Greg Ross-Munro, CEO and Founder of Sourcetoad, took some time out of his schedule to speak with Roxanne and Matt at Full Stack Talent about the progress happening in Tampa when it comes to tech, the cruise industry, and of course, whiskey.
Roxanne Williams: Sourcetoad has been in business since 2008. Being that Tampa Bay is more and more recognized as a tech hub, have you noticed a positive shift in terms of qualified tech talent in the area over the last decade?
Greg Ross-Munro: I think so. I’ve seen 2 different aspects of that positive shift. The first one is that there have been more and more positive stories about Tampa Bay. There have been concerted efforts in marketing the area, and as a result, it’s been easier to ‘convince’ people to move here for a job. Our job searches have been nationwide and we’ve brought people in from all over the country. That’s become easier for a number of factors, including the Tampa Bay area’s reputation. The competitive environment, especially in the West Coast, has gotten so extreme that it has caused things like housing shortages. So a place like Tampa Bay where you can have a great airport, a good community, basically perfect weather, and traffic that you don’t want to commit suicide in – those are all contributing factors as to why we can get such good talent.
The other aspect is that there has been more and more awareness of the startup and small business scene in the area. That has made the pool of applicants that would traditionally come out of a 4 year university with a Computer Science degree more likely to take a job at a smaller company, rather than the traditional path of going to write applications to change quarterly reports into pdf documents in a cubicle every day for the rest of your life. That was much more the norm for programmers in the area ten years ago. If you look at Tampa Bay, there are a ton of people that have a Computer Science degree and impressive technical backgrounds, but they work for Capital One or PwC in a finance department somewhere. Ten years ago, they didn’t know they could go work for a company of maybe smaller repute, but doing more meaningful things, like being less of a cog in a wheel.
Roxanne: Speaking of smaller companies, that’s actually one of the problems we’ve noticed here. Some of our college graduates are unable to find a career in Tampa because smaller firms don’t really have the time, money and energy to ‘grow their own’ so they end up hiring developers that are more seasoned. Do you have any advice you can give new graduates who are unable to find a job, as far as catching the attention of some of those companies?
Greg: Oof. To be perfectly honest, I’ve seen people who I wanted to hire – just out of school – get picked up by large banks in the area, being paid what I would consider to be a large amount of money for someone their age. And that’s locally. In fact, I’ve had a couple of experiences recently where I was trying to find junior people who hadn’t even finished school yet and they were already being headhunted by bigger institutions locally. Maybe it’s a different pool that I’m looking at, or maybe I’m looking for the same things the bigger guys are.
In terms of what advice I’d give… If you’re not thinking about the next generation of talent in your area, you’re either thinking very short term or your business maybe doesn’t have the legs to go to that next level. If you’re a new graduate in technology and you’re not pushing the older generation into the shiny new stuff and giving everybody else a reason to look over their shoulder, you’re probably not going to make it. Stuff moves so quickly here, it’s the younger kids coming up behind us that are bringing in new ideas and new toys. They really need to work with experienced engineers to learn the finer points of professional engineering – learn the nitty gritty, difficult stuff. The interpersonal relationships, communication, the types of meetings, and procedures that make things work long term. We have experienced people with grey hair here, and we have guys who are just out of the CS programs. So you have to mix. Both sides need to work together.
Roxanne: You guys seem to generally have really great employee retention – to what do you attribute this?
Greg: Two things, with the first being an interesting growth trajectory. In the last 4 years, we’ve gone from being a relatively small consultancy to a rapidly-growing company in a specific industry niche, and that has kept things exciting for the people who work here. There are always lots of new projects, especially working with very large Fortune 500 companies. So you get to work on a small team in a startup-y hacker-ish environment and still work on things that really have a massive reach – visible stuff as well. You’re not just working on one particular component. You’re working on something that will be out on display for the world to see. There’s a fair amount of leverage that every employee here has had.
The second thing is, we’re cool! I’m a programmer and I built a company that I’d want to work for. Everyone here is technical to some degree – mainly very technical – so everyone around you understands what you do. You’re not the 3 or 4 tech guys in the corner at a company where everyone thinks you’re a bunch of nerds. Nerdism and nerdery are a staple here.
There’s generally a good culture of appreciation for what everybody does. We do all the typical stuff to make things nice. We have beer in the fridge. We have video game evenings and movie nights and all that typical stuff that people like, but at the end of the day, we try to be very engaged with everyone here, and create a culture of friendship and high engineering standards. I think a lot of people enjoy that. Do we succeed, do we win every single time? No. Could we be better? Yes. But we also know that and we are constantly trying to be better.
