From Services to Software: Logikcull’s Andy Wilson on Building a Sustainable Engineering Culture
Software is about solving problems. It’s about designing and building more elegant and efficient ways to handle complex tasks. This is exactly Andy Wilson’s mission as the CEO and cofounder of Logikcull. Logikcull provides law firms, corporations, governments, and service providers with a simple, affordable, and accessible way to collect, sort, organize, and share the massive volume of digital documentation that needs to flow between parties in the process of legal discovery.
As Wilson states, it’s time to put an end to the “antiquated technology, career-threatening risk, high cost, and black box processes” associated with traditional eDiscovery. He saw early on that the traditional tools and technology were not keeping up with the explosive increases in the volume and complexity of digital material. In a short period of time the process became prohibitively expensive and operationally unwieldy, creating a vulnerability in the legal system leaving under-resourced parties unable to pursue or defend against claims.
Wilson and his cofounder and CTO, Sheng Yang, launched Logikcull in 2004 as an eDiscovery services provider. By 2009, they were the fastest-growing eDiscovery services company in the U.S., ranking #181 on the Inc. 500 with 1,100% growth. But then, as we all know, the recession hit. Logikcull almost went out of business, but the leadership team managed to turn the setback into an opportunity by using the time to develop a better business model. In a bold move, the team invested $3 million in profits back into the company so they could evolve their business from a services company to a SaaS company that delivered Discovery Automation. Over the following four years, Logikcull would go on to invest another $20 million in R&D, yet another example of their faith in and dedication to transforming the business.
The pivot was a huge risk and a massive undertaking. It meant that Wilson and Yang had to build a strong engineering culture from scratch. But they understood that that’s what it would take to take to fulfill their vision. “When the recession hit, we took a step back and realized that a lot of the work we were doing was manipulating digital information manually,” Wilson says. “Being software people, we also realized that software would eventually automate the whole process. And we knew that if we didn’t build that automation, someone else would.”
Determined to create a company that was built to last, Wilson and Yang started from the ground up. Their starting point was a Hadoop-driven type of technology, behind-the-scenes software with no user interface, and a team that included more services people than engineers. “We had to consciously create this engineering culture,” Wilson recalls. “It’s not an easy thing to go from services to software. There so much to it from how you build software to which methodologies you employ to what kinds of people you hire.” It was a complex evolution process with a lot of moving parts, but the Logikcull team was up to the task. In retrospect, they are now able to identify a few key ideas that helped them make the transition from a services-focused to an engineering culture successfully.
Ditch the Customization Mindset
One of the initial observations that Wilson made about the transition was the overarching need to get out of the customization mindset.
“When you go SaaS, everybody gets the same version of the software. There’s no customization. But when you’re a services company, each project you do is like a unique snowflake that requires a lot of customization from the engineering team facilitating those projects.”
It might seem like a no-brainer, but this shift from ‘client/customization’ to ‘customers/software’ was actually a huge turning point for the company and every member of the team.
“We really had to change our mentality from ‘Let’s customize this software for every single client’ to ‘Let’s build this software for all of our customers’,” Wilson says. “It took well over year before the engineers stopped responding to every client comment by immediately running and trying to program around the feedback.”
Work Backwards from a Clearly Defined End Goal
To help manage this transition in mindset, Wilson and his team employed an approach he refers to as Jobs To Be Done, which is essentially a way to work backwards from the end result you’re after. “Too often, when someone recommends a feature, a company will just go out and write that feature, but that’s the wrong thing to do because the feature isn’t the job,” Wilson explains. “Instead, if you dial a little bit further and ask, ‘Why are they doing this – what’s the point?’ you’ll uncover a lot more information that will probably lead you down a different build path that will ultimately deliver something that really helps customers facilitate their job.”
