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Spotlight Series: Duena Blomstrom, CEO, PeopleNotTech

Duena Blomstrom

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Duena Blomstrom, CEO of PeopleNotTech, and author of Tech-Led Culture, shares insights into her tech journey and the essence of her impactful book. Discover the concept of Human Debt, its impacts, and the urgent need for people-centric tech cultures in her latest interview. Explore her perspective on Neurodiversity and the power of emotional intelligence in leadership.

Duena Blomstrom is an international keynote speaker, technology and culture expert, social entrepreneur CEO of PeopleNotTech, and author of Tech-Led Culture: Unlock the Full Potential of Your Business and People

Learn more about Duena’s work and her book at www.techledculture.com 

What was the journey to your current role? Was it planned?

My journey was anything but planned I used to dread this question not long ago because I would have to explain how I have moved through various industries through various roles. I have been an intrapreneur, an “outterpreneur” (sic), an entrepreneur, all kinds of “preneurs”. 

I oscillated between learning everything there was to learn about psychology, finance, technology, and agile, and settled on organisations and humans. 

When I arrived at organisations and humans, it wasn’t intentional, no, but it was essential and impossible to ignore as of a few years ago when my career took this accidental, reluctant, and sharp turn towards social entrepreneurship. I discovered that it is impossible to simply kit humans in technology with a piece of software and expect them to get on with the task of self-improvement, when that is neither easy nor desirable nor un-taboo for most organisations that have what I call a lot of Human Debt. 

Can you explain what Human Debt is?

As I was saying in my latest book, Tech-Led Culture, Human Debt is what I call the people equivalent to tech debt, which I’m sure everyone reading this knows all too well. Human Debt starts building up whenever organisations (and implicitly leaders) cut corners on people topics that they see as “fluffy” or superfluous. Whenever they don’t do the right thing, they surveil, they micro-manage, they punish, scare, menace, fail to keep promises, command, control, impression manage, etc. 

But that’s not the only way in which Human Debt is created. Each of us can make Human Debt too, at a team level, through our behaviours whenever we don’t open up or we don’t take the opportunity to be courageous, when we don’t stand up to injustice or refuse to emotionally and intellectually engage fully, etc. It all amounts to what the organisation owes us and what we owe ourselves to make us better, more efficient, authentic leaders and professionals at work. This is super important, particularly in today’s world, where technology can only be created when we have as little of this Human Debt as possible because when it is there in spades, organisations tend to be non-generative, and that rapidly transforms into non-performance and eventual extinction.

What are the key roles in your field of work, and why did you choose your current expertise?

I couldn’t answer a question asking me, “Why did you choose it?” because I didn’t. I didn’t choose it. The expertise chose me. I am neurodivergent, and because I’m neurodivergent, I’m one of those people who hyper-fixates on a topic and consumes everything there is to know about it. 

Furthermore, it also means I have an obstinate sense of justice that won’t let me unsee a wrong once I have seen it, so I must get some help and then go find ways to right it ASAP!

Lastly, I am at a stage in my career where I am firmly committed to authenticity as a leader, so I am not wasting time self-censoring opinions or language. 

This makes me loud, uncomfortable to some and frankly potentially obnoxious in my willingness to insist on the facts that cause the injustice – in this case – whatever causes any company or team to ignore the mass of Human Debt. 

What IS there to be done by yourselves and others about the Human Debt and what’s this surprising connection to neurodiversity you’re exploring?

There are a few of us Human Debt Fighters engaged in the Sisyphean effort in various parts of the world. Sadly too few.

In this particular topic, humanity and the new (poetically ironic) paradigm of the workplace is both tech-informed – in terms of language, knowledge, expectations of work effort, definitions, contribution, etc – and tech-traumatised by the societal moment. I feel that I have to take it upon myself to forge a path where I’m trying to unite the technology side of things with the human side of things (or the business side of things with the IT side of things), and every other type of schism that I find in these cliques, communities, industries or whatever else we choose to call the very divided tribes and spheres of influence in the technology industry nowadays.

There is no other viable way than through mass societal action to drive big messages these days, is there? We all have to unite under the umbrella of either Fighting or Preventing Human Debt.  We’ve finished debating, trialling, and justifying all the technology, tools and processes in the world – time for “people and interactions” if that still rings a bell! 

