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Our featured guest this week is Tom O’Neil, cofounder of Parallax. Tom shares how and why Parallax came into existence. Josh also asks Tom how the transition was going from a large dev shop to smaller startup. Tom and Erick discuss how to build and maintain the unique company culture based around software engineering. They also chat about keeping connected while teams are working remotely.

Learn more about Parallax here: https://www.getparallax.com/

VO: Get ready for your semi-regular dose of random ideas from the guys at Codelation. We like to talk about big ideas companies that are winning, and those that aren't along with current events in our crazy world of software startups. So come along with Erick and Josh, who challenge you to think big, start small and turn your ideas into something on this episode of, from idea to done.

Josh: Hey everyone, I'm Josh

Erick: And I'm Erick and today's idea as well. It's kind of just taken another step forward last week. We have reviewed Parallax. And so now we're talking with the founder, Tom O'Neill

Tom O'Neil: Hey guys.

Josh: Thanks for coming on, Tom. Uh, could you, uh, introduce yourself to the audience a little bit?

Tom O'Neil: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I'm Tom O'Neill, uh, co-founder of parallax. Uh, I am a, I guess programmer and by training and background. Uh, but after I learned that I was, I think better at finding smart people and convincing them to join my team than writing code myself. I eventually kind of found myself on a leadership track. Uh, prior to parallax, I helped build an organization called the nerdery. We grew it from just a handful of nerds, writing some code for our customers to around 500 employees with offices in four states. And so, um, I built parallax to kind of solve some of the problems related to the pain points in growing a professional services or consulting business. And so, so yeah, that's what I'm doing now. And that's a little bit about me.

Josh: Why don't you share a little bit about what, what parallax is kind of what the core of the tool helps you do? And I know it's something that we're starting to cut our teeth on, are really excited about, um, the opportunity to use it.

Tom O'Neil: Yeah, absolutely. So at its core, parallax is a resource planning, project level accounting and analytics tool that helps companies that are in the professional services industry operate their business. And so, uh, it's built on a philosophy of mine and my co-founder Dave's that organizations succeed, uh, when they can get the most out of their people when they can really position their people to succeed, especially in the consulting business or in the professional services business, or an agency business where the product is the people. And so having really smart people and finding a way to position them to do great work on great clients projects is like the absolute name of the game. Uh it's uh, it's hard to do consistency, uh, consistently, especially as you scale a business. And so based on my experience, trying to do that, we decided to build a tool to make it just a little bit easier. Um, yeah, that's it.

Josh: So I make more money.

Tom O'Neil: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. I think that that's a big part of it. You know, I, the, the philosophy to me personally is more about, uh, people and I know, uh, you know, I know you're joking, uh, it's not just about the money. Uh, but, uh, but honestly, like if we have more consistent revenue, if we have higher margin on our projects, it allows us to continue to invest in our people, to grow our team, to help our team grow. Uh, those things are really important to me in the consulting business or in the agency business. That's hard to do consistently, especially when you're feel like you're always on that roller coaster of like too much work or not enough work. And you're always feeling like you're trying to balance that supply and demand problem. So parallax is designed to help us bring some more consistency to that supply demand, some more, you know, revenue growth and some more profitability to then allow for your continued investment in your business and your people and their development.

Josh: Yeah. I can really speak to the little bit of the tool we use so far helps us really understand where we can book projects at and, um, what the health of the projects look to be. Uh, it's not just about that top line revenue anymore. It's about, uh, the profitability and should we bring in more of those type of projects and, you know, for us, it helps solve that problem of, well, can we talk to them about starting their project next week or in two years? Like it's, it's a complete Gutfield sometimes. So, um, yeah, I definitely appreciate it. And, you know, I wanted to kind of pivot the conversation a little bit of, you got a 500 person dev shop, and now you're in a smaller startup. What's the, what's the difference between kind of going from service to startup and especially, you know, much bigger to much smaller. Um, I'm, I'm assuming a lot of the startups out there that are listening, how came out of a larger organization to find themselves sitting around a coffee table with a co-founder and it's, it's, uh, it's a big shift. So what, what's kind of your takeaway from that transition?

Tom O'Neil: Well, I think the, uh, the first thing that I'll say is that it's been a bit of a humbling experience doing the startup again. So when we, uh, when we first started building nerdery and I say, we, because I was, you know, at the ground floor and, and able to provide a leadership role right away, um, we were pretty naive about what it meant to build a company. And so in as the professional services organization, as an agency, uh, it was pretty simple for us to kind of fake it till we made it, you know, like I think that that's pretty consistent with a lot of dev shops out there, there, you know, we're, we're really selling this vision that we can help you achieve your goals. Right. And, uh, you could be adaptable and like flexible and all the things. And, you know, so that was, that was really fun.

