Q&A with Scott Spradley (Part 2)

A headshot of a clean-shaven man with short gray hair wearing a pinstriped black suit with a blue and black striped tie.


EVP and Chief Technology Officer,

Tyson Foods

ARKANSAN SCOTT SPRADLEY spent many years in Silicon Valley, where he distinguished himself in leadership positions at Chevron, Intel, and Hewlett Packard, becoming known in the tech industry as a transformer. Two years ago he returned to his home state to lead the “modernization” of Tyson Foods. In last month’s newsletter, he spoke in detail about his work at Tyson. Now, in this month’s interview, he discusses his love of Arkansas and his hopes for transforming the state into a true technology hub. Drawing on his own experiences, he also offers wise career advice for anyone just starting out.

Now that you’re back in your home state, where do you think Arkansas stands in terms of preparedness for the kinds of work that you’re employing people to do?

You know, I get asked that all the time, often by people who’ve known me in Silicon Valley. And there are different versions of that question that range from extraordinarily blunt to very refined.

So one of my answers starts with, Well, I’m from Arkansas and did you think that I could do what you’ve seen me do? A lot of people in Arkansas, their great-great grandparents came here and they never left, and the reason they never left is that it’s a great place to live, it’s a great style of life. It’s a place that actually values education. We have a lot of very, very smart people.

And then I transition into what I see, which is that the University of Arkansas and other universities in the state recognized a while back, as did our governor, that technology is the wave of the future for economic growth and economic stability. So there’s been a strong focus in this state on building educational programs to grow that technical base.

In Northwest Arkansas specifically, we have 600,000 people. And the predominant population are professional folks who’ve come from professional companies, who’ve had reasonably good technology services around them. So there’s a lot more technology breadth here than people realize. That said, you’ve got Clay Johnson, executive vice president and enterprise chief information officer at Walmart, a good friend, and another Silicon Valley guy. You’ve got Stuart Scott, executive vice president and chief information officer over at J.B. Hunt, another very good friend. I mean the three of us are kind of the Three Amigos. We get together regularly, we partner together on business dealings, we share information on all kinds of things, and we’re working together to grow the technology population in the area. We’re actually even recruiting other businesses into the area, because that’s all good.

And I think we’re well positioned when we’ve got business school dean Matt Waller and engineering school dean John English at UA, who are saying to us, “What do you need from us? What can we do to help?” So we sit down with them, and we’re helping to shape the curriculum that industry wants to see.

Actually, to tell you an interesting story, at Tyson we worked with Google on one of the solutions that we’ve been building that we’ve now deployed; it’s in place in our factories, and it uses vision systems and machine learning. And it was one of our University of Arkansas graduates, a young lady, who completely wowed Google. If it had been a contest, she’d have won hands down. So we have that capability here.

We could always use more, but I think that curve is starting to really produce. And I think with some of the richness of information that’s going on in our area around technology proliferation and growth in technology, we’ll start to see the number of data science majors and graduates that come out of the schools go up.

You’ve talked about wanting to bring more venture capital to Arkansas.
Tell me about that.

Yes, I think we have that opportunity. Between Clay and Stuart and me, and the contacts we have—whether it’s Andreessen Horowitz, or Grey Wolf Ventures, or whatever venture capital firm—we’ve got good friends in that world. And we’ve now locked in around some incubator strategies.

What drives venture capital investment is people with ideas, right? I was in Palo Alto for years, and at Stanford they get a bunch of kids who, by their sophomore or junior year—because they’ve worked on some project with some other smart kids—they get a great idea for a business, so they put together a business plan and they start shooting it out to every one of the venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road, which is a road in Palo Alto where all the venture capitalists are.

