No doubt, you’ve been hearing from a lot of organizations about how they are dealing with the challenges associated with COVID-19, including us. It seems this is just the beginning of this conversation, as Coronavirus looks to be a long path stretching before us all.

As training leaders, we’re finding ourselves in the epicenter of the agility organizations require to adjust and adapt operations in response to the pandemic. Training operations, in particular, have been deeply impacted as many industries that rely upon in-person training experiences to drive their business and remain compliant.

That’s why we’ve started an audio series: Training & COVID-19: Solutions for the Coronavirus Pandemic. I’m sitting down with learning & development executives from around the world to hear about the training challenges they are facing and how they are innovating to meet these unprecedented needs.

Meet Merav Yuravlivker

Merav Yuravlivker is the CEO & Co-Founder of Data Society®, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that delivers customized data science training and high-impact solutions for elite businesses and organizations. Numerous industry-leading organizations depend upon Merav and her team for support, even in the midst of this global crisis. Our conversation was transparent in identifying practical challenges and solutions for our teams and customers, as well as optimistic in how we’re going to make this all work in a sustainable manner. I hope you enjoy listening.

Before you pop in your earbuds, be sure to subscribe to our blog to stay connected for future episodes. We’ll be publishing additional interviews in the coming days.

All the best to you and your team as you navigate these rapidly changing times.

John Peebles
CEO of Administrate

 

[Listen time: 40 minutes]

Transcription

(0:01) 

John Peebles: Welcome, Merav. We're really excited to have you and talk with you today. Just for some context, we've been hearing from a lot of partners and industry contacts and customers and so on about what they're doing to combat the coronavirus that's kind of broken out globally in the last couple weeks and how it affects training. I think that's something that is important to discuss and understand because, particularly at times like this, training can be really, really useful to help with emerging situations. But it can also be one of those things where it sets the strategy for the company during tough times in the organization when there's a lot of change and just talk through some of the things that we're seeing out there. So, Merav, why don't you introduce yourself and your company and maybe give us some background and kind of what you're seeing today?

Merav Yuravlivker: Sure. Thank you so much, John, for inviting me. My name is Merav Yuravlivker, and I'm the CEO and Co-Founder of Data Society®. We are a data analytics training and consulting company. So, we work strictly on a B2B level with government agencies as well as companies in the private sector. Delivering customized training, anything from teaching people general data science overview all the way to deep learning and everything in between. So, that's who we are today. We have a lot of clients in the federal government, like the Department of State and the Department of Health and Services. We also do work with private companies and some other large institutions. We're based in Washington D.C., which has become one of the epicenters I think of COVID-19 over the past few days. In fact, just today, all public schools in D.C., Maryland Virginia area were closed. So they're going to shut down

(2:00)

for the next week. A lot of our friends, colleagues, co-workers in the government space are being asked to work from home. The only positive is that rush hour for the first time in a long time doesn't exist in D.C., which is a rarity. So we're seeing I think the implications really start to unfold right now and we're going to see what that looks like in the next couple of weeks. I can't say we have been proactive about reaching out to our partners where we're delivering training through the month of April and providing them some more information about our virtual training options to see how we can still continue with the training in the remote environment situation.

John: Yeah. So that's a question that a lot of people are coming up with, right now is, and I'm assuming that you've got some mix of classroom training but also the traditional online methodologies. With your classroom-based training, how are you handling that? Do you feel like you'll continue with the classroom instruction, or does that need to be moved online, or you're taking it on a case-by-case basis right now?

Merav: Right now, all of our trainings that are being delivered in person, which is most of our offerings, are being transitioned to online. So, we are talking, for example, with the Department of State about transitioning our in-person training into live streaming. What we're finding with some of our partners, it's not a simple as switching over, let say, to Zoom or Webex. But there are bigger implications in terms of system's permissions, software access as well as home and internet access. 

(4:00)

We want to make sure, for example, that employees across companies are comfortable potentially logging in on their home computers to take these types of training. So, those are the logistical challenges that we are facing right now to make sure that we can still deliver our product as seamlessly and at the high level of quality that we typically do.

