I’m the President and Cofounder of Atomic Object. Great Not Big is a way to share my ideas for building and running successful software product development companies.
After nine years as a professor of Computer Science, in 2000 I took a position as Vice President of Development for Deltamode, a tech startup company based in Austin, Texas. A year later, Deltamode ran out of money. I probably could have gotten my academic job back; I loved teaching, I was proud of my university, and I had done some really good things while in academia. But there’s an inevitable, deeply wired bias toward maintaining the status quo that characterizes most universities, and after nine years I was ready for some new challenges. Simultaneously, I had become increasingly uneasy with the hypocrisy of teaching an applied subject in which I had little experience as a practitioner.
So what to do? I had the remainder of an office lease, some used furniture, a great partner and three young interns. We’d discovered and gotten good results from following Extreme Programming practices, a lightweight methodology and precursor of what’s come to be known as agile software development. Atomic Object rose from the ashes of Deltamode and my team’s desire to keep finding better ways to develop software.
What I didn’t have was any practical business experience or educational background. That made starting a company challenging to say the least, but in truth I never really considered the safer and perhaps more rational alternatives (like getting a job). Sink or swim is a great way to learn, and I realized I had jumped in the deep end when a month later my wife lost her job of 17 years. I’ve learned a lot about business and creating a company from scratch since the summer of 2001. I made lots of mistakes and wasted a lot of time, but I never screwed up enough to go out of business. Now, ten years later, we’re a highly-respected software design and development company with a national client base. We employ 27 smart, creative, caring and committed people, our annual revenue was over $4M in 2010 and we served just shy of 50 clients.
One of the luxuries of getting bigger is having more people to help share the load. I’ve decided to capitalize on some of my success and carve out some time to write and speak on a subject I feel strongly about and about which I’m confident I have some valuable insights to share. The question I’ll engage is, how do you build and run a software product development company?
I’m looking to help small software development firms composed of collaborative teams making products for other companies. I believe such firms are a competitive economic advantage for their home countries. I also believe that employment in such firms offers a more humane and satisfying alternative than either employment with a large corporation or work as a freelancer. I’ll share the lessons I’ve learned with the express hope that I improve the operations of such firms and inspire people to launch their own companies. I’ve always loved teaching; now I have a new curriculum and a solid base of knowledge and experience from which to share. I want to help these companies be more successful.
I am writing for the founders and leaders of these firms. Every topic is to be fair game: finances, facilities, metrics, models, conflicts, roles, policies, compensation, customer relationships, marketing, selling, company ownership — the list is long. I’m taking advantage of Atomic’s culture of transparency and our value of teaching/learning to base my writing on our experiments, concrete examples, failures, successes and hard lessons learned. Atomic is by no means finished. In fact, one of the keys to our success is that we’re always growing and adapting to meet our client’s needs. This gives me a living laboratory from which to report fresh knowledge and new challenges.