Dr. Alex Young
Virti develops immersive training tools to improve human performance in organisations around the globe. Passionate about improving human performance, Alex built and sold his first company whilst at medical school, before boot-strapping and scaling an award-winning medical education company while still training in the NHS. Virti — Alex’s most ambitious venture to date — has won a wealth of awards and grants, including being voted one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2021.Follow
Welcome to the Use Case Podcast, episode 206. Today we have Alex about the use case or business case for why his customers use Virti.
Dr Alex Young — an NHS trauma and orthopaedic surgeon by training — is the CEO and founder of mixed reality training platform Virti.
Virti uses immersive learning, artificial intelligence and game design to drive employee engagement and enable people to excel.
Show length: 30 minutes
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Music: Welcome to RecruitingDaily’s Use Case podcast, a show dedicated to the storytelling that happens or should happen when practitioners purchase technology. Each episode is designed to inspire new ways and ideas to make your business better. As we speak with the brightest minds in recruitment and HR tech, that’s what we do. Here’s your host, William Tincup.
William Tincup: Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup. You are listening to the Use Case Podcast today. We have Alex on from Virti. We’ll be learning about the business case, the use case that prospects from customers use to purchase Virti. So without further ado, let’s just jump right into it. Alex, would you do us a favor and introduce both yourself and Virti.
Alex: Sure. Thanks, William.
William Tincup: Sure.
Alex: My name’s Alex Young. I used to be a trauma and orthopedic surgeon. I trained in the UK and also spent some time in the hospitals with social surgery in Manhattan and also have a degree in education. About three and a half years ago now, I left the job that I loved in medicine to found Virti, really on a mission of being able to scale what I call soft skills training to as many people as possible and make it more data driven.
The reason for that was when I was working as a surgeon, a lot of the time, communication errors occurred or there was problem with leadership or teamwork in operating departments. That led to really poor patient outcomes. If you look at the corporate world, if you lack leadership skills, you lack what we used to call soft skills, which are and I call power skills, like being able to communicate, like being able to show empathy. It’s exceptionally costly for organizations, whether you’re a manager, whether you’re a new hire coming in.
So what Virti does is we recreate these simulated role play conversations, using some computer generated avatars and some clever artificial intelligence technology that simulates these conversations on mobile, on desktop or in virtual reality headsets. We combine that with some video to help people to learn soft skills on demand improve their own ability and close skill gaps as easily and quickly as possible.
William Tincup: I love that. It’s funny. 2019, let’s see, October, there was an HR Tech, and was I podcasting from HR Tech in Vegas. The one question that we asked all practitioners was, in the next five years, what’s going to be the what’s, what are we going to hire for? What’s the bit that we’re going to be hiring for? Almost a hundred percent was soft skills. It wasn’t what you would think. Well, you know this because of you’re research and what you’re doing. But it was fascinating to hear talent leaders, HR leaders, people, leaders, CEOs, et cetera, talk about.
This was before the pandemic, talk about how soft skills are needed. I can train somebody to be a Python developer, which if they want to learn Python, there’s many paths to getting that done. But they need people to have an ability and also have the desire to learn soft skills. So I love what you’ve built and that you’re building. Take us into the world of soft skills for a moment. What are the soft skills that you’re seeing that individuals need to consume, companies or organizations need to consume? What’s the array of soft skills?
Alex: Well, I mean, it’s a huge problem. I remember the first time that I read anything about soft skills was in an article, which I think was back in 2012 from the Harvard business review, which was called mind the skills gap and really sort of focused down on the need to bridge soft skills across all organizations. For what we did at Virti, we split up soft or power skills into different courses and different categories really so that people can focus down on them.
So for example, we have a lot aimed at leaders and managers, and that might then be breaking down into things like how to give behavioral feedback in terms of good behavioral feedback, poor behavioral feedback to their teammates or to people that they’re managing. Really so that can be delivered in a way that is empathetic and that is valuable for the person on the other end because I’m sure anyone listening to this podcast has been on the other side of the table where you might be receiving some feedback, good or bad. Perhaps it’s not delivered in the best way, which might then either motivate you or demotivate you, depending on how it’s delivered.
Other things, very, very topical. But for leaders, managing your team through uncertain periods. We’ve just gone through a pandemic, been very challenging for leaders to be open and transparent with their workforce when they themselves don’t know a hundred percent what’s going to happen to their business. Again, really bringing in these elements of things like empathy, honest and open communication.
