Growth by process: Eytan Lenko, Founder and Director at Outware Mobile

This week I’m speaking to Eytan Lenko, who is a founder and director at mobile software development company Outware Mobile.

Outware has grown fast from founding in 2009 to employing 70 people today. The company develops apps for brands like ANZ, Telstra, Visa and AFL, reaching 1 in 2 smartphone users in Australia.

Eytan is a deep thinker about how to drive fast growth in services businesses generally. Many of these insights have much broader application than just software development — professional services firms should take note.

Some of the interesting things that we talk about in this interview:

  • Constantly rebuilding the organisation
  • Why a focus on process is so critical to Outware’s growth trajectory
  • Outware’s “non-wanky collaborative culture”
  • How Eytan has used software development to inspire the recruiting process
  • Why Outware always chooses to build rather than recruit superstars
  • Outware’s processes for managing process
  • Eytan’s views on getting scale in services businesses
  • Why transparancy is so critical at Outware (both internal and external)
  • Promoting innovation using hack-a-thons

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts or comments on this interview.

The transcript follows below:

Steve Pell: I’m here with Eytan Lenko who is a Founder and one of the Directors of Outware Mobile. We’re here to talk about your growth journey in what is now a very successful business. Could you give us the elevator pitch on what Outware does?

Eytan Lenko: Outware is a company that has a very strong vision. We believe that we’re moving towards a world where anyone will be able to do anything through great mobile software. So we’re positioning ourselves to be the company that makes that software. We want to have a huge impact through the work that we do with our clients or for ourselves. We work on native mobile app development across IOS and Android. And we’re a full service company so we put a lot of emphasis into user interface and visual design of those apps. As well as obviously the management of those projects and development through to the QA and testing.

Steve: How big is the company?

Eytan: We were founded in 2009 around the time that the app store opened up to external developers. We’ve grown pretty rapidly to over seventy people today. We have been recognised by Deloitte as one of Australia’s fastest growing technology companies. It has been a very interesting transition from three directors that founded the company, of which I was one. It’s gone from us literally coding our first apps and doing everything else as well. To now scaling the company to the point where we have got specialist teams, all working according to our Outware methodology and our Outware process to make sure that everything we do is of the highest quality.

Steve: We spoke a little off camera about refactoring the organisation and what that means to you. Could you perhaps give a bit of an introduction in terms of what you’re doing?

Eytan: I think one of the things that have helped Outware grow so fast is that we have always been a company that is willing to question things. One of our key values is continuous learning. From the directors down, anyone who notices that something could be done better or that we’re doing something that is inefficient, we bring that up and challenge them to come up with a process to make it work better. The directors have led from example on that, we put a lot of process in place fairly early on.

I think startups in particular are often very sensitive about process. By process I don’t mean the corporate or bureaucratic that is just going to slow you down. We’ve found just the opposite, that having good process means that you don’t have to keep having the same conversations again and again and again. People don’t need to debate how they can do things so much.

We pick up a lot — people might notice that something could be done better or even though interacting with the clients, the way they do things may be better. So briefly to that end, we will have a process meeting and we will adopt a new version of our process. This is like the agile way of development, constantly iterating our processes and getting better and better at them.

Steve: So you have a process for bringing in new processes?

Eytan: We actually do. Every two weeks we have a process meeting where anyone can add anything to the agenda. Any process that they want to update or something new that they want to introduce. And there is a steering committee for the processes and they will go and talk it through and adapt it and look at the evidence of whether that or why this change is going to be better than what we were doing before, then we will adapt it as a company.

Steve: I’m going to say that doesn’t sound like how you run a fast moving organisation. But clearly you guys are moving incredibly fast. You are winning awards, you won the third fastest growing company in the nation or something like this? How do you reconcile that: how do you move incredibly fast yet, yet on paper all that process would sound like things that would slow you down.

Eytan: I lot of these processes, they don’t have to be heavy, they just have to be something that is repeatable. I think that having a technical background helps. If you want to program efficiently you recognise something you are doing over and over again and you package that up into an object and that is something that you can reuse.

