We got to interview Anthony Quartararo of Spatial Networks, and got to talk about an industry we haven’t touched on yet: GIS.
It was so refreshing to talk to a tech leader in Tampa that hires remote workers and offers such good benefits. We get why Spatial Networks made the 100 top workplaces list this year!
On what they do
Roxanne Williams: For our readers who may not be familiar with Spatial Networks, can you give us the 30,000-foot overview of what you do and what problem you’re solving?
Anthony Quartararo: Spatial Networks is a domain expert company that provides geospatial intelligence solutions for businesses and government. We do this both in the United States and around the world. That involves understanding geography down to the individual scale.
Think of downtown St. Pete, the city block that we’re occupying here, and knowing everything there is to know about the area. That would be a typical solution Spatial Networks provides to customers who may be considering relocating to St. Petersburg, as opposed to Sarasota, Bradenton, downtown Tampa, or Clearwater. Our goal would be to help them make the best decision. We’re not trying to persuade them, but help give them the most accurate, current, and high-fidelity data they need in order to make their business decisions.
I recently published an article about some work we did for a customer. He wanted to do business in Cuba after President Obama normalized relations several years back. That’s no different than the problem of businesses coming to downtown St. Petersburg. We’re here to provide customers with the best information possible to help them make better decisions for their business. That’s what the company fundamentally does.
Anthony’s history with geography
Matt Vaughn: You’ve been in GIS for what seems like your entire career. I have friends in GIS, and they love it. What made you go into it?
Tony: I didn’t choose to go into geography or GIS. During the junior year of my undergraduate degree, my guidance counselor basically called me and said, “You’re finishing up your junior year and you need to declare a major.” I had not declared a major at that point.
My guidance counselor happened to be the department chair for the geography department. He looked over my transcript and said, “In case you hadn’t realized it, you’ve taken mostly geography and social science classes in three years. You have almost all of the credits you’d need to become a geography major.” I kind of sat back, dumbfounded. I knew I had an affinity for it, but I didn’t think there was a career to be made out of it, unless you became a professor.
I dabbled in that for a while, but really after I obtained my undergraduate degree and then pursued a graduate degree in GIS, I realized I wasn’t the kind of person that would be content working at a local municipal government GIS department. That’s a significant career track for a lot of people who graduate with that kind of degree. So, I got a couple jobs in the commercial sector after graduate school, and the rest is history. I didn’t intentionally set out to have a career in GIS, but it’s worked out really well. I couldn’t be happier.
On the company’s culture, and remote work
Matt: Spatial Networks has all-hands AMAs. Is that only internal, or can customers ask questions as well?
Tony: Yes, that’s for the team only. Twice per year, we try to bring everybody in. Roughly a third of the company, if not more, work remotely. We have 13 states now where people work, and we don’t get to see them very often. There’s importance in connecting as human beings, coworkers, colleagues, and friends a couple of times per year.
We don’t get as much done productivity-wise as we normally would, because everybody is here and meetings abound. But we try to keep everybody in the office with catered lunch. We start the week on Monday morning with an AMA, and it can last two and a half hours sometimes.
It’s a powerful statement, in terms of why we’re making the investment and bringing everybody down to connect with people. Communicating on Slack, Twitter, email, or even Zoom is not the same as sitting down and breaking bread with somebody that you deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Matt: Shaping culture with a distributed workforce is definitely a challenge for a lot of people.
Tony: It’s not for everybody. Some people, through choice or circumstance, have to work remote. They miss human interaction. Working out of a Starbucks or from a home office 95% of the time gets old. But, working in an office can be just as difficult. You’re here 8 hours per day, 5 days per week – you spend more time with coworkers than with your own family. That has its own set of challenges.
We respect people’s desire to work remotely and not relocate to St. Pete, but we miss seeing them, and when they’re not down here for special meetings with customers or a special kind of engineering week, we like to make sure we have everybody down here at least once, if not twice, per year. That’s going to be difficult to manage in the coming years when we’re well beyond 60 people, but we’ll do what we can.
Roxanne: When we interviewed Scott Price from A-LIGN, he told us the same thing. They do their meeting every year and they’re at almost 300 employees at this point. Scott said, “we can’t afford not to do this.”
On Anthony’s evolution as a leader
Matt: What does an average day look like for you at Spatial Networks?
Tony: There’s not really so much an average day. My days evolved over time. For the better part of 15 years, I was the first person in the office. I came in at 5am, and would leave at 5pm or 6pm. That has changed, because I have more coworkers at the leadership level that handle things. I don’t need to be all things to all people. My day has slid into the 7am to 9am range. I typically have a normal routine that includes copious amounts of coffee, clearing out emails, and catching up with people, particularly on a Monday. Did anything happen over the weekend that I need to know about? Do I need to follow up on action items that are due?
Like it or not, my day is largely spent in meetings, and that’s not something I get excited about, but it’s a necessary part of the role.
At this point in the company’s evolution, very little comes to me for actual approval or authorization. The team is as empowered as I can make them at the senior leadership level, from a budgetary, personnel, or legal standpoint. Most of the time, it’s them letting me know what they’ve done, rather than them asking if they can do something.
