HRExaminer Radio

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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Kathy Nottingham, Director Industry Analyst Relations, Ultimate Software
Episode: 137
Air Date: December 16, 2015


Kathy Nottingham has been in the software industry for over 25 years, serving in a spectrum of roles—from programming to product management and marketing. Eventually, she found her true calling in industry analyst relations. Industry analysts play a key role in the software-technology ecosystem: providing independent, third-party evaluations of vendors and solutions for buyers, as well as market research on technology trends. As the Director of Industry Analyst Relations at Ultimate Software, Kathy manages Ultimate’s strategic relationships with the industry analyst community. She is passionate about HCM technology, market research, and Ultimate’s “People First” culture, and has been recognized by Forrester Research for best practices in analyst relations.



Audio MP3





Begin transcript

John Sumser:                        Good morning, and welcome to  HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host John Sumser, and we’re coming to you from beautiful downtown Occidental, California and you can tell we’re getting to the darkest day of the year because there isn’t a hint of sunlight out there this morning. Today we’re going to be talking with Kathy Nottingham, who is the the Director of Industry Analysts Relationships for Ultimate Software. She’s a long term software industry veteran, an artist in her spare time, and we’re going to talk about Ultimate Software, and what it means to be a Industry Analyst Relations Management person. Kathy how are you?

Kathy Nottingham:           I’m great.

John Sumser:                        Nice to hear your voice, so would you take a moment and just double back, introduce yourself to the audience please.

Kathy Nottingham:           Great, yes, I’m Kathy Nottingham, and I am the Director of Industry Analyst Relations at Ultimate Software. I know you wanted me to tell a little bit of a funny story about my career. I thought I’d start with that, if that’s okay with you, John?

John Sumser:                        That’s great.

Kathy Nottingham:           I started my career over twenty years ago, so I’ve been in this industry, as you said, quite a long time. I started out optimizing code for supercomputers at Cray Research, so I’m really dating myself there. On the first month of my job, straight out of college, in the middle of the night, and I was optimizing code dedicated on this supercomputer. Each time I would start my program that I was trying to test, someone would log, in and start up anther program that messed everything up. I would kill those processes, and then I was sending these curt messages indicating that I had signed up for this time, and they needed to come back another time. After about thirty minutes of doing this, I finally called the help desk, and asked who this user one hundred was, and why they were not respecting my time. It turns out, the system had been double booked, and the user, number one hundred, was none other than Seymour Cray, the founder of the company, and the chief architect. I thought I was going to be fired. It was no big deal, and he was really cool about it, but I didn’t sleep that night. I thought I was going to be fired the next day. That was like my first month on the job.

John Sumser:                        What a great story. You went to work at Cray Computers straight out of college? Holy moly. You must be some kind of a technical genius.

Kathy Nottingham:           I love technology. I loved it the very first time I ever tried programming. I was like, “Okay, this is. This is going to be my career. I have to do it.” It turns out, I’m also a people person.

John Sumser:                        This is remarkable. I’m going to go directly off the script, and ask you a couple of things. I talk to a lot of people. I do not usually talk to women who have this level of affinity for technology, and what’s stunning … We were talking before the show. You have famous artists in your lineage, and I would have fallen into the stereotype, and said, “Oh, daughter of a famous artist, not a technologist.” How did you get to this level? What was it like to learn how to be a technologist, because it’s not a female-friendly world, and it certainly wasn’t twenty years ago.

Kathy Nottingham:           No, it certainly was not. I just loved the challenge of it, and I think, actually, the first time … I went to one of the … I guess they called them free schools back in the day, where we didn’t really have grades, and you could study whatever you wanted. We had this old computer there, and I loved it, and I would just sit on it for hours, and this was like in grade school, and middle school. Then as soon as I went to college, and I could get onto the early technology, I just fell in love with it. I did get counselled by one of my early advisors, that maybe I should go into social work, or something different because I was a people person. I told them that they were crazy, and I got a new advisor.

John Sumser:                        That’s good for you. That’s the moment that usually breaks the interest in technology. That’s good for you, good for you. It’s an extraordinary thing to be able to talk to somebody who’s been given the freedom, and whatever it takes to get you here. What a treat to be able to talk to you. Now, you’ve got to explain to me how you got from giving bad service to Seymour Cray, to Director of Industry Analyst Relations at Ultimate … That’s got to be a great story.

Kathy Nottingham:           Well, actually, I don’t know that it’s a great story. I started out programming, and I did program for a few years. Then I’m a people person, so sitting and just programming, it turned out to be not as interesting as I would have liked it to be. I love technology, though, so what I found was, I found my way into product management, and product marketing. Then I could talk about the new technology, I could learn about it, I could talk to users about what they wanted in the new product, and that was really exciting for me. Part of my responsibilities working in software product management was working with the industry analysts, and talking to them about the new technologies that were coming, what the market needs were, and I got very excited about it, and it started to become the favorite part of my job.