I kind of think about processes as those reusable kinds of steps. For example if I want to kick off a project. I don’t need to come up with what is the agenda going to be in this meeting, what are the things we are going to go through with the client, what is the best way to do that. If I had to think of that for every single project that takes a lot of time. Where now I can just say alright, project starts, this is what we do to kick off the project, let’s get it done.

That doesn’t mean that we are robots, you can still be flexible if there is an agenda item in there that doesn’t make sense to that particular client, you just take it out. But you probably have about eighty percent of the work that is being done for you and you know has been tested with other clients so you know in general that it is a way of doing it that works well. That is going to save you a lot of time.

We wouldn’t have been able to grow as fast as we had with our processes. Particularly our process around recruitment, the way we recruit and score candidates. We only want the very best technical people working for us. We probably receive one hundred CV’s for every person we end up hiring. To go through one hundred CV’s in a structured kind of way is a lot faster than actually going through and studying each single one and doing it that way. We feel the processes save us time and help us move faster.

Steve: Fantastic. In the same way do you think the process means you can build the people as opposed to having to recruit people who are superstars already?

Eytan: Process is one part of it. We have a culture here of continuous learning. Every week or so somebody will come and give a talk about something they are working on, some new piece of technology, a piece of research. Our engineers are given time to spend on their own research projects. I think there are a lot of things aside from just process that help us develop our people and help them develop their career and knowledge. I think the ability to contribute to process kind of helps people. We don’t want people literally following these instructions, we want our team to be questioning everything they are doing as well.

It’s not rare that somebody will say, “I think you can do this better”. This is happening all the time. People are always kind of questioning what they are doing. We are still small enough that nobody feels like this process has been handed down from god and I will just do that forever because that is the way it is. Everyone is kind of talking to each other and thinking about better ways of doing stuff. For a junior engineer, if they have gotten to that point where they are thinking about how they actually make the bigger picture work better, that is a step up in their knowledge and their potential career.

Steve: So you are very much of the opinion that you can build great mobile engineers here?

Eytan: Yes, We’ve had to. We started in 2009, when the entire mobile industry started, so we have never been in the position where there are tons of people that have the exact experience that we want that we can just hire to set up this company. We pick up a big client, and we didn’t have enough people to service them. We had a little lead time so we needed to hire three or four engineers to make sure that project was going to be resourced. It is difficult because it is not always going to be three or four great IOS engineers out there that are able to be hired in the next few weeks.

We have always had to have this pipeline of great developers in general. Our recruitment process is much more focused on identifying people that really get development and have the right attitude and the right approach to software engineering. Not so much “do you know what this the IOS or objective C call” is — that’s is not really that helpful to us. We are confident in the people in our mentoring programs; our training and induction process that we can take a good engineer and turn him into a really good mobile engineer. That is something that we’ve had to learn along the way.

Steve: Let’s talk about that cultural aspect. What does the culture at Outware look like?

Eytan: When we talk to our staff and do regular staff surveys the thing we’re always scored highest on is our culture. That has been very deliberate from the directors. We want to have a team that is collaborative. Not so much in the wanky use of the word collaborative, but in the sense that the team that isn’t competitive with each other. Where you could go and ask someone for help and they will stop what they are doing. They’ll stop without thinking “if I stop what I am doing then I am not going to get my work done today, and that is going to be monitored and I will get a mark down”. You can feel free to kind of work together help someone out and share that knowledge across the teams.

Obviously that’s good for the people that work here because they get to learn faster and they get to work together in a nice environment. We think ultimately it is good for our clients as well. It means the knowledge of the client project is shared across to people that are not working on that particular project. If someone is sick or someone moves on to a different project, there will be other people here that know about that project and can support it and move it forward. We feel that everyone wins when you put something like that into the culture.

Steve: There are a lot of companies that would like to have a “non-wanky” collaborative culture, but how have you done it? How do you build that?

