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ATD Accidental Trainer is an ATD podcast, sponsored by Over Drive, featuring bimonthly interviews with industry experts who share stories and tips about how to grow your training career. Hosted by Alexandria Clapp, ATD Accidental Trainer covers trends, strategies, and actionable information for talent development professionals.

Nov 15, 2019

Managing Partner at Float Chad Udell discusses his accidental entrance into the field of learning and development. Talking to Justin Brusino, ATD's learning tech content manager, Chad discusses the importance of keeping your finger on the learning tech pulse. 


Justin: All right, hello everyone, and thank you for joining us. I'm Justin Brusino, content manager for learning technologies at ATD, and we are recording live from the 2019 ATD International Conference And Exposition in Washington DC. So I am joined today by Chad Udell, who is partner at Float. Chad, thanks for joining me today.

Chad: It's good to be here, Justin. Thanks for having me.

Justin: So Chad, we're keeping you pretty busy at the conference. I know you launched a new book, you're speaking, you have a lot going on. But you didn't necessarily start in the learning field, can you talk a little bit about your background and what led you to the talent development, the learning and development field?

Chad: Sure, I guess I'd be almost that stereotypical accidental instructional designer, a very similar story that a lot of folks, I think, in this industry tend to fall into—had another course of study, had another discipline, and then just plunked into here.

I went to school for graphic design, and then taught myself multimedia design, and then gradually, the things that I was building, became a little bit more educational in nature, so it just fell over fully full time into this space.

Justin: Yeah, and what have you-- so I think that we've known each other probably for 10 years now. And I know you've been in the industry a little bit longer than that. What keeps you engaged after all these years?

Chad: Well, it's very easy to become cynical and think, oh, things don't ever change, and things just stay the same, and why would I stay so engaged in this community if it's moving slowly or something like that, but we need to remember that 10 years ago, so much was very, very different, even then. Like smartphones and tablets really hadn't quite happened yet. They were just getting going. Things like AI and adaptive learning.

All the things that are so hot right now were basically just the glimmer in some product designers eye at that point. And so things do change, and things do shift, so being engaged, I do see incremental improvements and incremental changes, and I think that keeps me engaged and energized. And then also seeing the wonderment or the new blood that comes into some of these events in a year to year basis.

What I have to remember that, while I might come to a lot of these conferences and you go to a lot of these conferences, there are many folks here that are experiencing this type of spectacle, this type of thing for the very first time. And so I try to maintain that level of freshness in my approach to coming to these events.

Justin: Yeah, I think that's what's interesting about the industry in that there are always people sort of falling into it, so there's a lot of people experiencing things for the first time. But we'd love for you to talk more about how you see the industry moving or not moving, because I think it is a certain interesting dichotomy, where I think some of the things we're talking about 10 years ago we're still talking about now. But then there are things like adaptive learning that people seem to be talking about a lot. So at one side, certain things that move, but then there are trends that pick up and take fire.

Chad: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, training development or talent development industry, the learning and development professions oftentimes are having to deal with the aftermath of either bad people, processes, tools, technology that might be existing in the workplace. So those types of things I think are the same, and probably always going to be the same. It's difficult to source talent for your organization.

It's difficult to hire, retrain, train, and bring people into the fold and keep them engaged as an employee. So those types of challenges are not really ever going to probably go away. At least not ‘til it's just robots doing all the work and humans no longer have to actually show up their 9 to 5 gig. So those things I think stay say very similar, but the way that we're reaching these learners is definitely being reshaped, right?

Most organizations now have moved to some level of acceptable use policy and can allow mobile communications and social engagements and alternate channels of learning. And I think that there's also a little bit of a tidal wave here, where a lot of people, especially those that are in-the-know, that are progressive, and that are really thinking in a forward thinking manner realize that the source of control for who holds the knowledge in the organizations is also shifting. And so therefore, they need to move to those different corners of the organization in order to stay tapped in.

Justin: Right. Yeah, and just the way-- I think the way work is getting done is changing. And technology has a lot of force on that.

Chad: Yeah, I would say so as well. I mean, I think the-- I joked earlier about the 9 to 5, but I don't know about you, but I don't really have a 9 to 5 anymore. It's like a 9 to 9, and then maybe a little bit of a break, and then have some dinner something else hopefully catch up on some TV or hang out with the family, take the dogs for a walk, but then it's right back to it. And so I think all of those types of things have been dramatically flipped over, especially in the last 10 to 12 years, right?

Justin: So going back to you and your journey in the industry, is there something that, going back, you wish you had known when you started out?