Matt Vaughn: You spoke to the niche industry being an attraction for candidates as well as exciting work for people. What got you into the cruise industry niche initially?
Greg: Random luck, to be honest. When you’re building a business, you’re always faced with multiple options at every turn. Am I going to go with this or that opportunity?
The decisions I made kind of brought us to a fork in the road where we were either going to specialize in the cruise industry, or stay being more diverse. We were doing some hospitality stuff, some healthcare stuff, some educational stuff. We still do some of that, but the cruise industry, while not something that I was super personally passionate about, seemed like an extraordinary industry. It’s extremely complicated from a technology point of view, because you can’t develop software for cruise ships like you would a hotel. Half the time, the ships don’t have internet access, or it’s very slow. You need synchronization tools, you need tools that work offline, you need ways to re-establish connections. You are also dealing with extremely complicated systems. Most developers don’t have to worry about building software where the timezone is changing the whole time. How do you send a notification to somebody saying ‘you have a spa treatment in 45 minutes’ when the ship has changed timezones 3 times in the last 2 and a half hours? It happens! That’s the kind of engineering challenge that’s really fun, rewarding, and keeps you engaged.
The other cool thing is you get to see some awesome places. I’ve sent my developers all around the world – and, especially working on the luxury ships, I’ve gotten to send them to really nice places. You get to go stay in a floating 5-star hotel for a few days with all your meals catered by expert chefs. It doesn’t suck.
I know this is a little off-topic, but in the past, I’ve often argued that the thing you build your business on should be something you’re passionate about. But the longer I’ve run this company, the more I’ve felt that what I want to do is build a good company. I want to build a successful company that is a good place to work, that can provide good jobs for people working on interesting problems, and where people can be happy. That is a goal. It doesn’t have to be about a particular industry, otherwise I’d go build software about whiskey.
Roxanne: Everything you’ve said leads perfectly into my next question. You were mentioning how you get to take your employees on cruises. What’s the most stressful situation you’ve encountered during a cruise deploy?
Greg: Oh dear. It was the very first time I deployed software – and I’m talking a major deployment here. The software we deployed runs almost every guest-facing aspect on the ship, including lots of back-of-the-house stuff – it’s basically a giant piece of software we’d worked on for a year and a half.
I took a team of 5 or 6 guys with me, and it was a brand new ship. The network was a mess – it hadn’t been installed correctly. Internet was a mess because the satellite company was a new company. Half the people who were there had never launched a new ship before. Everything was a complete disaster.
Some of the guys who were with me, you know – they have family and kids – so after 2 weeks on the ship, I sent them home. Somebody needed to stay to debug televisions that weren’t working, fix signage systems that were doing strange things, and check all the guest-facing services that were under our control. So I stayed behind. And I was stuck on that ship for 37 days. It’s the world’s nicest place to be stuck, but you’re still essentially a prisoner in the office building of a client and you can’t leave until everything works.
Eventually there were passengers on board, because the ship had to sail. I was on more than one cruise back-to-back, and I had passengers throw things at me because they were angry about a TV channel missing.
At one point, I was almost going out of my mind. I was alone in a room for 37 days. I hadn’t seen my fiancée for a while. Eventually, they flew her out because they were worried I was starting to look a little ragged. They flew her out for a ‘conjugal visit’ or something like that, which really helped. but However, what helped the most was that the majority of these issues had nothing to do with us. They were all network, vendor, and hardware provider issues. I was just there to make sure all our stuff worked.
I was sitting on the steps one day staring blankly into space in a panic because the network wasn’t working. Their CTO was walking down the stairs and he went ‘hey, how’s it going?’ and I said ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m trying to work it out’ and he laughed and said ‘oh no, it’s one of the satellites we used. Turns out its orbit was degrading so we used the last of the fuel aboard the satellite to fire it into junk orbit so it wouldn’t crash into the earth. It’s gonna be a day or two before we can use another satellite.’ I said ‘huh,’ closed my laptop, and asked ‘what can I do?’ and he said ‘there’s nothing you can do. Go have a drink!’
The realization that sometimes, things are completely out of your control and there’s nothing you can do about it, and there’s no point in stressing about it, was really valuable.
The other thing that was really valuable was that, inadvertently, I proved that we’re the kind of company that would be prepared to have their CEO aboard a ship for almost 40 days just to make sure that everything went right, and that bought us loads of credibility.