Eytan: There are a few things. Having strong values. We went through early on with an exercise where we sat with a team and said this is the way we feel here at Outware at the moment. What are those values and we actually wrote them down. Professionalism, excellence, collaboration, continuous learning, good ethics, strong ethics. Those values are really covered through our induction process. They are shared across the team and lived by the team.

So having that framework in place and having those strong values that everyone identifies with is important. Then, I think it is through living by example. We have a lot of senior people here, they are not living in an ivory tower, they are getting their hands dirty and contributing. People can see through example where my manager is actually helping out here and helping this project and passing on their knowledge. So that is obviously the way things are done here and I am going to do it as well. It feels good to actually share with other people and get involved as a team. It breaks that old traditional IT thing just sitting at your computer and programming.

We had a lot of structured events to make sure that people are talking to each other and that communication is high. Regular seminars, which I think I mentioned before. Every piece of code that anyone writes, he has to be reviewed by someone else so there is an opportunity there to talk about why someone made certain decisions and to give feedback to other people about ways they may be able to improve on what they are doing.

Every day the whole team involved are talking about what is going on that day. Not just the developers, but the UX designers and the BA’s. There is all the social stuff as well. Regular social events, we have Pilates happening tonight, they go out for team events, we go out and everyone does that stuff. But having a team that really enjoys being together and working together and going out together, it is important to put time in to create those bonds that make the team.

Steve: Do you hire for culture as well?

Eytan: Yes, good point, we do. When we’re analysing people that are coming for interviews we look closely at cultural fit. Just seeing if their attitude fits in here. If you ask them some tough questions in the interview, do they respond and get a bit shirty with that. If they didn’t know the answer, did they talk it through? Are they a person you would feel happy to sit next to and collaborate with? So we get our developers to interview developers, we have a number of stages. From junior developers to senior developers, they’re all involved in the recruitment process and they all know what to look out for.

Steve: Hiring for culture is clearly one half of it, but to have a strong culture you have to fire for culture as well. Do you take it seriously on that side as well?

Eytan: We have got a probation period here that we take seriously. That probation is quite formal, at the end of your probation there is a really formal sign off to get across that boundary. Again, the cultural fit is a big question there, obviously if someone is not performing or their technical skills are not up to scratch then it’s relatively easy. It is a harder call if someone is technically good, but it’s turning out they are not a great cultural fit.

To be honest, I don’t think that has actually happened. We definitely had people not pass their probation periods for technical reasons. Occasionally the technical stuff comes down to the cultural as well. Their attitude wasn’t right. So they don’t pick up IOS or Android as fast as somebody else who has the same kind of skills. And maybe that was because they weren’t communicating they weren’t asking for help or talking to people and that kind of slowed them down. I think it just naturally self-selects.

Steve: Do you have plans for how you are going to keep that culture strong as you potentially grow and maybe double or triple the size of the company?

Eytan: That is a very good point. As the team talks about our growth plans, the first thing that always comes up is don’t screw up the culture. Everyone is hyper aware of the culture being really important. I’m reasonably confident; there are seventy people so it is big enough now that for every person that joins they get assimilated pretty quickly into the culture. As long as we keep hiring and being strict about that.

So, I’m not too worried about that. One of our issues at the moment, is we’re a Melbourne based company. We have our office in Melbourne, we work offsite with a number of clients in Melbourne as well. We do service clients from interstate, but predominantly here in Melbourne. But eventually we will open an office interstate, or overseas. That decision about whether that office is going to have the same culture as we do here in Melbourne, or do we let that office create its own culture and its own way of doing things. That is something that we are actively discussing at the moment.

Steve: I know you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about growing service business in general. And that’s been one of the factors in why you’ve been able to do this so quickly. What are the key tenets in your approach to fast growth services business?