Chad: Yeah, I think that from my background as being a graphic designer and just acknowledging the fact that, to me, good learning design is good information design, which is good graphic design, so it kind of trickles all the way back through there. But I think that if I had maybe approached it from just a slightly different angle and earlier in my career acknowledged that some people hold certain design tenants and approaches for teaching and for learning very personally and to maybe be a little bit more sensitive. To be more welcoming in that. It probably would have saved me a few bumps and bruises earlier on in the career.

Justin: Right. Yeah, it is interesting that it all comes back to good design, right? So your background in graphic design, and now people are talking about user experience design and how we can sort of adopt that in the instructional design and learning space. It's really interesting.

Chad: Yeah, without a doubt. We want our content to be accessible, we want it to be inclusive, we want it to be easy to use, welcoming. All those types of things that make a good interaction between yourself and an e-commerce website or yourself in the streaming box that's hooked up to your you know HBO subscription so that you can watch your favorite movies or Netflix or whatever it might be. You want to emulate and reuse those same sorts of tenants and heuristics in your day-to-day learning technology design explorations as well.

Justin: Yeah, so I look at you as a resource-- as someone that I know is always on the cutting edge of what's out there. I think you're always curious and interested about new Technology, so what is your approach to that in just keeping current with what's out there, whether it's in the learning technology space or just the broader technology space?

Chad: Well, I like to think that I'm a chronic early adopter. I know I use that as a little bit of a joke in some of the intros to my presentations, and I'm just not afraid to try some things out. I buy new gadgets, I try them out with my friends and my family. I try them out at work, and I read a lot.

I'd probably say at least 15% to maybe 20% of my day-to-day just spent researching and keeping current. Reading technology blogs, reading venture capital funding websites, like TechCrunch or Ars Technica, or reading development blogs and software development technique news, and so on and so forth just to stay tapped in. So it is a deliberate and intentional action on my part. It doesn't happen by accident.

Justin: No, absolutely. And I think it's awesome that you-- I mean, you have to build that time intentionally, right? You have to allocate that time in your daily schedule, or it's easy to fall behind. Because like you said, that takes time. Reading and research is a very time consuming process.

Chad: It is. Absolutely. And I don't think if I wasn't tapped in or reading or able to have the cliché thumb on the-- or finger on the…pulse or whatever it is. It would limit my ability to be able to deliver leading edge solutions to my customers and clients. It would limit my ability to hire and source talent for my business as well. It would limit my ability to-- I guess-- ensure some level of sustainability for this entire of endeavor that we're going through-- that we're all going through.

As an accidental trainer Chad U-dell fell into the field of talent development through his graphic design background. He wants to remind other accidental trainers that when you are starting out, be sure you are sensitive to other points of view, especially on other people’s learning methods and perspectives. Being more welcoming can help lead you to success relationships and a career. Keep current by researching and not being afraid to try new things. Change is inevitable so don’t be left with your finger off the pulse!

Justin: So looking back at the industry as a whole, what's something that you would like to see change in the industry?

Chad: I think-- well, I'm obviously biased because I'm a learning technologist, but I think that one of the things that I'd really like to see happen in the talent development, the training learning development industry vertical market is to regain some level of leadership in assessing technologies for the workplace. And this doesn't mean just learning technologies, but actually actively engaging with the rest of the enterprise in technology sourcing and selection.

So why hasn't training being invited to the conversations when you're looking for a new supply chain management system or a new CRM or ERP or order entry system or whatever it might be. Because oftentimes, training is going to have to come in and basically act as the cleanup crew to show somebody how to use these software and tools and processes. And if you're not engaging as the training department or manager or someone that has a distinct and very real interest in making sure that everybody's day to day is easier and better and more productive, if you're not engaging in that sourcing and that procurement process to bring the technologies into your space in the first place, you're taking a backseat and you're ceding control of something that you could have a much more active hand in.

Justin: Yeah, and so your recommendation is for people in the field to really get more involved in those conversations, right?

Chad: Yeah, we want to get invited to those conversations and put in those tables around those meetings earlier in the process. Far earlier in the process than we have. I mean, I think there's way too many people of us could-- there's way too many of us could relate to, it's two months away from launching this brand new order entry system, oh, shoot. We didn't build any training for it.

Well, one. If the order entry system actually needs a tremendous amount of training on it, maybe the order entry system hasn't been designed in a very human centric process in the first hand. But again, why would training be only alerted to this a couple months before the launch, or even worse, two weeks before the launch, build the e-learning, build a screen capture, dump it out, and make somebody watch a 30-minute video in order to do a five-minute process in a software. That's just a darn shame.

