John Oakes, CEO at Revenue Management Solutions, took an hour of his day to meet with us in his beautiful Tampa office. We went over talent, Tampa, tech, his career, and more.
On his career
Roxanne Williams: You are on year 16 with Revenue Management Solutions. Why have you stayed so long?
John Oakes: Good question. I started here as a developer in 2002. There were maybe a dozen of us in the whole company. I worked with the company from that, to about 150 associates today.
I actually worked for the company for about two and a half years, then left to work for a healthcare startup for a year. And I committed to do that for one year and then make a decision: do I come back to Revenue Management Solutions, or do I stay with the startup? In the end, I decided that I really enjoyed the challenge of working here, and the people I interacted with. I enjoyed being a part of the big picture, and what we want to accomplish as an organization in helping orchestrate all those moving pieces.
So, I feel very fortunate that I was a part of all that, and as we grew, my opportunities grew. I studied computer information systems and I wanted to be a developer, but my second favorite subject was economics. Here, we get to practically apply that with our clients. So, it was the perfect position. And yes, quite a journey.
Roxanne: You started as a developer. What did you code in?
John: I’m from the Silicon Valley area, and I interned at CISCO Systems during my undergrad. I did a lot of Java development there, but I couldn’t find it in this market, and I wanted to stay here. Specifically, I wanted to do server-side Java development for web-based applications.
They released the .NET framework in February of the year I got hired. So, I looked at everything and said, “Well I know you guys don’t want to do Java because you don’t have that skillset here, but do you mind if we use .NET?” And they were fine with it.
For a couple months, I used VB .NET because that’s what they knew, and then I realized no one really had any stake in what I used. I switched to C# because it was very similar to Java. I was comfortable with the language, and I thought it was a pretty elegant solution.
We also do a lot of database development here. We’re primarily a data analytics organization, so we analyze massive amounts of data.
Roxanne: Scott Conlon did data when he was here, right? Huge data nerd.
John: Yeah. He was on our data engineering team. So, we have a team here that all they do is write ETL routines to get our clients’ data in our analytical environment. Then, they develop those processes and run them on a regular basis. He was on that team.
Matt Vaughn: Data transformation wizards.
The Revenue Management Solutions spread
Roxanne: Are you guys all here in Tampa office?
John: No, we have four international offices. We have Paris, London, Tokyo, and Singapore. However, all of our technology resources are in this office. That being said, we have analysts in all of our other offices. These are very data-savvy people that analyze data and work with data for our clients on a daily basis. But the actual developers and tech resources are in Tampa.
On Revenue Management Solutions
Matt: Excellent. And for those who may not be familiar with your scope of work, what is Revenue Management Solutions? What problem do you solve?
John: We’re primarily known as a pricing company. A good chunk of our workload is centered around price optimization for large restaurant companies. However, we do all sorts of work around analytics and business decisions, mostly around menus. Essentially, we ingest all their point of sale data for the last several years, and we build models to predict how price strategy will impact consumer behavior and demand. For example, we could work with a company that has 500 locations throughout the country, all with the same prices. We might help them come up with a more segmented pricing strategy.
Additionally, we help with a lot of other decisions around their menu. “How are my menu items performing? If I want to look at deleting things and rationalizing my menu, how do I do that?” We’ll look at the transactional data and help analyze what the impact of that would be. All of our relationships are structured as partnerships with our clients. So, it’s not like we come in, do this short project, and walk away. There’s a lot of work involved in getting the data processes in place, and getting their data in our environment. It’s very much an ongoing partnership where we’ll ingest their data, and we’ll do a lot of work for them. But then we’ll help measure the results that we can adjust and move forward. It’s quite interesting work.
Matt: I know this is a very micro-level question to the macro of what you do, but when you look over customer data, what’s the one item that people still sell even though no one’s buying it, or it’s way overpriced?
John: There are brands with products that don’t sell. However, they’re important from a marketing and perception basis.
We’ll do assessments of our clients’ data, and we haven’t found any correlation between size and sophistication of that brand, that data quality, and what we have to do. We might work with a very small company with someone who’s just on top of everything, knows their data in and out, and they have absolutely pristine data. And we might work with a multi-billion dollar organization that is the exact opposite.
