HRExaminer Radio Executive Conversations Badge Podcast Logo

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations: On Friday mornings, John Sumser interviews key executives from around the industry. The conversation covers what makes the executive tick and what makes their company great.

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations

Guest: Laura Baldwin, President, O’Reilly Media
Episode: 385
Air Date: November 20, 2020




Important: Our transcripts at HRExaminer are AI-powered (and fairly accurate) but there are still instances where the robots get confused and make errors. Please expect some inaccuracies as you read through the text of this conversation. Thank you for your understanding.

Full Transcript with timecode


John Sumser 0:13
Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. I’m your host, John Sumser and today we are going to be talking with Laura Baldwin and I couldn’t be more excited. Laura’s the CEO of O’Reilly Media…do I have that right? CFO, CEO, Laura, what are you? Are you the Chief Operating Officer?

Laura Baldwin 0:35
So my formal title is President, Tim O’Reilly is still our CEO and founder.

John Sumser 0:39
Got it. So O’Reilly Media, if you don’t know, is the primary I believe, premium provider of technical manuals, books, topics, if you’ve got an IT department or an HR IT department, and you talk to the people who work there, they’ll all be O’Reilly customers. And so we’re gonna spend some time getting to know Lauren and O’Reilly. How are you, Laura?

Laura Baldwin 1:02
I’m doing great this morning. I’m really happy to be here. I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time.

John Sumser 1:07
That’s frightening. That’s just frightening! Why don’t you take a moment and introduce yourself, it’s pretty interesting that you are running the show. And there are not legions of women in this sort of high end of the technical pyramid slot. So the story of your career has got to be pretty interesting.

Laura Baldwin 1:29
Yeah, that’s actually true. There’s not a lot of women. But I’m seeing that change. And O’Reilly actually part of our in person conference division, which we unfortunately shut down in March, really tried to advance women and technology by bringing speakers and technicians, to our events, and even to all the products and services we offer to really advance women not just in technology, but overall.

So as for me, I’ve been President of O’Reilly since 2011. And before that, I was the CFO and COO for eight years prior. So I’ve been with the company for 19 years. I actually started out in finance and banking, working in banks and for firms that I loved kind of choosing jobs more for what the organization brought to market rather than the personal opportunity. I’m a big believer that you have to really believe in your work, the promise that you and your company are making to your customers so that every day when you show up, you can really make a difference. The story of me before that I really came out of finance, banking, and finance, and really built a career around understanding that the numbers were just the storytelling device to the business decisions you were making. And when that realization hit me, I realized I had to move to the operating side of the business, because it’s the decisions that really advance your company.

John Sumser 2:40
So O’Reilly, I can’t begin to get my arms around how to explain the role of O’Reilly to my audience, but O’Reilly is a centerpiece. And as a centerpiece, it’s got this reputation for being able to spot what’s about to happen, well in advance of what’s about to happen. So tell me some about O’Reilly Media and what it does and how you see the mission and successes of O’Reilly.

Laura Baldwin 3:06
Sure, actually, I’m really quite proud of what we do. I would say we’re basically a global learning and technology company, whose mission is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. You know, think about it, much of the advancement we see in the world comes from the bright minds innovating in their fields. Those innovations, you know they sit squarely at the intersection of technology. We believe that by bringing those best minds to market, people who are thinking deeply about the future, to experts that are developing new technologies, and teaching them to other people, making them easy to understand, you know, we know at O’Reilly that we’re advancing both individuals and economies.

We have a process called radar, which actually is how we spot those trends. I have an incredibly sophisticated editorial department that is doing what we call following the alpha geeks. Following the people on the edges of technology that are really innovating. And we try to sort of hone in on all of the signals that we see from those early innovators to put together the story of what’s going to happen in the future. So when you think about the means that O’Reilly has called web 2.0, open source, topics, the maker movement, topics that people have heard about, O’Reilly has typically been the one pushing those to the forefront, so that everybody understands what they are, and their part in the economy.