John: Right. So, just even on nuts and bolts issues like making sure everybody's got potentially a webcam, a good mic, headset, that type of thing?

Merav: Exactly and not just that, but we do a lot of training in programming languages so, the good news for us is if we're looking at languages like Python and R, which are the staples of the data science world, those are both open source. So anybody can download them onto their home computers, and it's not as much of an issue. But when we are talking about tools like SQL and Excel, Tableau or Power BI, all of these require licenses as well as potentially some connectivity to internal databases, and we're talking about that, that's when we need to coordinate a lot more with our partners to make sure that students have the appropriate access.

John: Yes, sounds like one of those problems that we've got a great partner actually that does some virtual lab solutions that we've seen some customers started to implement, which is kind of just how you describe. How do you get these complex technical environments set up to the point where they can be accessed virtually if it challenges in the best of times, but if you need to move quickly, it can a further complexity. So, on terms of your team in the business and how you kind of approached things, what are the messages that you're giving to them? Because I guess everyone is probably curious as to how the COVID-19 

(6:00)

 spread across the globe will affect business, and sales and markets are doing wild things. What are some of the things that we even talking about with your team on how to approach that?

Merav: Yes, that's a good question. Even though everybody on our teams can work remotely and we do have a few different offices across the country, we really value everyone being in the same space. We found that it leads to a lot of innovation, communication. So right now, we are figuring out, aside from keeping Slack on, for example, what are some other ways that we can still encourage that level of communication even when everyone is working remotely. We aren't panicking. The message that we sent out is this is the advice we are given from the experts is to just socially isolate now to try to stem the growth and the spread of COVID. We are fortunate in that training can be delivered virtually, and a lot of our partners are open and willing to transition to that. If this does spark off even a mild recession, being in Washington DC, a lot of our clients are these government agencies as well as companies serving government agencies. So, we are monitoring that situation closely to see what the demand could look like in the next few months. We're also reaching out to our partners and asking if they want more training because right now, a lot of their employees are sitting at home, and some of them might not even be able to access the system that they need to be productive. So we are seeing if there are ways for us to strengthen those partnerships during this time.

John: So, yes, you stole the question I was just going to ask which was, where are the opportunities because it's easy to look 

(8:00)

at the downside scenarios, but there's also a huge opportunity we think for training in general because it can be a leadership function. It doesn't just have to be a reaction to the D-Day or the problem of the day.

Merav: Exactly and the other situations that I'm looking at right now, we are unfortunately seeing a lot of layoffs happening in the hospitality industry, in the shipping industry. Our question is, how can we help this individual right now to see if we can open other opportunities for them by providing the types of data skills that they need in order to get some sort of a junior analyst job or something like that, that could entail remote work. So, we do have a university partnership with the University of California Riverside, and that is something that we are discussing with them. How can we reach out to people in their community? What type of programs could we offer to at least provide some guidance and some alternatives? Because we don't know when those jobs will come back and to what degree they'll be back. So we are trying to think as well about how we can support the community that's really being affected by this right now. 

John: Yes, that's great. And that doesn't have to be entirely new product offerings either, right? I think one thing that we always talk about with customers, and we like to see is, you can take, or you already have from your product offering even if it is too large corporations in the very B2B class, class of B2B settings and you can adopt them without huge amounts of an overhaul as long as you have the right infrastructure into things that could be a bit more direct consumer at times like this, right?

Merav: That's exactly right.

John: What are some of the questions that you think training leaders 

(10:00)

should be thinking through or asking themselves right now that they may not be or what do you think is important to be asking right now if you're in the training industry?

Merav: That's a good question. I think one of the bigger ones and this is a broader conversation is how can we provide that same level of support that in-person classroom affords us in a world where we can't teach in person. There's a lot of advantages to virtual live streaming, but especially for some training that we deliver when everyone's working on their own laptop because you know it's very difficult for an instructor to just go into a virtual environment and see everybody else's screens. So, there might be some solutions out there already. Like the partner that you mentioned and then that could be a really interesting experiment for us to see how that place out and get the student and instructor feedback. I think the other thing at least for us is ensuring that we're not putting any of our instructors or any of our staff into a high-risk situation by traveling. So we are limiting travel right now as well to make sure that we're doing everything we can to be responsible members of society. 