To create that, we have to understand that our expertise has to be broad and wide, and the type of expertise that neurodivergent people typically do bring to the table because we have a wider lens. We generally are more able to see helicopter views with different conceptual lenses. In this case, it just means that I see this intersection of technology and culture, and how technology itself will have elevated the culture in the workplace if we do things right from here on. 

Did you (or do you) have a role model in tech or business in general?

I don’t have a tech or business role model. I have hundreds. I meet tech and Human Debt fighters and preventers daily, who are inspirational. They have each done the fight in their own ways. They have understood these ideas behind how important it is to be people-centric in their own way. They have arrived at the correct conclusions from different corners. Some of them have arrived through Agile, some of them have arrived through the magic of product ownership, some of them are building efficient pipes for humans, efficient types for processes, efficient types for technology, some of them are DevOps people, some of them are HR, and some of them are leaders.

All these people can be Human Debt fighters and preventers, and they amaze me. They give me more inspiration and courage every day alongside my fantastic team, incredible husband, superhuman kids and ex, and everyone I’m surrounded with. I find models of inspiration and gratitude in my kiddos, in my super neurodivergent and incredibly adaptable 12-year-old, in my super emotionally intelligent techie-come-leader husband, and in my team of technologists and team dynamics devs and enthusiasts at TechLedCulture and PeopleNotTech.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

Of having coined, researched and worked relentlessly to sink Human Debt through Human Work at an individual and team level in the workplace for high performance. This is going to last well after me. 

I hope that it’s not the case and that during my lifetime, we will have found all of the pockets and corners of Human Debt and eradicated it from every enterprise. But if I’m going to be honest, that’s very unlikely. I am too old to be that hopeful. So if people will remain with the idea of Human Debt and with the simple fact that to diminish it, we have to do regular human work at an individual, team, and organisational level, I would feel as if I have left a lasting legacy in technology and the world of work.

What does an average workday look like for you?

I took a long time to consider this because I don’t know that we should strive for an average workday anymore. I say that with a heavy heart because I’m autistic, and the idea of structure, clarity, and routine is incredibly appealing. Still, in this day and age where we are called to be digital creators and brands while we still have to be extreme experts on various topics, there needs to be more time to be flexible about our routine and afford to have no structure. So what I would advise is that we take our work-lives with a lens of more flexibility and instead of having exact schedules and a lot of the comfort that comes with that, let’s get more acquainted with our individual and team needs and advocate towards the organisation (and ourselves) that these needs are met so that we can be in flow and at our highest performing authentic selves. 

“Let’s be sure we have WFAA first and foremost.”, as I say in my latest book, Tech-Led Culture. The answer must be “Work from Anywhere Anytime”, aka Full Flexibility, as long as there’s team agreement and outcome consistency. Let’s get cosy inside that. Understand our cycles of productivity, or whether we need a colleague to body double us the same way we’d pair-program, or how being on camera is a pain for some of us and so much more that is still nebulous for leadership and researchers alike for now, and it needs to come into the light in this age of AI-competition.

Is there something that we could do to move towards the cultures you describe? Any practical advice?

Yes! Question everything and build the kind of work environment that gives you at least a “wow” moment a week.

Let’s build work environments where all that can be accounted for so we belong and thrive. Let’s get personal schedules in. Let’s get routines that feed our soul, routines that make us go at a rhythm and pace that’s more beneficial to us, practices that encourage flow, and habits that make us our most creative. If we can get some of those as firm commitments during the week (irrespective if those are engagements with yourself and with your team) that you can keep firmly to, and if you have those anchored during your week, it won’t matter if you have a schedule for every day or not, you will still feel grounded and valuable.

We live by that at Tech Led Culture. We are fully remote, flexible and non-time-based, periodically evaluating if this still serves us in the companies I lead. It has done so far. That allows maximum flexibility for both myself and all of the other team members and keeps us all doing our best work. 

Are there any specific skills or traits that you notice companies look for when you’re searching for roles in your field?