Finally, we did a lot in the diversity and inclusivity space. So one of the beauties of using technology like AI and like virtual reality and augmented reality is that we can really start to mix up these scenarios in ways that traditional in-person role play or traditional in-person video can’t. By that, I mean, we can put the learner into the position of a demographic, which is not their own to then feel what it’s like to be on the other end of something like being in a biased-driven conversation, whether that is in an interview, helping people to understand where their own biases might be, see biases in others, if that’s in the avatars that they are playing with. Then really bringing that all back to define some learning points so that they can take that into their day to day jobs and impact that behavior change at scale for any organization.
William Tincup: So we both agree, soft skills can be learned. Right? So we didn’t pump out all. So skills can be learned. What are the barriers for learning soft skills? Is it desire? Is it aptitude, attitude? What holds people back? What do you see as a constant struggle of why we’re not at the place we want to be with certain soft skills?
Alex: Well, it’s a great question. I think if you compare it to what I would class as technical skills, like you mentioned, web development or Python development. So I think people there inherently know in their career path that if they become a developer, that’s going to put them on a track that’s going to earn them money. It’s going to allow them to be creative. It plugs into a really kind of defined clear outcome. If they do A, they will end up with B. For things like soft skills, there’s an element where people perhaps don’t really understand how much it can help them in their own careers. I think that’s something that we, as thought leaders in the space, need to sort of empower people to do. I think the other thing, getting back to your comment on can soft skills be taught, and I’m in complete agreement with you.
I think one of the big problems that we see, and there’s a great book on this by a lady Carol Dweck called Mindset, which is some people naturally have good communication skills, whether that’s because they’ve been brought up in households where their parents are good communicators or they’ve been in schooling environments where they’ve been surrounded by people who are great at giving presentations or they’ve seen what good looks like. But there are other people who are much more introverted and don’t have that naturally. So we’ve got to look at both of those two groups. You can get the group that are perhaps not that good at communicating or not that empathetic naturally and give them some steps and processes and ways to really improve that on demand. Equally for the group of people who are a little bit it better, you can really take them to the next level through ongoing training.
The difficulty with all of it is often people only find out if they’re good or bad at soft skills in a work environment. That’s got lots of risks associated with it. So if you’re a sales professional and your rapport building isn’t that good, you can lose sales. You then get very jaded. You don’t know why. It can lead lead you to sort of quit your job, in worst case scenarios. If you can’t get on with your peers, if you feel like communication between you and your team is not quite there, it leads to a lot of job dissatisfaction.
So we’ve got to reverse all of those inherent biases towards what learning soft skills means and really help people to understand that if you improve your conversation, if you take time to invest in your own development, your own soft skills, it’s going to help you in work, but it’s also going to help you in your personal life. If you are having a conversation with your spouse or with your children, having great soft skills is going to hugely improve your stress levels, your outcome. Whether it’s dealing with resilience, whether it’s managing frustration or empathetically persuading somebody. All these things are beneficial to people. I think that’s one of the things we need to overcome when we talk about why soft skills are so important.
William Tincup: So back to the days when you were practicing medicine, we here in the states, we used to at least talk about a phrase called bedside manner.
William Tincup: Which sounds a whole lot like empathy. I can tell you, after having a car accident, I had a surgeon, a wonderful surgeon who would visit me literally twice a day. He would come in early in the morning before his surgeries. He would come in late, late in the afternoon, late in the evening. He would just check on me. Literally he wouldn’t even look at the chart, wouldn’t even look at like … It wasn’t about medicine. He would just check on me, like, “How you doing? How’s everything going?” He single-handedly got me out of depression because I was depressed. I was mopey and whatever, after about the sixth surgery. He looked at me, he goes, “Okay.” My wife wasn’t in the room. He goes, “Okay, here’s the moment.”
I said, “What are you talking about?” Here’s the moment where you decide, do you live in the past or do you live in the future? He goes, “And by the way, it’s 50-50. I can’t control it. You have to decide, do you want to live in the future or do you want to live in the past?” He goes, “It’s totally up to you. I’ll support you either way. Look, I’m your doctor.” But after he left, I literally sat up in my chair and said, “Yeah, I’m going to live in the future. Okay.” Just in that moment, just boom. Had he not done that, had that not happened I have no idea how this would’ve played out. We think of it as the soft skills of empathy and just great advice and just other things. So I wonder, and then during your time as a doctor, did you see some of how soft skills played out in that arena?