On an average day for him at Revenue Management Solutions
Matt: What’s an average day like, if there is an average day for you as the CEO?
John: I spend a lot of time with our different operational teams. We have a group that runs our client teams, which are our analytics teams. We have a technology group, and data engineering teams report through there. And then we have an R&D group, and our developers are on that team, as well as more of our data scientist people, analytics, and more advanced modeling.
I also spend a lot of my time interacting with our clients, and with our international teams. Ideally, I visit those international offices a couple of times per year. I’m not always successful in that.
Then, I also travel to client locations, and I work on business development as well. That includes onboarding new clients.
It’s a pretty diverse workstream. I really enjoy it because I like all those different moving pieces.
The Revenue Management Solutions tech stack
Roxanne: Given that a lot of our readership is tech nerds (I say that lovingly), what can you tell us about your tech stack?
John: We evolved quite a bit over the last few years. A sizeable chunk is in .NET. We also trained some of our developers in React a couple years ago. We still rely heavily on SQL Server. In fact, we probably have a trillion records in our SQL databases at this point. Literally, we have massive amounts of transactional data from our clients.
We are in the process of moving stuff to the cloud. We’ve been architecting our more recent solutions to make sure they account for what we can and can’t do there. Our cloud stuff is through Azure. However, we keep a very open mind about what technologies we use.
On the analytics side, we use R, Python, and a lot of the different common things. Our analyst teams working with clients use a lot of Power BI to help with communication.
Overall, it’s probably a pretty typical mix.
Roxanne: Why Azure over AWS?
John: I mean, we do stuff in AWS as well. The talent we have in-house, and their skillset, is definitely more Microsoft-centric. They are more comfortable with that. But we’re not necessarily tied to Azure.
On his proudest career accomplishments
Matt: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your 16 years here?
John: My proudest accomplishment is being such a big part of where the company is today. When I started working here, there were 12 of us. There are, like I said, well over 100 now. It was never on my career path to become CEO. I hadn’t even thought about it. But being a part of this journey, and as a result of that, having the opportunity to get this role, was quite an accomplishment. And very rewarding. I’m very appreciative of that.
On his learning experience moments
Roxanne: On the flip side of that, are there any particular “learning experience” moments?
John: Yeah. We always take competition seriously, and there’s always a nagging fear to make sure you’re at the forefront of what you’re doing. And if you look at us, we’ve been doing data analytics and big data for 20 years now. But it’s such a big space, and there are so many people interested in that space that we’re always assessing and evaluating new competitors.
That’s probably pretty typical, but we spend time worrying about that. Are we doing this better than anybody else? Are we at the forefront of the science of technology? How we can approach the analytics of what we’re doing? That’s always a constant focus of ours.
On competition and emerging tech
Matt: That’s always an interesting battle, when somebody forms competition based out of the software in the space. Out of the larger POS systems that are taking a lot of the data, have any of them started selling data analytics services?
John: When we look at how we compete and where we fit and what makes us different, it’s important for us not to just sell ourselves and communicate as solely a software company. Yes, we have software that we’ve created and yes, it’s an integral part of all our solutions, but a big part of those solutions is the people, the analytics, and how we partner with our clients. We work on understanding their brand strategy, their marketing strategy, and how the decisions we’re making align to that. Then, we tailor our solutions to fit into the process and work with them.
I think that a pure software solution is absolutely not the best solution for what we’re doing. Many people out there want to build software companies because of the valuations and the multiples. There are some great applications for software, and some of the new work we’re doing is much more software-driven. But I think it’s important that we look at how we fit into what we’re providing, and what makes us different. I 100% don’t believe that a pure software solution can compete with what we do.
Matt: Until AI is perfected, you still need somebody smart and strategic to know what to do with the reports.
John: Yeah. In fact, we built AI and machine learning teams. We can do things more easily by using those tools, and we know that. So, we applied them and we use them in some of our work already.
Talent in Tampa
Roxanne: You have lived in Tampa for quite a while. Have you noticed a shift in terms of qualified tech talent in the area? And if so, what’s the most drastic difference you’ve been able to see?
John: We had 3 positions open for developers recently, and it wasn’t an overly long process to fill them. Speaking frankly, we did end up using recruiters to place them. But we were successful in finding candidates we were happy with.
