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Next Level with Jody Claggett, Manager of Data Operations at Vail Health

Today on Next Level, host and Keyhole Chief Architect Zach Gardner talks to Jody Claggett, current Manager of Data Operations at Vail Health, life-long learner, data enthusiast, and (plot twist) culinary school graduate and former restauranteur. Jody and Zach walk through Jody’s career path, from tech support to manager (and all the steps in between).

Key takeaways for devs include…

  • Find ways to learn and grow in any way possible. As someone without a traditional college education, Jody’s journey highlights the importance of self-education and continuous learning.
  • Be resilient and adaptable. Learn how to embrace change and take hold of opportunity even if it’s unexpected (like a detour into the culinary world).
  • Learn how to recognize others’ strengths and talents. As a manager, Jody emphasizes the importance of understanding people in fostering a productive and efficient team environment.
  • Embrace new tools for maximized efficiency. Don’t get stuck in old habits! Stay open to new techs that can revolutionize problem-solving processes and code.

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About Guest Jody Claggett:

Jody Claggett is a passionate Data Solution Architect with a journey spanning over 20 years in the realm of data and technology. His career has been a blend of innovation, leadership, and a deep-seated love for making data speak. At heart, he is a storyteller. Whether it’s through data analytics, AI strategy, or predictive analytics, his goal is to narrate a tale that not only informs but inspires. His expertise extends across various domains, including the thrilling world of generative AI, the critical field of AI in healthcare, and the ever-evolving landscape of DataOps and data engineering.

About The Next Level Series:

Next Level is a Videocast for Aspiring Engineers with Keyhole Software’s Chief Architect, Zach Gardner. This series dives into the pivotal question every software engineer faces: what direction should my career take?

Like many of us, Zach grappled with this dilemma until he found guidance from incredible mentors. Now, Next Level brings these insights to you. Zach interviews tech leaders, delving into their diverse career paths and success stories. Spoiler: careers in tech rarely follow a straight line! Discover the stories, challenges, and strategies behind these industry giants, all aimed at helping you map out your own journey.

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Partial Episode Transcript

Note: this transcript section was created using generative AI tools like YouTube automated transcripts and ChatGPT. There may be typos, slight content changes, or character limits for brevity!

Zach Gardner: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Future. I’m Zach Gardner, the Chief Architect at Keyhole Software, and like pretty much everyone else that I know in my field, my career did not move in a linear progression. There were a lot of false starts, a lot of twists and turns, and you know, a few u-turns, but eventually, I landed. I got the chief in front of the name for what it’s worth, and I felt that I really needed to give back. I had a ton of great mentors that gave me an enormous amount of advice, and I felt that I’d be shortchanging the world if I didn’t at least try to go out and find other people that have maybe gone through or maybe even different experiences, figure out where they landed, why they landed, and then what recommendations they have for people that are the up-and-coming, you know, the Next Generation, the next level of technical leaders.
Today with me all the way in beautiful Colorado, I got that right, you’re in Colorado, right? Are you farther?

Jody Claggett: I’m actually, yeah, I’m in Seattle.

Zach: So dang it, all right, you’re farther west than I remembered from my, you know, very detailed notes. I have Jody Clagett, the director of data operations at Veil Health. Jody, how’s it hanging?
Jody: It’s great, Zach, thanks, uh, thanks for having me.
Zach: Anytime. And of course, all the views and opinions expressed in this program are the views and opinions of the participants who do not reflect their employers, any trade organizations they are affiliated with, any yacht clubs, or, you know, minor league baseball teams. These are two people, we’re just having a good time, that’s all.
So for those that haven’t met you, could you give the audience a little bit of information on your background? You know, like, uh, where did you get into technology? What are some of the interesting things that you worked on in your career? Just kind of, you know, just, just get a feel for it, get us, get a feel where you’ve been.

