Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is BusinessMakers USA, brought to you by Insperity, inspiring business performance. Coming to you today from downtown Nashville, Tennessee and I’m very pleased to have as my guest Andrew Kerr, CEO of 40AU. Andrew welcome to the show.
Andrew: Glad to be here, thank you.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about 40AU.
Andrew: We are a software consulting firm based here in Nashville, Tennessee; we like to think we’re the local option. If you look at our client base we really work with a wide variety of technologies to try and figure out and we like to think of ourselves as problem solvers; we solve problems with software. And so we use a lot of technologies depending upon your problem and if you look at what we do we look a little like Nashville. We do a lot of healthcare, we do a lot of music – we get to play with a lot of fun things in the music industry, we do sports, we do higher education, things like that that are kind of built around Nashville. We love being here and watching the city grow.
Russ: So when you say we use a lot of technologies my understanding, particularly of the development world today, is there’s new ones being added every day and it’s a continuous challenge to keep up; is that right?
Andrew: It is and there are a lot of development shops that will try and sort of niche themselves in and specialize and say we’re a Microsoft shop or we’re a JAVA team. We really look at it and go we want to hire developers and we want folks that can think through problems and really know software at a fundamental level so that if a client comes to us they may have a problem where Microsoft is the answer. They may have a problem where another newer, modern technology is the answer.
And we really like developers that have both the capacity and the willingness to want to be flexible in their skillset and pick up new things because when you work across different industries you’ll see that one industry may be using technology in a way that you can cross pollinate and bring back to another industry. And so we think there’s a lot of value to be gained from the cross disciplinary approach that we try and take.
Russ: Okay. It’s also a category of business and workers that is not traditional at all; there’s a lot of work at home, there’s a lot of work around the clock. Are you a tight ship, everybody has to be here in the morning at 8:00 and stay till 6:00?
Andrew: I wouldn’t call us a tight ship. Me and my partner are both Vanderbilt guys so we like the Commodore and the IG, but really the way I would describe us is we are definitely flexible to meet our clients’ needs. One of the things you’ll see in this market is people need software help; doesn’t matter what kind of company, doesn’t matter what size either. They don’t’ like their software, they hate it or they want to improve it.
And so they have a couple of options – they can look at a traditional staffing company which says I’ll give you a body and they’ll come sit at your office, but they really don’t bring a consultant mindset to where they’re going to do what you tell them. The other option is you have a great idea that you need software for and let’s bring it to a group that will then outsource it and send it overseas. We’re kind of the in between where we will actually come to you and do a house call, we’ll come sit with your development team in-house if that’s what you want us to do or you can come to us if you’re a startup. If you’re a company that’s just getting off the ground you can come to us and work out of our offices actually and we will sit with you and design a solution.
We think there’s a lot of power to being in the same room with your developer versus playing a game of telephone where you may give requirements to a salesperson, the salesperson talks to the business analyst on down the line and when it actually gets to the developer they don’t really know what they’re working on. So sitting in the same room, knowing your developer by name and being able to solve a problem with them on a white board we think adds a lot of value.
Russ: So that’s all fascinating. I have to ask you before we go any further, tell us about this name – what does that have to do with development 40AU?
Andrew: 40AU – it is often mistaken but 40AU actually stands for 40 Astronomical Units. We take our inspiration from an essay that was written by an astronomer named Carl Sagan. He wrote an essay called The Pale Blue Dot. If you’ve never checked it out go look it up on YouTube or somewhere and really what he talks about is the Voyager 1 space craft took a photo at the distance of 40 astronomical units away from Earth, which is about 6 billion kilometers for those in the science crowd, and really what it talks about is having perspective.
When you look at the earth from 6 billion kilometers it’s a tiny spec. He says that we sit here and we fight and we die and we bicker over this little, tiny pixel in the universe and when you’re at that distance it helps you to have a little different mentality to be humble about what you’re doing. And we try and bring that attitude into what we do in the software development world where developers and IT people in general are maybe not known for being the most humble guys.
Russ: But that little blue dot can have a “you are here” sign.
Andrew: Exactly, that’s right.
Russ: So you’ve been CEO now for a year?
Andrew: Yeah, just over a year.
Russ: And how old is the company?
Andrew: So the company is about 3 ½ years old. My two partners are developers, so they founded the company and so we like to say it’s a company built by developers for developers. And when you look at our team we have doubled our size in the last year – as Nashville has grown we’re growing with them – but the great thing about that is that actually when you come to us we’re a development shop through and through. Out of our 22 folks 20 are developers; 20 are writing code and both of my partners are writing code every day.