Alex: Completely. What a great example. I think even breaking that example down, that surgeon, he or she may possess some existing soft skills themselves. But throughout their career, they’ve, they’ve seen patients who’ve probably been in the exact same situation that you have. Doctors and nurses are trained to be empathetic towards their patients, and then to help them navigate a way to overcome any roadblocks.
It’s exactly the same if you are managing someone in work. So we’ve seen obviously during the pandemic that people’s work lives and home lives have all become intertwined. Leaders and managers really now have to be conscious not just of how people are performing in work, but also about how they’re doing at home because the two are so blended. If people are struggling, they need to firstly pick up and identify that just like your surgeon did. Then they need to really be your coach more than anything else and help you overcome those challenges. Beyond being empathetic and helping people to impact behavior change and take ownership of their own health, like in that story. For me personally, when I was a surgeon operating, I had a great opportunity to learn from some amazing leaders in the operating theater, especially in high pressure environments.
I think really your soft skills and any type of skills are really tested when you’re under pressure. So whether it was when an operation didn’t go quite right. I remember a number of occasions where we operated on emergency cases, and the blood pressure was dropping. There was a lot of panic in the operating theater. You were dealing with relatives who were obviously distraught. The leaders who I felt were the best were always the people who remained calm under pressure, who had a plan, and who communicated to the rest of their team and kept them calm even if internally, they were probably a little bit scared too.
Right? So I think there’s so much that we can take from soft skills as a whole. Whether it’s empathy and getting someone over a hump to then make a positive change, whether it’s that mindset piece, whether it’s leadership, whether it is feeding back in a way that is thoughtful, there are so many different examples and so many different ways to do this. Often your own way of communicating is just defined by your experiences that you’ve seen. That’s therefore inherently pretty biased. It’s not really equitable, it is the word that I use. Whereas if you have on-demand access to a huge range of scenarios, you can do it any time, you’re not limited in what you can learn by your geography or in the people you surround yourself or with. Yes, you’ve got those as well, but you’ve also got on-demand access to all of these different scenarios to really take your learning to the next level.
That’s what really sort of excites me about what we are doing because we can actually put people in these scenarios that they might not normally get access to. They can fail, depending on what options they choose in a safe environment where there’s no repercussions and they’re not offending anyone.Or they’re not being offended themselves. Most importantly, we can collect a lot of data on what people are saying and doing. Whereas in the real world, either that data is lost if it’s in a work environment or it’s possibly not logged accurately, even if it’s a role play. So that’s the real exciting thing for me, where we’re blending some of those experiences that we’ve talked about and also the technology.
William Tincup: Yeah. I love the simulated conversation because it’s a safe area. Instead of playing with live ammunition, it’s like, okay, we’re going to role play. We’re going to be in a simulation. We’re going to learn from it. I also love the idea of tying some machine learning and AI into that so that we not only learn, but we get smarter as we learn, which would be nice as it relates to soft skills. I don’t think anybody’s doing that really well. I know you mentioned Virti, virtual reality, do you see metaverse and playing with metaverse as a simulation tool or an area? Do you see that as a part of your future as well?
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think one of the really interesting things about technologies like virtual reality is that certainly for the stuff that we do where we’re really trying to recreate that stress and emotion of the real world to then test people under pressure when it matters. We obviously work on mobile devices, work on desktops as well so that anyone can jump into the platform any time. But with the virtuality headsets, the really interesting thing is that not only did they block out the majority of your existing sensors so you can be completely transported, but they’ll actually trick your brain into thinking you are in one of these real communication scenarios. Beyond even taking things like in-person role play, if you’re doing role play with actors or actresses, that still might be in quite an artificial environment or you might be very aware that you’re speaking with an actor or an actress, if you’re practicing something like giving feedback.
So with virtual reality, you can transport people into any environment. So you could be in a small office, big office. You could be speaking to someone who’s old, who’s young, who’s black, who’s white, who’s female, who’s male, who’s binary. Whatever scenario you can construct, you can add that into virtual reality and trick the person’s brain in thinking they’re there so that they then behave in a realistic way as possible. That then allows us to collect data on how people perform and allows people almost a little bit like exposure therapy, to be put into these high pressure environments in a safe way. So that when they do get there, they’re much more relaxed than if they’re encountering it for the first time.
