Interview: JAMF CEO talks coding at school and three tips for success

As a self-taught coder, multiple patent-owner and former IBM leader, JAMF Software's new CEO Dean Hager is certainly one of the more interesting characters in the technology industry.

We recently had the chance to speak with him, covering a range of topics including coding in schools, the importance of company cultures and the most important lessons he has learned in over 25 years of experience in the tech industry.

The full interview can be found below.

To start off with, give us an overview of your background.

I grew up in a farm town of 150 hardworking farmers, truck drivers, and homemakers. I never considered any profession other than truck driving until the age of 16, when an Apple computer was delivered to our classroom. I taught myself to program in AppleSoft BASIC and it changed everything about my future. As a result, I was the first person in my family to attend college, where I studied Computer Science and Mathematics.

My college years helped fuel my passion for coding and led me to opportunities in writing code for the university, 3M Corporation and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Soon after college, I accepted a position with IBM as an operating systems programmer, where I was awarded four US Patents. It was at IBM that I began to turn my attention to management roles and responsibilities – I completed a Masters degree in leadership and learnt more about the dynamics of a team.

After a decade with IBM, I accepted my first executive position with an ERP software company, Lawson Software. During my 14 years of employment at this company, I served in many executive capacities and helped lead Lawson through an IPO and more than a dozen acquisitions. The company grew from $250m in revenue to over $800m and eventually sold to Infor Global for approximately $2bn. After the acquisition, I felt it was time to leave and join another technology firm, Kroll Ontrack, as their President and CEO.

I grew very fond of the people I worked with at Kroll Ontrack and my time there was rewarding. However, after few years, on my 25th career anniversary from the time I started with IBM, I resigned my position to take a sabbatical and consider what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. I took a year and invested in personal passions, most importantly being my wife of 25 years and three daughters. It was during this time that I was presented the opportunity to work with JAMF Software. Speaking to the team over a period of time, it became clear that JAMF Software was exactly what I had been waiting for.

You first started coding whilst still at school, how can we get more people interested in coding from an early age?

Learning to code in high school changed my life. I was given the opportunity because the small farm-town school I had attended offered a programming class back in 1983. To think that in 2015, in most US schools, we still don’t offer a programming class or count a coding class towards graduation credits is absolutely amazing to me. In my school, coding was provided because of one man, Jeff Price, my sports coach. He took it upon himself to learn the subject so he could teach the rest of us. It only takes one teacher per school to get it started.

In order to get more young people interested in programming, coding education needs to start at schools and we need to offer a curriculum that makes it compulsory to graduate. We also have to help teachers and students understand what coding really is about.

Coding is not a typical “science.” It’s like learning a foreign language or reading music – I believe it’s more of an art than a science. In fact, some of the best coders I have known are actual musicians. It could even be easier to learn than either another human language or music. I’ve seen people land fantastic jobs with less than a year of training. Considering everything, it is probably the most attractive career to pursue in the world.

Technology companies are some of the most fun places to work because they are fast moving, exciting, informal, and a bit unusual. The only workplace I have ever seen people ride around on scooters is in a tech firm. If young people are able to have exposure to programming, can over-come their fear, and look behind the curtain of tech companies, I think the growth in high school interest would explode.

What advice would you give to any young coders out there or anyone wanting to get involved in coding for the first time?

Firstly, I would compliment them on their decision as it’s the best career choice I can think of pursuing. Secondly, I would tell them to look for a curriculum in their school. If there isn’t one, I’d tell them to do it on their own. Depending on their age, I would point to one of the plethora of websites that offer exposure to coding. One great site is code.org. Every young person should try it.

After that, I would simply advise them to choose a language – like Objective C or Java, buy a programming book and teach themselves. Although I had access to programming classes, most of what I learned was self-taught. With initiative, young people can truly take control of their own destiny.

How important is a company's working culture in the modern world?

Millennials have changed our expectations at work. In a world where the lines are blurred between personal and professional lives, it is critical to work in a culture which we truly believe in. Millennials have grown up with an ethos that their work should be a piece of something greater- and it has spawned some exciting innovations.

Social media has also become a large cultural influence. From Twitter to LinkedIn, social media tools have given millennials an outlet for their voice in both personal and professional arenas. As a leader, it’s important to create a culture that attracts the new demographic, where a social enterprise can be felt in the work environment.

The great news is that by listening to the “wisdom of the crowd,” leaders can be more in touch with their team members, understand challenges and opportunities more, and make better decisions. I was attracted to JAMF Software largely because I saw this culture already established. It is innovative, passionate and fun – almost a Silicon Valley company made up of people with Midwest values.

What is your biggest regret?

My greatest regret is not become a student of music and language. Professionally, my greatest failures have been the result of pursuing something I was excited about and not listening enough to the wisdom of team members.

What's the most important lesson you've learned in your many years in business?

Too many people feel that leadership is about rising up in an organisation and becoming more powerful. Leadership is not about attaining power. It’s about making others powerful.

Leaders who are self-focused are in the wrong profession. Yes, they are human and have selfish desires just like everyone else. But to be effective, leaders must battle every day to remind themselves that their personal desires should not direct their behaviour. Fundamentally, the job is to help others be successful.

If you could give someone three pointers for success, what would they be?

It depends on what the person is trying to do. On successful leadership, I would tell people to:

  1. Condition their heart to put their own needs aside and focus only on what’s good for the organisation, the team, and customers.
  2. Commit to communication, in both directions – providing transparency and clarity as they communicate, but also providing a mechanism to listen and appreciate the voice of their team
  3. Embrace the unknown. The best advice I ever received was from my mentor at IBM. I had two jobs to choose from and he said, “Take the job where you have the greatest knowledge and chance at success, put it aside and accept the other position. If you always do that, you will never stop growing in your career.”

What technology trend(s) are you most excited about at the moment?

My passions are cloud, social, and mobile. The combination of the three has changed the world. My favourite new device at the moment is the Apple Watch. It has had a bigger impact on me personally than either the iPhone or iPad when they were first launched.

I have noticed that there has been some negative reviews regarding its capability, but I think those reviewers have been taking the wrong approach toward the product. They want it to be a phone and complain about its shortcomings. Rather, they should accept that it’s a watch and discover its potential. For me, I had a broken process in my life. I was missing too many calls and texts when my phone was in my pocket, my backpack, or out of reach.

The Apple Watch solved that. Immediately, I was a satisfied customer. Then, leveraging capabilities like fitness, reminders, and other notifications was icing on the cake. It is a wonderful product for monitoring events with tremendous applicability in personal lives and professional use-cases in many industries.

What are you most excited about seeing in the future?

To see the consumerisation of IT continue, where employees demand their experience at work match their technical experience at home. Plus, I want to see how the young millennial movement changes us all in the coming decades.