Platform Experience Counts: Virtual Success

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - I'm a 22-year-old chief technology officer of a pre-IPO company that specializes in software and web applications for the oil and gas industry. Like most people, each morning I wake up, shower, brush my teeth and head to the office. But I don't have to go far; my office is just a few steps away from my bedroom. Part of what's interesting about my story is my age--there aren't a lot of CTOs out there who've only been old enough to buy beer for a year. But the other part is how my company has managed to succeed and thrive within a virtual model.

At age 17, I knew I wanted to pursue technology. After graduating from high school, I moved to Seattle. I schemed, begged and self-crash-coursed my way into a few interviews at Microsoft Corp.

"What are you looking for in a job?" my vested and cocky interviewer asked.

"Long hours, low pay. A chance to prove myself," I answered. I had myself a job.

I was a tester on one of the foreign language versions of Visual Basic, and after only a few months, realized that I had gotten myself in way over my head, but that I would never be fired. It was 1994, the beginning of the technological boom, and it became obvious that anyone with coding ability would be in high demand for a long time.

I left Microsoft after I decided that free cappuccino didn't make up for long hours, low pay, stress and bad wine tasting parties. I wanted to be something besides a tester.

After I left, I returned to Denver and took on a string of contract positions, not at all uncommon in today's dynamic workforce. Big teams, small teams, high stress, low stress, big companies, small companies, I tried a few of each. I coded in every language, every platform, every environment possible. In time I found that I preferred small to midsize companies, new development and a significant say in how things were going to be done. To make a long story short, I became part of a three-man team that built an application that would save the small petroleum company we were working for hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

We rolled out our package to the 50-or-so person company. But a few days later the company announced a merger and declared its intention to lay off the team members. It was utterly devastating news to the three of us who had put our hearts and souls into a great software package.

But all was not lost. Acting quickly, Andy Wolfe, one of the team members, traded some of his severance for rights to resell the package. With some modification, we could have a small niche of the petroleum software market. We each put in every last penny to our name: about $100 from me (give me a break, I was 19) and several thousand from him (he was in his 40s). Exigent Information Solutions was born.

Since we didn't want to sell our souls to VC, or take out mega-loans, we had to be very careful with our money; and since we were in the conservative and traditional business of petroleum we had to be very careful with our image. The software business is forgiving and innovative; the petroleum industry is not.

The technology to do day-to-day business at home was available and for the most part reliable, and after careful analysis (Andy is also an accountant; nothing we do happens without careful financial scrutiny) we decided that some serious cost savings were possible with a virtual organization. So we decided to build one.

We set up a P.O. box, business phone lines, cellular, a website and e-mail. To this day, these simple things make up the core of our communication. It's Ockham's razor, applied to our business model. Under pressure we learned that with a reliable laptop, cell phone and internet connection, anything is possible. We travel very little since most of our service can be done remotely, and we work out of our homes, wherever those may be. Our company began in the Denver area, but we now have employees, contractors and advisors from New York City to Seattle, and customers all over the world.

Despite how much we believed in our concept, we were criticized early and often for our virtual structure by potential customers, industry analysts and competitors. We learned to counter the negative with the positive. Your company is too small, they said. We are efficient, our technology isn't cumbersome and neither is our company, we said. You might go out of business, they said. We will place our code in escrow and you can have it if we go out of business, we said. Your technology is immature compared with that of your competitors, they said. Buy in now, we said, and we will put all of your recommendations in our next version. You can't support your package with only two people, they said.

Why not? The company phone number is in my home office. And believe it or not, I answer the phone whenever it rings, so perhaps all aspects of the virtual are not ideal.

But where does this leave our bottom line? I have heard the cost of equipment, floor space and phone estimated anywhere from $7,000 to $22,000 per employee per year. Of course this figure is different for every company, but even at the low end the cost savings is clear. It doesn't take an accountant to see that with 10 employees, five years down the road, we will preserve a significant amount of capital. US West, one of the largest employers in Colorado, says it has almost 16,000 workers who telecommute regularly. The trend is certainly gaining momentum, even with lawmakers. An initiative introduced in the Colorado legislature this year offers incentives to businesses who allow telecommuting based on the number of miles the employees don't drive.

Since going virtual, my perspective on work has changed drastically. Gone are the days I sat counting the minutes until 5 p.m. My virtual workday is productive, fun, flexible and always a little bit different. The commute has been replaced by morning ritual. My wife and I wake up every morning and sip coffee while watching the morning news. The three o'clock doldrums are replaced by popping the laptop out of the port replicator and walking down to the local coffee shop for a soy latte. The commute home is replaced by cooking dinner, catching up on personal letters or an extra half-hour of work. At five o'clock, I begin to hear the honks, squeals and hum of the commuters--I am so glad I'm not among them.

There is no longer such a thing as company time. Personal and professional become like two halves of life, essential to one another. I have yet to call in sick in three years. To me, the virtual office is the synthesis between happy employees and maximum profits. Perhaps after we usher in the new virtual workplace, I'll one day tell my kids that once upon a time people left their houses to go work in big buildings. I'll tell them about traffic jams, sick-building syndrome, micro-management and cubicles. They'll stare at me wide-eyed in disbelief.

Looking for a platform for your ideas? Reach us at platform@cio.com. Dan Newsome is VP of software development/CTO for Exigent Information Solutions.

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