Robert Half’s Thought Leader Q&A series features insights from those who have made our company a great place to work and a premier provider of talent solutions.

This post features James Johnson, executive vice president and chief technology officer (CTO) at Robert Half. Our company was quick to embrace the digital transformation process, and James has played a pivotal role in helping to guide technological innovation at Robert Half since joining the company more than two decades ago.

James first worked for Robert Half in 1998 as a consultant for Andersen Consulting. At the time, Robert Half was implementing a check distribution system, and building 18 new print centers throughout the U.S., to help our contract professionals receive their paychecks faster. We knew paying fast was a competitive advantage, so we put print centers within one day of 90% of our contract talent.

“I was tapped for the Robert Half project because I had experience producing telephony invoices,” says James. “They needed someone who could design the format and layout of the company’s paychecks and pay advices and help create the system for check distribution. Believe it or not, the system we implemented ran in production until last year. And if you look at the checks and advices we use today, they are essentially the same design we came up with in 1998.”

Six months after James completed that project, Andersen Consulting brought him back to Robert Half to work on a team devoted to digital innovation. “This was in late 1999, and Robert Half was focused on building websites and learning how to take advantage of the new online job boards,” James recalls.

In the fall of 2000, James decided to join Robert Half permanently after being offered the role of manager of IT applications. Initially, he led a small team devoted to implementing technology to support our staffing organization. Over time, James took on the responsibility of managing the technology supporting all of Robert Half’s marketing, website and recruiters and was also given international duties. 2012 is when James’ upward career path at Robert Half really started to accelerate.

“I suggested that we move all our worldwide systems to a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform,” he says. “I led the selection, implementation and deployment processes, and I think that whole experience helped catapult my career at Robert Half. Today, we’re using one instance of that SaaS solution for our whole company — and we are probably the only company of our size in our industry using it at this scale.”

We recently sat down with James to learn more about his career at Robert Half, why he was inspired to work in the technology field, and how he stays informed as a tech leader. Here’s what he shared with us:

In 2015, you were promoted to vice president of IT. And by the fall of 2019, you were elevated to CTO. What are your responsibilities as the CTO, and how has your role evolved since you started?

I’m responsible for making the case to our leadership and other stakeholders why Robert Half should continue to use technology to drive the business forward. I’m also responsible for making sure we keep our technology systems available, redundant and scalable, and that the company has appropriate backup and recovery strategies in place for all our critical systems.

[Robert Half President and CEO] Keith Waddell asked me to oversee all our application development when I became CTO. By 2021, my oversight had expanded to include our shared services, including our data centers, networks and help desk operations. Today, I lead about 850 staff in our Applications Technology and Innovation (ATI) department, which is one of the largest departments at Robert Half.

I would say that one of the most important changes for my department during my time as CTO happened in 2019 when we rebranded ourselves as ATI. The whole point of moving away from the “IT” name was to underscore that technology is an integral part of how we do business at Robert Half. I believed it was really important to position our department as a business partner — not a support function.

What do you like most about your job?

I can tell you that I do like my job. It’s a tough job — a big job — with long hours. I start at 5:30 a.m., and I finish not long before I go to bed around 9:30 p.m.

I work a lot since I became CTO — and my perspective on work has changed, especially since the pandemic. I used to be all about getting things done. I believed intrinsically that people valued success more than anything, and if you helped them feel like they were successful, that was good enough. The truth is, people want a lot more than that.

So, as I think about this question more — what do I like most about my job? — I would say it’s taking care of my team. I believe the job of any leader should include motivating their people and helping to create a work environment where everyone can be successful holistically. I’m inspired by the fact that a lot of the work our team does helps to make our company better.

What motivated you to build a technology career?

My dad was really into gadgets and liked to have the latest technology. When VCRs first came out, we were the first family I knew that had one, though we didn’t have anything to play on it! And when everyone started buying the first Atari gaming consoles, my dad bought an Intellivision. He thought it was better than Atari, although I can’t say I agreed with him!

One day, he came home with a PC that used 5.25-inch floppy disks. It sat on our kitchen table, and I would tinker with it. I thought it was interesting. So, in 1991, I decided to pursue a computer science degree at my local college, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. I remember going to the computer store, buying a 2400 Baud modem, and installing it in our home computer so I could connect to the mainframe computer at school and do my programming assignments from home.

I quickly realized, however, that I did not want to be a computer scientist. I loved programming. I did not like all the coursework and theory. Plus, my teachers referred to my programming as “brute force.” They were looking for “elegant.”

So, I decided to enroll at Montana State University in Bozeman to study mechanical engineering. A friend of my dad’s was earning their ME degree and turned me onto the subject. I loved the work and loved the math. Then, we had to learn about fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and heat transfer, and I didn’t enjoy any of that. I stuck with it, though, and graduated in 1996.

How did you end up in a consulting job after college?

Some representatives from Andersen Consulting came to a recruiting fair at Montana State. I remember they were telling students, “Come use your problem-solving skills that you learned in engineering to help us solve real-world business problems for our clients.”

That sounded great to me. My friends were like, “You’ll never get a mechanical engineering job if you become a consultant!” I told them, “I’m counting on that!”

So, I went to work for Andersen Consulting in San Francisco. I knew I made the right choice because my first six weeks were devoted to learning how to write code. I was back doing what I liked! I also really enjoyed the pragmatic and practical nature of the work. It was detailed work, writing and debugging code and getting programs to work at their highest level.

What technology inspires you? And what’s next on the technology road map for Robert Half?

I’m less interested in whether a technology is “cool” — I want to know how it can improve our customer experience. How can it help us to grow, and to provide better service to our candidates, clients and employees?

Robert Half’s digital transformation journey is ongoing, so we have many things in the works. Right now, we are entering another cycle of modernization at Robert Half that I think will be challenging work for our team — and also, a ton of fun. Our last big cycle was when we moved to SaaS.

We are looking at all the systems and processes that underpin the company, from recruiting to finance and accounting, to determine how they should look in the future. What’s exciting is that we have the right “people capability” in place right now to envision that future. And we’re thinking about strategies and use cases for applying technology — not just about the technology itself.

When you have an opportunity to do this type of work at a Fortune 500 company like Robert Half, you just have to step back and think, “These are going to be some of the best days as a professional that I will ever have.” I am excited about what’s ahead. And I am very excited for my team, as many of them have never been through this experience.

With so much changing in technology all the time, how do you stay up to date as a technology leader?

I read, and I also listen to podcasts every day. Not everything is about technology, specifically — it is more about the impact of technology and the challenges and opportunities it creates.

I also attend executive roundtables and other events with thought leaders. I find some of the events that venture capitalist firms hold to be particularly beneficial because they help me learn what they see as the next big thing in tech or business that we all should be watching.

Robert Half also provides me with access to people and resources that I can learn from and bounce ideas off of, like a peer at a leading global analyst firm who was once a CTO. That type of investment in development is something that attracted me to the company in the first place — and keeps me here.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?

I love to play golf. I am a very serious golfer, although I would not say I am a good golfer. I have a putting green in my office, and I’m thinking about setting up a swing box just outside my office so I can practice my swing mechanics during breaks.

I play about 100 rounds of golf per year. On the weekends, I try to play about 27 holes — 18 with my friends and nine with my wife. She actually hates golf, though she enjoys the social aspect and the exercise it provides. She probably plays more often than I do during the week! We played in our first couples tournament last year. We had a lot of fun, and I think we’ll probably do it again.

Follow James Johnson on LinkedIn.