I like to be involved when it’s really significant or there may be a risk. I don’t like to be ambushed, but that doesn’t mean I override their decisions. It’s just better if I know – that way I can provide support and coverage.
My role really has evolved into – I think I even have this on my Slack profile – Chief Snowplow. I make sure obstacles are removed from the rest of the team so they can do what they’re supposed to do. They know what they need to do and they have the authority to do that, but it’s inevitable that trees will fall down. My job is to remove the trees.
Matt: There’s growth all around the bay with leaders that are getting to that point, where no longer are they the sole person making all the decisions from a senior leadership level. Do you have advice for people about to bring on that kind of assistance in leadership? And also, how to let go of that control?
Tony: I don’t really have a lot of advice for how to let go. That’s still a painful lesson for me. I have a good set of colleagues that are gentle and professional in reminding me of that. The tendency is that I like to be involved in things at a level where it may be counterproductive rather than actually helpful. But we’ve learned to respect each other, and people will tell me if I’m too heavy-handed in something.
There are management adages that talk about ‘hiring slow and firing fast.’ We take an enormous amount of time, care, and effort in trying to interview (and hire) somebody. From job posting requisition and budgeting to actually filling the role, whether it’s a new hire or a replacement for a role that’s vacated, we take an extraordinary amount of time to do that.
The more senior the role, the more times we’ll likely talk to that person. We’ll fly people in to meet them, because it matters. They could have PhDs in physics and computer science, if they don’t fit in the corporate culture, it’s not going to work. As Spatial Networks grows, there are inevitably going to be people that don’t work out, or we’re not the right fit for them, and we have to respect that.
St. Petersburg geographically has some confines in terms of talent. Water surrounds us on three sides, and there are only so many places that people can work. I scratch my head about this a lot, but it’s difficult sometimes to get people to want to move to Tampa Bay. Florida is a vacation destination for them in the summer – it’s not a place that they want to live. I never imagined that it would be as difficult as it is to get people from out of state to want to move to Tampa Bay.
Matt: Massively campaign to northerners during the cold months. I’m from Ohio, Rox is from Canada.
Tony: That is a good strategy, but some people are just diehard! They don’t mind shoveling snow and dealing with it. On the other hand, we have one woman who we hired from DC, and she couldn’t be happier living in Florida. She’s not going back up to DC because she’s just done with the cold.
Matt: The one thing I miss is the cold. Everything else is what I didn’t like.
Tony: But you’re here in July and you can’t go to lunch without needing a change of clothes because you sweat so much! You get caught in a thunderstorm and you’re like, well, it wouldn’t be so bad to live in Arizona [laughter].
On why they’re one of Tampa’s best places to work
Roxanne: This is true. As part of my research on companies and people we interview, I always go on Glassdoor. Spatial Networks has really good reviews, especially when it comes to the benefits that you offer. And, the Tampa Bay Times recently listed you as one of Tampa Bay’s top 100 workplaces. With that in mind, what’s the culture in the office like?
Tony: That’s hard to quantify or hard to encapsulate in a concise way. I attended a conference a couple of years ago out in San Francisco called SaaStr. VC-types organize it out in Silicon Valley. Companies like Slack, Zoom, and Salesforce attend.
There are some inspiring leaders, what they call unicorns, that speak. There was one woman, I don’t remember the company she owned, but she made an obvious statement that wasn’t as obvious as I thought it was until she said it. Company culture isn’t just free coffee and free lunch.
We’ve got four core tenets at Spatial Networks, and those are our ‘north star’ in terms of what we expect of each other, and what we expect of the company. Without getting into a lot of detail, we’ve done things that financially go against the grain when it comes to taking care of people.
We’ve given extended PTO for medical leave, and we’re now offering paternity leave on parity with maternity leave. We want to make sure there’s equality and that we do more than what the law requires. We commit to offering good benefits for everybody. Everybody’s entitled to the same things. There’s no difference in benefits between me or the person answering the phones. We wouldn’t treat people differently because of their role.
They choose how much they want to contribute in their 401(k), but we’ve maxed that out so that no matter what they contribute, the company matches that dollar-for-dollar, up to 100%. Not many companies do that. If you contributed the federal maximum $19,000, the company would match that. You’d be putting $38,000. Free chicken, right? You’re getting $19,000 that isn’t attached to your salary or medical benefits.
We have flex time, which is for situations like a plumber that needs to come and they give you a 5-hour window. You don’t want to take vacation time for that and you’re not really sick, so use flex time. It’s similar to vacation or sick time, it just doesn’t count toward that, and it doesn’t roll over. That’s another thing a lot of companies don’t do anymore – rolling over unused PTO. Here, you can roll over a certain amount to the next year, if you’re planning on taking a two-month vacation on a whatever.
I think what you’ll find in Spatial Networks is, people that are honest about what they’re doing here, they’re passionate and they really care about our customers. In the end, that makes for very vibrant, healthy workplace.
On what Tampa’s doing right and wrong
Matt: What’s your involvement in the Tampa Bay tech community? Do you attend local events like High Tech Connect, poweredUP, Synapse, and Startup Week?