Jody: Yeah, absolutely, Zach. Well, um, I had the privilege of growing up with some data geeks or some tech geeks when I was, uh, really young. When I was a teenager in high school, my best friends were all geeks and we’re all tech nerds. So, you know, every weekend, we were playing doom and Starcraft and, you know, all the good stuff back in the day. And I really had the privilege of learning from those guys. They were really into networking and coding.

It was weird because in this small area of where I grew up, there was, you know, five, six of us that were just this, that had the same mindset. And maybe it was just the time period, but we were all sort of in that space. And together, we all kind of went to the same school, we rode the same bus, you know, so we just kind of gleaned off of each other and grew from there.

I really got my career started in tech support. So, back then, 20 years ago, I like to say that that was sort of the standard process for us growing up. That’s how I understood you would sort of progress your career, right? You’d get into an entry-level help desk role and then progress from there, get to tier one, tier two support and kind of grow from there. And that’s really what I did. So, that’s sort of a traditional approach.

I think the thing that makes me unique is I never went to school. I went never went to college after high school. So, I learned on my own, I taught myself how to code SQL, I learned on the job, I learned how to support customers, all within the first maybe five years of my career.
So, when I was in high school, I did an IT internship with my high school. I did that for two summers in a row. And that’s where I sort of learned, you know, basic tech support, troubleshooting, break-fix scenarios across a variety of different hardware, from Mac systems to Windows systems. And this was sort of a school-based system, so some of them were archaic and old, so you had to learn really old technology to go through and fix that stuff.
So, from there, I progressed into, I got a couple of positions that were support roles doing help desk, basically break-fix scenarios. And what I really gleaned from that was customer service, more than anything. I enjoyed helping our customers. I enjoyed taking a problem and knowing that they were frustrated, and, you know, sometimes frustrated and needed extra support and needed to talk through. And I really loved being on the phone and just meeting with people where they were at and helping them fix the problem that they were having. And they enjoyed it so much because at the end, they got what they needed. They had a good conversation with me, and I absolutely loved that.
So, that was like the first four or five years of my career. And then I got into one role that I took, the questions started to go from these are technical sort of break-fix scenarios to we were supporting a website for one of our vendors, and the questions got more into data questions. They weren’t necessarily break-fixed. They were like, “Hey, can you tell me how many sales leads were passed to this partner?” Or, “You know, how many leads does this person have?” And so, there were data questions that we couldn’t necessarily answer as a tech support team, but we were being asked to answer those. And so, I got access to the database behind it because the tool that we were supporting really didn’t have an interface to do this.

That’s how I got into sort of SQL. I had to learn SQL to answer their questions. And all of a sudden, something opened up, and I had this sort of epiphany because not only could I answer questions, but our customers were responding to me in a way that was just blowing my mind. I had, you know, my vendor was saying, “Hey, these are great. Can you help me with this and do this and this and that?” And that led to more and more. That actually led to a promotion from there. So, in this group that I was working with, I was a support tech, and then I got promoted because I was all of a sudden able to answer these questions.

So, then I became a lead support tech for that. And I found that in that time that I was sort of learning SQL and answering these business questions, it gave me the opportunity to expand my role and grow my career. And it was just, it was like something was just blowing up, and all of a sudden, I had this epiphany like, “Oh, this is actually something that I like doing. I know I can do it, and it’s helping me in my career, and it’s answering these business questions. I’m gonna do this.” And that’s where I really got into data and started working on reporting and analytics and learning SQL Server, getting more in-depth in SQL code.

