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A Visit to VersionOne

Today I visited VersionOne in Atlanta, GA and I must say it was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in a long time. From the moment you walk in the door to the moment you pull your car out of the lot you wonder why companies aren’t more like this. When I pulled in, I saw this smaller yet long building with a VersionOne sign on it. However, don’t let looks dissuade you.  I am sure the cleaning crew made that mistake when they made the bid on this place.  When you walk into the building you are placed into the most unique maze of hallways and tables to find the most intelligent, fun, energetic, serious and humble of people.

I can’t say that I was under dressed, with a tie and blue shirt that is. Most individuals wore casual to business casual clothes. They certainly are a laid back bunch but not without seriousness. You sense a vision from the moment you walk in the door, a mission of community and transparency. I was greeted by a lovely young receptionist that was bubbly and all about ‘who just walked in the door’. As she got me a glass of water, I was then greeted by a Product Specialist that took an eager interest in who I was, what I was there for and to make sure I felt welcome. I was than taken on a mini tour of the front hallways of desks. Now I noticed something very quickly, very few offices, just for the few executives, but even still walls of glass and doors wide open with inviting smiles. No secrets here. Each executive when eyes locked were met with smiles or a respectful nod saying ‘welcome’.

After this corridor was the line of desks and mini walls. Each desk was on wheels which I am sure makes facilities very happy, yet makes for some good pranks (IE: stealing a desk wheel). Each desk had a little mini cube like wall, perhaps 2-3 feet tall at most, attached to the front of the desk at the top. This allowed someone to pin notes to the wall, gave the psychological need of ‘my space’ but also the psychological openness of collaboration. It was a Windows shop, no surprise as the product is built on .Net/SQL but that shouldn’t be stunning since most applications are java/oracle or .net/sql. Clearly, enterprise ready but also a standard across the company of working together, anyone on the product to support it at any time. This fact of a standard across the board was no more prevalent than in my day of meetings at the office. Each director, manager, VP and the CEO all had the same message of ‘why we do what we do’.

Each conveyed a message of wanting to make agile easier, not easy. They didn’t believe a lie that agile is just easy. They know it is tough, constant corrections and a fight worth fighting. However, they set expectations, with me, with the customer base but most importantly with themselves. They made it clear that they have said and will continue to say ‘no’ to companies, even large companies, that don’t match what they believe. They are true to their purpose and it is the fact that they have said “no” many times that has allowed them to evolve their culture, their business and ultimately their product line to be the stellar product that it is. They related many experiences when they have said “no” and the outcome of how saying “yes” would have stifled the end game of growth.

Over and over I heard of experiences about how ‘back when we were only about 15 people…’ which meant the individuals I was talking to have been there over 10 years! This wasn’t a fluke, it was over and over meaning their tenure is strong and employee retention isn’t a word but a central core value.  I joked with the CEO when looking over a banister into kitchen area below…

I said, “if you have to put the word ‘honesty’ on the wall you probably have bigger problems.” We exchanged this laugh because so many companies try to get into those surveys about being the best company around.  We all know about those surveys you pay to be a part of, yeah, they sound so unbiased already.  In fact the CEO said “we won’t ever be one of those companies, you won’t find one of those awards in this office, we don’t need them.”  This was supported by the fact that over and over people would comment on how many years over 5 they have been with the company.  No plaque validates behavior like that, who needs it?  I didn’t bother asking anyone why they haven’t left, that would have been plain stupid.  Instead, I asked what experiences they have had in the company over time, those were exciting to listen to. I found everyone to be an author in hiding because everyone had a story to tell.  That’s just what happens when you are a company everyone wants to work for and be a part of.

A major point was that there are two founders in the company.  One is the CEO, but the other one you wouldn’t pick out of a crowd.  No one treated him any different and someone had to point him out to me.  He is a developer.  No, not a CTO that jumps in the code and causes chaos to the development cycle.  Rather, he IS a developer, an innovator and someone who chooses to do what he loves and is best at.  He has equal say on the team layer.  He made a joke about how the CEO is making decisions he doesn’t even know about.  That means trust and similar belief.  He does what he loves and is best at without intruding on the decision pathway of the company as you would expect a ‘founder’ to do.  That is maturity, that is a leader worth following and being inspired from.

