For McKinnon, the huge professional shift was moving from being a buyer of IT services for his whole career. "Now you're on the other side of the table," he says. He's finding it surprisingly fun, with the opportunity to sit with a wide variety of CIOs to solve problems.
One thing that always bugged him as a buyer was an IT outsourcer telling him that every single thing about a big project was on track. "If you have a big shop, you know all projects don't go as planned," he says. "When your provider comes back and says 'Everything's green,' you think 'How is that possible?'" McKinnon says Bleum has a proprietary quality management system that gives client execs real-time reports on the Bleum team working on their project. It's used with a dashboard to give clients red-yellow-green performance measures of the team on 15 dimensions.
Bleum's relatively small, with almost 800 people, but growing, expecting about 1,000 people by year-end. And it's adding some large, multinational clients, both key reasons McKinnon was brought in. It's adding a second development center in Shanghai, and it's contemplating centers in other countries, to give it staff in the same time zone as U.S. customers. It's also hiring in the U.S. this year, recruiting 20 U.S. college grads to spend a year training in Shanghai, before working on client sites in the U.S.
The Personal Challenge
McKinnon says his family doesn't travel incognito in China. While it's not uncommon to see Westerners, they still stick out in this city of around 20 million people. Kids have asked to take pictures with his blonde-haired 11-year-old daughter, Savannah, like she's Hannah Montana. His son has a tremendously rare hereditary condition called Tyrosine Hydroxylase Deficiency, which leads to a dopamine deficiency in his body. That means, without medication every three hours, he can't move a muscle. McKinnon says that through therapy his son, Tyler, has learned to walk, but also uses a wheelchair regularly. All that, plus the service dog who can accompany Tyler everywhere, even on planes, means they are used to be noticed.
At the office, Bleum's English-only work environment allowed McKinnon a unique chance to work effectively in China, despite not knowing the language. But "once I walk out the door, I know 37 words of Mandarin," McKinnon says. "Pretty regularly, you're in a situation where there's no English whatsoever."
Any ex-patriot life offers a mix of immersing in a culture and feeling like a perpetual tourist. The McKinnons' daughter goes to an international school with other ex-pats, while Liz McKinnon home schools their son. The family has a driver as many ex-pats do, in part because the streets signs can be baffling to read, though they also use electric scooters and Shanghai's ultra-modern public commuter rail. They almost always eat local food, but keep a stash of peanut butter and mac and cheese comfort foods.
And the family travels regularly to see the rest of China. "It's still very much an adventure, and it's really fun," he says.
McKinnon found himself looking at a unique professional and personal situation, the kind that can't help but make you wonder whether you would embrace the adventure, and take the risks, that he has.