From there, eventually, I went over to Microsoft. I got a full-time position at Microsoft, where I was working in sales operations, doing sales analytics and reporting for our sales operations teams. And spent five and a half years there.
From there, I took some time off. I went off at a real different tangent. I went over and I went into culinary school, and I actually bought a restaurant and spent a year doing that. And by the way, don’t ever do that. That’s a terrible option. So, I did that for a year because I wanted to do something different. Turned out that’s not really exactly what I wanted to do, but I’m glad I sort of took that path and at least had a different path to go down and take a look at it.
And then I came back to this role that I’m at now, at Veil Health. I started out here as a data engineer, and then eventually, just last year, was promoted to manager data operations. And my team supports our reporting and analytics at Veil Health, as well as SQL Server database management and traditional sort of data engineering and interfacing between our different healthcare systems.
Zach: So, yeah, very interesting stuff that we didn’t cover in the intake. I’m curious, I mean, this is kind of going back to one of your first comments, I don’t know if you remember because I had to really dust off the cobwebs on this one, were you a fan of the Zerg or the Protoss or the Terran when you played StarCraft?
Jody: Oh, okay, that’s a great question. I love that. So, I was a fan of the Terran. And the reason I was a fan of the Terran is that you could level up this, I forget the units, this the basic soldier units, right? You could get the stim packs with them, and you could basically produce those faster than anything else. And so, I just produced all of those and then just bum-rushed anybody else after that. I wasn’t very good at it. Like, all my buddies were way better at these games than I was. I was terrible. They’ve been fun of me all the time. But at least that was my approach to it.
Zach: Yeah, you didn’t strike me as a Zerg kind of guy. I think, yeah, so I mean, there’s a lot of interesting things that you touched on. I’ve definitely noticed a difference in terms of people that come from a non-traditional background versus a very traditional background. It’s like the people that come from non-traditional backgrounds have very scrap-happy mentality where you got to fight for every inch and you’re always wondering, you know, at least a lot of the other people that I’ve talked to, you know, like impostor syndrome seems to be very, very prevalent among the non-traditional community.
I’m curious if you could touch on, you know, has it ever crept up into your psyche and, you know, what are some of the ways that you deal with it? And to be fair, I come from a very traditional background. I still deal with it too.
Jody: Yeah, no, that’s right. When I was young and not having a degree, not having gone through college and done that, I definitely had a chip on my shoulder. And to your point, like, I had to be scrappy. I had to fight for every inch because I needed to prove myself.
And part of that, like, helped me grow. Like, it obviously worked. But I still look back at it, and I still have that, like, I still walk into rooms where people are, have master’s degrees in data science and business administration and what have you, engineering degrees, and I still feel a little inadequate and not equipped even though I spent the last 23 years doing this same work that I’ve been doing, right? So, yeah, it’s interesting.
The advice that I would give to people is, even though this was my path and I think you can still potentially do that, I would say if I had to go back and tell myself back when I was 18, 19 years old, go to college, go do that, right? Because at least then, you wouldn’t carry that sort of feeling that you’re inadequate or are not equipped to do the role even though you’ve done it for 23 years, right?

So, I would definitely go back and, in fact, just this past year, I’ve kind of taken that approach and doing some training classes in AI and machine learning because I wanted to. It’s actually felt really good, surprisingly, to go back to school and actually, well, I should say go to school, for that matter. And I’ve really enjoyed it. So, but yeah, I would definitely tell people, go back to school if you have the opportunity.

Yeah, I always really like it too when people have the mentality of continuously learning, of continuously going to school. I feel odd if I don’t have like one or two Coursera courses that I’m like late on getting my assessments in because it’s just like I had taken a few on Tensorflow earlier this year too and got that exact same feeling. It’s like, man, this is kind of fun. I don’t know. I enjoy that. Maybe we’re weird. It’s possible.