Tom O'Neil: And, and I thought, you know, leaving, uh nerdery, which was like, is a world-class, uh, software development, software, product development company. I thought, uh, boy, I'm going to go build a product for that industry, because I know that industry as well as anyone else, if not, maybe sometimes better. Um, and that's what they say, you know, building a product for paying that, you know, well, like those are the people who are most successful. So I felt like check, right. And then, uh, be like, you know, I got like an awesome network of engineers and designers. I literally have hundreds of people that I know who could help me on this journey and I can be pretty persuasive. So I'm sure I'm going to have great talent check, you know, and then, uh, and those are the two of the things that they, they say are really, really hard.

Tom O'Neil: And, uh, oh, Hey, you know, I wouldn't have said this, uh, 14 years ago when I started as a developer at nerdery, but, uh, I learned from some of the best sales and marketing people in the world, like how to do sales, marketing operations, I'm going to do great on that check. Right. So I feel like I got all the boxes checked and then of all of them, like if there's one that I'm certainly not going to have a problem with, because, you know, that's the other founders that have this problem, like my like tech stack dev team, like our like product development methodology is going to be the best. I'm not going to have any of those problems that startups have with, uh, with software engineering, because after all, I'm a programmer and number one, and number two, like I've run a product dev shop for 14 years.

Tom O'Neil: One of the best, right? Well, that's where the naive part comes in. Like I actually probably did better than I thought on some of those other buckets, even though I was a little cocky and where I really suck honestly, is in, uh, being a good product owner and, uh, and really having the discipline, um, to not promise everything to our customers, to not like have this vision, um, and this, you know, this stomach, uh, or I'm sorry, the eyes that are too big for my, my stomach. Right. I think that that has been by far, the hardest part about this journey is like, uh, you know, is not a sinus, uh, signing our team up for too much, not setting bad expectations for our customers and, uh, and not making a fool of myself with my dev team, you know? So that, that, that by far has been the biggest challenge.

Josh: It's, it's really easy to chase those shiny objects when you think it's, we just got to get it in there.

Tom O'Neil: Oh my gosh. And yeah, I don't know what to say other than I feel like, uh, I've been saying that to our customers at nerdery for 14 years, I have 15 different ways to explain that to you. And yet I am the worst customer in a lot of ways for our team. I'm really learning how to be more focused on like what the outcome and the value that we're trying to achieve is, and less, uh, like particular about like how we, how we, which specific feature we need in order to create that outcome, which again, like, I feel so dumb saying that because I've been saying that to my customers for so long, it's easier said than done. We

Erick: Have that fight every project basically. And so one of the things I wanted to touch on was like, I really like how parallax helps me communicate with the next steps, you know, like I'm the sales and marketing front end kind of guy, Hey, can we do the thing? Of course we can do the thing, cause I'm going to promise everything. Like you just said, it's going to take some time and they're overbooked and I I've, it's opened my eyes. And so I I've really enjoyed that. Um, one of the other kind of different roles for me is I, I lead a lot of our cultural stuff in the software development field is it's just a different, you know, you talk about the nerdery, I call our place, the nerd layer. It's, it's just different. And so, you know, when you were able to wipe the wipe, the slate clean and, and kind of start over and he founded parallax, like, what are some, what advice do you have and kind of starting and building culture around software engineers

Tom O'Neil: Mhm. Well, you know, I, I think that, uh, there's certainly some, I guess, patterns that you'd see, like in the, in the cultures that are built around software engineering, other than other people. However, I don't think that it's unique to software engineers, that culture is critical to an organization. And so I guess I would just like move up one level first and just say that it took me a long time, uh, over the years to really discover and understand what culture means in, in an organization. I think that like it's commonly misunderstood or, or misused term, I think, uh, you know, a lot of folks joined the nerdery back in the day and thought that culture meant we have dogs in the office and beer on tap and all that stuff. And that's, those are great perks. Uh, but that's our culture, right. Um, I think culture fundamentally for me is, is more tied back to like, like what are the guiding principles that we share as an organization?