When I left Cray Research, which was then part of Silicon Graphics,  I went and started doing a dedicated Industry Analysts Relations job, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

John Sumser:                        That’s great. What does an Industry Analyst Relations person do?

Kathy Nottingham:           First of all, just a little bit of understanding what the Industry Analyst Relations role is, because they’re very critical in the software technology business. They are in hardware as well, but I know the software side of it more. Many buyers rely on the Industry Analyst and their insight to be the technology expert for that when they’re making their purchase decisions, because a lot of the people, whether they’re HR executives, or business executives, they’re not technology executives. They’re going out and talking to these industry analysts, and reading their research, so that they can rely on the expertise of someone else as part of their decision making process. The analysts don’t make the decisions, typically, for these executives, but they are good insights to them.

My role is to manage Ultimate Software’s relationship with these HCM Industry Analysts. Keep them up to date on our solutions, on our strategies, and also to get their advice, and understanding of where the market’s going. What are the new technologies? What are buyers in the future going to be looking for? That’s my job, so I work with them, and manage that relationship. They work with a number of people within the company, and my job is to really facilitate that understanding, and to make sure that we’re talking to the right analysts, and that they’re well-versed on our solutions, and that we’re well-versed on their industry insights.

John Sumser:                        What an amazing function. You know, there are not a ton of places in any organization where the job is to direct and coordinate the flow of external insight into the organization, fundamental management consulting stuff is managed that way. This is a pretty advanced form of what looks like how you manage ecosystem relationships. Does that make sense to you?

Kathy Nottingham:           It is, it’s very much like that. The difference here is that the industry analysts, they’re not buyers unto themselves. They’re not implementors of software themselves. They, themselves, are experts, and a big part of their job is to understand the different companies, the different vendors, the vendors’ solutions. They’re not just advising on the solution, they’re also advising on the strategy of the company. A big piece of their understanding needs to be what the future strategies and directions of these vendors are, because they’re not just recommending our solution today, they’re recommending the direction that we’re taking our solutions into the future. Not just Ultimate, but all of the vendors that they cover. With that, it’s a much deeper, more strategic understanding that they have to have of our solutions, than maybe an investor analyst, or some other type of consultant that is working on the here and now, just today solutions.

John Sumser:                        This is … You can take a pass on this question. It sounds like the world that is occupied by companies like Ultimate Software, and there’s a ton of them, and the audience here is going to be part of that universe in some way. In the world that has companies like that, the products are so complicated and hard to understand, that there is a sense in which the marketing function has to talk to people who then talk to customers. The marketing function has to allow a relationship that has translators in the middle of it. Is that a fair way to think about it?

Kathy Nottingham:           Well, I don’t think it’s so complex, but sometimes it’s hard to understand exactly how a solution would meet the specific needs of a customer. There are unique processes, every company is different, right? We market to a lot of healthcare companies, a lot of financial companies, but they all have different business processes. A lot of times, they can look at the solution and say, “Yup. It does that.” We do these things a little bit different. Often times, they’re looking to get some insights, and typically, these industry analysts, they do influence about fifty to eighty percent of enterprise software purchases. Does that mean they’re advising each one of them? No. It could be reading some of their research, and just understanding.

The other piece is sometimes understanding the direction of where things are going in the future, because nearly every software vendor is going to talk to you about their current solutions, and to some degree about their future roadmaps. It’s hard for people that are not technologists to understand, is that the right future technology direction, and as we all know, technology changes so quickly. I think a lot of times buyers are, they know what their needs are today, but understanding of which direction might be the right direction for the future, is something that they often look to industry analysts for insight.

John Sumser:                        That’s really interesting. What does your day look like? How do you do this?

Kathy Nottingham:           First of all, Ultimate Software is headquartered in Weston Florida, just outside of Fort Lauderdale, but I work from my home in Saint Paul, Minnesota. First question a lot of people ask is why do I choose the frozen tundra of Minnesota instead of balmy Florida, but I guess I’m just a hearty soul. I like winter, although I do escape to Florida for one month each winter. Since I work from home, I spend almost my whole day on the phone. Again, people person, I love talking with people on the phone. These analysts are smart, and very interesting people. I’m often times facilitating conversations between these analysts and our executives, or our product people. Often times we’re demonstrating products, to show new capabilities that we’re offering, or maybe previewing new solutions before we bring them to market, to get some feedback from the analysts. My day is typically most of the day of the phone. The rest of the day I’m likely reading research, market research and technology research.

John Sumser:                        Sounds like a dream job for some people. What does Ultimate Software, what does it do?