Wilson and Yang applied this approach very effectively to the big picture vision for their end product. “We did a study and calculated that processing customer data for a single job required close to 3,000 steps,” Wilson says. “Then we set a goal of reducing friction so that we could make the process as easy as uploading a picture to Facebook – one click and done. We worked backwards from that goal so build something that would allow anybody of any skill level anywhere in the world to do what we did.” That fierce focus enabled the engineering team to successfully assess and prioritize tasks over the course of the four-year build from 2009 to 2013.
Hire the Right People
While having the right mindset and approach are critical to any endeavor, there’s no question that having the right people on the team is at least as important. Wilson has given a lot of thought to his hiring methodology. “We all know that recruiting is time consuming,” he says. “If you don’t have a good process, you can easily spend two or three times the resources on a candidate who isn’t a fit.” To combat the potential of wasting precious time with unviable candidates, Wilson strongly recommends that interviewers address three key areas in every interview, starting with the initial fifteen-minute phone screening: Culture, Competence, and Compensation. Here’s how he applies this approach in his own hiring practice:
“I need to know right away if the candidate has the right kind of attitude to fit our culture,” he says. “They need to be passionate, kind, enjoyable to work with, have a sense of humor, and core values that align with ours.” Though the idea of culture might seem cliche, Wilson has learned from experience that it’s a critical part of building a strong and sustainable company. “You have to think a lot about your vision, mission, and core values,” he says. “You need to know what ‘makes you you’ as a company and codify that. I wish I did that a long time ago. It would have saved me a lot of hiring mistakes.”
“Obviously, I need to know if the candidate is capable of doing the job we’re hiring to fill,” he says. “Do they have prior experience and/or can you tell, based on the knowledge they’ve accumulated in their job research, that they are hungry to learn?”
Wilson points out that competence isn’t just about skills, it’s about context. “There’s a big difference between someone who is a builder and someone who is a maintainer. You need to hire based on where you are in your life cycle,” he says.
“Right now, for instance, I’m looking for people who have experienced the stage of growth we’re in today. I will not entertain hiring anyone out of a big company who has never gone through this kind of growth. If your team isn’t used to building stuff, you’re going to fail. I’m totally certain of that.”
“I also need to know if the candidate’s compensation requirements fit our salary range,” Wilson says. “This is where a lot of companies screw up because they think talking about money is weird or too private.” Wilson strongly disagrees with such assumptions, saying, “Money makes the world go ‘round and salaries are set by the market. You have to ask the question. Being up front about this will save you from spending days recruiting an entry-level candidate who expects a six-figure salary.”
Wilson stresses that the assessment of these three areas needs to happen in order: Culture, Competence, Compensation. “Where things really go wrong is when you either don’t abide by these criteria, or when you hire in reverse,” he explains. “For instance, say you go for a compensation fit because the candidate is cheap, but their competence sucks and their culture fit isn’t great. Obviously, that’s not going to work out. Or, maybe you’re interviewing a candidate who is a really good culture fit and super smart, but who is used to making half a million dollars a year because their company was acquired by Google. In that case, the compensation fit doesn’t make sense. You’re never going to be able to compete with that.”
Combine Culture and Vision for a Long-term Success
While not everyone from the services business transitioned successfully to the software side, the Logikcull team includes quite a few members who have been with the company for seven or eight years. When asked about how he has built a company that inspires such loyalty, Wilson says it comes down to two things.
“Having a really strong culture is number one,” he says without hesitation. “Take our engineering team, for instance. Every one of them recruited each other. That’s pretty awesome. And we’re seeing that with our sales team now. They are recruiting their own network because they want to build and strengthen our culture.”
The second piece of the equation for Wilson is having a broad mission and inspirational vision that people can really get behind. “When we set that audacious goal of reducing a 3,000-step process to one step, it was freakin’ bananas,” he says. “How in the hell are you going to be able to reduce that much friction in the process. That’s one of the reasons it took us so long to build the product. What we were after was basically magic – total magic.” But it was, at least in part, the sheer daring (some might say ‘insanity’) of the goal that made the team as strong and determined and successful as they are.
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