Roxanne: What do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?
Greg: We’re starting to see the beginning of actual investment dollars getting to the startup world, which I like. I’m not too concerned about the big tech companies around here. They’re doing fine. They’re employing more and more people and growing at a nice, steady rate. What I’m passionate about is seeing the small companies grow and get funded. I think we’re seeing a little bit of that happening right now, and I think we’re gonna see more of it. I’ve started to see some companies outside the Tampa Bay area moving here after they’ve raised money out of the area. I don’t know if I ever expected to see that happen, but it’s really nice to see, because you get another perspective, you get outside talent, you get people coming here for the lifestyle and the money. And I’m not talking about companies moving from tiny little towns – I’m talking about big cities. There’s plenty of money in DC, incubators, etc – and they’re moving down here. That’s really exciting to see.
Matt: Kind of like PandaDoc that was out in San Francisco and now they have a large presence at the Station House. And speaking of other companies outside of Sourcetoad, who is a person and/or an organization that you think is doing something right and innovative in the area?
Greg: The tech company in the area that I really respect and appreciate in the way it’s run – everything, down to their procedural stuff – is AgileThought. I think they know what they’re doing. Their hearts are in the right place. Their heads are in the right place. They have the expertise in that industry and they’ve built a really solid, good company. I have huge amounts of respect for them.
Roxanne: This might be a better question for Joey since he posts about him a bit, but what are your thoughts on Elon Musk?
Greg: Well, as a fellow South African, it’s always nice to see South Africans doing well in the world! He’s an interesting guy. I don’t want to talk too much trash about him, but I think Tesla is pretty much the best kickstarter campaign that’s ever existed. The only problem is that nobody seems to realize that the ultimate plan is to sell enough cars to build rocket ships, which might be more profitable in the long run. If you can convince a bunch of people to fund a dream that is positive – you know, he’s always selling the dream, really. If you’re always selling a dream and you never really back it up, it’s eventually going to become a problem. He surprisingly backs it up 50% of the time, which is pretty good. I don’t know if investors are really happy with 50% though.
Matt: To tie it back to local and what you guys are doing, Hack Hospitality seems like it was a huge success. I wanted to get your thoughts on sponsoring more hackathons in the future.
Greg: I’m a huge fan of hackathons. I think that there’s an interesting tension in the hackathon world, which is, how do we get funding and sponsorship, and what is the value prop for the sponsors? Versus how are we respecting and best rewarding the people who are giving their time to be at the hackathon? Do the people participating feel like they’re being exploited? Do they feel like it’s a good learning opportunity? Or do they just feel like they’re being had? That’s a really interesting tension. It’s easy to answer if you’re a community-focused nonprofit or organization, but you still need to pay for the space and food for the people. If you’re going to do 10 hackathons per year, you have to start offering something more than just your logo on the back of a t-shirt. So I’m fascinated by that conflict. I’ve seen it done really well by a couple high-quality hackathons in New York where they brought industry experts in and people to work with the groups, and you have actual knowledge transfer. You have access to cool toys, new APIs, etc.
I think the bigger hackathons here have done ok with that tension, but I think there’s another level that these events could be taken to if organized with some real industry expertise. We’ve been working in the background with a company that puts on large corporate hackathons and conferences specifically for innovation affairs. This is a concept that’s been done extremely well in Belgium with an event called Hack Belgium, and there are some things that I learned in the hospitality hackathon that I really liked, but I’m extremely aware of making it worthwhile for both the sponsors and the participants, and to make sure I’m not exploiting anybody. I think we’re gonna do an event of our own – well, a joint venture with one of the local hackathon companies, with expert innovations company out in New York, to do a cruise industry based hackathon and conference, probably in March of 2019, here in Tampa. I think it’ll be big. Instead of it just being local, we’d bring in people from all around the country. We’d be bringing in sponsors, and we have some of the Heads of Innovation at a couple cruise lines that have said they would be judges. We’d make it a package deal where you can come to Tampa and make it a vacation as well, and we’d have real prize money and cruises to be given away to participants. We have some initial interest from some really big players who’d be sponsoring large perks for the teams and participants. I really love the small community events but I think there’s the opportunity to do something big in the Tampa Bay area, to help with some of Tampa’s identity in terms of those kinds of events.
Matt: Do you find that hackathons are a good way to find talent to add to your staff?