Zach: I took, yeah, I took recently just this past year, I took a course on AI and healthcare through MIT Sloan School of Management, and I was so happy to turn in an assignment. Like, it had been 20 some years since I turned in an assignment, and I was geeked about it. I was like, this is great. I’m going to do this more often. So, yeah, I agree with you. Continuous learning, especially in our industry because it changes so rapidly.
Jody: I’ve seen so many changes from the 2000s, 2010, 2000 to 2020, and now the shift into AI and ML, you have to be continuously up to date, trying to do the best you can. It’s almost impossible to stay up to date on everything. But, you know, anywhere that you can, you know, you need to go back to school or find a way to take Coursera or any way you can to keep up to date.
Zach: Yeah, speaking of changes that have come in the field, I’m curious from a data operations perspective, you know, like what have those existential shifts have been? I mean, probably like when you and I got started, the cloud wasn’t even a notion. It was like we always had servers that were on-prem. So, I’m curious, what are some of the things that you’ve gone through, and then you maybe you could touch on some of the other things that, like, you’re perhaps seeing come down on the horizon that don’t ride with AI, or they can, you know, that’s fine, don’t ride with AI.
Jody: Yeah, I think, you know, to your point, like from about 2000 to 2010, maybe, there wasn’t… Most of it was on-prem. You were working with on-prem SQL servers. You were working with Business Intelligence Development Studio (BIDS), you know, like big data wasn’t a concept. You know, cloud wasn’t a concept. So, you know, early on, it was… You got to kind of build your own tools. There wasn’t a whole lot out there to do data engineering or data analytics.
And since then, I almost sort of skipped over the Big Data era. And that was sort of my own fault. I got into a space where I wasn’t continuously learning, and that was sort of a mistake because I missed sort of that Big Data era. NoSQL sort of went by the wayside, didn’t really stick around. I don’t know. Some people still champion it. You know, and there’s still areas for it. But that kind of 2010 to maybe 2018 era of Big Data, I just kind of skipped past it, but it was definitely a thing and it was bigger than I made it out to be.
But then, now, coming back into it, you know, it’s all API development, data extracts through API, and cloud engineering. Azure, AWS, you know, and it’s more become of a coding discipline than anything else. And I’ve been surprised by that. Data engineering has really matured into its own sort of discipline. And there’s people that are way better at it than I am. I’ve kind of done my own thing. We don’t use a whole lot of API engineering or Python coding around here to do what we need to do, although we have some of it, and there’s people on my team that have that knowledge.
But yeah, the where I’ve seen it change, you know, in the last couple of years has been more to that coding discipline level of practice or opportunity. Like, it’s sort of interesting in the way that that’s been approached. And I agree with it. It’s far more efficient. And it smooths things out and makes things a lot easier to transfer data back and forth. But it’s definitely not the scrappy early on type of work that I was dealing with when I first started my career.
Zach: I’m curious, so you mentioned NoSQL. I am a champion of NoSQL, but let… So, let me caveat that because that’s, you know, it’s a hot take. When it comes to reporting, when it comes to analytics, that is a… You can’t spell No in NoSQL without it. Like, it should not be anywhere near analytics and reporting. You can’t do joins. The data can be messy. It’s often different structures. You got to be able to sanitize it and standardize it. So, from a reporting perspective, like, No way, no. From an application operation perspective, we’ve actually seen it be successful and used for the actual database behind the application and then have a process that ETLs or sanitizes. There’s Azure Synapse. There’s a couple of other tools like that that will then take your NoSQL data and actually put it into a relational database so that you just have a fighting chance of being able to run reports off of it. I’m curious if that’s the approach that you’ve seen taken or you’ve seen others, or it could just be that I’m just crazy and I’m just a star child and, you know, crazier things have happened.
Jody: Well, no, I agree with you. Right? Like, yeah, for reporting and analytics, I mean, we use Azure Synapse in our environment, so that’s all SQL-based. Yeah, to your point, you know, it’s not a NoSQL data engineering code. It’s an application system code, you know, it’s a database level. And I think, early on, what I heard, and maybe that’s part of the reason that I sort of skipped it, is people were basically saying, “Hey, NoSQL is going to replace every bit of SQL. You’re not going to do SQL anymore.”
