Tech Council

Several tech executives from Williamson County companies shared lessons learned during the pandemic and their vision of the next steps for the tech industry at a virtual conference this week. 

On Tuesday, The Greater Nashville Technology Council hosted an online IT Summit featuring business leaders from across the region. 

Leaders from companies like Tractor Supply, Brookdale and UDig focused on the way the pandemic has changed the tech industry and how businesses can recruit and retain a more diverse tech workforce. 

In many ways, the tech industry has fared better than other areas of the economy during the pandemic. A tech council survey in April found that most tech companies were losing revenue because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but didn’t expect massive layoffs.  

A follow up survey in May found that many tech companies planned to allow employees to continue working from home after the end of the pandemic. 

Many IT employees for the Brentwood-based senior living company Brookdale have been working from home since the pandemic began. Chief Information Officer Tara Jones said productivity has actually increased since employees started working from home.  

She attributes part of that boost to communication technologies like Slack or Zoom that allow employees to communicate with each other quickly. In some ways that’s fostering new connections that wouldn’t happen in the office.

"More than half of the Brookdale IT team is in Milwaukee, and I'm in Nashville. They've said to me, I see more of you than I would expect if you were flying every other week," Jones said.   

Jones also said many employees felt more motivated during the pandemic because of the critical importance of keeping senior living communities safe. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports that more than 67,000 people have died in U.S. nursing homes so far, more than a quarter of all U.S. coronavirus deaths. Jones said Brookdale’s IT team played an important role in tracking coronavirus test results to make sure Brookdale communities could quickly and accurately track the disease.

"Productivity has been absolutely fantastic, and I'd almost say slightly enhanced because I think people are feeling the passion around what we're trying to deliver,” Jones said.

That pressure to solve problems created by the pandemic and the flood of new technologies to facilitate communication also has a serious downside.  

Jerry Bisaha, senior director of IT at Tractor Supply, said the increased workload, seemingly endless Zoom meetings and the difficulty of working in a house with kids trying to attend school online is leading to burnout for some employees. 

"We need to be thinking about our employees and how do we use technology to help them, because they are going through a tremendous amount of disruption. Not only in their work lives, but also in their personal lives," Bisaha said. 

He’s been trying to figure out how to use automation and artificial intelligence to relieve that burden. For example, he said companies could use automation to help software developers manage their code more easily, and AI could help accountants track down missing transactions with less effort.  

Bisaha also pointed out that pandemic related stresses are not shared equally and are exacerbating some existing problems in tech. A survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that the stress of the pandemic is affecting women more than men, especially at senior levels.  

According to the survey more than 50% of senior-level women reported feeling exhausted, compared to about 40% of senior-level men.   

Meg Chamblee, executive vice president at the software development company UDig’s Franklin office, moderated a session about getting more women involved in the tech industry. Chamblee is also the current president of Women in Technology Tennessee. 

Although the pandemic has changed nearly everything, the panel of female tech leaders said women in the tech industry still face many of the same challenges.

Chamblee said that women occupy about 35% of tech jobs in the Nashville area. That’s better than the national average, but she said there’s still room for improvement.  

“The future needs our perspective,” she said. 

Despite the challenges of maintaining a company culture from afar, many tech executives said they expect the tech workforce to remain largely remote long after the pandemic. That means business leaders will have to get even better at managing remote employees.

Jones said that her strategy at Brookdale is to keep personal connection front and center even though most employees aren’t in the same place. She said maintaining those relationships is critical to building a health culture for a remote team.

"It's important to make sure that you're making time to ask about each other personally. 'How are things going? Did someone just get married? Did they have a child?'," she said. "We model that and expecting that all different levels, that it's important to ask about people."

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