There are easier places to work than Atomic Object. We don’t specialize in one industry or technology domain, so we’re constantly learning. We push hard to build the best app possible for a given budget, and ideas always exceed budget. We all contribute to our marketing efforts through the company blog. Everyone’s expected to understand the economics of the company and make smart decisions with their time. We push ourselves constantly to develop professionally. In short, we have high expectations of ourselves and each other.
So why do talented people with lots of employment choices choose to be Atoms? Daniel Pink’s three dimensions of motivation are part of the answer. We score high on mastery and autonomy, and we adopt our client’s purpose for the duration of each project. A serious commitment to sustainable pace keeps the intensity manageable. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we have strong bonds to each other. Those bonds were strengthened last year with an experiment I called “pair lunch”.Read more »
People are the only valuable asset of an innovation services company. While reputation, client list, culture, standards and tribal knowledge are also valuable, those all derive from and are maintained by people. Considering how important people are to Atomic Object, it seems crazy, when I think about it, that I don’t have a reliable way of measuring the state of our people. I’ve put more thought and effort into financial and technical measurements than people measurements.
We measure things like test coverage, project test status, billable hours and utilization, and we track revenue and profit margin. These are all strongly determined by or related to successful projects and happy clients. And happy clients, in turn, presuming you employ people with the right skills and expertise, derive from content, satisfied, happy employees. This might be the most important thing I should be measuring.
So what should I try to measure in people? Contentment? Satisfaction? Fulfillment? Joy? Happiness? — since I’m not sure, I decided to stick with the most general term, which is happiness.
Admittedly, measuring happiness of a group of people isn’t straightforward. But suppose I could reliably measure the aggregate happiness of my company. What would it tell me? Would it be reliable? Would it be helpful?Read more »
I have been aware for some time that my position and the demands of my job at Atomic Object isolate me, to some extent, from a complete and accurate understanding of how employees are feeling and what they’re thinking. Because it seems like an important thing to know, I’ve always valued receiving insights from Atoms willing to share their observations from “in the trenches.” I’ve recently come to see that this strategy of accepting secondhand feedback has significant downsides. In fact, I’m so convinced now that this is a bad idea that I will, going forward, avoid seeking it out. I will also politely decline when such information is offered to me. However, I think my original intention (attempting to gain an understanding of how employees are feeling) was good, and I have a new idea about how I might better achieve that goal.Read more »
Salespeople are most often compensated either fully or partially with commission. The conventional wisdom is that sales people need incentives to sell and should be kept hungry through at-risk compensation packages. I think this is a risky way for innovation service firms to pay the people who are selling their services.
Atomic doesn’t use a commission approach to compensation for the people who sell our services. But in the spirit of regularly challenging ourselves on closely held beliefs and business practices, we recently considered what using an at-risk model of compensation for our sales people would mean. Below I list some of the downsides I see with commissions. At the end I describe how we handle sales at Atomic Object.Read more »
Innovation service companies, like Atomic Object, sell their time and talents to help clients grow revenue or expand a market through the creation of software. Without products of their own, innovation service firms have no financial leverage: it’s an hour out, a dollar in. Like a shark that can’t stop swimming or it will drown, service firms need to keep moving through a steady stream of projects to remain in business. Lack of financial leverage means that to be sustainably successful, an innovation services firm needs to maintain an excellent track record, market-relevant skills, and a pipeline of future clients and projects. The inexorable pressure to find projects and execute them well, which I see as valuable, also inevitably inspires owners of such companies to think of ways to generate recurring revenue.
It was about a year ago that I described employee ownership of a company as a “partial emergent order”. An emergent order is a system that arises between the interactions of many independent components with no central control. Markets are emergent orders. Made orders are systems created with rules and central control. Companies are made orders. I have an abiding interest in this distinction because I’ve been heading Atomic down a path of significant employee ownership for the last four years.
What do you call the kind of company you work for? I think most people have a pretty simple answer to this question: retailer, construction company, coffee house, grocer, insurance company, hospital, etc. I don’t think that’s true for companies that build custom software.
Conventional wisdom says to keep your personal friendships separate from your work relationships. Some companies supposedly even try to restrict friendships in the office. This idea seems, to me, similar to the naive strategy of keeping your life in balance by strictly limiting the hours you work. My belief about having friends in the office is similar to my belief about having satisfying work: both make it a lot easier to lead a happy, fulfilling life.
The absence of something bad can be just as valuable to your company as the presence of something good. The trick is, it’s hard to appreciate the absence of something. Not only is it difficult to remember or motivate yourself to pay attention to the practices or policies that create the absence of a bad experience, it’s even more difficult to inspire and motivate others to appreciate this absence, and to act accordingly.
The value mantras of Atomic Object arose from a common understanding that lived in our collective heads and daily interactions. For example, it was during an interview debrief, when we were deciding whether or not to extend an offer, that I first heard Patrick Bacon observe that the candidate really didn’t seem to “give a shit” about his own growth and mastery. (No offer was extended.) Patrick’s comment seemed to me the perfect way to summarize our desire to work only with people fully committed to their projects, customers, careers, peers and company. I first used this phrase publicly in a keynote talk for GLSEC in 2006.