Pivotal Labs’ Kevin Olsen: “We’re Trying To Change The Way The World Builds Software.”

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 that’s part of the story of a young multinational. It’s almost a given that you set up some entity in Ireland, right? I think it’s been a brilliant move on the part of the Irish government to attract talent, they’ve done some brilliant things in the way that they ask companies to structure themselves when they get here. And it’s given Dublin a massive advantage over other cities that we’ve looked at, in terms of the density of companies, and the density of engineers specifically. We’re 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, that’s a necessary step.

It’s the market, basically…
The market of talent that’s been attracted here. I can’t tell you how many people I meet who literally moved here, CV in hand, knowing that they’ll 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 they’re going to find a tech job, you have the real, vibrant ecosystem that you need. On top of that, Ireland is a beautiful country. I’m totally taken with it. And the business culture is very warm and welcoming, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it’s been to plug in and meet everybody. And you can tell that Dublin is extremely proud of what it’s created. It’s an incredible thing that you guys have built here. There’s a lot of excitement to see where it goes next. And you’re starting to get these big startups with their Series C raises, that’s a really good sign that this is going to be a substantial technology scene.

Can you explain the concept behind what Pivotal Labs does?
It’s 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. You’re never out of ideas. As an engineer, it’s very easy to get stuck, distracted, to lose context: with pairing, however, you get a multiplier effect. You’re not going to be distracted because we’re working on something together. You’re going to be very focused on what we’re doing. You take smaller, more incremental steps, you’re more methodical. It’s very unique what happens when you’re pairing full time. We take this approach to engineering practice, product management, and product design. We’re 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 – that’s really cool.
This is the idea with this ‘cloud native’ approach, that you’re 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. That’s 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 couldn’t 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. There’s a fundamental value at Pivotal – we’re trying to change the way the world builds software. It sounds very lofty, but truly that’s what we’re up to. We think this is a better way to deliver product to the market. And the proof is there, we’ve worked with some really amazing companies.

What you have essentially, is a process. It’s a service as business.
I think the one thing we actually do that’s different from any other services group that I’m aware of is that we want to teach ourselves out of a job. We don’t 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 that’s quite unique. If your goal is to truly transform these groups that you work with, show them new ways of getting stuff out that’s genuinely better than what they’re doing internally. That’s 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, it’s a very difficult thing, right? You have to be very patient and kind to these people, because you’re asking them to do something very uncomfortable. And we ask our clients to come and work in our spaces with us, we don’t work in our clients’ offices. They’re 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 doesn’t engage you, then you’ve cut yourself off from a very important conversation that you need to be a part of. There are many flavours of startups, it’s 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.

So you came here with your wife and three kids, what, a month ago?
It’s 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) Everything’s different! If only you guys had a Whole Foods, it would blow my mind.

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