Todd Kaufman didn’t have an adjustment period when the work world went remote in March — his employees already had been operating that way for nearly 10 years.
The Columbus software development firm Test Double has grown to 50 people since its start in 2011. The company, co-founded by Kaufman, has been on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for the past four years and, as of early July, was on track to beat 2019 sales by 10%.
Kaufman so much trusts his employees to act in the firm’s best interests, even while unsupervised, that he and co-founder Justin Searls closed on an employee stock ownership plan transaction just as the pandemic was setting in. Kaufman says it was a solid way to set up a financial exit for himself and keep the company culture intact by avoiding outside investors who might “wreck” it. Kaufman remains CEO and recently talked with Columbus CEO about why remote work has been good for company culture.
Tell me about the way some clients and potential clients have reacted when they found out you had a remote team who would not be working from their offices.
Prior to COVID-19, we used to experience some resistance. People didn’t feel like we would be able to have collaborative, communicative engagement with them based on working remotely. So we would get potential clients who would opt for a contractor in their ZIP code — instead of someone who is the best solution to their problems — just because they felt like their offices were an engine of creativity and collaboration that was critical to their business.
But what we’ve seen over the years, though, is when you go into those (client) spaces to work with them, what you really find is people working in isolation — just in the shared space. These open office areas sound great on the surface level — people envision that they’re going to have a highly creative workforce collaborating on a lot of tough problems.
But instead, you see everyone has headphones on, people are more annoyed by distractions than anything, and they just rely on the same medium that we use for communication, which is ad hoc video calls and a lot of text-based messaging on Slack or (Microsoft) Teams. A lot of email.
Tell me about recruiting talent when geography is not an issue.
There becomes more of a focus on the company to go where the talent lives — or where the talent is. So for us, that was always conferences. My co-founder, Justin, has always done a really good job of sharing our experiences in a thoughtful, meaningful and oftentimes entertaining way at conferences.
The benefit that we’ve received is you find someone who’s well-networked who maybe lives in Denver, Colorado, for example. The next thing you know, they know three or four people who are interested in working with you, and your network just starts expanding.
It’s really been key for our business, both from a hiring perspective and for finding clients.
I think the challenge with trying to just hire in a specific ZIP code is there may be limited capability there. Columbus is a pretty strong town for software engineering. We have a lot of universities pumping out new engineers every year, and businesses who are attracting them here even now, like Root Insurance and CoverMyMeds. So that’s great.
But in some cases, you don’t have the ability to pull people in if you’re starting a business in a smaller locale. I grew up in Marysville and went to Ohio State University. I grew roots here. It’s a great place to raise a family. But I also love working on challenging software problems that affect millions of users. Up until the last decade or so, we haven’t had that in Columbus, Ohio. So that meant you were faced with a choice: Do you go to the Bay Area and try to work for Google or Amazon or Facebook? Or do you just work for a smaller-impact software solution here in town?
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected tech salaries?
Prior to COVID-19, one of the reasons a lot of people reached out to Test Double for help was that they couldn’t find talented software engineers. We were a trusted solution, albeit typically a temporary one, to help them get projects completed. Since the pandemic, though, we saw Airbnb laying off over 1,000 people, Uber laying off over 1,000 people, a lot of these huge software organizations have been letting a lot of people go, unfortunately.
We’ve seen a lot of our customers and competitors being forced either to furlough or lay off engineers. We went from having to use technical recruiters to make hires in 2019 to having, in a 60- to 90-day span, 100 to 150 candidates apply through our website that we weren’t even looking for.
I think it’s flipped the market on its head for software developers. And that flipping of the supply-demand curve has caused salaries to go down. A lot of people have frozen salaries. We’re a company that froze salaries. Others have reduced salaries or been forced to make layoffs, unfortunately. I think it’s definitely sent us back a few years to our salaries from back then.
Hopefully, the recovery will be quick as well.
Katy Smith is editor of Columbus CEO, a sister publication to The Dispatch.