And if we had to geek out and nerd on that, I think now what’s fascinating to me is that I can use ChatGPT to write my SQL code, which is fascinating. I’m like, “Oh, this is amazing. I can do this far more efficiently and write code.” But that’s on a whole different tangent.
Zach: But yeah, I agree with you that NoSQL has been… It has its place, but it’s certainly not the foundational code set that people made it out to be, you know, maybe 10 years ago or so. And I think it is one of the, ChatGPT that is one of the newer tools that people have in their tool belt. There was a lot of skepticism last year coming into this year, tools like DebOn, coming out where it’s going to replace us, we’re not going to have jobs anymore. And they recently published an article where they found out DebOn was actually as it was going through the code, it was introducing bugs that it would later come back and fix, which I’ve been assured is not a proper coding practice. But also, it was solving things that didn’t really exist, like they weren’t actual problems.
So, for now, I think as a wholesale replacement, we’re many, many years off. But as a tool, be able to help us to be more efficient, yeah, I think it’s going to be super beneficial. It’s going to be like the spell check of coding, which if you’re like me, you know, like, the squiggly line is just a recommendation. You just ignore it.
But I’m curious from your perspective, you know, like, so you got your data engineers, you got your data operations folks, you got your data analysts, you know, like, are those all separate roles? I’ve noticed in some shops that they kind of get… They’re all kind of together and they’re all called data engineers. I’m curious if you could touch on that.
Jody: Yeah, no, that’s… This is great. So, at Veil Health, we do have them as separate roles. We have… So, my team is sort of bifurcated.
We have the data engineering side of the house and we have the reporting and analytics side of the house. And the data engineering side of the house, we have our data engineers. Those folks are handling, you know, the SQL Server database management, the traditional data engineering work that you would see, you know, for interfacing between your different systems, your different healthcare systems. They’re the ones that are handling our ETLs and making sure that data is getting from point A to point B in a sanitized and, you know, in a manner that we can consume that.
And then we have our reporting and analytics folks. So, that’s where we’re doing the more traditional reporting and analytics. I have business analysts on that side of the house, SQL developers, report developers. Those folks are all sort of housed together. They’re working on the visualization layer. We’re leveraging Power BI, SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), a couple of different tools in that space to, you know, visualize data and report it out to our customers. So, that’s how we have it split out.
Now, you know, we… We’re also a very agile shop. So, I mean, we’re cross-functional. We have team members that do… We have one team member that does both, right? So, there’s… They’re capable of… They’re capable of being a report developer, but they’re also capable of writing SQL code. And so, we do have that cross-functionality within our team. So, it is a little bit more squishy. But for the most part, you know, they do have separate roles.
Yeah, and I think it kind of gets into the classic debate of, you know, specialists versus generalists. It’s like you can have the generalist that can do a lot of the different roles, but sometimes it’s really nice to have somebody that can just like, this is the person, you know, like I’ve got my SQL guy. If I’ve got a problem that I need to be solved with SQL, I know exactly who I’m going to. You know, I’ve got my data viz guy. If I’ve got a problem that I need to solve with Power BI, I know exactly who I’m going to. So, yeah, it’s interesting. It’s interesting.
Zach: I am curious, you know, kind of given that, you know, you’re still a relatively new manager, you know, coming in from a data engineering perspective, kind of going into the operational side of the house, you know, what are some of the things that have surprised you as a manager? What are some of the things that, you know, have gone well? What are some of the things that maybe haven’t gone as well as you would have liked?
Jody: Yeah, I think, you know, the thing that surprised me the most when I became a manager was that it was no longer about me. And I think that’s, you know, a big transition for anybody, but you go from being this individual contributor that, you know, writes your own code and has control over what you’re doing.
And then all of a sudden, you’re in this role where you’re, you know, your team’s relying on you to deliver them, you know, deliver them what they need to be successful. And so, that transition of like, it’s not about me anymore, it’s about them and helping them be successful was…