Tom O'Neil: Uh, what is the mean, and the purpose in our work that we all, uh, agree on and aspire to achieve. And, uh, and that's where, um, and then how do we treat each other, uh, through that process? Right. So, um, you know, if the 22 year old Tom O'Neill heard the 41 year old Tom, when he'll just say that last bit, he'd probably think you are so full of, dude. Um, because honestly I think that it does sound a little fluffy and you know, which HBR article on my, you know, quoting or whatever, uh, unpack that a little bit. I think that the important stuff, there's some really important and very valuable stuff there. I think that, um, if you, if you go back down to that engineer level, um, and talk about what is common across a lot of folks who write code, uh, it, isn't just that we, you know, all tend to, uh, you know, like a sci-fi movies and, um, you know, many of us play Dungeons and dragons or whatever, you know, like it's, it's not that those things may be, uh, common patterns, but what I think is more common is that we've got curiosity is that we like to solve problems it's that we like to build something in our craft that has like that gratifying feeling of finishing it and seeing like somebody use it and it makes their lives easier.

Tom O'Neil: Like there's a lot of principles to, to understand, to understand and unpack there. Right. And so like, um, you know, for me, I like to think about it as like a craftsmanship culture specifically when I'm thinking about engineers. And, uh, and so those are some of the principles that kind of bring those folks together. What are the, you know, why do we all sit, you know, like, you know, star wars and star Trek. I have no idea that who knows, but like we do all she has.

Erick: Cuz itt's awesome.

Tom O'Neil: Probably. Um, anyway, so I think, I feel like that craftsmanship culture thing is super, super important to me. Right. And I, there was a, I think it may have been like John, John dour, doer, or Andreesen, or one of these guys, Silicon valley guys, one time, uh, there's like a famous, uh, Quip about, you know, you should hire, uh, miss, uh, missionaries, not mercenaries. And I really identify with that concept. And the idea is that, you know, you want to find people who are really going to get it, uh, engaged and excited and like, you know, uh, aligned around this mission that we're on, you know, uh, those people are going to be much more effective, much more collaborative, much more curious, all the things, right, because they're going to, they're going to put their heart and soul into it. And so if we can find those awesome engineers that, you know, can get aligned with our mission.

Tom O'Neil: And, uh, and you know, we, we, we compare, you know, someone like that, uh, who's engaged to someone who is like, knows that this opportunity means that they can make a lot of money, that they can get some fame or like some fortune from, um, the difference in how they're going to engage the rest of the team and the company and the co and the customer and the product are way, way different. And I think that the reason that, uh, missionary mercenary thing makes so much sense in this context with the kind of, uh, craftsmanship culture is because, uh, the, the value that we provide as a dev shop as an agency, whatever is so tightly coupled to the true craft, not the outcome, not like the, we wrote code, uh, now that part of the outcome, but, uh, that did our craft results into something that feels gratifying because the user likes it because it creates value that you like, you know, that engineer, she can go home to her, her family and brag about how, like she saves somebody's time, or like she, you know, made some meaningful impact. Right. And that's like, to me, that's what a real awesome craftsmanship culture is all about. And, uh, and that's something that transcends size and scale, you know? Um, so in fact, it's easier. It's probably easier to do at a smaller scale than it is at the large scale

Erick: That, that crushed it for that. Holy cow!

Josh: See, I see a t-shirt design in there of like programmers are people too. Uh, hell yeah.

Tom O'Neil: Hell yeah.

Erick: Just to kind of expand on that a little bit. Wow. Like I said, that was awesome, but, um, you know, since COVID half of our team is remote and for a while there, all of us were remote and you sounded, kind of said, have that craftsmen and that mission, like idea behind your company to lead people through that. How are, or do you have any other tips of keeping, keeping people engaged while they're remote? Cause I'm having a trouble kind of keeping everyone connected during the, when everyone's apart.

Tom O'Neil: Yeah. Like you, I'm learning how to do that. I think I'm really lucky. Uh, we've got a young man on the team, uh, his name's JB and we joke around, we say he's the SVP of culture. And, and he, uh, he is just really focused on trying to pull the whole team together and, and trying to create a cadence of like looking at each other if even on zoom. Um, and so he's, he's put together some really fun stuff. So we do a, a wind session as part of our, our weekly OKR process. That's every Friday at three o'clock. And, uh, and almost everyone shows up for that every Friday where we're kind of looking at each other on zoom. And, um, he also does like a really cool, uh, lunch break on Wednesdays, totally optional. And I'd say it's, it's hit, or miss not everyone goes to that one every time, um, where he like comes up with these crazy gateway hockey games to play every time and that's just a half hour or whatever.