Eytan: There are two sides to it. The key for a services business is the ability to deliver something that makes the client happy. We’re in an area that we are all very passionate about. So it goes back to the culture as well, having passionate people makes it that much easier to keep up with the strong culture. We almost sometimes care too much about the products we are creating, sometimes more than even the client, so we all go do extra stuff that we aren’t even being paid for just because we think that that is really going to make this amazing. Kind of an experience for the end user.

We treat it as if it is our own product. Usually I think that is good. I think that comes through to our clients and I think that is important for a services business to be successful. I think your enthusiasm and your passion for what you are doing needs to come through to the client. If you’re delivering vanilla colour, cookie cutter style approaches, there is nothing particularly exciting about that to the client and that can be replaced with another company that is doing the same thing. But to add value, you have a lot of experience and expertise in the area, you are creating a lot of enthusiasm and you are contributing great ideas. Ideas beyond literally just doing that project. That is very valuable and that is the kind of stuff that gets really strong word of mouth recommendations. The kind of thing that snowballs, at least on the client demand side, into a lot of demand for your services.

On the delivery side, a lot of the stuff we talked about. Hiring great people and keeping them happy and having great processes in place which are ultimately there to ensure the quality of the output you’re creating. A lot of work on both sides of making our clients happy and presenting something that our clients see as really valuable and rare, then to actually deliver on what we promise and what we are saying.

I think also that transparency. All of our systems are cloud based, they are accessible by us and everything that relates to a customer’s projects is accessible by them. So at any point the client can see where their project is at. It’s not like they are relying on the project manager to go in and tell them. We are giving them showcases at every iteration. They can log into our project management system and see exactly where a project is up to.

Steve: So a lot of transparency, not just within the organisation, but within the organisation to the clients as well.

Eytan: I think that is what people expect these days generally. If I was paying someone to work on a project for me I would expect to see where that project was at any time. And I’d expect to be able to have answers for questions that I want to be given to me whenever I want. That is the attitude that we take. We don’t have anything to hide. If there is an issue with a project we are up front, we talk to the client about it and we work out a solution and a way around what the problem is and we resolve that together. There is nothing I can say that we ever want to hide from a client so we are very happy to be transparent. That seems refreshing in an industry where not every company does that.

Steve: To draw together two of your points, do you think that transparency, where your people can see the data and what is happening in business really drives you to let people take the impetus and refactor parts of the organisation, because they have the openness to see what is going on?

Eytan: I think so, I think it’s that and the fact that teams are working together. So it’s not like people only see their little bit of the puzzle. For example, often we get requests from the development team to look at an issue with some specific area of the business development process that is flowing through and ultimately impacting the developers down the track.

So, the developers might push for an update to the business development process maybe where they are brought in a little bit earlier or they validate some assumption. So that they are not feeling a few months later that they are being asked to do something that they never agreed to do. I think that is pretty cool that the developers feel that they have the power to impact on the processes of other teams as well.

Steve: From another perspective you do a lot to facilitate innovation in the organisation, can you talk about some of those things that you’re doing?

Eytan: There are two kinds of innovation here (and maybe more). That environmental innovation, where you have smart people who have been empowered to make changes or work on things and do things, given that space to innovate.

So every engineer has their side research project that they have chosen to work on, and they are given a bit of time every week to work on. That might vary, if they are at the pointy end of a project and they need to focus on that, but there might be other times where they get to work on it.

Steve: What are some of those research projects, can you give examples?

Eytan: A very topical example is that Apple just came out with this new programming language called Swift which is going to replace Objective C. We have a few engineers that are assigned to start getting started with Swift, summarising what the big differences are what the impacts are going to be. That will end up being a presentation to the entire company where they talk about, this is what we found, this is the approach we need to take as a transition to Swift.

So we see that as a kind of research project. There are research projects that are more about creating proof of concepts or trying new technologies, those sorts of things. Sometimes they are more about, go back over a project that you worked on and look for some of those common patterns extract them out and maybe that is something we can learn from and improve on and make future projects more efficient. Those research projects kind of move from pure research to investigation.

Steve: Twenty percent time, that idea?