John Sumser That’s super interesting. So, how do you explain the fact that you’re right so often? O’Reilly is in business because it is excellent at doing what you just described, right? And lots of people would like to do that. But you’re doing it.

Laura Baldwin Right. I think the thing that makes us special is that we actually believe in what we’re doing, right? It takes time to put together the signals that you’re seeing and to develop them into a story. You know, years and years ago, like it was 12 years ago, we started a conference called Velocity that was about bringing DevOps which is now very standard way of operating in technology to market because we had a bunch of people talking to us. And we listened to them for two years before we actually did that, explaining what the need was, helping us understand what they were doing on the edges of technology to help their companies move forward. So our team is patient, and astute. And they work really hard to understand the signals and the small things they’re seeing that they think are going to make a difference going forward. A lot of that comes from Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty, who started O’Reilly basically as a publishing company, and a documentation company 40 plus years ago. And they’ve taught all of us how to do it. And our current editorial team, by the way, under the stewardship of two incredible women, Mary Treseler and Rachel Roumeliotis, are really taking it to the next level. And we’re really quite proud of it. But it takes diligence and patience. And we do have a process we call it Radar.

John Sumser 5:53
So you have been at the forefront. I remember the first O’Reilly book I saw was a whole internet catalog. And that was an attempt to translate the nascent web into a print publication. It was very successful. But you’ve done this thing over and over and over again, of seeing the trends in both the content and the format of the media. What are you seeing now and how’s that being used today?

Laura Baldwin 6:21
It’s funny, you talk about it in that way. So this is how we think about the content. We look at ourselves as a curation and creation company. The way that we bring that to market we call containers. The book is a container for the knowledge, the conference is a container for the knowledge, the digital conference, the O’Reilly learning platform, those are just containers that bring that curation and creation to market. So we think of ourselves first and foremost, about what are we going to create. Even when Tim and Dale started the very, very popular O’Reilly animal book series that is the center of technology for those IT departments that you talked about, they didn’t think about being book publishers, they were creators of the content that the world needed to see. And the content that would help individuals advance their skills and help their organizations. So everything we do is about first, what are we saying, how are we saying it. How we bundle it for distribution, that’s a different story. And we’re very proud of that, because that’s why when I talk about Radar, you talk about how O’Reilly stays on top of signals. If you think of yourself as what you deliver to market as a book publisher or a conference provider, you’re missing the key point, which is that conferences delivering information, and that information is more important than the structure of that event.

So let’s use HR Tech as an example. The keynotes at HR Tech are about the future, the things you have to think about going forward in technology, and with HR and the trends that are happening. The Radar keynote sets the stage for that future. The sessions are about learning how to do things. So a conference actually separates out those pieces as well, right that thinking of the future and then helping people see their place in it. So that’s exactly who we think we are. So we don’t think about ourselves as the O’Reilly learning platform. That’s how we deliver what we do.

John Sumser 8:15
That’s so interesting. So I want to skip into this year. You know, I’m a neighbor. I live in Healdsburg. And I have long history around Sebastopol. So I get in and out and drive by your office building on a routine basis. And the saddest thing is that the parking lot is empty. And I think you sort of led the way in this move to remote work. You did it early, you canceled your in person events early. How are you making those decisions? It seems to me that you’ve been spot on and right and ahead of the game in decision making about how to deal with this new world we’re living in. How’s the transition happening?

Laura Baldwin 8:59
So let me separate those two things. Because what’s happening now, the future of work in 2020 is a little different than when you think about who O’Reilly was when we built those buildings that you drive by it was 1998. And you know, work was very different than. When you think about remote work that parking lot you talked about actually started emptying out 15 years ago when we started allowing remote work. So matter of fact, when I started at O’Reilly, I was very clear with Tim, I actually live in San Francisco that I was not driving up five days a week. It’s an hour and 15 minute commute. And so very early on 19 years ago, I tried to set the tone for I’m coming in three days a week, and we can do this work remotely. Now back then it was all day on the telephone and now it’s on video call. So the technology has changed. But the ability to work is you know, you have to think about first principles. People have to understand their goals and what they’re trying to accomplish and what the company is trying to accomplish. Where they sit to enable that O’Reilly has always believed doesn’t really matter. So we have offices all over the world. And we’ve got two huge offices here in the United States in Boston and in Sebastopol and you know, with it about 10 years ago, 80% of our staff was remote to each other. And we did that ahead of tools like slack and Microsoft Teams, because we actually believe that if you’re clear about your goals, and everyone is clear about direction, it doesn’t matter that they’re all sitting right next to each other.