Kathy Nottingham:           Ultimate Software’s a leading cloud provider of people management solutions. Some people might call them HR solutions, or HCM Human Capital Management solutions. It’s really, we help companies manage the people side of their business. We have an UltiPro HCM Suite, so it’s a suite of solutions that covers HR, payroll, talent management, time management, and it really connects the people, and the information that they need to work more effectively. Ultimate was founded back in 1990, and has been just growing over time. About twenty-nine percent over the last thirteen years, so it’s a fast growing company. We have over … I think it’s over half a billion dollars in annual revenues, and we’re one of the few profitable fast software companies in the world. We only sell solutions in the cloud, and deliver it to our customers that way.

John Sumser:                        That’s a pretty interesting story. There’s a bunch of companies who do … Differentiation is hard to get your arms around. There are a bunch of companies that do similar things. How is Ultimate different from them?

Kathy Nottingham:           Most people probably would answer this question in terms of the product capabilities, and the customer service. Ultimate creates industry leading solutions, and we deliver amazing customer experiences. We have over ninety-six percent customer retention, but it is really the culture of Ultimate that sets it apart from our competitors. Ultimate’s tagline is People First, but it’s really more than a tagline. It really defines who we are. It’s how we treat our employees, and our colleagues. It’s how we design our products, and it’s how we treat our customers. Some ways that you measure these things, for the fourth year in a row, Ultimate has ranked in the top twenty-five of Fortune’s list of the hundred best companies to work for. We win a lot of different awards for company diversity, best diverse, best place for women to work, all different kinds of things. Those honors are really earned by creating a culture of trust, respect, and compassion throughout the organization. I have worked for a number of technology companies that were amazing, stimulating places to work, but I have never felt more valued, more empowered, or more appreciated at a company than at Ultimate Software.

John Sumser:                        Who’s the target customer?

Kathy Nottingham:           Ultimate has more than twenty-eight hundred customers in about a hundred and sixty countries around the world, and that means we manage about two hundred billion people records, that’s what we call it, people records, out in the cloud. Customers really range from, I would call them small mid-market customers from a couple hundred employees, to companies with over a hundred thousand employees. It’s really a broad set of industries, from healthcare, financial services, hospitality and manufacturing. Some companies that might be familiar to your listeners would be Culligan International, major league baseball, Pep Boys, Texas Roadhouse restaurants, or Yamaha Corporation. It really runs the gamut, but often times they’re companies that value their employees, and want to be a great place to work.

John Sumser:                        I think I hear you saying the important part of being a customer at Ultimate is some sort of cultural … Is there, like a culture filter? Does Ultimate work in environments that want specific kinds of things, rather than every environment?

Kathy Nottingham:           Actually, you know, we can help any company that is looking for people management solutions. What we find, though, is the main reason that peoples choose Ultimate, that our customers choose Ultimate, typically the top reasons for purchasing from our clients are that we have a great HCM solutions, that it’s a full integrated suite, and the culture of our company is actually a reason they choose it. They choose it because it’s a company they want to do business with. They want to be treated in the way that we treat our customers. They want to be valued, and respected, and have a trusting relationship. They also want to treat their employees that way, and they believe our software can help them threat their employees that way.

John Sumser:                        It’s a really interesting position to be in, because it sort of defies the conventional stereotype of what technology is, and what technology’s supposed to be. It’s kind of a male, sharp, aggressive undertone to a whole lot of technical stuff. Fast, speed, performance, those are kinds of very clinical values, and an awful lot of technical companies compete to prove that they carry those clinical values. Here you come along, and you say, “Well, another way of thinking about technology is that it’s accommodating, and that it’s warm, it’s warm.” That must be an interesting message to try to carry.

Kathy Nottingham:           I think the interesting thing is you can’t get away from, and you can’t shy away from being a technologist, so you have push the technology limits, which we do. I mean, we’ve got some amazing leading technologies that we win awards for in innovation, but at the same time, technology is for people, especially people management software. If it’s not friendly to the people that are using it, they’re not going to use it, they’re not going to want to use it. As we all know, the most important thing with enterprise software, for people, is they have to adopt it, they have to use it. That’s where you’re going to get the value, and so it needs to be something that people want to use. When we say people first, it’s not just our employees, it’s not just the customers, it’s actually their users as well.

John Sumser:                        What you’re saying, in a nutshell, is that software can’t be friendly if the company that makes it isn’t friendly, that true?

Kathy Nottingham:           I don’t know if I could say it can’t, but I could say if the company is friendly, you can make software that is more friendly.