It surprised me at how… It was a big transition, but it’s something that’s really rewarding. It’s actually… I find it to be far more rewarding than writing my own code or doing my own data engineering work because you get to help people grow. And so, I’ve really embraced that. That’s been a big surprise to me, but I’ve really enjoyed it.
And then the other thing that I’ve been, you know, pleasantly surprised with is that, you know, I think people want to succeed, right? And so, giving them the opportunity and the tools to succeed, they will take it. And it’s been… It’s been really surprising to me to see, you know, some of the growth that some of my team members have had in the last year since I’ve taken over. It’s been really rewarding to watch them grow and be successful.
Some of the things that I would say that haven’t gone so well, I think just… I’ve had to learn how to be a manager. And I think I’ve taken some stumbles, some lumps along the way, learning, you know, like how do you have a one-on-one with your direct reports and make sure that they’re getting what they need from you, and also giving them the feedback that they need. You know, I’m trying to be more direct. I think, you know, I think people appreciate it when you’re direct and you’re straightforward with them. I’ve had to learn how to do that. And it’s not always easy because, you know, I like to be liked, and sometimes being direct doesn’t always lend to being liked. So, that’s been a challenge. But it’s one that I’ve accepted, and I’m working on it.
But yeah, that’s kind of been some of the things that have surprised me and some of the things that I’ve struggled with.
Zach: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always… I’ve been a big believer in like, you got to be honest, but you got to be honest in a kind way. Like, you know, you’re not going to say, “Hey, you suck. Get better.” But you’re going to say, “Hey, here’s some things that I’ve noticed. Here’s some things that we can work on. Here’s some ways that we can be better.”
I also think it’s really interesting. You know, you talked about, you know, like, the transition from the IC to the manager and how it’s no longer about you. And I’ve talked to a lot of people that, you know, they’ve been very successful as an individual contributor. They go to management and it’s like they’re starting over. And I think that’s… I think that’s a very valid way to look at it. You know, like I’ve talked to people that they say that the career ladder is, you know, you’re an individual contributor, you go to manager, you go to director, you go to VP, and they say that that’s actually kind of like a little bit of a lie, that, you know, like there’s a lot of different paths that you can take.
And like you could be an individual contributor, you could go to manager, you could realize, “Hey, this isn’t for me.” You can go back to being an individual contributor. Like, I think there’s a lot of different paths that you can take. I’m curious, you know, like, if you had to do it over again, would you still have taken the manager role?
Jody: That’s a great question. I think I would have. I think, you know, like, for a lot of the reasons I said before, I find it to be really rewarding. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity to help people grow. And so, I think if I had to do it over again, I would. I mean, I’ve had a lot of conversations, like you said, with people that have gone into management and they’ve gotten out of it and they’ve gone back to IC role. And I think there’s absolutely a place for that, right? Like, not everybody’s cut out for it. But I’ve… I don’t know, I’ve enjoyed it. I think it’s… You know, I’ve enjoyed sort of…
There’s this weird analogy that I always think about in my head. And maybe it’s just because I’m old, and so I like to think of things in military terms. But I think of like being a manager as being like, you’re the officer, and you’ve got this platoon, and you’re leading them into battle. And so, I think if you have that sort of mentality where it’s like, “I’m leading them into battle, and I’m going to help them grow and be successful,” I think you can have… You can make a lot of change and be very impactful in their lives. So, I don’t know, maybe that’s just a weird way that I think about it. But I’ve enjoyed it, so I think if I had to do it over again, I would. I don’t know. We’ll see.
Zach: That’s a great analogy. I mean, I’d love to be able to get like a digital performance enhancement pack or something that I could just like plug into my head and then all of a sudden, I’m like 10% more productive, but I don’t know. I’ll keep dreaming.
But no, I mean, this has been a great conversation. I’m going to let you get back to it. But it’s been awesome. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
Jody: Yeah, you too, man. This is great.
Zach: Thanks for your time. And yeah, we’ll catch up soon.
Jody: Sounds good. Have a good day.
Zach: All right. You too. Take care.

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