Tom O'Neil: And then we also do a weekly, uh, morning meeting on Mondays where we kind of like regroup and say, you know, here's what's happening. Um, so, you know, I think what I'm learning is those like rituals that we've had in person, um, they can absolutely translate to, uh, zoom and other technologies that are remote. Um, you know, I think that the challenge that I have personally, and that I, I want to learn more about is how to become, uh, just as, uh, accessible and, um, you know, approachable, uh, in this, you know, different environment. So, um, we obviously rely on like most companies, things like slack, uh, to try to have that one-on-one communication more, uh, easily. Uh, but I don't know, man, I don't have any awesome tips other than just being consistent as possible, you know? Um, and it's, again, probably not any different from pre COVID or pre-work from home, like, like trying hard to listen. I think that's just important. So

Josh: Tom, there, a lot of the companies that we talk to are like early stage ideas. They're just trying to figure out what should they be, what, you know, what's the opportunity in front of them. And they're trying to make this, this decision of when to leap into the startup, you know, how to validate, is there a real problem here? Like they're, they're trying to figure out a lot of stuff, you know, after your, your last 15, 20 years of experience, what's your advice to that person? That's just trying to figure out what to do.

Tom O'Neil: Um, well, number one, I think that, uh, I hope this works out for me, but follow your passion. Um, first, you know, I think, uh, I say, oh, it works out for me because we're two years into this thing and it's really freaking hard to start a company, you know? And so my co-founder Dave and I, you know, we go through this roller coaster of like, oh my gosh, we're on a high because it's, you know, we're had a big launch, uh, release that was really successful or some customer gave us some great feedback or we closed three new sales deals. Yeah. And then like, you know, it's like a day later, there's something goes wrong. Everything's going wrong all the time. We're a startup, you know? And so it was like, uh, I think that if I wasn't so passionate about solving this problem, it wouldn't be, you know, springing me out of bed every morning to get after this, you know, cause it's hard.

Tom O'Neil: I think that's number one. And um, you know, number two, I asked for help, I think, uh, I don't know, um, if, uh, where I got it from my mom, uh, from my six sisters or two brothers, whatever, like somewhere along the line, I learned that like, uh, it, you know, people like to help people, you know, um, my mom always used to say it doesn't hurt to ask. Right. And so, uh, especially other successful entrepreneurs, um, other founders love to help founders, you know, uh, it's a, it's a passion for many people, so don't be afraid to ask for help and, uh, and you know, from all aspects of the business. But if you can find something that you're really passionate about and you don't have a problem asking for help, I think like pulling those two things together, um, that's what Dave and I have been doing for parallax.

Tom O'Neil: Uh, my co-founder Dave is we've said, you know, instead of trying to figure out how to build this, this software product on our own, um, based on our own experience, uh, what if we reached out to people who might use it? And so the first thing that we did before we wrote a line of code was we created what we call our product advisory council. And so we called up our friends and said, Hey, that are in the industry. You know, do you experience these problems relative to our product? You know, would you be willing to let me interview you or do some research to figure out how you're solving it today and where that pain really is? And it was incredible again, before we wrote a lot of code, we had 20 companies in this product advisory council. Um, uh, two years later, we've got over a hundred and these are people who, in some cases become customers eventually, but in all cases are willing to give us real-time feedback, participate in design sprints, let us like see their actual data in their big companies that are competitive with each other. Um, let us interview users all kinds of stuff. And so, you know, we, we live in such an awesome world of like so many cool people who, uh, who genuinely like to help each other genuinely like to help each other. And so, uh, you know, if you're passionate about what you're doing and you're not afraid to like go ask for help, uh, it's, it's going to be pretty hard not to succeed. I think, you know, at least at this early stage, for me, it feels that way.

Josh: Awesome. Well, that's, I mean, that's how we got connected was a mutual colleague of ours introduced us, uh, to ask some questions. Um, I want to say you and I had two or three conversations with no, you know, I was picking your brain with no expectations. You had no expectation of anything. I just really appreciate that, that way of approaching things. Cause it's helped me unpack a lot of stuff. And ultimately it aligned us to say, yeah, let's, let's start looking at parallax and kind of sharing the story. So I love it. So

Tom O'Neil: I love hearing that. I mean, um, ultimately, you know, there's, there's other paths I could have followed, uh, where, you know, maybe I could have made more money immediately. Maybe I could have had less stress in my life, whatever, but, uh, you know, maybe it's the craftsman in me, but I really, really love like the, the gratitude gratifying feeling of like helping other people. And that's, that's why I'm doing this for sure. So it, you know, no sales pitch, like that's, that's, uh, that's why when we were connected, I'm like, heck yeah, man, I love talking shop. This stuff seems fun. If you can avoid some of the mistakes I made, you know, you're going to be, you know, much better off.