John Sumser:                        Oh, that’s interesting. Would you mind digging a little into that, because I thought the caveat was fascinating, that you don’t know if it’s can’t … [crosstalk 00:21:40]

Kathy Nottingham:           I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know that you can’t create engaging user interfaces, and user experiences if you’re not a friendly company, but if it is your culture of your company to think of people first, and that is your premise for your organization, you are, by definition, because it’s part of your criteria, going to create more engaging user interfaces, and more engaging user experiences, because you’re thinking of the person. It doesn’t mean you can’t if you’re in a very aggressive company. You might do it, but in a culture where it is your focus, that is where you’re going to create an experience that is good for the user, and good for people.

John Sumser:                        What an interesting conundrum, because that … I understand this exactly, and I’ve be comfortable to say that it’s true, that you can’t do it without a friendly company. The way that we have values about technology, and values about people in our culture makes it really hard to marry those two things into a single story, without it drifting too far into sweetness, or too far away from sweetness, right?

Kathy Nottingham:           Right.

John Sumser:                        Sweetness is a credibility problem, if you’re talking about … [crosstalk 00:23:12]

Kathy Nottingham:           Yeah, and I don’t know that it’s sweetness. It’s really trust. It’s compassion. It’s thinking about the people, and sometimes it’s the effectiveness of those people, or sometimes it’s how to help a manager make better decisions about their people. We just introduced a new feature recently, which is called My Leadership Actions, where we use prescriptive analytics. You’re taking predictive analytics and prescriptive analytics to help a manager … Like, if they’re having team conflicts, give the managers suggestions of what you might do in this situation, or it’s a one year anniversary for an employee. What should you be doing for that employee at this point in time? Those are the kinds of things you can do when you’re helping treat people first, and think about people. Thinking about that manager, and how can they help their employees. How can they be the best manager. Those are the types of things we’re trying to do with our software.

John Sumser:                        Wow, so that message is you can’t put the consultant in a box that everybody’s tried to figure out how to do, if you don’t like people, and aren’t a friendly people company. That’s another interesting assertion, really interesting. Ultimate is surprising me this morning, this is great. We have run through the first part of the show. What should I have asked you that I didn’t get to?

Kathy Nottingham:           I think one of the things that surprised me, and I’m still surprised daily, that I can work in such a positive, people first culture is how do you build a culture, or how does a company build and maintain a people first culture in this cutthroat technology type of environment, where you have to keep innovating and doing this. I think that’s the question I would ask, and I’m going to answer that for you.

It really starts at the top. Ultimate CEO Scott Scherr is the perfect example of the humble and servant leader. He founded the company, and his goals have always been focused on doing the right thing for employees, so they can take care of the customers, and then to make money for investors. Most companies I’ve ever worked for have a pyramid, and the investors are on the top. Scott turns that around, and he’ll even talk to Wall Street that way. He says, “The employees are the primary focus, so I treat my employees the best I possibly can. Then they treat our customers the way they can, and then we make money.” He has a really famous quote that he said, where he said, “The true measure of a company is how they treat their lowest paid employee.”

I see that every day in our business. Ultimate pays a hundred percent of the benefits to all employees, and their families. Every employee gets stock in the company. We’ve never had a lay-off, but it’s really the day to day things that build the culture. It’s sending personal notes of thanks, promoting people with the right values, celebrating successes, and being authentic in the way we talk to each other, to our customers, supporting without judgement when people are struggling. It’s just … Scott says it’s every person every day, is what he keeps saying to all of us. That’s how you build the culture. It’s every person, every day.

John Sumser:                        Wow, what a great story. Is there anything … I don’t know, maybe drop mic and walk off stage. That was good. Is there anything you want to be sure the listeners take away?

Kathy Nottingham:           I think it’s really that, the culture matters. Being treated with respect is critical, and treating others with respect is equally critical. No matter the situation, whether it’s work, or family, or business, or friends. Really, it’s important to build relationships with people and organizations that are positive, authentic, and truly committed to mutual success. It’s those relationships that give you success and happiness. I have found that working at Ultimate, and in my personal life. I’m never going to settle for less than that.

John Sumser:                        What a tremendous story. Please reintroduce yourself, and tell people how they might get ahold of you.

Kathy Nottingham:           Okay, I’m Kathy Nottingham, and I’m the Director of Industry Analyst Relations at Ultimate Software. You can follow me on Twitter, @katnot. Otherwise on email, I’m also on LinkedIn, and you can find more information about Ultimate, and our products and services, at

John Sumser:                        Thanks so much for being here, Kathy. What a delightful conversation. I had a good time.

Kathy Nottingham:           Thanks, me too.

John Sumser:                        It was my pleasure. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner Radio. We’ve been talking with Kathy Nottingham, who’s the Director if Industry Analyst Relations for Ultimate Software, which sounds like a really interesting place to work, and an interesting company to do business with. Thanks for listening in, and we will see you next week. Thanks for tuning in, folks.

End transcript

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