William Tincup: Well, I mean, again, in med school especially as a surgeon, you had to practice a lot to some on cadavers. But you had to practice a lot to get to a place where you felt comfortable putting that scalpel to skin in a real situation. So what’s different, there’s no difference. I do want to ask you a few questions about your favorite part of the demo. When you show Virti for the first time to somebody, what do you really love? If it’s different, what do you find that for a prospect or a customer, when they get to that part of the demo that they really love?
Alex: I think for me, and this has been true from day one since we started building the platform, is that the users and the customers that we interact with. There’s always that wow factor of really showing off this very new cutting edge technology to people, but then linking it back to behavior change and learning outcomes for organizations. Our team is made up of lots of games developers and people like that. I’m a huge learning nerd, and I’m a video game nerd.
So the combining my loves of learning and game design, we are able really to put people in at the demo stage into these environments, make it fun for them to go through, interact with these computer-generated characters, all through some of the video based scenarios. Then show them their results and how they did compared to other people in a very game design led way. That’s really, really fun. It’s a also fun in seeing what people do with the platform themselves, as well as creating these scenarios and having an off the shelf content library, we also have a no code creation suite.
William Tincup: Oh cool.
Alex: Where L&D professionals or in fact anybody can jump in, create these conversational scenarios themselves, can create video content themselves. That for me when I am occasionally bored or if I wake up at 4:00 in the morning, as most CEOs do, and log onto their own platform to see what folks are doing in different time zones, it’s really fun seeing just how creative people are and creating these new scenarios, solving their own problems. That’s the most rewarding thing for me time after time.
William Tincup: So when you create technology like this, sometimes people use it in the intended way. You know Where I’m going with this.
William Tincup: Sometimes you wake up and people are using the technology in an unintended way, but a really innovative in cool way. I know you have thousands of these stories. But what is something that you’ve seen people use at … No names, no brands. We don’t need that. But where you’ve seen someone use the technology and go, “Wow, that’s actually really, really cool.”
Alex: Yeah, man. So, so many really interesting use cases. I mean, I think there are two that spring to mind. So one, when the pandemic first kicked off, one of our customers in the healthcare sector was Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. They were originally looking at using it for onboarding their new cohort of doctors and nurses using the platform. They were going to do everything from orienting them to the different departments to how to communicate and so forth.
Now, when the pandemic hit, they actually had to suddenly upskill their entire hospital on how to apply protective equipment safely. What they had been planning to do with that was basically bring everyone down to the central physical location and do it, which wouldn’t have been very time efficient. Certainly wouldn’t been very staff efficient. So they just, by themselves, recorded lots and lots of video content on how to do this and then scaled it out to the whole organization, which was just absolutely fascinating to watch. Seeing how they were creative in what they did with the platform was amazing.
I think the other great bits that we’re seeing at the moment is as we’re bringing in people who are experts in different areas, whether it’s diversity and inclusivity, or whether it is at people who are really focused on leadership training, actually getting them in front of some of the virtual humans that we have, and just creating their own conversations and their own stories is really, really compelling. Then going through them yourself is just amazing. So we’ve been working quite recently on the DNI front and looking at some scenarios, which are really based on real life that some of our content partners are creating.
It’s quite remarkable because then when I go through the scenarios, I’m placed into the shoes of someone completely different, and I’m on the other end of a conversation that I would never expect to have as a white, quite privileged male from the UK where someone else has created these from their own experiences. I think those just continuously blow my mind.
William Tincup: I love both of those. That was awesome. So last question as we roll out, is when people are buying this technology, because this is a bit new, but not new, we’ve done all kinds of assessment work. We’ve done training and development. We’ve done testing. We’ve done some things that are scenario-based. So some of this, the way that you’ve uniquely combined these things that is at absolutely truly unique and new, buying questions that you love hearing from practitioners.
So let’s do it on both sides. Questions that you think are a bit benign and that maybe we should sunset and also questions that just really get you going, that you really love. You can just tell. When a person asks you this question, you’re like, “Okay. They get it. All right. I can’t wait. This is going to be a fun account. This is going to be a fun customer. They get it.” So what are those questions?