John: Yes, it's a good point. I mean I found that I really enjoy public speaking and sometimes people look at me very strangely when I say that. But there's going to times where we had to record stuff, and there's no audience. Actually, I start struggling, and so what I learned was that sometimes the audience is what you need in order to be really effective in communicating. I can imagine that being a struggle, particularly for some of the really passionate high impact instructors that people will have on their teams.

(12:00)

It's just a very different environment when you're wearing your suit coat, but you've got your pajama bottoms on and waist up you're professional, and you're in the house, and you're trying to get a message across. I imagine that would be a challenge to accept. 

Merav: Exactly and something else that kind of align to that is, the robust infrastructure of a virtual classroom and even just internet connections, right? If people are working out of their homes, we don't know the types of internet connections they have available to them. So, making sure that infrastructure is in place and what types of checklist do we need to send out to students with technical specifications to make sure that we're not running into any of that technical challenges.

John: Yes, I love that idea of a checklist in advance. I mean, it's not just pre-course reading and pre-course quizzes and things like that. But just, here's a checklist of what you need to be successful, and this is different from what you might be taking to a physical class. I think that's so important.

Merav: Yes. So, there's a lot of new logistical aspects that we're thinking through right now. I'm sure we're going to make our fair share of mistakes and learn from them just to figure out how we can continue and still provide an excellent product to all of our partners.

John: Yeah. I mean, so switching gears slightly, being in a data science company and experts in that field, how do you think that this may be this changing modality or the change in how you're going to be delivering over the next weeks and months, that does that change the data or the measurements or what you guys, are looking for in terms of success and failure and so on? Does it provide you more opportunities to measure outcomes?

(14:00)

Does it take those away? Maybe just talk through that a little bit and kind of how you guys approach that really, really important and often elusive thing that changes lives that we struggle with?

Merav: Yes. So, we have a few different ways to measure success in our training. The first one is pre- and post-course surveys that we send before and after every training measure some of the skills and the objective that we teach throughout to see how students have grown from the beginning to the end of the program. We also, of course, ask for feedback about our training in a post-course survey. Now, during the training itself, we have knowledge checks that are mini-quizzes throughout the day that help the students solidify the new concepts of their learning. Then also give the instructor a chance to do a check in and make sure that the students are not struggling with a particular concept. The nice thing in terms of transiting this to virtual is that all of this is done right now on computers. So, we have those records, we can deliver them virtually just as well as we could in the classroom. I don't think it will impact us on that level. What I do suspect is that, with a virtual training environment, it is a little bit more difficult to hold student's attention. It's really easy to put the classroom on in the background and then continue to do work or check emails. So, I would be curious to see how this knowledge check results might be reflected or how the pre- and post-course survey advancement might be affected just based on the virtue of it being a different medium.

John: Yes,

(16:00)

 I mean, we've seen that Administrate, we have three global offices and our teams are spread across those offices come in a horizontal fashion which means you've got teams that are multi-office, multi-country. It's not just a regional focus and what we found was that, as we grew of those offices and those teams, it was almost like going to the cinema or theaters, we would say in the States, the cinema to watch a movie and you're reminded, "Okay, it's time to turn off your cellphone." So, we had to do things like remind people to turn on their webcams and full screen for a meeting and things like just little hygiene, things like that, that really improved that attention, because otherwise, you'd have people looking at Slack or checking emails and things like that.

Merav: Yes, and I think what you noted about turning the webcams on is incredibly important because just having people on that screen knowing that they are expected to be a full participant makes a big difference.

John: Yeah, absolutely. So obviously, a very fluid situation in the States and in many countries like yourselves, we have started mandating kind of work from home. Actually, just yesterday, and that's for the UK and Middle Eastern teams. We don't really know what's going to happen next, although there are some good predictions out there. What flexibility or agility teachers or things do we need to have over the next kind of six months in this very dynamic situation?