There is a perception that Tampa is not a tech-heavy market. I know some companies that open offices in Silicon Valley because they think the concentration of talent there is worth the expense. However, I work here, I did my undergrad at UT and grad school at Florida, and I live in St. Pete. So, I feel like I have a good perspective on both sides of the Bay.
In my experience, we haven’t had many challenges attracting talent. We are pretty open-minded about where we hire from, we just try to find the right people for the positions.
We have a very heavy international presence, and we sponsor a lot of employees as well. Over the last couple of years, we have had significant challenges getting our visas approved.
John: Yes, and even more standard ones. We brought in some executive positions where we had to provide a huge amount of additional details. It’s more challenging on the visa side, for sure.
On talent retention and remote work
Matt: In your opinion, what can companies do to retain talent, considering a lot of talent is starting to go fully-remote?
John: I recently talked to a few of my friends who run tech companies around here, and there definitely seems to be a trend. Some bigger companies completely back off on remote, but it seems that some smaller companies just go fully remote.
I talked to a company that offshored a lot of their development, and that didn’t go too well. Now, they’re doing it all in the US and Canada. We went that route. A lot of associates who worked here had to relocate either for a spouse’s job, or they just wanted to relocate. So, we evolved. We have a few people in DC, Colorado, and Texas. We are very open-minded about that. Most of those associates were not hired remote, they worked here for several years and they were great, so we figured out how to keep them.
Roxanne: Are you at the point now where you would hire somebody fully-remote as a new employee?
John: For the right position, yes. But we’re not recruiting for that or doing that today.
Tech in Tampa
Roxanne: What do you hope to see in the next few years for Tampa when it comes to tech?
John: I’m not sure what the area needs to do. To me, it feels more of our burden as an employer. How do we keep our people happy? How do we keep culture positive? They definitely have options.
On the culture at Revenue Management Solutions
Roxanne: Since you mentioned culture, what do you do to help keep people happy?
John: We have really good benefits, we pay for people to have a membership at the athletic club across the street at Harbor Island. We show them the same flexibility that they show us. I always call us a ‘serious company,’ we’re not casual every day, there are no Foosball tables. It’s not that we wouldn’t add things, we just think that what people really care about is the ability to occasionally work remote, and flexibility around people’s situations.
I would say we’re evolving as an organization. We changed ownership a couple years ago. As a result of that ownership change, I got this job. Our prior founders were former college professors, and they were great. They did a phenomenal job getting the company to where it was at that point. But I think we’ve evolved a little bit to make sure that we’re attractive to the current talent pool. It’s still a work in progress.
On his hopes for the city
Matt: What are you looking forward to in the next couple of years when it comes to Tampa Bay, outside of technology?
John: I look forward to the new pier in St. Pete because I live nearby, and I think it took a lot to get that moving.
For transportation, I’m looking forward to them finishing the Crosstown Connector from the Gandy Bridge to the Crosstown. I commute that way, and it will absolutely change my commute in a drastic way. So, looking forward to that.
It feels like there are great things happening in downtown Tampa and St. Pete that make them very vibrant places. That’s a core thing. In the last couple of years, I met people that moved here just because they wanted to live here. They said, “I really like this area. I want to live here so I found a job here.” Before, it felt like more like, “I relocated here because of a job.”
Roxanne: It’s pretty hard to beat Tampa.
Matt: Rox came from Canada 6 years ago, I came from Cleveland 4 years ago. It feels like everyone is a transplant here.
John: We have a lot of Canadians here, actually! There are a lot of Canadians. But we have a really good representation of different schools that we’ve hired from, as well. We hired a whole bunch of people from UT, USF, and UF.
The company was founded by a former Cornell professor, so we have a lot of people here from Cornell, and from the midwest. And a lot of international employees, even in this office. It’s quite an eclectic group.
Roxanne: Yes. For Canada purposes, what are you hiring most out of Canada? I’m just curious.
John: Our Chief Strategy Officer is Canadian. We got him from Royal Caribbean – he ran an analytics team there. Another Canadian runs one of our client teams. There are more. I’m not sure how we ended up with so many, but we have quite a few.