Erick: So yeah, we'll just kind of wrap things up. But the marketer in me says, is there anything that you want to promote right now or do you guys have anything going on that you want to talk about?

Tom O'Neil: Um, oh man. Let's, uh, that's, I'm on the spot for that one, I guess. Uh, you know, I'd love it. If you guys would, uh, follow us on social, we're trying really hard to, uh, develop, uh, some thought leadership material that we think is going to be really useful to the industry and so follows in likes and shares and all that stuff. I think, you know, I'm learning how much value that stuff really has. So I would absolutely love it if you guys would help us out with some of that social stuff. And, uh, yeah, if you know anybody who's really, uh, in that, in this industry, smart agency owners or operators, uh, consulting firms, whomever, even if they, if not in the market for the product, if they'd want to help us out as product advisors, we'd love introductions. So get parallax.com. Is that right? That's right. Get parallax.com.

Josh: Awesome. Tom, thank you very much for taking some time today. We really appreciate

Tom O'Neil: Absolutely. I, uh, thanks for having me. I'm honored and it's a lot of fun,

Josh: You know, Erick, I really liked a lot of Tom's interview. What were some of the interesting takeaways that you had for the questions he answered?

Erick: Um, Tom, he actually had a, kind of a few big nuggets kind of for me and w I just, I really liked talking to him too. And one of the first things he said that kind of stuck with me was organi organization succeed when people are put in the right places to succeed. And so this is like so important to us as a small, but growing team. His follow-up point to that was that it's not unique. That culture is critical to an organization's success.

Josh: You know, that's the thing when we start talking about like people in process or right seats, I keep going back to the, the show of CNBC's the profit. I think it's Marcus Limonus that, that hosts that. And he goes, he goes back and talks about it's, it's all about people, process and product. And I think that, you know, dialing in your process allows to find the right people to tackle those needs and ultimately like grow in the right direction. Um, not just grow, but grow intentionally in the right direction.

Erick: No, I like that too. Or in another thing that I agreed with Tom is that perks aren't culture. I mean, they can be a part of that culture formula, but it really isn't everything. And this kind of led to one of the like bigger next steps that really kind of stuck with me and that software engineers have like a craftsmanship culture and we should build culture around that. And so I need to kind of think in different terms and in leading our team and, and thinking of them as like a bunch of blacksmiths, basically. So we don't need a ton of team cheerleading and big fund salesy thing that I usually see, and kind of some of my sales and marketing conventions. And so kind of what are, what are your thoughts on the craftsmen comparison?

Josh: You know, I really liked the two statements that he threw out a missionary, not mercenary. I know I've heard that one before through, um, some Silicon valley, uh, chatter through the blogs, and then also the craftsmanship, craftsmanship culture. Both of those really clicked with me, um, to me, that that means that we need to bring on projects for the team that really have an impact, um, that everyone can see. And it's not just work, you know, we're not just digging a ditch and then filling it back in again, but there's a purpose for what we're doing.

Erick: Yeah. And so thanks for kind of hijacking my next thought. And so I really liked hiring missionaries versus mercenaries too, especially when kind of team building, it's important to find people that align with your mission rather than can just, you can pay to do great work. I mean, it's easy to find people, or it's easy to find people who want to evolve what they're doing and grow with you and grow with the company, and that helps you with hardships. And if they're all on board with the mission, it, it makes it a lot, lot better and a lot better for you as a company. And so it might be time to get a little more serious about reworking our mission. What are your thoughts on that?

Josh: Yeah, I think, you know, the journey you've been on probably the last year or two as, has really been a lot of big steps. And I think the, the north star that we've been working towards has, has shifted a little bit, but I think more than changing it's, um, it's flushed out and it's, it's framed in a way that makes sense to us. And so, you know, we've got a good set of values that we can, we can always lean back into a more, um, I think the opportunity for us is to be really respectful to those values that help us get to where we're at, but we also have an opportunity and, you know, I I'd even say, uh, a responsibility to reframe those values. And what is it going to take to get us to the next level of the company?

Erick: I think a lot of, you know, with this just past year with all the COVID stuff is you were leaning back a lot harder on our values really ever have before. And so it's time to really make sure that those are all. And so thank you everybody for listening. We hope that you know of a startup that could use our advice and random thoughts. If you do send them over to correlation.com to hear our next podcast.

Next Episode

Book Review: No Man’s Land By Doug Tatum

About the Show

Erick and Josh talk about big ideas, companies that are winning and those that aren’t, and current events in the crazy world of software startups.

Josh Christy

CEO

Erick Roder

Director of People
and Nerd Culture

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