Putting teamwork back into software development

April 16, 2012
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Not many people are able to cite the collapse of a company as their biggest career break, but Carl Erickson, president of software development company Atomic Object, is one of them.

Formerly a professor in the computer science department of Grand Valley State University, Erickson took a leave of absence in 2000 and pursued a new challenge as the vice president of technology at a Texas-based startup. By the summer of 2001, the company had failed to receive a second round of funding, leaving Erickson and the four other employees at the Grand Rapids branch out of a job.

“It was by far the best failure I had ever been a part of,” said Erickson. “It helped get me out of the university because, by then, I had resigned my position, and it also left me free.”

From the ashes of that company, Erickson took the good processes and the talented people and they began building Atomic Object, which now has a team of 33 employees and plans to establish a second office in downtown Detroit.

The company has a strong regional and international market presence with a client list that ranges from small startups to Fortune 500 companies. At just shy of $5 million last year, Atomic Object ranks in the 85th percentile by revenue among companies in the custom computer-programming services industry.

Atomic Object
Title: President
Age: 50
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: East Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Mary O’Neill, and children Caroline, 19, and Stefan, 17.
Business/Community Involvement: Grand Angels, Grand Valley State University CIS Advisory Board, Swedish American Heritage Society.
Biggest Career Break: “The failure to receive a second round of financing for the software startup I left GVSU to join. That left me free to pursue my own course, and Atomic Object was the result.”

So how does a tech company that began after the dot-com bust of 2000 and when Y2K spending was over not only survive, but maintain a compound average growth rate of 29 percent? Erickson said that despite the global macro-economic forces working against it, the atmosphere was just right for Atomic Object.

“I think it was an excellent time to start,” said Erickson. “We started at a time when customers were extraordinarily demanding about returns on their investments. Budgets were very tight.”

In its heyday, software development companies could find work easily and charge high rates, even if there wasn’t a lot of value to what they produced. “In the late ’90s, everyone was so fascinated with and completely ignorant of all things Internet,” said Erickson.

The mantra of the industry at that time was to take the humanness out of the process in an attempt to be more perfect than people. Erickson, who studied this aspect of the industry during his time as a professor, had long thought this was an irrational way to approach the work.

The industry norm during the dot-com boom — and, largely, still today — was for code to be worked on individually, with one person being solely responsible for his or her particular section and each employee working separately.

“If your ego is tied up in your code, you’re not going to want to show it to anyone until you think it’s perfect. You’re also not going to want to think about anyone else’s code. And these things make for disaster,” said Erickson.

At Atomic Object, teamwork was put back into software development using a process called agile development, a term that Erickson said has become a bit of a buzz word lately but which few companies are actually practicing.

With agile development, developers practice collective code ownership, test-driven processes, weekly deliveries to clients and pair programming. This approach means that the entire team is responsible for the project. They share ideas with each other and the development process becomes more predictable. Clients are more involved in the process and know what they’re getting.

Atomic Object was the first to practice agile development in Michigan and is still one of the few nationally to use the process.

“Good software development is all about humans working together and communicating,” said Erickson. “It’s about how they can collectively build something that individually they couldn’t.”

Another industry standard that Atomic Object challenges is the work environment.

Erickson noted that when companies promote individual code ownership and don’t test the software throughout the development process, the result is often poor work and unmet deadlines. To compensate, employees work long hours, cramming to finish projects on time.

“People that work consistently over their sustainable pace don’t do their best work,” said Erickson. “They become bad husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. And they’re also bad colleagues.”

Atomic Object employees work manageable hours, creating quality work for their clients and healthy lifestyles for themselves. The company atmosphere is both bike- and dog-friendly, offering rewards to its bike commuters and identifying Erickson’s Siberian husky, Mia, as a sort of company mascot.

Recently, Atomic Object was featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal with regard to its practice of holding stand-up meetings — a slightly unorthodox morning ritual that gets everyone moving, communicating and being productive.

When it comes to running the company, Erickson said his background in academia has had a positive impact.

“You wouldn’t necessarily think being a professor would be good training for being a business person. I think it was,” said Erickson. “Teach and learn” is one of Atomic Object’s core values, meaning there is a huge emphasis on continued education for employees and frequent participation in tech and entrepreneurial events.

Erickson recalls the early days of the company as plagued with the usual stress and chaos of a startup. He remembers being concerned about his co-workers and about supporting his family. Erickson and his wife, Mary O’Neill, have two children: Caroline and Stefan.

While he was highly experienced with the technical side of things, Erickson’s business side was developed out of necessity as the company grew.

“Suddenly, I was charged with starting my own business and figuring out how to get customers, accounting, human resources, a lease, business terms — all of that stuff. It was like being thrown into the deep end, which is a problem I relish, actually.”

Early on, Erickson said there were companies that took a risk on the small startup and, from there, Atomic Object has grown organically, relying almost exclusively on word of mouth. Its first client was Burke Porter Machinery, which trusted Atomic Object with a significant project. The software produced for Burke Porter still runs today in automotive assembly plants all over the world.

“It was a good thing once we realized our fate was in our hands,” said Erickson of the early days. “It took me five years to figure out this was a good thing to trust.”

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