According to John Dionne, vice president of technology at IT solutions provider Vology, technology executives who want to be part of thriving businesses need to be inquisitive. Throughout his life, Dionne credits a series of teachers, from high school through workplace mentors, as helping guide the way to the leadership position he currently holds. And, fittingly, he has continued upon that path to fulfill that same role for others, providing mentorship for students and younger Vology employees alike.
What was your inspiration for getting into science and technology? Was there a single lesson that stuck out most for you or something that you’ve taken away since as important?
John Dionne: The original inspiration came from my high school physics teacher, Frank Shapleigh, who organized the science fair teams. At first, it sounded nerdy to me, and I didn’t end up participating until my senior year. I didn’t consider myself a science fair guy; I played hockey, I fished and hunted. But one day, Mr. Shapleigh said, “I think you’d get something out of this if you signed up.” So I looked at the board of ideas, and one of the projects was to write a computer program that could interpret magnetic sensor readings. The experiment sounded bizarre, yet really cool. I had no idea how to do it, but I bet myself that I could figure it out. He challenged us, brought us out of our comfort zones, and encouraged us to step outside of the box and learn something alien to us. He encouraged us, gave us manuals and exercises, and coached us. To this day, I’m still inquisitive like that. Mr. Shapleigh went on to be instrumental in deploying The Lighthouse Project and STEMNet, a series of computer networks created in the early 1990s that joined schools in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Your first job out of college was as a developer at Professional Consulting Services (PCS). What was it like entering the workforce with that new perspective and applying this new passion in the workplace?
Dionne: It was quite an eye-opening experience. I went from being in college one week to working on the thirty-eighth floor of a building downtown in Chicago the next. One of the co-founders of PCS, Sandeep Mehta, he was a mentor, teacher, big brother, and my first real boss. Mr. Mehta is, along with Mr. Shapleigh, on my list of the top five smartest people I have ever met. He was one of those guys that would let you fall, understanding that it would teach you a valuable lesson, making sure that you were self-aware and could learn from those mistakes.
A few years after PCS, you moved to Florida and wound up working with Ideal Consulting. What was that transition like?
Dionne: Ideal Consulting was a fast-growing company, really fun, and there was a lot of emerging technology for me to learn. I was also teaching classes to our customers on this new technology, so I had to practice, research, and keep ahead of the students. I have been extremely fortunate with the companies that I’ve worked for since day one. I’ve worked for great companies that strive to do right by the customer and their employees.
Teaching those classes must have felt like a real fulfillment of what inspired you to get to where you were in the first place, but also led smoothly into a leadership role at Vology.
Dionne: Absolutely. I was originally hired at Vology to be a senior developer because the company had a custom system that they needed help with. Less than nine months after that, the director of software development position became available and I was offered the job. I’m a servant leader first, and consider myself to have a very democratic style. I like consensus, but not for consensus’s sake. Contributing to my success is the fact that when everyone on my team buys into the task at hand, they feel connected. Having said that, it is impossible to agree all the time, so when there’s a hard decision that needs to be made, I’m not hesitant to make that call.
After several years in the director role, I was working with the COO and told him I wanted to eventually grow into a C-level role with Vology. Together, we built a development plan. We presented to the executive team more frequently, we hired an outside executive coach to develop a plan for me, and I took it all as another challenge to stop being seen as just the head geek and the code guy and start being regarded as a strategic thinker and visionary—the person who is going to deploy innovative technology, enabling Vology to attain our company growth goals.
Last year Vology acquired VITAL Networks. How has that changed your responsibilities? It must be a much larger scope for the organization. Has that been very difficult?
Dionne: I wouldn’t say difficult so much as challenging. It’s definitely broadened the scope of my responsibilities because we have a whole new set of users, a new infrastructure, and new processes and applications that we have to maintain. For compliance reasons, we cannot simply combine certain parts of the business; this requires my team and I to think about how and when to combine certain pieces of systems to avoid administrative headaches, to scale and refine processes for two separate, yet combined companies. We have to treat the infrastructure as servicing two companies that can be merged easily when the time comes. We’ve succeeded in that.
You sit on the board of advisors for the college of business at the University of South Florida (USF), and you work frequently with St. Petersburg College, in addition to mentoring young professionals at Vology. Do you enjoy being involved with inspiring the next wave of tech professionals?
Dionne: At MUMA College of Business USF, I collaborate with several professors, helping to judge debate programs, create Vology case studies for students to work on, and speak to both undergraduate and graduate students about technology. It is a privilege and an honor to be a member of the advisory board, and I take the role very seriously and enjoy it immensely. St. Petersburg College has a great capstone course, where the students work in teams and present their final project in a setting similar to Shark Tank, except instead of pitching an idea for us to invest money into, their goal is to convince us that their theory, conclusion, or plan is well thought out, sound, and logical. The rewarding side of this exercise is you get to give them perspective on their thought process as someone who has been in the industry for almost twenty years. You are able to provide feedback and challenge them on points they never imagined because the judges have an abundance of real-world experience. Participating in their final class and giving back to the next generation of technologists is very rewarding.