Alex: So I think the ones that I get most excited about or where people immediately see something that aligns to business values. So even just in the past week, I have been on two sales conversations where I’ve been sort of brought in as the CEO and founder at some quite high level conversations. People who had not seen the platform have come out and suggested things that are absolutely spot on. So one of those was I see this platform as being a real use in onboarding on new salespeople. So there was a huge retention problem at one of the organizations we were talking to where I think there was a survey done relatively recently, where there’s about 20% staff turnover happens in the first 45 days of employment.
A lot of that is put down to not being able to scale company culture or scale training, particularly things like sales training, which is very communications-based, adequately. There’s also lots of data on how high performers and people who want to do really well don’t necessarily value a paycheck above all else. But what they do value is themselves being valued and being given the best training and support possible to then get better. So the insight from the customer there was, “Can we use this system as part of our onboarding process to then track how people are performing and compare that to some of our best performing sales people?” I was like, absolutely that’s again, just a great thing that aligns to your business goals because you can track what happens to your revenue.
You can track your onboarding time. You can track your onboarding costs. You can track turn rates as well. So that was just really, really great one. I think again, sticking with sales, things where it’s like, “Can we benchmark our highest performers by putting them through the platform, seeing what their schools are on some of these virtual humans or video scenarios?” Then look at the newer people coming through and really actually define what good looks like and allow them to digitize their playbook on the platform and look at who is scoring highest in some of these gamified environments.
So those are really the fun questions where people get the real use case of the platform and then align it to some of their own problems and their own company and business goals, which is what we want as an organization.
We want to be delivering payback on any investment in the system as quickly as possible. Whether that is reducing the time for training, whether it’s improving confidence levels and engagement, whether it is optimizing a DNI strategy or driving sales revenues, that’s really, really exciting. I think the more basic questions are things like, “How do we know it’s going to work?” I say that’s basic again because I’m a learning nerd. So I’m also from a medical background. So we did a lot of research actually into the efficacy of not just our platform, but into technologies like virtual reality and how they can impact the learning experience and learning retention.
We also did some independent trials with healthcare professionals and that found that people learn more quickly using tech like VR and AI. But they also remember information for longer. If you’re wanting to drive that behavior change in your organization at scale, you need to have things that work and that have been validated. We’ve done things like randomized control trials, showing that the system can improve things like confidence, reduce anxiety levels as well as drive that learning retention. So those are the bits I always fall back on, which is we as the company, if we ever get asked any, what you described as benign or boring questions, we’ve always got the data to back it up and move things to a high level conversation.
William Tincup: I lied. I said it was the last question, but I got a one quick question. We didn’t talk about … Most of our conversation focused on employees and probably even middle managers. I probably in hindsight should have asked you about leaders, the C-suite and the board in particular. Do you see an application? If not now, do you see an application in the future of helping them really kind of get soft skills as well?
Alex: A hundred percent. I mean, one of the modules we’ve launched recently has been specifically aimed at leadership and how to be an empathetic leader, whether that’s your conversations, your team, whether it’s how to communicate culture across your organization. We’ve even just built out a live streaming element to the platform so that if you, as a leader or as an executive, want to communicate with your team through our platform and embed that into your ongoing training, you can do so. I think that communication piece and that focus on executives, and I think also one thing I’d love to do in the future is board culture because that’s often forgotten where-
William Tincup: Please, please do that. If I can make a request, please do that. Go ahead. Sorry.
Alex: Well, I’m with you hundred percent of the way. I mean, I think a lot of the time, we talk about how culture is the solution to all problems for a business, and a lot of the time it is. But the board is part of the business.
William Tincup: That’s right. Sometimes we sit slightly outside of it. So I think certainly for any founder who might be new to a board structure, or when you’re bringing on your new investors or whatever it is, having the ability to communicate efficiently, empathetically to deal with any problems that come up at boards, and to then not let that affect your performance in work, is a real … Again, it’s a huge power skill or soft skill. I think that’s certainly something that we’re looking at bringing out. We’ve kind of got all of those skills aimed at managers, but I think that board piece will be really, really exciting.
I love it. Listen, I could talk to you forever, but obviously we have other things to do. Thank you so much, Alex, for your time and wisdom. I absolutely love what you built. I wish you continued success.
Alex: Thanks so much, William. Love speaking to you too.
William Tincup: All righty. Thanks for everyone listening to the Use Case Podcast until next time.
William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.