“Agreeableness” so they can pay you less. No, just kidding. Unfortunately, no companies genuinely ‘look for’ anything anymore in my opinion; I’m not sure the talent industry even exists beyond search words and AI these days. I’m afraid, as a counter-reaction, so many employers return to word-of-mouth and buddies systems when hiring, which famously deprioritise women. On the bright side, I am starting to see more respect being given to the idea that each employee is a unique individual and effectively a professional brand, so I would advise anyone, irrespective of gender, to firstly work on their own professional development by increasing their skills. Standard advice, right? Wrong; I suggest they urgently start with the skills least talked about or trained – the so-called “soft skills”. In reality, we all know these are the hardest-to-grasp skills of them all, and they are also, incidentally, the same skills that will keep us competitive as a species in the age of technology that needs to be based on collaboration and AI. 

Has anyone ever tried to stop you from learning and developing professionally, or have you found the tech sector supportive?

No one supports anyone else nowadays, not beyond empty rhetoric, let’s be honest. It’s different from what you want to hear because there’s this myth that the tech arena is so much more open to learning and offering open advice, information, and resources. All of this is true. But there is a place where openness without curation or appetite for action is toxic. I feel like the technical arena is arriving at that point now, where there’s less appetite for true collaboration than ever before.

This is, of course, due to the severe burnout we are all suffering from in different degrees in the technology field, where we have had to ingest more information and withstand more change than many other fields and because of how much cape-fatigue some of even the bravest of Human (AndTech) Debt Fighters and Preventers have after years of having to witness Human Debt.

Have you ever faced insecurities and anxieties during your career, and how did you overcome them?

Every day. Whoever says they haven’t is lying, and whoever expects them to ever ‘end’ is fooling themselves. Understand and accept that some degree of struggle will always exist, no less because it forms our drive to learn, succeed and interact with others, and then try to craft the life and work that give you the least possible amount of struggle and the maximum possible amount of satisfaction while being grateful for everything along the way. I know that is eye-roll and cringe material, but it doesn’t make it untrue. 

I am one of the few leaders willing to admit I am neurodivergent. I have AuADHD, which means that I’m both autistic and I have ADHD, which comes with a lot of challenges from the point of view of waves and pangs of anxiety, uncertainty, insecurity and rejection dysphoria syndrome, which can get triggered and disallow you from having as clear of a perspective as you would like. So it presents the challenge of me having to spend a lot of time self-regulating and learning how to understand and manage my emotions, which is one of the things that gave me a distinct advantage in teaching others how they can do that themselves, too.

Entering the world of work can be daunting. Do you have any words of advice for anyone feeling overwhelmed?

Yes, be prepared for a lot more work and learning than captured in the job description, it will feel like drowning. Start on the Human Work for your own self, the much-needed self-care techniques early. Be kind to yourself and accept that you might need a lot more grace than you would generally give yourself because, yes, the world of work is daunting and will be difficult for a long while – particularly nowadays in this climate of extreme unclarity around RTO and hybrid, etc. Still, the best thing you can do is to forget trying to become a hyper-specialist and instead become a hypo-specialist in many things. In other words, diversify and become an empathic generalist rather than an emotionally closed-off specialist. We have AI if we need the latter.

And then, more importantly, focus on emotional intelligence (EQ) and your exclusively human traits and strive to become your most authentic self. Keep yourself intensely human, keep yourself to the task of doing the human work regularly as an individual and always advocate for doing it on a team basis in a group. As long as you remain a Human Debt fighter and preventer at every step of your career, you will know that you’re doing the right thing and remain competitive in this age of AI.

What advice would you give other women wanting to reach their career goals in technology?

If I’m to be both politically incorrect and honest, I’ll tell you that my first advice is to forget that you are a woman. It’s not helpful to think of the divide in technology – we can accomplish so much more if we remain firm on meritocracy and include the need for human work and EQ for all.

It sounds potentially patronising and like I’m not throwing the ladder down, but I don’t think it is. It is my most honest piece of advice. In my career, I have had many reasons to consider myself someone who is not able, or not as capable as others, or has disabilities, or has things holding them back, or has limitations. I am a minority from many points of view. I’m neurodivergent, I’m a woman, I’m an immigrant. I am working in technology and have worked in business and financial technology for most of my professional life.