I also found interesting the fact that the Facebook pictures of the company weren’t some prop. The spinning wheel was sitting by the lunch bar, the pool tables were actively used, they even brought out a game of corn hole (bean bag toss).  The CEO and a Director joked about how they had to take the light bulbs out of the overhead lights because they kept breaking them when playing games of toss with the bags or random balls around the office.  It was rare to see something not color coded.  From the doors, walls, chairs, ‘green’ water cups, corn hole, wheel of fortune, bean bags…I didn’t check the toilet paper though.  Everything spoke who they are and were.  Very few employees didn’t wear company gear.  No, they weren’t wearing uniforms, they just wore their gear with pride, from T-Shirts to polos and hats, it was just apparent they didn’t work for a company, they are the company.

Can they have tough conversations while being ‘fun’?  Absolutely.  When I was there, a director took out an email I wrote in the past challenging a decision made that I felt as a consumer may have broke their brand.  This director asked for insight as to how I felt and patiently listened to how I provided context about the Scrum Alliance, PMI, CSM, PMI-ACP and the certification mess of the industry.  This person was more concerned with listening than making opinions and a personal statement.  This told me one thing, they are concerned about their user base, about their culture and they find more value in listening than in making a statement.  Uncomfortable, for a few moments sure.  The fact they saved something from months ago was actually impressive.  However, it won me over to see them take into account context that isn’t readily available in an email.  One word, “Wow”.

Through out my meetings, we discussed the product lines, customers, competitors and history.  Rarely did we talk about the future.  Not because they don’t have goals or because it was some massive NDA they needed me to sign. No, rather it was the fact they don’t like to make promises they can’t keep without breaking their identity. So many companies break their morale compass with signing SOWs they know they can’t meet. Worse yet, many companies make promises they know will cause them to give up their road map, their identity and any loyalty to their employee base. Over and over sales, product, upper management and professional services said how you must say “no”. This indicated maturity, respect and reality. They don’t want some massive set of companies dictating their future with a check. They don’t want some VC angling them in a direction that isn’t necessary. They want their company to be free and able to grow naturally.  Are they getting bigger, absolutely? Do they want to be an IPO, from what I can tell, no. They want to be themselves and that is honorable. The CEO said “we are in the business of making money”. This is where many CEOs stop the sentence, but he continued on with “but” and followed it up with their goals, values and underlying desire to change the community. They don’t want to steal the pie from their competitors, many of their competitors have customers that would “drain them” and pull the from what they do best. That is what happens to IPO’s, they must sacrifice something to get there and to stay there. Don’t believe me? Look at Best Buy. There is a reason one of the only ways to save that company are to take it back to a private status.

We did discuss the competitors and the CEO talked very highly of the different strengths of the companies.  Rarely did you hear a bad comment about a competitor.  However, when a competitor came up they just made it clear that they don’t want to be the competitor, not in the form of customers, product, culture and most importantly people. They love their people, they make that very clear. They don’t want to be someone else with different stories, they want to just be them, simple and true without compromise.

Last but not least, “V Day”.  No, it wasn’t valentine’s day but it was VersionOne Day, or Victory Day, or Very pretty Day…I am not sure what they use the V for but all I heard was “V Day”.  This is one day a month they give monthly updates by department, core initiatives review and congrats on accomplishments and serve lots of food.  The number one accomplishment again was tenure.  Over and over people clapping for “years” being with the company.  One person was moving on to another company and this brought an uproar of ‘booooooooooooooooos” followed by cheering and laughter.  It was like watching your brother or sister (the one you actually liked), moving and going to college.  People didn’t cry, no wimps here, but it was felt in the room.

So who is VersionOne? It’s not a product. Their competitors would love it to be that easy. It isn’t a plaque on the wall saying they are the best company in the world.  Competitors would love that too, because you can buy it. They are something much simpler and much harder. They are people. They are people who argue, compete, hug, laugh, offend, forgive, drink, sit in bean bag chairs, write on ‘SMART’ boards, and inspire.

As their T-shirts say, “A Decade of DONE”




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