Now, there is some serendipity lost when you think about 2020. So let’s take we’ve been on this remote track for 20 years. When you think about this year, I think what I’m seeing is that the serendipity is missing. What is missing is the hallway conversations, the ability to run into somebody that’s not normally part of your day to day workflow, and I have 400 employees. And so a few weeks ago, I was on the phone with one of our sales enablement, people who I hadn’t talked to in three months, and I used to see her in the hall all the time. So I do feel like going forward, I think some of that serendipity, figuring out how to make that happen is going to be critical in this sort of world of remote, but I don’t think we’re ever going back. I think 2020 has proven to people that people can work from wherever they are, as long as they’re supported.

John Sumser 11:12
Well it raises some interesting questions. One of my favorite statistics from this year is from a company called Humanyze in Boston, and they examine how networks work inside of organizations. And they say that prior to March 11th, the average employee and the average company has three close personal relationships, that’s people they spend an hour a week with, and forty 2nd order relationships, which are 15 minutes or less a week. And post pandemic that number looks like seven close relationships and 15 second order relationships. And so that’s the compression that happens when you do remote the way that we’re doing it. And it seems to be like we may have that loss of serendipity that you were talking about as a permanent face of work. And it’s gonna be really interesting to see how we figure out how to replace that.

Laura Baldwin 12:09
I agree. And I think technology will play a role in that. There are people that are working right now on the fringe of technology that are trying to figure that out. And to build those tools, I think they’re coming, I really do think they’re coming.

John Sumser 12:22
I think they might come. But it’s not clear to me that, you know, one of the interesting things about small startups is that they don’t know anything about big companies. And so when you get to the place where you’ve got a lot of people working on stuff, and it’s project oriented, the thing that’s missing right now is the connecting tissue that allows you to move people from project to project. And while it might have been an interesting theoretical idea that you could do that in the past, even the great big giant consulting firms who have this problem in space, haven’t been able to figure it out in the past. And so the idea that there’s a technical solution, I think, requires a whole lot of behavioral change on the parts of people to make it work. And that’s where technical stuff gets challenging when people actually have to do something different to use it.

Laura Baldwin 13:16
Right because technology to be used correctly has to be sort of productized and, and put into process within companies. And that takes management, leadership, and people really thinking about how this is going to work for us. I think that slack is a really good example of this, right? This concept of self organizing teams. And when you think back 20 years ago, the concept of agile work, right? Agile work teams in it started out in in IT that has moved beyond that into sort of these agile teams that come together and work together and slack enabled that. These small teams to come together on an ad hoc basis is on projects and things. And if you’re doing your job, you’re making sure that people know what those opportunities are within your organization. I think that’s really important that you have to rely on your managers, but it’s your job to promote from within to think about your talent to make sure they know what the opportunities are, whether you’re working remotely or in the office. It’s the same principles that apply, how you communicate it might change. But it’s still important to think that way.

John Sumser 14:27
I wonder, the model that you propose has a very definite role for a hierarchy that knows what the work is in it. And I’m not so sure that that’s how things actually happen. That the hierarchy decides what the work is, then the work gets done. I think that most companies are actually more about emergent processes than that. And that’s the hard thing to coordinate. Is you can’t…

Laura Baldwin 14:54
Well, can I give you an example?