Tony: A colleague went to Synapse. Stephanie sits on the board of Suncoast Developers Guild. We’ve hired a number of people from cohorts out of The Iron Yard. When it closed down and Suncoast Developers Guild opened, they asked Stephanie to stay on the board.
I’m not personally involved in a ton of stuff in the Tampa Bay region outside of the company. I give everything I have to this company, and whatever’s left is reserved jealously for my family – and I don’t apologize for that.
Roxanne: What do you find are the pain points of talent retention in Tampa?
Tony: Being in this area since our founding, we’ve always struggled with talent. You don’t see the universities really pumping out engineering talent and technical talent the way I would expect it. That poses a challenge because to find qualified engineers, you really have to look outside of Tampa Bay.
Matt: What do you hope to see in the next few years for Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?
Roxanne: More talent? [Laughter]
Tony: One is talent, obviously. But also, we’d like to see more women in tech. We do our best. We don’t subscribe to the philosophy of hiring just for gender sake – they should be qualified, of course, but we’re not where I’d like to see us. It’s very difficult, and Stephanie can attest to that in trying to reach out and pull people in from all walks of life, all ages of life, male and female. We’re not where we should be – and that’s not limited to Tampa Bay.
The second thing is, the investment community isn’t as strong as you would think. I’ve participated in many roundtables over the last 20 years about the investment community here in Tampa Bay, and it’s almost non-existent. There may be a few people, but Tampa Bay is not known for its VC community.
Roxanne: Just a point with the diversity thing because I agree with you. We’ve interviewed probably around ~40 tech leaders, and I think 5 of them have been women. It makes me so sad.
Tony: It’s a problem and I don’t really understand how we address that as a community of small businesses, or in the technology sector. I find no comfort in the fact that there are lots of people struggling with the same thing.
Book / podcast recommendations!
Matt: Do you have any book and/or podcast recommendations?
Tony: My reading list is probably not the New York Times best seller list for business leaders. [Laughter]
Matt: It could be Tom Clancy or Martha Stewart. No judgement, just creating a list of books that our featured leaders enjoy.
Tony: Currently, I’m reading a book called Directorate S. It’s the second in the series to Ghost Wars, written about the Afghan war from the time we invaded Afghanistan up until more or less the present time.
Roxanne: Historical, non-fiction?
Tony: Yeah, he’s a forensic-level detailed researcher. He wrote the book on Bin Laden, and he wrote the book on Exxon Mobil. I think he was at New America in Washington, DC for a number of years. Very well-respected author. So, that’s what I’m reading.
Self-promotion, we’ve got a podcast that 2 of our employees do, called CageyJames & GeoBabbler. James Fee, our VP of Professional Services, and Bill Dollins, our CIO/GIO host the podcast. It’s just two geeks talking about technology – pretty geeky stuff. I like listening to it even though I understand only about half of what they’re talking about. [Laughter]
Another recommendation is a friend who’s actually a customer – Todd Barr. He does a podcast with others called The Mappyist Hour. It’s a pretty techy, nerdy podcast.
Also, I will mention that we’re a member of the Global SOF Foundation that Stu Bradins runs over in Tampa. They do a podcast called SOFspot, and it’s about special operations forces. We’re a small business plankholder of that organization, and they were kind enough to use me as a guinea pig to do one of the first couple of episodes of the podcast.
Roxanne: Who is someone in Tampa that you think is doing something cool or innovative in the tech sector? Outside of Spatial Networks, of course.
Tony: We’ve known Jody Haneke for a long time. He actually built our first proper website 15 or 16 years ago. Otherwise, I’m not plugged into the Tampa Bay tech scene. I’ll pay more attention to Tim Cook, Bezos, or even the Oracle from Omaha, Warren Buffett, than I will to local Tampa Bay. It’s just not on my horizon. I’ve traveled to lots of places around the world. Right or wrong, good or bad, my horizon is beyond Tampa Bay.
Matt: What’s your favorite geography fun fact?
Tony: Our VP of product, Coleman McCormick, is the longest-reigning champion of Geo Trivia, a competition we do every Friday. We just all give up because he [laughter], you find some obscure thing, like what country has the longest coastline in Africa, and within seconds, he’s got the answer. He’s not cheating, he just knows his stuff! We made a trophy, and we called it the McCormick cup.
If you watch the series The Office, they did the Dundies awards at Chili’s. Well, we did our own version of that. We handed out trophies and certificates. We try to do silly stuff like that, because it breaks the monotony. People will search high and low for really obscure geographical facts about the world around us. But it’s inevitable that Coleman will win. [Laughter]
Roxanne: Wow. Sounds awesome.
Matt: That’s great. Any further thoughts you’d like to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline, either for you or the company?
Tony: Stay tuned. I’ll just tease you with that.
About Spatial Networks:
Spatial Networks pays attention to global issues and are keenly interested in how geospatial technology can be leveraged to bring about solutions to these problems. Their view of the world is unapologetically geospatial, but they don’t feel the rest of the world shares that sentiment. Their mission is to fix that. Learn more here.
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