Merav: Well, we need to stock up on hand sanitizer what I'm learning, not toilet paper.

John: I got

(18:00)

taught how to make your own the other day.

Merav: Yes. Yes.

John: I'm like, well, we might come to that, you know?

Merav: Yes. I think in terms of flexibility, I really do think it's just remembering that every one of our team members has a family, has a life, have kids and how can we make sure that they can still have the time to take care of any family essential during this time period? We do pride ourselves in giving a good work-life balance. We do work hard, but we also do allow for a lot of flexibility for our employees. So, just being as understanding as possible and making sure that everybody knows that their health comes first. We do have some extremely passionate people on our team, and so it's always important to let them know that if they're feeling under the weather that they should be reaching out to a medical professional or just resting up and that it's okay for them to take the time that they need. So, I think, now more than ever that's absolutely something that we are keeping to the forefront in our communications to make sure that our team knows that, that's what we're prioritizing right now really is everybody's health. Then, I think just in terms of additional flexibility to figuring out how to work within these new virtual systems, I'm hoping that by the end of March or hopefully by mid-April that there will be a bit more of a sense of control over the outbreak. Then we'll be able to better see when people will start to be able to come back into the office. What would that look like, you know? Because 

(20:00)

COVID-19 I don't think from what I've been reading is going away anytime soon. So, I think it's really just a question of how we handle it similar to the flu. What are the steps that we need to take to make sure that we're being protective in the future? So, really it's just that level of flexibility for staff as well as putting any virtual systems in place to keep that level of communication high.

John: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, are there things that you've changed in how you're approaching the situation around morale? Are you doing anything different on that front? I know for us, it is much more difficult to walk down the corridor and just pop in and say hi to people and cheer them up. So, what are some of your tactics on that one?

Merav: Well, Slack has a great ability to send .GIFs or .GIFs. Our staff is not quite liberally, so I think we're going to maybe up our .GIF game a little bit over the next few weeks. We were supposed to have a ping pong tournament, actually. Obviously, that's going to have to postpone, but I wonder if there's a way for us to even get some sort of a virtual tournament up and running just to keep our team members engaged in that. Then, in addition, just being as transparent as we can be with the situation and letting them know that we are on top of it, and we're here to answer any questions or any concerns that they have.

John: Yes. I love that idea of maybe moving the ping pong tournament, even virtual or what have you. We have a thing that has popped up recently that called, the virtual water cooler. It's a Slackbot that kicks out of a video conference line every 

(22:00)

couple of hours or so, and everybody just jumps on. The first time I joined, I was like, "Is this, what do we do? We just sit here and bullshit for a little bit?" Everybody is like, "Yeah." It was really good, actually. So I think that would probably be there to stay after--

Merav: That's a great idea.

John: Yes, even this crisis going to come down a little bit.

Merav: Wow, so that's just, is that a Slack add-on or [crosstalk].

John: It's something one of our engineers worked on together, but if we get interest, we might have to open source that or kick that out to where people can use it themselves.

Merav: Yes. I think that's a great idea. We were talking about doing, keeping a conference room open, for example, so people can still see each other throughout the day. Maybe do something on Zoom, for example, at the breakout room where the individual teams can go into a breakout room to say hi to each other. I was thinking about potentially kicking out some conversation topics or people to chime in about what their morning routine might look like if they're working from home. We have a lot of very proud pet owners, pet moms and dads here, so having some pet pictures, cat and dog pictures go around I think could be really helpful as well.

John: Yes, pet stuff I've learned really matters, and it's kind of like they put an announcement out there, and GIFs come in, and the little reactions you can do on Slack or a lot of them are funny. Just really keeping the focus on maintaining that community within your team I think is so important because when you start feeling isolated, that's when it starts to go wrong. I think it's that if you've got a community even if it's virtual, 

(24:00)

I think that goes for not just our teams but our customers and partners and all that as well. That's a really great thing to maintain.