Eytan: It is not quite twenty percent; it is probably more like ten percent time. It kind of varies, being a service business. Sometimes you are flat out, sometimes you are quieter, so it can vary.

Steve: Have you seen many things come out of that that you are using day to day in the business?

Eytan: Yes, I great example of that is we’re often impacted by clients not delivering APIs and the service layers that we need to integrate with. So, we might be given the documentation, but the actual API itself is not going to be ready for a few weeks. But development has started, so you have issues. You have to start creating stubs and APIs to deal with that just so you can continue.

We had a few of our engineers work on building a really nice, real easy web based user interface based way of creating the stub really quickly, like in thirty seconds. So you can then say this is what the API call is going to be, this is the data it is going to return, here are a few different options. That has grown to be something that is now used across the entire company.

Our QA team uses it extensively. It is to the point now where it is something we can go and start offering to our clients as a product that they can start using for their team. That is something that came out of that research time. There are some really good examples.

Steve: Do you do hack-a-thons as well?

Eytan: Yes, we do hack-a-thon every quarter and that has been interesting too. Last hack-a-thon one team built a Google glass version of one of our apps. Another team built a really great initiative for one of our client based apps that we can then go and take to our client who were really blown away by it. We don’t put restrictions on our hack-a-thon, it doesn’t have to be restricted to client projects. People can just kind of go blue sky, fun stuff.

A good example of that is recently, a group of people thought it would be a great idea for Outware to start publicising more about what we are doing. Talking a lot more about the industry we are in and the greater trends. They wanted to put a podcast together. So Outware invested in the recording equipment and that now happens every week. We put out a podcast and it has been really successful. For the last ten weeks in a row it’s been featured on iTunes.

We had the CTO of Telstra on last week as a guest. We put out a special edition at the end of Apples World Wide Developers Conference that morning to summarise everything that had come out of that. It’s great externally for Outware to position us in that leadership space. But also internally, people get to come on the show and be guest and actually get to talk and elucidate about what it is that they do. It really makes people feel great to be sitting in front of a microphone and talking about their job. They feel like a celebrity or rock star. Which I think engineers in this industry kind of are at the moment.

Steve: What’s next for Outware, where is your focus?

Eytan: Outware is a high growth business and we are anticipating our growth to continue over the next twelve to eighteen months and beyond. That’s going to mean our core business of building mobile apps continues. We’re increasingly getting involved in the technology and getting involved in the infrastructure and the web services behind the apps. We have a lot of expertise in how to structure those API’s to make the app as efficient as possible. Rather than helping someone else build those API’s we built up our expertise ourselves so we can actually build that API.

We have an infrastructure team that already exists and is working on a number of projects and that adds another level to the efficiency that we can bring. We are very careful not to brand ourselves as an App development company; we are a mobile software company. So: wearables, Google glass, watches, that whole kind of side of things is poised to take off so we will see a lot of growth in that area. We recently released an AFL app for the Pebble watch that has been well received, we definitely see more of that coming. And I guess geographical growth.

We are a Melbourne based office, we service clients from each state but I think we would do a lot better if we had an actual presence and other offices in other states and other countries, so that will be an area we are looking to grow in as well.

Steve: Great. Let’s wrap up with one last question. Let’s go back to day one and knowing what you know now. What would you tell yourself on day one about how to grow the organisation?

Eytan: I would probably tell myself to be a bit more confident about our growth prospects. Not to worry beyond the next client that there might not be something else coming. And to kind of get a bit ahead of the curve in the process of hiring and growing the company quicker than I guess our demand is growing. Particularly in the early days of Outware, we put ourselves under a lot of pressure to grow just as we needed the growth. But if we could have gotten a little bit ahead of that we probably would have reduced a lot of the stress on ourselves and the team. So I guess taking confidence in that if you are a leader in a growth industry then to expect to be more confident about growth.

– You may notice slight differences from the interview in this transcript for the sake of readability –

This interview was first published at http://managementdisrupted.com/eytan-lenko/