Justin: So thinking about preparing people in the industry for the future, what sorts of skills do you think are going to be important in the next five or 10 years?

Chad: There's so many of them that are-- I think-- just on the horizon right now, and a lot of it has to do with the ways that technologies might grow organically inside of the organizations. Not to flog the book too much, but the new title that Gary Woodill and I collaborated on, The Shock of the New, we do talk about a number of technologies in the book, like augmented reality and virtual reality, which is obviously making a ton of waves right now.

Things like enter the internet of things or the internet of everything, if you want to talk about it in all encapsulating view, those are obviously going to be impacting us. Artificial intelligence and machine learning is going to dramatically reshape how things like performance support and performance management work. So I think there's a tremendous amount of potential out there.

It's just going to require-- I think-- a huge amount of acknowledgment that there is flexibility, humility, the ability to move forward and acknowledge that things are going to change, and so therefore, we have to be receptive of that change.

Justin: Yeah. Yeah. Things are just going to change faster and faster, there is no going backwards at this point.

Chad: Correct.

Justin: So to wrap up, we're asking everyone this the same last question, and we'd love for you to tell me about something that you failed at in your career-- or in life-- and what you learned from it and how that changed you.

Chad: Yeah. I can give you a really specific example, and this is-- it's a failure, but I think in that failure, we learned a tremendous amount, which I think helps me look back on it as time well-spent, where it ultimately does become a success when you look through it through the rear view mirror, if you will. So a couple of years ago, our company was engaged and involved in an incubator program that was made available through Google and Lenovo to do some augmented reality applications.

And at that time, we built an application called Cydalion, which was made to assist the visually impaired individuals in society navigate interior spaces, essentially turning the real world objects, the rooms map, if you will, into something less visual and more sound based. So transmitting a sonar of sorts to these individuals. Where we succeeded was the software is actually highly usable. People liked it. People engaged with it.

It worked. That was a big win, right? Obviously, when the software works, that's a win. But there were some things that were I guess a little bit beyond our control that we hadn't really foreseen. So I think where we failed was we assumed that if we built software, made it available, and then it worked, that people would flock to it. There was challenges related to the market size and scale, right?

So when we talk about technology investments, oftentimes, the larger organizations, they want to be talking about userships in the millions and millions and hundreds of millions. There are not as many visually impaired people in order to make a technology buying decision that would have justified the product market fit and the pricing strategy that was necessary in order to make a business like that's sustainable.

And then furthermore, there were also technology challenges. Because it was built on top of some technologies that were made available by a very large organization, we had almost no actual control or influence over the direction and roadmap of those types of technologies that were also out there. So we had internal controls-- not necessarily hubris or anything like that, but maybe a lack of understanding of the constraints of the actual business marketplace.

And then we also had external factors that contributed to our failure, which were, sometimes you just don't have-- you don't get to pilot the ship. You're a passenger on some of these types of technology journeys that we're all going on, and so therefore, you have to acknowledge that, sometimes the rug can get pulled out from underneath you, and you better have some sort of an exit plan or a backup plan.

And what we built was an application and a system and an experiment, if you will, that ultimately, was really, really successful. We did learned quite a bit in the long-term view of it, but at the time, it hurt a lot.

Justin: Yeah, so how did that change the way you looked at future projects and evaluated future projects?


Chad: So the things I think that we've continued to leverage and use from that is understand that we want to have-- when we move into a technology space, that we have some form of an exit plan in place. What happens if this particular technology goes belly up or gets sold out or folds or the VC funding for that runs out or something like that. So how do we get out of it?

And then also, are we building in a way that's incremental enough in nature that if, for any reason, we need to pull out or leave or get out of it or stop building, that we haven't overbuilt or over engineered to the point where we feel like we've invested unwisely.

Right. Yeah, there's no assets that you can pull out of it that are useful still.

Justin: Awesome. Well, Chad, thanks for being with me today. So where can people find you?

Chad: So people can find me at my company's website,, of course. I'm on Twitter. My username is a throwback to my graphic design days. It's VisualRinse. And of course, you can find me at TD.orgs bookstore with the new book, Shock of the New.

Justin: Awesome. Thanks, Chad. Have a good rest the conference.


Additional Resources:

Shock of the New, by Chad Udell and Gary Woodill.

Chad’s LinkedIn page

Chad on Amazon

Learning Tech Topic page at ATD’s website

ATD International Conference & EXPO 2020 in Denver