Merav: Yes. I agree with you a hundred percent. We really value our team. They are just so wonderful, and of course, they helped us build our company into what it is today. So, it really is a priority to make sure that everybody feels safe and then that everybody still feels connected and that everyone is supportive of each other. So, that virtual water cooler idea sounds great. I'm sure if we keep that challenge over to our data science team, we have some very talented programmers who would probably figure it out. Just figuring out what are the ways that we can continue to offer those types of communication channel as we're handling the situation.

John: Absolutely. So, it sounds like adaptation was really swift for Data Society®. It sounds like you have the building blocks already in place, and you can leverage those existing B2B training relationships that you have. You're exploring new opportunities for those who might need to make a career change, unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 situation. It sounds like you're really focused on your team, and that's been a big reason why this has been probably smoother than you would have thought if you've been looking at this from the outside-- 

Merav: Yes.

John: --in some scenario. What else is happening? What else do people need to be thinking through? What else have you noticed? Do you think that this will be a structural change for how you operate in the future once everything kind of goes back to normal?

(26:00) 

Merav: Yes, that's a good question. I am hoping that this will help us appreciate our physical office space. I know that we have had some questions. I've had some questions for my fellow CEO's that operate on the more remote team. While I know that they're very productive as well, they just did some really some great things, I think what we found is one of the pieces of our company that we prioritize is our culture. To be able to have everyone in the same room, it has tremendous value that I think it's hard to quantify, but it's very noticeable when it's missing. So, I'm hoping that by the end of this, people will be really excited to come back to the office and see everyone and build those connections even stronger. So, apart from that, or I think we're really just monitoring the situation in D.C., especially given that this is where most of us are located and how the humans are handling it. We do work with the Department of Health and Human Services, so of course, that has been a big priority for them. But I believe some of our students with our classroom projects or even finding some solutions to help support the efforts against COVID. So, whatever small part we can play in that, we're happy to do so. So, yes, I think I do agree with you. I feel like we're very fortunate so far in having an excellent team that, that is very understanding and supportive of the decisions that we've made. I think now it's just playing a bit of the waiting game 

(28:00)

keeping an eye on what the spread looks like. My guess is that it's going to get worse before it gets better. My understanding is that there are a lot of cases that have not been identified yet. So, it wouldn't be a surprise if these numbers jump quite significantly in the next week or so. Just remembering that this is not an excuse to panic. Not an excuse to hoard toilet paper or mask. This is a virus that is harmless for most people, and the most important thing is just to make sure that our healthcare system aren't overwhelmed. So, I'm assuming that people will be a little bit bored frankly by the end of next week of sitting at home. We'll just have to remind everyone that's really where the morale comes into play. That we'll have to keep doing it for a little bit longer until we get the okay from the experts.

John: I really love the comment about value in the office space a little bit more because I think that is a common question which is, is all remote the way to go, or is all office space the way to go? I do remember at my previous company we had a team that was 80-85% remote. The thing that was a little frustrating there and it's a little frustrating in the administrators, you can't just push a button and have everybody show up for company barbecue or that important meeting with all hands. So yeah, I think that idea of valuing maybe something that we took a ran it before in the aftermath is really interesting and important. Just maybe one last question because I think you've really, really been covering tons of stuff really well. One last question for me would be, perhaps Data Society® sounds like 

(30:00)

you built a great team. You've got this culture of really going after it. You have the infrastructure in place that you need to have to be a modern training provider. Some of our listeners will be sitting there saying, "Well, I don't have that, right? I have an overworked team or a very small team, or I have a huge team that is under resource. So, I don't have the infrastructure, or I don't have some of maybe the technical advantages that your staff might have just because of the subject matter that you're dealing with as part of your business or I don't have this bedrock of stable customers that I can rely on to get me through for the next few months." Do you think that changes the strategy, or how would you go about tackling some of those problems without some of the things that the Data Society® enjoys? 