Greg: It’s tough to evaluate programmers from hackathons. Obviously I’m not gonna judge somebody’s code off something they’ve frantically built over a weekend with three strangers. What we’ve had success with is getting our name out there for people who are enthusiastic and prepared to take chances and look at the world in a slightly different way. We’ve hired maybe 3 or 4 people as a result of hackathons. I’ve been a judge and looked at something and thought ‘wow, that’s really cool’ and spoken to them and said ‘that was really smart’ and the next point of conversation is ‘we’re hiring, if you’re interested, fill out an application’ kind of thing. I can’t give you a direct answer – it’s more brand recognition and marketing with a little bit of actual talent evaluation behind it. I’ve been to events where I wanted to hire everybody there, and I’ve been to events where I was shocked at the lack of talent on display. It depends on a couple things, including how many hackathons have been in the area back to back. Sometimes you’ll see three in the course of a month, and by the third one, nobody’s there. So a little bit of community coordination would probably help.
Then, there’s the way these events are marketed, and the communities which they are marketed to. That makes a big difference. I’m prepared to stand behind any hackathon in the area because anything we can do to promote technical jobs, innovative thinking, and something that requires programmers in general is gonna help everybody out here.
Matt: It continues to help build the ecosystem.
Roxanne: Looking at your ‘build fun stuff’ ugly websites competition, Instacat, and things of that nature – do you guys still do fun stuff like that at work? How much creative time do employees have?
Greg: Generally, the rule is everyone has to work 30 hours a week. If you work your 30 hours, you can then go home, or take longer lunches, or do whatever you want. We’d prefer you work on stuff on your own, kind of like the 20% time some companies have. Those may not necessarily be the fun things like Instacat, those are more like projects that spring up inside the company. You can work on pretty much anything that fits in our world.
Someone built a beacon ordering system for cruise ships in their spare time over the course of the last couple months. You push a button and a waiter shows up based on a beacon sitting underneath the table, and he knows exactly who you are and what you want to drink. Nobody paid us to build that, that was just a fun thing someone did.
That said, we do still have the fun competitions. Once a month, we have a show and tell. And about once a quarter we’ll have some small competition. We just did a fake product one. We don’t publicize them since some of the guys here have a twisted sense of humor, but they’re funny internally. Everyone gets to work for the whole Friday on building a fake product and trying to sell it to everybody by the end of the day. And we’ll play video games together and drink beer and have a mini hackathon.
Roxanne: What led you to write ‘Herding Cats and Coders’?
Greg: I have clients come in here all the time and they say ‘we want you to build x.’ They’d want to know how we’d go about building that. This isn’t like building a house where you can see the house being put together. Even though most people interact with software on a daily basis, the average person probably doesn’t know how it’s built. I was basically saying 20 or 30 things once a week to somebody new. I really wanted a book which explained how this all works to people who aren’t technical, but I couldn’t find one. I wanted something that was part technical terminology, part process, part advice about how to launch a product or service. So eventually when I couldn’t find one, I decided to write it myself. I didn’t initially set out to write it as a book, I set out to write it as a set of instructions to send to my clients. I got to the point where I had enough content that it really should be a book. So I kind of accidentally wrote it.
Matt: What’s your favorite whiskey?
Greg: If I had to settle on one taste of one whiskey, my daily drinker is Highland Park 15. I think it’s better than the 18 and the 12. Young enough to be bitey and old enough to be complex, mature deliciousness.
I have probably around 120-130 whiskeys at my house. I love each and every one of them in a different way. Oooh, I do have an 18 year old Sazerac dry that’s probably my favorite thing right now. Best thing I’ve drank all year.
Matt: Any further thoughts or insights you’d like to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline for Sourcetoad?
Greg: We just made the Inc. 5000 list! We came in 1523. That’s kind of a big deal. It’s a real award, not like a ‘pay us $200 and we’ll put you on some list.’
We’ve just launched our Cruise Director product to the world. This is a product that allows cruise ships to synchronize all their custom-facing content to an entire fleet. Their entertainment system, music and movie data – it tracks, synchronizes, and runs analytics across entire fleets of ships and even across brands under a main umbrella. We’re pretty excited about that!
Sourcetoad delivers technology consulting and software development services, helping their clients launch complex projects around shore excursions, hotel booking, onboard management, interactive television interfaces, digital signage, interactive kiosks, and customer-facing web and mobile applications. They are also the developers of Cruise Director, a platform for managing all onboard passenger-facing systems across a fleet.
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