I am a citizen of the world who was born in a communist country. I have had many things come against me and a lot of trauma throughout my life. But instead of focusing on any of these, I have chosen to focus on the relentless gratitude of how much more equal of a playing-field technology is and on the relentless realisation that if I just keep learning, and keep believing, and keep being passionate about the things that I have learned and believe in, then the technology field will eventually acquiesce to the fact that I am a good person. I am well-intentioned, well-read, and passionate enough to make a change. And I believe everyone else can forget their limitations and just forge ahead by focusing on what they are grateful for.

What advice do you have for leaders and digital creators?

I have the same advice for digital creators that I have for leaders. Everyone must become a digital creator. Digital creation is how we shall communicate with each other in the future.

I envision a society where everyone is an accomplished digital creator, and we express ourselves creatively through the digital medium. At the same time, we expect each other’s involvement in our respective digital lives trials to be driven by genuine human interest and appreciation. This becomes how we share information and relate with our bosses, our teams, those under us, those over us, peers we learn from, and those we team up with for every instance of life and work. And so, digital creation becomes more and more critical. I suggest enjoying it and doing it consistently.

The same advice I have for leaders. You have to find a way to be authentic. You haven’t done so. You have been afraid, and this idea of being professional has corseted you. You have to find a way to shed that and reach deep inside yourself to learn emotional intelligence. To learn how to read your own emotions and the emotions of others, and to learn how to lead in an authentic and honest way where you just genuinely show your heart, your intentions and your accomplishments, but also your mistakes and your faux pas to your team so you create magic together.

Lastly, leaders, you have to audit yourselves. Are you a modern leader that’s capable of being adaptable, servant-like and ready to be forceful and clear when it comes to vision but super flexible, kind and empathic when it comes to people? If you’re not that, then find ways to become it fast because if you won’t, you won’t remain a leader in this new world of work where people demand respect and to be seen as valuable humans and not just resources.

Can you speak about your relationship with Neurodiversity?

As I said before, I am a late-diagnosed adult who is AuADHD, and not knowing I was on the spectrum has meant a lifetime of feeling like I am battling a Sisyphus-sized windmill. When I understood I was neurodiverse, I embraced the fact that I have a different way of expressing myself, a different way of executing ideas, and another way of working. I have understood that the only way to increase my performance is to apply this knowledge about my needs, boundaries, and preferences to what makes me most productive and how I can achieve flow with both myself and my various teams in these multiple projects. This speeds me up.

Everyone should attempt to discover what neurodivergent people do to become successful leaders in the workplace and then try to emulate some of those techniques because they are magically efficient. I have started a pod called “NeuroSpicy at Work” and intend to dedicate much more time to raising the profile of authentic autistic leaders in the technology sector in 2024.

What is it like working with your husband, Dave Ballantyne? Tell us more about the podcast with him and your idea behind the Tech Led Culture movement.

Some days, we adore our work, other days, we long for an HR to vent to. Nonetheless, we’re united in our mission to make impactful changes.

My book and the Tech-Led Culture movement address the pervasive issue we’ve labelled “Human Debt”, which affects both our teams and profitability. In this technology-driven era, the irony lies in the fact that true innovation can’t exist without human connection. Many of us, from diverse professional perspectives, witness this human debt. We recognise the urgency to shift enterprises to become more people-centric.

We’re uniting those who grasp the essence of a tech-led culture. We’re launching brands, sharing ideas, and hosting podcast discussions. There’s “The Secret Society for Human Work Advocates and Human Death Fighters and Preventers” – a comprehensive title, and my favourite, “People and Tech” Podcast which I co-host with my tech-savvy, Human Debt-fighting husband. We are a little bit of comedy, a little bit newlyweds, a little bit of banter, a little bit of disagreeing or not seeing things from the same perspective and burning for ideas around Agile, DevOps, Architecture and Culture. Our episodes blend extreme realness, comedy, insights, and a dash of sobering experience to talk about the state of the world of tech, discussing everything from the Tech Led Culture book to current tech events like the McKinseyGate. Our aim? To spark dialogue on human dynamics in today’s tech realm. We invite you to engage with us as a listener, supporter, or critic. Dive into the book and connect with us across digital platforms. Join our mission to sink Human Debt and make tech-led cultures we can all thrive in!

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