Merav: Yeah. I can empathize very much with people who are concerned about where their business is going to be in three months. To having an overworked team or an under-resourced team and all of just that team dynamic first because I think one of the most important aspects of any company is to make sure that the team members can provide input and feel like they're being valued. Especially for our team, a lot of them are in close contact with some of our students and with our clients. It's important to get their feedback and their input because they have their noses much closer to the products than we do. So, being able to open that dialog and communication to solicit ideas about how people can either work more efficiently or if the team is underutilize 

(32:00)

maybe they have some ideas about ways to have some new training offerings, or potentially a new market that they can go after that they have seen respond really well to other trainings. So, I'm really leaning on that expertise and saying, "Hey, we trust you. You're part of our team. We want you to help us grow this business." So, we can continue to provide the training that we love to provide. I think they'll find some really interesting ideas come out of that. I know that a lot of our staff members do respect the fact that you know, we do you ask for ideas and we don't implement all of them. But it does spark a healthy discussion of really what is the best way forward for our business taking in these different points of view? Thinking through what are the opportunities for people now? If they do deliver let's say, virtual training or in-person trainings maybe they're not able to do it virtually, is there a way to at least send course materials and have check-ins maybe set it up on an element? So, there's at least some discussion with an instructor back and forth. Maybe students can videotape themselves doing particular skills if it's more of a hands-on training type situation. That is a tough question, and I'm not pretending to have all the answers. But it's important to think a little bit outside the box, especially when we face these circumstances to see what other products and services can we offer to provide the greatest good to our partners and our clients. Also, to make sure that our staff has the work that they need to have. 

(34:00)

John: Yeah. I love that idea, the sending the materials and then doing the check-ins. That's actually what I worked out with my personal trainer at the gym because I said, "Look, we were supposed to be self-isolating here. I promise I'm not trying to get out of the work I'm supposed to be doing in the gym. I will send you a report on pushups and things that I've done in my flat at home, and I still pay you." That, we found, we felt like that was a pretty good compromise, but I guess the same thing can hold for training in general.

Merav: What an amazing level of flexibility. Let me ask, though, are you working as hard as you would be if you were in the room?

John: No. No, absolutely not, and that was exactly what they said. So yeah, she was like, "Look, I know you cheat and stuff when I'm not watching." I was like, "Aww." So we're going to take it a day at a time, I think.

Merav: A little bit is better than nothing, right? I'm sure it's what she's also said.

John: Yes. Exactly. So, okay, well, you have covered a lot, and it was really great talking to you and learning about your business. It really sounds like a time for reflection. Time for innovation. A time for listening and empathy and caring for your team and customers and all of that. It sounds like Data Society® is really set up well. There's going to be a lot of excitement ahead, I'm sure, but we'll get through it.

Merav: Yeah, that's my take on exactly. I think especially in times like this, it's important to remember what our priorities are, right? And not just as business owners but also as people because at the end of the day, if all of our businesses disappear tomorrow, hopefully, we would still have the people around us, right? That's 

(36:00)

at the end of the day, that's what matters. So I think just especially leaning into the empathy and in the high level of communication to reassure the team that we'll be fine and we're just figuring out the best way to navigate to the storm that's beneficial to everyone. So, it can always check in a month to see how that sends out. But this has been a really fun conversation for me just to speak to you about this and, hopefully, provide some pieces to think about for others. 

John: Yes, I've enjoyed it as well. That's probably one of those things where I think it's important for us to maintain contact with peers and partners and so on and just compare notes as well. It doesn't have to devolve to gas masks and chainsaws and burning cars driving down the street. It can be a real-time opportunity and learning and growth. So, that's the area we were choosing to focus on. It's great to kind of see other companies doing the same thing.

Merav: Yes. It is, and I'm looking forward out to see where some of your other conversations are. I'd be curious to look into some of those as well. 

John: Yeah. Well, it's funny. We're going to get a customer on shortly, and we email them and said, "Hey, we'd love to talk to you about what's going on with your business during COVID-19." They called me back and said, "Well, we're not really sure what we have to offer. Everything's already been done virtually online, and a lot of it is automated, and we haven't changed anything. It made me laugh because it's like well, those exactly the kinds of companies that we want to hear from, which is how these investments in the past played into the future and are impacting now. So, I think it will be a really interesting set of conversations and

I'm looking forward to it.

Merav: Absolutely.

John: Alright, well, I really appreciate your time. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Merav: Yes, thank you. 



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