So some VC says, “Hey, we’ll give you eleven or twelve million dollars to get started,” so that’s how it happens. In our area, as we encourage and get more kids going into technology, and as we see the technology program that Arkansas is delivering as a university—now I even heard that John Brown University is building out a data sciences program—as more and more of these students come in, the competition gets better, but also the innovation, those light bulbs start popping. And if that happens, then we have conduits back to some of these VCs to say, “Hey, you know, take $5 million and throw it at this one,” or “Take $6 million and throw it at this one.” And as soon as you get a few of those things going, then there’s a lens on our area, of, Wow, that’s maybe an untapped area. We’ve heard about Austin, but what’s going on here?

And because of all of that, I think we put ourselves in a position where we can see this technology start to incubate ideas, and ideas are solutions to problems. And [with Walmart and Tyson and others,] we’re kind of the supply chain capital of the world, right? This is really one of the places to be if you want to look at supply chain technology. So I think there’s a little bit of education to some of the VC, but once they find it out, it’ll go pretty quick.

I also wanted to talk about the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences. You’re on the board—what would you like to see ACDS do for Arkansas? And how soon?

Well, yeah. Soon, to me, is a word I don’t use. It’s either now or then. And soon doesn’t fit into this—right? I was kind of known for a quote when I was at HP: I said there’s Hewlett Packard speed and then there’s everybody else’s speed, when we did some things that people couldn’t believe we could do as quickly as we did. So I want now. Which is why, when Charles Morgan and those guys reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you be willing to be involved in this?” I said, “Absolutely.” Because I’m emotionally connected to my state. I get an incredible amount of joy about coming home. I don’t want this to sound the wrong way, but I left the state, I learned a lot, I gained a lot of exposure to a lot of things, I grew, I achieved some success, and I feel like I’ve always wanted to come home and bring some of that back to my state.

And now I’m in a position to actually do that, and I mean that. I love my state, I love where I came from, I love my childhood. I didn’t grow up a rich kid or anything, but I just loved listening to my Razorback games on my little blue transistor radio, walking around in the fall kicking leaves down the street. You know?

So ACDS, to me, gives us a chance to really be in a position to do many things. One is to just preach the value of data. I’m a person who believes that data is the new currency for the world. Data is knowledge. Our brains are not capable of analyzing the information that a neural network can, and a neural network can manage information of 7 billion people in seconds, and we can apply that knowledge.

If I have any concern about ACDS, it’s that I don’t want to spend too much time on baby steps. I think we need to be very stipulative over what we’re thinking. Is there a data gatherer that can learn how to work with some level of data, an Excel type mindset? That’s a good skill to have, we need more of that. Just like when I hired data analysts in the past, just an analyst, I meet with them at 8 o’clock in the morning, sit down and have a cup of coffee, and I slide them a thumb drive and I say on that thumb drive is a spreadsheet that’s got 15,000 columns and it’s got 150,000 rows. And I’m going to meet with you at 4.30 today, and I’m going to want you to tell me what you found in there. Just to see what they know how to do and to just tell me what they can find. And that’s one level.

But the other level that’s the true breakthrough is to recognize the overall awesome power of what data can bring us. When you start to think about going from ad hoc reports to truly BI [Business Intelligence], and then eventually to predictive analytics, and then prescriptive analytics. And I think that’s what we need, that’s the ultimate approach. Because if you think about how this state makes its money – I don’t know the full economic breakdown, but I got to think that at least 70 percent of it is through ag.

And then we’ve got some financial services around here, and of course Walmart and other retail. But imagine if we’re exactly perfect in forecasting how much of what we need to grow and what it’s going to take to grow what we need to grow, and then being able to sell exactly what we thought we would sell—instead of having any loss, we have all margin! Right? And that’s economically better, which allows us to put it back into the schools, and point programs in the schools to get these kids understanding at an early age. That’s what I love about what Governor Hutchinson is trying to do—he’s trying to expose them to technology because he knows that if they can just learn how to gain some confidence in programming, intrigue will take over. And once intrigue takes over, now it’s a hobby, then it’s a passion, then it’s an addiction. Just like gaming is an addiction.

