Chris Ciapala: People Before Technology - American Society of Employers - Mary E. Corrado & Heather Nezich

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Chris Ciapala: People Before Technology

Chris Ciapala is the founder and CEO of Attendance on Demand, a cloud-based solution that fully automates employee time and labor tracking and scheduling.  ASE recently spoke with Chris to learn more about his career path, Attendance on Demand, the role of HR and how technology affects it.

Chris Ciapala

Tell us about your career and how you got to this point
I’ve been in the software development business now for 30 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to build a number of applications all pertaining to workforce management.  But building the application is only the first part; you then need to build a company to sell, service, and support the application. In my early days we were working with electromechanical time clocks.  Then that became PC-based systems, and then eventually the PC-based system became cloud based.  My career is about time management, employee scheduling, and getting employees paid properly.

Have you had any setbacks in your career?
I don’t think I’ve had any real setbacks.  In my mind if you’ve learned from your mistake, that’s not a setback.  If you haven’t learned, then it is.

Did you know when you were a child that you wanted your own company?
My mom would tell you that I always had a knack for taking things apart.  They always went back together again, but they didn’t always work when put back together. I was fascinated by electronics. I took night classes at Brooklyn Polytechnic University and had built my own PC at home.  I was very proud of it and asked the instructor if he minded if I handed in my homework on the computer I made at home. I remember his response so clearly. He said, “It’s just a toy kid, the future is in mainframes.” And that was the last class I went to. It didn’t make any sense to me.  Every house could have a computer!

When was Attendance on Demand formed?
In 2006 we signed our very first client which was a company here in the metro area. Today we have over 10,000 client organizations in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

What exactly does Attendance on Demand do?
Workforce management, labor scheduling, employee engagement.  Getting the right people to the right place at the right time.  We are quite prominent in select healthcare industries like Long Term Care and Skilled Nursing facilities.  Our systems help management deal with the logistics of determining your optimum schedule, engaging with employees to fill those schedules, and dealing with the inevitable changes when life gets in the way.  Our systems automate a very complex process while helping employees manage their work/life balance.

Your office environment is very innovative.  Can you explain what your concept was when you bought this building and how you built it out?
When we bought this building the first thing we did was gut it in order to build it out. We quickly realized how expensive everything is. One of my goals was affordability.  Being a software company, I also wanted to have a little bit of that “google funk” going on. Google, Microsoft, and Apple, all have very cool offices, but they spend a lot of money to do so.  The question I asked myself was could we be cool at a normal price? And I didn’t want to forget Detroit.  I wanted that angle of Detroit that is industrial, metals, hard surfaces, mechanical, labor, and blue collar.  We are proud of being from Detroit.

You did some of the workstations yourself?
Yes. This is where the financial part comes into play.  In doing our research we found that many of the things we wanted were simply way too expensive to acquire. We determined that we could afford a few things if we built them ourselves. So we designed it – we are all a bunch of engineers after all. We purchased the components, built prototypes, and eventually ended up with something that worked.  I’m happy to say that as of today, we’ve been granted design patents on our desks.

What has been the secret to success for AOD in terms of the growth?
I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.  The key is innovation and having the right people. You have to create something that’s never existed before, and that’s a difficult thing to do.  I’ve been lucky to surround myself with really good people.  That’s the key.

You’ve done a lot of training for your employees.  Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Absolutely. A significant spend for our organization is upskilling our talent.  I want to give people the best opportunity possible for them to grow so that when a new job opportunity presents itself, I can fill it with somebody in house.  This benefits the organization several ways. First, they are already people that work within the culture, and second, they have a lot of tribal knowledge about how things are done.  Training and upskilling is a worthwhile expense if those people are able to fill positions necessary to build new product lines or enter new markets. 

Is it difficult for you to recruit new workers?
Its always been difficult because of the industry we are in.  It is exceptionally rare that you will find somebody who’s in the same industry and has done comparable work.  We seek talent with technology and people skills.  We have a small training department, and they are responsible for that person’s career path and training as it relates to product and industry. Secondly, we use the innovative workspace as a recruitment tool. I’m competing with other big names – Microsoft and others.  I have to persuade people that this is a place where you want to be.

What do you think the runway is in terms of an HR department having to embrace technology?
They have to do it right away. If you look at the characteristics of the workforce, it’s getting younger.  The new entrants into the workforce are very digitally savvy, and your brand is affected if you don’t have many of the digital tools now available.  For example, force a millennial to type in a spreadsheet or fill out a piece of paper and you’ve diminished your brand significantly.

What are your thoughts on the future of work as it relates to HR and technology?
It’s overwhelming the technology that has entered the HR space in the last five years or so. In fact, you won’t be able to manage an HR department without technology in the future.  You can’t exist as an HR department without the tools now available for engagement, onboarding, etc.  A CHRO must see the people side and the technology side and understand the proper application of people, process, and technology – a very difficult thing to do.

The future of work is going to be completely different.  U.S. Labor law is still designed for the model of walking into a factory, hearing a whistle blow, and punching into a time clock. The current laws are based on the theory that you go someplace, do labor for a while, and then go home. Many times, that is still the case.  But often it isn’t.  Look at our work today…when you answer an email at home did you punch in for the 1.5 minutes you worked on that email – of course not. There is an interlacing of work and personal time that U.S. law doesn’t even take into consideration in my opinion.  The new nature of work is that people oscillate throughout the day between work activity and personal activity. That requires a level of trust that has never existed before in the relationship between employer and employee. The concept of going someplace and working for large blocks of time is simply not going to exist anymore. How do we manage that?  How do we build trust? How do I know that the employee is going to do what he’s supposed to do, and how do I measure that? Those are the challenges for the next generation.

What advice do you have for smaller companies with less than 100 employees regarding technology?
You must decide early who owns your technology. Somebody in your organization must be responsible for the day to day management, maintenance, and sometimes configuration of the technology.  That person becomes a very important subject matter expert. If you don’t have that, you will have to rely on consultants, outside advisors, and the price tag goes through the roof.  For a small company, you must bring in that expertise, learn it yourself, or designate people who are responsible for technology. If you’re going to rely on outside consultants the price will be very high, and it’s going to put you at a competitive disadvantage.

What advice would you give our HR readers?
My advice to any HR administrator or person of authority is to try to understand people first and then wrap technology and processes around the people. When you build a process, you get to design the process and then watch it run. You don’t get to design people. Design your systems to make your people more effective.  I often see companies with a strategy or desire to reach a certain goal and then they try to drive the people towards that goal or destination. There is nothing wrong with that, but you have to understand how each person gets to that destination.  Each of us are different. We are all alike because we are all different. 

What haven’t we asked you that we should have?
I would add that the HR executive plays a strategic role in setting the direction of the organization that they work for.  It will require an army to go accomplish the goals that are established. That army comes from your HR practices of recruitment, discipline, and maintaining the culture. If the HR executive is not involved in strategic planning, I believe that’s a big mistake.

HR and technology continue to become integral to each other.  We thank Chris for taking the time to talk with us and reminding us that even as technology evolves, we must always put people first.


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