the best of times. Layer in a pandemic and all of the social and economic upheaval it’s caused, and it’s no wonder that people want to feel that their work matters. That they want to be part of something bigger. NOW is the time to focus on development of people and how organizations find them and engage with them during the hiring process.
Instead of looking at this business environment negatively, I would like to embrace The Great Resignation as a powerful catalyst for companies to identify areas to improve ways to retain top talent and attract new individuals. It’s time to look at things differently.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. How do you feel about this trend? Explain.
Otto Berkes: When you understand what is collectively important to your workforce, you can align with current employees’ preferences and attract new job seekers. These resignations are a call for businesses to examine their cultures and see how they match up with what their people value. This is true for both existing teams and yet-to-join people.
Additionally, we all know the cost of hiring and onboarding a new employee is exceptionally high. You have recruiting costs, lost productivity, training costs, and cultural impact. It’s worth asking: How can we create a culture that is more open to internal transfers within a company?
Another area for organizational growth is the investment in employees’ learning and development. At Acendre, we envision a world of work where individuals are given the right tools and support to be successful as they onboard, so they’re energized and ready to be productive from the start. Beyond the initial hiring process, companies will continue to engage their workforce and build their skills and knowledge.
According to a study by Harvard Business Review, Employees between 30 and 45 years old have had the greatest increase in resignation rates, with an average increase of more than 20% between 2020 and 2021. That can be quite an alarming rate. What advice would you share to increase employee retention?
Otto Berkes, Acendre CEO: As our labor markets continue to evolve, employers who offer flexibility and variety in their work environments will more easily attract and retain workers. My advice would be to recruit, hire, and transfer people into roles for the best cultural fit, in addition to the best fit for their skills. Examine your company’s culture with this in mind.
According to a Nature Human behavior study, In 2020, 80% of US workers reported feeling that they have too many things to do and not enough time to do them – a phenomenon known as “time poverty”. What is your take on the work-life balance? Explain.
Otto Berkes Xbox co-Founder: One of the most important things in work is to reduce the clutter and not mistake activity for productivity. And as much as I am a fan of digital tools, it’s especially important to use them judiciously because they can make it so easy to fill our time with an endless stream of activity. It’s important to take a step back and separate the things that truly matter in our work from the activities that compete for our time. We can make more of many things, but we can’t make more time. We have to treat time as our most precious personal and collective resource.
A more recent survey by Joblist asked about 3,000 respondents if they’re actively thinking about leaving their job. That survey found that 73% of 2,099 respondents who answered this question on their employment plans are considering quitting. How are you preparing for the future to counter this potentially persistent problem?
Otto Berkes: Since my background is in software development, I often use those best practices to approach challenges – and good software product design teams seek to understand the problem to be solved before they build solutions to address it. And once they’ve identified the right problem, they seek to find the most general and durable way to solve it.
We must ask ourselves: Are we, as managers and leaders, looking to solve the right problems for employee retention? Free sushi and ping-pong tables aren’t going to do it. All businesses can benefit by establishing ongoing feedback loops to understand if they are solving relevant issues at hand and adjusting as needed.
And are we being thoughtful in our hiring to find the people that fit us? The people who can, along with our existing teams, thrive?
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Otto Berkes for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Otto Berkes or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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