His thoughts on UT
Matt: I would like to get your thoughts on UT as a program, since you did your undergrad there. Many interviewees reference the local colleges, and generally, they only highlight USF and then trail off. As a UT grad, what are some points of success that you see from people that come out of there, as opposed to some of the other local colleges?
John: I should preface this: I’m on the advisory council for the MAS group over there. So, I do still participate and give them input on that.
Matt: Biased? [laughter]
John: That’s exactly what I’m saying!
One reason I really value UT is, it’s a very well-rounded program. It was very much high expectations on the liberal arts side. It wasn’t just a tech focus.
When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I studied computer science during my first year. And I really enjoyed it, but it was 100% focused on that. When I went to UT and I switched to MIS, I felt like it was a much more well-rounded program, and I still got plenty of tech courses as well. I got a business degree there, so it’s part of the business college, and I got a lot of that as well. Really, I just feel like I got a lot out of it. It was a great experience for me.
Matt: Why would a developer need business experience? [joking]
John: Exactly, right [laughter]. So, I worked here as a developer for a couple of years and I worked at a startup as a developer. Then I came back here in a leadership role. As it grew and my role changed, that’s when I went back and got my MBA at UF. That was actually great. It was good to step back and look at the academic side again, and then apply it to what we do here.
Our most productive and valuable technology associates are the ones that take the time to learn our business. I push that really hard. It can’t just be the tech side. It’s the same on the analyst side, I want them to learn how to analyze the data, but I want them to learn the business really well. Those that take the time to do that are by far the most productive and valuable for us.
On his involvement in the tech community
Matt: Outside of your involvement with UT, are you involved with the tech community? Do you go to any specific local events or meetups? Do you guys host anything?
John: I was a lot more involved in tech events when I was running that team. Selfishly, it was a lot for recruiting purposes. You can very quickly figure out who is a superstar, and that was kind of how I built my team. Frankly, I’m just not as involved in those as I used to be.
Book / podcast recs
Roxanne: What are your book / podcast recommendations? And those could be anything. It doesn’t have to be related to tech or entrepreneurship, just anything you read or listen to.
John: The only podcast I really listen to is The Daily, which is the New York Times’ 20 minutes of news every day. For books, I read a lot of non-business-related books, a lot of fiction, a lot of literature, just for pure enjoyment.
Roxanne: Do you have a favorite book of all time?
John: I like almost every Hemingway book, I think he’s phenomenal.
Roxanne: We haven’t had Hemingway before.
Words of wisdom for tech newbies
Matt: Do you have any advice for people looking into getting into tech as a career? Something a new grad can do to make themselves more attractive as a candidate, while missing the entry level 2 to 4 years of experience that most companies are looking for.
John: We love new grads, we hire them all the time. There’s so much to learn with what we do as a business, separate from the tech side, that that’s fine.
Internships are really valuable. We’ve had a lot of success with interns we’ve hired here. Our COO, many many years ago, was an intern. Some of our best developers were interns years ago. I’m still a huge believer in doing something you’re really passionate about. Don’t get into it because it’s really in demand right now.
Roxanne: Yeah. Multiple people tell us, don’t go into it for the money, do it because it’s your passion. Coding is something that will burn you out if it’s not your passion.
John: Yeah. I love coding, but I don’t think I would want to do it for 20 years. I’d just like to be involved in it more.
Matt: Any further thoughts you’d like to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline for you or for Revenue Management Solutions?
John: We’re working a lot on our financial solution. It’s a financial product that helps large franchisee systems aggregate financial data. That’s almost entirely software-driven, and we have some big brands coming onboard with that. We’re excited about that. We kind of have our heads down right now, focused on executing on a few things.
About Revenue Management Solutions:
For the restaurant brands Revenue Management Solutions serves, they unlock the truth in transactional numbers, then distill it into tailored, reliable, and actionable insights that generate sustainable growth.
Their trusted advisors turn customer behavior data into profitable actions by providing pricing, promotions, and implementation strategies for the world’s most successful hospitality brands and upcoming concepts.
Revenue Management Solutions assists more than 50 brands in 40 countries, with their patented processes of revenue management used in over 100,000 locations globally. RMS is headquartered in Tampa, Florida, with offices in the UK, France, Singapore and Japan. Learn more here.
Want to nominate a tech leader for us to interview? Fill out the form below!