Discrimination: When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough

By | February 1, 2016

Atomic Object joined the ACLU’s Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition following a couple of eye-opening experiences I had in 2015. The MCWC is organized around the goal of updating Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. What I learned was that on this issue, it’s not enough to be a company that doesn’t discriminate, and which welcomes and treats everyone respectfully. We’ve been all those things from our founding in 2001. What we haven’t done well in the past is to be explicit and clear about our values and behaviors.

The Atom We Nearly Never Knew

Months after a talented young developer joined Atomic, they shared the fact that as a candidate looking in from the outside, they weren’t at all sure they could be themselves as an employee and not need to hide their sexual orientation. They contrasted this very positively with how things turned out once they were actually an Atom. The fact that they were comfortable as an employee, and didn’t have to waste time and energy masking who they were as a person, isn’t at all surprising to me. The eye-opener was that they couldn’t be sure about this from the outside looking in, even after having gone through our extensive interview process and having read our diversity statement.

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The Value of Part-Time Knowledge Workers

By | December 14, 2015

In a world of talent scarcity—certainly the one software design and development companies live in currently—it would be foolish to not accommodate a proven employee’s request to move to a part-time schedule if the job allows it.

I think the value equation for part-time knowledge workers is usually favorable toward the company. Presuming part-time work is desired by an employee, this should be a win-win situation. Read more »

A screwup avoided through a brush with mindfulness

By | October 29, 2015

I recently avoided a mistake I’ve made plenty of times in the past. The mistake I could easily have made was in how I reacted to an internal screwup. I attribute my better reaction to an experience I’d had a few hours before learning of the mistake we made.


Our marketing manager came up to me, a little upset, and told me we’d had an article published on one of our projects that inaccurately reported the membership of the team, excluding not only all of the designers, but both women who’d worked on the project. She’d heard from one of the designers who was justifiably irritated. Our marketing manager admitted she’d been busy, had handed the reporter off to a developer on the project, then moved on to other stuff she was trying to finish. Read more »

Sick time follows a simple formula

By | March 25, 2015

UPDATE 4/4/15 You can find the raw data I’ve used here at the bottom of the post.

I made an interesting discovery recently while spelunking in our time tracking system. The distribution of sick time, over all the people we’ve ever employed, very closely follows a logarithmic distribution.

All Atomic employees track their time on all activities, whether billable client projects or internal work. We’ve been doing that since we started, so our time tracking tool has nearly 13 years worth of data (679,263.25 hours, over 86 people). We find this data invaluable for analyzing our business, making staffing decisions, estimating, planning, and juggling responsibilities.

The graph below shows total sick time (blue bars) for all past and current employees, sorted by largest to smallest, left to right. The smooth blue curve is a logarithmic function. It has an R2 of 0.989 with the data. The red bars show absolute variance of each blue bar, versus the log function, at each point.


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What’s so HARD about Marketing a Software Development Company?

By | March 9, 2015

Atomic Object launched a new website back in November. While I believe the end result is very good, the time and effort it required surprised me. In the process I think I figured out why it is difficult to market companies like Atomic, and why it’s often done poorly.

I’ve come up with a HierArchy of Relative Difficulty (HARD). Where your company exists on the HARD scale determines how much time, money and expertise you’ll need to effectively market, or conversely, how likely you are to be marketing your company poorly.


No slight on the widget makers of the world, but their marketing challenge is pretty straightforward. The picture below illustrates the situation. Companies that make a concrete product have a straightforward marketing challenge. Describing the product isn’t difficult. It has known features, materials, quality, costs, and benefits of use. The marketing can be directed to the person who will both buy and use the product.

Marketing a product Figure 1. Marketing a widget


A service is inherently more abstract than a product. Service companies therefore have a tougher job in telling their story. The features and benefits of their service are less concrete. Pricing may be more complicated, and the relationship with the customer is more intimate and less transactional. Quality is more subjective. There are no materials.

Marketing a service Figure 2. Marketing a service

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How to Avoid the Downsides of Transparency

By | November 3, 2014

I’ve always believed that innovation comes from people who care. When you care about your profession, your clients, your peers, and your company, you’re never entirely happy with the status quo. You ask questions like, Can this be done better? Quicker? Cheaper? Is there a different product that would help or delight people? The self-applied pressure to improve, combined with creativity, brains and experimentation, drives innovation.