John Sumser 14:57

Laura Baldwin 14:58
So we’re actually going through this right now. We are going through a massive re- architecture of our IT systems. And we put together what we call Seven Lanes. And they are cross functional teams working together to help set new direction, new strategies that we’re going to be able to make possible on the O’Reilly learning platform. And just so you know, that platform serves about 5,000 enterprise customers, 66% of the Fortune 100 are customers of ours, we’ve got very large organizations with you know, 100,000 seat licenses to have access to what we do. But we have this process going on where these cross functional teams have come together to help set that strategy to help, we’re going to have all these new things enabled for us as part of our re-architecture. So we wanted to bring a lot of people into that exercise, we do not believe it’s top down. We believe that it happens through these cross functional teams. And we’re in the middle of this process right now. And yesterday, our VP of product said, what’s being created is this rich tapestry of possibilities, not because the president or the VP of product is saying it’s so but because these teams are doing their homework and their research using tools like slack to communicate and video calls to communicate. But they are delivering as a cross functional team, not top down hierarchy. And we’re really proud of that. So I think management’s role is to enable that. And when I talk about the processes that technology can enable, management’s role is to make sure that works. But allowing that cross functional work, allowing people to be part of strategy, that really develops you as a company, it develops that strength of you know, we, they call it the bench, they used to call it the bench years ago, or talent that will help move your company forward.

John Sumser 16:44
That’s awesome. So you reminded me that we haven’t really talked about the O’Reilly learning platform, and that is, you know, we’d have a generic conversation about what O’Reilly is but in practice, O’Reilly is the technical information, heartbeat of a lot of IT departments and has been for years now spreading out beyond IT, because all jobs are fundamentally technical now, and it’d be good if you would give this audience a view of what can happen with the O’Reilly platform. And what is it that all of these people who are your customers get.

Laura Baldwin 17:20
Well, we’re incredibly proud of the platform that we have built over the past years. We started it as a digital library, basically, 20 years ago, where in partnership with Pearson, who also does a great job of putting together technical materials, we brought all of our books to market as a resource for IT departments. So they didn’t have to buy each individual book, they could buy a license to the rights, that was well before ebooks were really becoming the way people read. And so the platform has evolved over the years. And in the last four years, it’s gone through a massive transformation to become a true learning platform. So all of the books that O’Reilly produces are there. All of the conferences, we used to have a large in person conference division, all the talks and sessions from those conferences are there. There are case studies in the platform that you can watch for major companies like Microsoft and slack and even some of those startups you mentioned. So that you can see how other people are advancing their companies with technology. There is a whole interactive component,

O’Reilly believes in something we call learn to do, we are not big believers in watch a 40-hour video, and you will be able to do something, we believe you have to actually work it so we purchased a company last year called Katacoda. And it’s an interactive coding environment that allows people to test their skills as they’re working in sandboxes. There are Jupiter notebooks, and what we call Katacoda enabled scenarios that help people learn technology, not just watch a video about technology and have to step away and figure it out, but do it themselves. And then there’s a large component of the platform that is live online training. We moved to that in 2016. So we put a limit on the number of people who can attend. We do about, I think this year 700,000, people will have taken O’Reilly classes on the O’Reilly online learning platform. And they range from technology, to things like how to deal with diversity in your organization. And we’re quite proud of that live online training series. And now what we’ve done is we’ve taken our in person conference division, and we’ve turned it into a digital conference division inside the platform so that all of our subscribers have access to how O’Reilly is thinking to that Radar that I talked to you about earlier. And we brought those digital events into the platform for free for all of our customers. There’s about two and a half million unique users on the O’Reilly learning platform today.

John Sumser 19:45
That’s amazing. And I imagine you’re growing pretty well as well because you know how to do this and everybody else is learning and trying to catch up with you.

Laura Baldwin 19:55
We are and we’re really trying to think ahead. You know, we just launched a new feature inside of the platform called answers. And it’s based on natural language processing engine that runs across all of our technical content. So for a sales team, for example, somebody can now key in, what is DevOps? Or, what is AI? and get the answer to that without having to comb through a 200 page or a 400 page book, the answer comes right up for you been one of our fastest growing features, and people really love it because it can be used beyond a tech department. You know, the thing that you mentioned earlier, every job is a tech job today, I mean, who thought marketing job descriptions were going to call for HTML and CSS eight years ago. So every job is technical. And every job needs data literacy. Every job today in today’s digital world needs data literacy. And so being able to provide an answers database, a way for people to get a quick answer while they’re working in their flow of work is critical to how we think about the the needs of learners going forward.

