The Big Read, sponsored by Vodafone. Pivotal Labs Director Kevin Olsen talks to Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell.
Currently based in Dogpatch Labs, US company Pivotal Labs are an agile software development consulting firm (a division of Pivotal Software) and one of the more intriguing tech arrivals on Irish shores in recent months. Niamh Bushnell talked to Director Kevin Olsen for Dublin Globe, kicking off the conversation with the biggest question of them all…
You are heading up a new Dublin office for Pivotal Labs. Why Dublin?
We made a decision last December, as a company, to be in Ireland. And I think thats part of the story of a young multinational. Its almost a given that you set up some entity in Ireland, right? I think its been a brilliant move on the part of the Irish government to attract talent, theyve done some brilliant things in the way that they ask companies to structure themselves when they get here. And its given Dublin a massive advantage over other cities that weve looked at, in terms of the density of companies, and the density of engineers specifically. Were an IDA company, and the requirement to deliver R&D in this city if you want to set up here, and be part of their programmes, thats a necessary step.
Its the market, basically
The market of talent thats been attracted here. I cant tell you how many people I meet who literally moved here, CV in hand, knowing that theyll get a job in a couple of weeks. It reminds me of when I first arrived in San Francisco in a lot of ways. As a city, once you get to that point when people are willing to move here knowing that theyre going to find a tech job, you have the real, vibrant ecosystem that you need. On top of that, Ireland is a beautiful country. Im totally taken with it. And the business culture is very warm and welcoming, I cant tell you what a pleasure its been to plug in and meet everybody. And you can tell that Dublin is extremely proud of what its created. Its an incredible thing that you guys have built here. Theres a lot of excitement to see where it goes next. And youre starting to get these big startups with their Series C raises, thats a really good sign that this is going to be a substantial technology scene.
Can you explain the concept behind what Pivotal Labs does?
Its this really interesting vision of how to teach companies how to innovate, how to be relevant and competitive in markets that are potentially disrupt-able. A big part of it is about pairing: the idea is basically that one plus one is more than two. Youre never out of ideas. As an engineer, its very easy to get stuck, distracted, to lose context: with pairing, however, you get a multiplier effect. Youre not going to be distracted because were working on something together. Youre going to be very focused on what were doing. You take smaller, more incremental steps, youre more methodical. Its very unique what happens when youre pairing full time. We take this approach to engineering practice, product management, and product design. Were a bit of a holistic product delivery shop. We can take early stage ideas and guide them through these processes, really vet them, and guide them to MVP.
So you started with code development, and that pairing culture has come into product management, and the design end thats really cool.
This is the idea with this cloud native approach, that youre just writing software and are willing to get it out there as fast as possible and sacrifice some customization or some tinkering at the infrastructure level in order to get this thing out and in peoples hands. Thats a technique that I think empowers people to move very quickly. If you had a team that could just build a product and get it to somebody on their own through a self-service model that would just be a huge accelerator.
There was a parallel with our own practice; as we started to work with these bigger companies, we realized that we couldnt move as fast as we wanted to. So in order for us to be more successful at our engagements with these big companies, we had to build these tools and techniques to avoid these long and painful processes.
Is it an equivalent to the Lean Canvas model?
Our product management teams come out of the Lean Startup tradition; when we work with a client who has a business driver that they say dictates a piece of software, we might step in and help them roadmap that out, do a canvas, help them identify the riskiest areas, help point them in the right direction, and in the process teach them techniques and repeatable processes that they can use again. Theres a fundamental value at Pivotal – were trying to change the way the world builds software. It sounds very lofty, but truly thats what were up to. We think this is a better way to deliver product to the market. And the proof is there, weve worked with some really amazing companies.
— Mitchel Seaman (@mitchelseaman) August 26, 2015
What you have essentially, is a process. Its a service as business.
I think the one thing we actually do thats different from any other services group that Im aware of is that we want to teach ourselves out of a job. We dont want to be engaged past six months with a client, because we want them to have these skills in-house, and we want to move onto the next one. And thats quite unique. If your goal is to truly transform these groups that you work with, show them new ways of getting stuff out thats genuinely better than what theyre doing internally. Thats a huge success.
Talk to me about the culture of Pivotal Labs.
Our primary value is empathy. We need to make sure that we empathize with each other, and with our clients. Building products, its a very difficult thing, right? You have to be very patient and kind to these people, because youre asking them to do something very uncomfortable. And we ask our clients to come and work in our spaces with us, we dont work in our clients offices. Theyre on our home turf, working in our style; you need empathy and kindness to get these engineers, PMs, stakeholders through this new way of working, and have them see the value of it.
Back in New York, I always used to associate Pivotal Labs with the startup community there. Do you still work within the startup sector?
You have to stay on the vanguard of software development. If you close yourself off to that, then I think you have some real problems. If the startup community doesnt engage you, then youve cut yourself off from a very important conversation that you need to be a part of. There are many flavours of startups, its not about just four people sitting in a room coding away through the night. I think we embody a startup mentality in a lot of ways, and we teach that to people.
The thing that blows my mind is that the same techniques and practices work in all sorts of different spaces, the tools are extremely importable. If you have the through line of the product team and a highly involved stakeholder and then the customer, and you have this ability to rapidly communicate with all of them You can do amazing things. That is the startup recipe, in my mind. And you can do that in a bank, or as an airline. The process works.
— Mitchel Seaman (@mitchelseaman) August 26, 2015
So you came here with your wife and three kids, what, a month ago?
Its been four weeks Figuring out schools, and cars, and how to get our dog over here. Figuring out what stores carry what brands of what has been the biggest challenge.
Do the stores carry the brands you want?
No! (laughs) Everythings different! If only you guys had a Whole Foods, it would blow my mind.