I think we can do that, and I think ACDS has the ability to isolate some of the key values of that and to really drive toward some outcomes that will benefit us all.

I want to close by asking if you have any career advice for young people out there today. I mean your own story’s just a great story. So what would you tell young tech students and grads about how to create their own great success story?

Yes, thank you. I get asked that a lot. My daughter just graduated from LSU, and a lot of her friends have reached out and asked what advice I can share. And I generally say, first, that I’ve achieved what I’ve achieved because I just genuinely love doing what I do. It’s not a job for me. I’m getting paid to do my hobby. I like to play with technology, I like to play with people, I like to lead people. And I don’t have a day where I wake up and go, “Oh, god, I gotta go to the office today.” I don’t have that day. And so it starts there with pursuing what is genuinely fun to you, what is something that you truly like.

The second thing I would say, is expose yourself to a wide array of things. Just as coaches will tell you they prefer to recruit an athlete who played four or five sports and then settled on one, as opposed to one that was just locked in on one, exposing yourself to different avenues of potential work is a great thing. Like for me, I wanted to be a lawyer, I thought that’d be cool. I loved reading law books, and I still will occasionally read case law, just because it’s fascinating to me. I mean, I’m one of the few people who reads manuals, but I read them cover to cover. When I buy a car, I read the whole damn thing, and then I know everything the car does. And then the manual goes in the glove box and I’m the human manual for it.

But finding what you love is the first thing, and then once you get into it, the next advice is don’t rush. I see a lot of people make mistakes where they believe that they’ve got to rush to the top. They believe that they’re in competition with their peers, and they’re not. Your career’s going to find you as much as you find your career.

I think the biggest mistake people make is changing jobs for money. I did that at one point. I left a company because I got offered a considerably larger sum of money to go to work for another company. And, boy, I wasn’t there very long before I realized, I don’t care how much money there is here, this is not what I like to do. And so that’s another mistake.

I also have some tactical advice that I give everybody—just three or four rules, and if you live by them, you’re always going to be fine. First is never tell a lie. If you have to try to remember something, that’s probably not good. Things that happen to you, you never forget. And that’s honesty. And so always be very honest. So if you’re asked did you do this, and you did it, yes. Did you do this, and you didn’t, no, I did not. Do you know the answer to this? No, I do not. Is this your work? No, it was the team’s work. Always be very honest.

Two, never throw anybody under the bus, because you never know who’s going to be your manager. Years ago, Intel acquired a startup that I was at, and the guy who came in as the “integration manager,” who was my manager, was just brutal to me. I mean brutal. He hated how much they were paying me, he was disrespectful to me, he tore things up, slammed my laptop, he was just brutal. And two years later I found myself standing in his cubicle because I had become his manager’s manager. So he’s sitting there looking up at me, and he said, “I suppose this is where the payback is going to start.” And I said, “No, this is where I’m going to show you how to manage the way you want to be managed. I could easily come in here and be a jackass to you, but I’m just going to try to manage you the way that most people want to managed.” So the key rule is never throw anybody under the bus, and treat everybody like they’re somebody working with your mom or your dad. You don’t want to disrespect anybody. Let people have dignity every day.

My third rule is, Don’t ever breach any confidence. At some point you’re going to be exposed to something, and somebody’s going to say, “Hey keep this between just us.” Do that. Because sometimes people are going to do that and they’re going to set you up and see if you’re going to keep it to yourself or not.

I often give a speech about how information’s like beer—how much can you handle? I’ll give you some information, and if you look like you can handle it, I’ll serve you a little bit more. But if I see you start mishandling it, then I’m shutting you down. And that’s another advice I give.

Finally, don’t talk about things you don’t know about. Don’t try to purport value in areas that you don’t have value in. Leave that for the person who does have it.

If you follow those rules, and if you’re doing what you love to do, you’re set up for a pretty darn good life.