John Sumser 20:57
So this is such a great conversation, we’re going to run out of time, and I’m sorry about that.

Laura Baldwin 21:02
That’s OK!

John Sumser 21:02
Yeah, the question that I want to get to is about events, do you imagine that you’re going to have physical events in the future?

Laura Baldwin 21:12
You know, I don’t know the answer to that question. You know, everything depends on what happens, obviously, with this horrible virus. But I see what’s happening digitally. And I see that people, what we’ve done is we’ve broken down our events, you know, you used to have to go to an event and you were out of the office for literally a whole week between travel and three or four days of events. And now an event we used to put on in four days, we put on once a month for three or four hours at a time, and people are flocking to them. Because you don’t need to be out of the office for that week anymore. And that was one of our biggest complaints, by the way from the attendees at conferences was it’s so hard to be out of the office for a week. So we think that there is a huge group of people that are going to continue learning the way you used to go to a conference to learn, but they’re going to do it in more bite sized chunks over time as part of their job. And we’re seeing that as a major trend in events, as opposed to the people who are putting on these huge, they’re still doing a five day event, who wants to sit in front of their computer for eight hours a day watching a screen? So…

John Sumser 22:14
Not me.

Laura Baldwin 22:16
Yeah, me neither. We’re seeing much more engagement. We’re really and we’re really excited about that. So will there be in person again, you know, my instinct is probably yes. But will O’Reilly walk into that in terms of a business strategy? I’m not sure yet. I think…

John Sumser 22:31
There are so many additional things that we could talk about, but we’re crossing the threshold here. So I’m going to give you a chance to tell me what’s the important thing that we didn’t get to and let’s talk about that.

Laura Baldwin 22:44
You know, I think the thing that I personally care about the most and that O’Reilly cares about the most as a takeaway is that learning is an every day event. Learning happens every single day. And I think a lot of companies think about learning as a way that oh, we have our people go away and they go to a training and they come back. We believe learning is on the job. And I think that companies that still have that idea that they train their people, because they put them in a course for one day is not correct. And the speed of technology, the rate of change in today’s world in today’s economy is so significant. Your people need a tool that they can use every single day to get the answers they need to help do their job in the moment. And I think that that when I think about O’Reilly and what we care about is that the future of learning is in the flow of work. It is not about stepping away for a week anymore. It is about having the tools you need to do your job. And I feel like that mission, that belief that we have as a company that you know, we’re here to enable people and when you enable people you enable economies. That’s the thing that I want people to take away. Don’t settle for if you’re an HR director, if you’re a head of a learning org, or the head of an IT org, don’t settle for, I give my people a week’s worth of training a year, give them the tools to do it on the job, you will be surprised what they’re able to accomplish for you.

John Sumser 24:13
That’s awesome. It’s been such a treat to talk to you this morning. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. Would you take a moment and reintroduce yourself and tell people how to get hold of you?

Laura Baldwin 24:23
Sure. My name is Laura Baldwin, I’m the president of O’Reilly Media. I can be reached at Laura B at O’Reilly dot com. And happy to talk to anybody who reaches out. You could also reach me through the O’Reilly just google O’Reilly Media and the regular line. And you can get to me if you let them know that you heard this podcast.

John Sumser 24:44
Great. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this Laura. It’s been a great conversation, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with you. So thanks…

Laura Baldwin 24:52
You too John.

John Sumser 24:56
Yes, yes, this is great. Thanks everybody for tuning in. We will see you back here next week. Thanks again, Laura. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. Bye Bye now.

Read previous post:
2020-12-02 HR Examiner article will machines replace people ai intelligent tools stock photo img cc0 by AdobeStock 243869740 sq 200px.jpg
What Do HR Professionals Really Think About Machines Replacing People (and how are they evaluating new HR Technologies)?

We surveyed 542 HR executives and subject matter experts to find out what they really think about machines replacing people...