Transparency is a cultural attribute of a company that, when exhibited by managers and leaders, engenders trust in employees. Trust is a critical element to nurture caring people. After all, caring makes you vulnerable, and if you don’t trust the company or the people you work with, your caring is likely to wither, or you’re likely to move on.

Transparent environments have some downsides. I’ve previously written about their ability to spread anxiety, sow confusion, and slow decisions down. These negative outcomes of transparency reflect my viewpoint as the leader of Atomic Object. Research reported in the Harvard Business Review this month helped me see some negative aspects of transparency from an employee’s perspective.

Useful Boundaries

In the Transparency Trap, Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, describes a simple, powerful model for understanding the downsides of a transparent environment. Bernstein observed four types of boundaries in companies that effectively balance transparency and privacy:

  • Boundaries around teams
  • Boundaries between feedback and evaluation
  • Boundaries between decision rights and improvement rights
  • Boundaries around time

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Succeeding at Succession – Raising up MPs & Becoming CEO

By | September 23, 2014

A company can’t reach the milestone of celebrating its 100-year anniversary unless it can out-live its founder. In fact, it can’t even get to the lesser goal of outliving the founder’s retirement unless it pays attention to succession planning. This blog post is about the path Atomic took to reach this point.

A Multiyear Effort

Handing over responsibility and daily operations for our first and largest office was a multiyear project. We’ve now achieved the significant milestone of replacing me as founder in the managing partner role for Grand Rapids.

To be clear, I’m giving these phases names, durations, and significance retrospectively; the only “plan” I made was to achieve the goal, and the initial impetus to start was feeling overwhelmed.

False Start

In 2008 we were seven years old with about 20 Atoms in the molecule. I was selling all the work we did, planning capacity, actively involved in billable work (35% of my time that year), managing people, networking, marketing, wrestling with issues around growth, and working on broadening ownership. I got some help on some of these things, but what was on my shoulders was more than a full-time job (2,370 hours that year), more than I could do well, and pretty stressful. Read more »

Thinking Long-Term: Atomic Object’s 100 Year Birthday

By | September 3, 2014

My company is 13 years old this month. We’ve reached the average age of US corporations. We’ve succeeded in replacing me — our Grand Rapids headquarters has been more than ably run by Mike and Shawn since January of this year. Heck, we even recently outlived our first dishwasher.

And yet, like our age in human years, we’re a gangly teenager in some ways. We’re still growing into our recently expanded Michigan presence — Detroit and Ann Arbor still have plenty of unmet potential. We’re adapting our internal operations to multiple offices, and we’re refining how an Atomic office at full scale operates.

A few years ago I realized our short-term future was secure, so I started thinking more about the long-term. My initial long-term goal was to have Atomic outlive my involvement in the company. That goal drove me to work on succession, ownership, and governance. Last year at Path to Craftsmanship, I shared a revised long-term goal: I want Atomic to be the first 100-year-old software design and development consultancy. Read more »

Pairing with an assistant to slay the email beast

By | July 8, 2014

Keeping up with the 150 or so emails I get every day is a challenge, one that I fail at quite regularly. Happily, I’ve recently had a breakthrough on this thorny problem. Pairing with Jamie Lystra, our incredibly able assistant, has tamed the email beast. I’ve improved my responsiveness, reduced my mail-induced anxiety, and found an implementation that balances the conflicting forces of leverage, confidentiality, and privacy.

My first experiment with getting email help from an assistant didn’t go very well. I didn’t get the leverage I’d hoped for, and having full access to my email account proved to be a problem in the end. I wish Alexandra Samuel’s HBR article on delegating email to an assistant had been written a year ago. She has some great ideas and advice, and it could have helped me avoid some pain.

While the first experiment failed, the need for help didn’t diminish. A new approach was called for. My colleague Shawn Crowley suggested that rather than share full access, I think about a filtering and forwarding approach. Read more »

A simple model of business value creation

By | May 22, 2014

When I started Atomic Object with my co-founder in 2001, I followed my instincts and engineering training, as I had no formal business education and very little business experience. I wish I’d known about the knowledge funnel back then. Reading about this simple model in Roger Martin’s book, The Design of Business, was an “ah ha!” moment; he explained so well, and so simply, the process we more or less bumbled our way through in getting Atomic up and running. If understanding is a prerequisite to solving any problem, Martin contributes a simple, visual model and vocabulary to discuss and therefore increase the odds of creating value and improving your business.

The knowledge funnel has three stages: mystery, heuristic, and algorithm.

Knowledge Funnel
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