That is our discipline; that is our core, we’re staying really focused on that, and we think by doing that we’re going to be one of the best service companies in Nashville around software development. And we don’t have a lot of overhead so we can be a value-based partner for an early stage startup that’s trying to get off the ground. You can tap into our team and get a really good back end, front end and mobile developer and we also apply those same developers and work for some of the biggest companies in town and build things at enterprise grade. So we think it’s a nice mix of diversity in what we do.
Russ: When you keep talking about working with customers and stuff, I’ve seen that a lot more in the last few years and a lot of these people talk about this design-thinking way of development which usually goes you show up and you go okay, what do you want us to build? And they have this specific thing. And if you do it right you say that’s a good idea but eventually you go back to the seed where the idea came from and you bring it forward and you guys end up doing that a lot?
Andrew: We do. I think we take a very agile approach to development. Usually when people have an idea for software it’s a good idea, a lot of times it’s not fundamentally unique. But what we’re trying to do is help them discover how to differentiate it and how to make it in a very responsible way where you can provide value right away and really test if your concept is going to have traction in the marketplace. And so you don’t want to spend 3 or 4 weeks, 6 weeks writing requirements and then a few more months developing to find out that your idea is not any good.
We want to figure it out pretty quickly and so I’m always telling people – I like to say I tell them no upfront a lot; let’s de-scope that, let’s make it smaller. Let’s keep it tight so that we can get something out there to the actual decision makers which are the people that are going to buy your product. And if you can do that you’re going to get better feedback from the marketplace than you’re ever going to get from me or any of our developers or even the expert that may be bringing the problem or the solution to us.
Russ: Do you have any software development background.
Andrew: I told you I gave away my secret; I cannot write code, that’s why I have a bunch of good coders around me. I came up in the healthcare industry here in Nashville, did almost everything in the IT spectrum in terms of being a consultant and being able to look across from infrastructure to implementations, telecom, wireless; any of that kind of stuff I got to see up close. And what I kind of narrowed in on in that last couple of years was that software was really the most interesting place where you can really provide a lot of value and you can either transform a business if it’s struggling or you can create a new business from whole cloth if you know what you’re doing with really good software developers and doing it in sort of the methodologies that we’ve tried to hone in on.
Russ: It’s sort of interesting too that you came on and you kind of I guess were the business guy; I’m here and the founders – the two developers – they realized we need a business guy now; and is that all seeming to work out okay?
Andrew: It’s worked out really well.
Russ: Or should I be asking them?
Andrew: So Duane Arnett and Logan Buchannan are my two partners and again, they sort of lead our teams from a development perspective. But what’s great about them – and I’ve always told them – is that if when we run across a problem that these two guys can’t solve I’ll quit. Because when I go out and talk to people I have that much confidence in these guys. And it doesn’t matter the industry, it doesn’t matter the problem, if software is where the root of the issue lies I really have confidence in our team being able to bring it back to them and our process of being able to look at something, to take it apart, to reverse engineer it if we have to to figure out how to move somebody forward. And so it’s been a great relationship working with those guys. I think we have a ton of fun and it’s one of those where we feed off each other; you have to know what you’re good at, what the other person’s good at, and when you have complementary strengths those are the best partnerships typically.
Russ: And this doesn’t sound like it but it’s a partner question too, did they name the company 40AU?
Andrew: They did. Duane Arnett was the original, he used it when he was – Duane is a completely self-taught developer who really comes at it from a design background. Logan, my other partner, is a Vanderbilt Computer Science grad. So even having those two disciplines at the head of our company we typically are going to hire in that pattern. We’re going to find people from diverse backgrounds that maybe didn’t come up through a computer science background. We’re going to find people that are more CS oriented and we think there’s a good interplay too between those two mindsets.
Russ: I ask the question because the little blue dot thing about check your ego at the door, you and I have had multiple discussions about the interview and you’re kind of an anti-ego guy too. A humble guy, even have written a book about humility. I hope you change the world and get us back in that direction. Share your perspective on that topic.
Andrew: I appreciate you mentioning the book; it’s something that was a project of mine. I’ve taught leadership development classes for about 7 years now. I’ve had the opportunity to teach a lot at corporate settings, but with different groups, and this was the first – The Humility Imperative is the name of the book – and it was based off a class that I started teaching. This was the first class that I started pulling together and what I really found was I was seeing a lot of information out there around leadership development that referenced humility, but it never got very deep.
And so I started collating and collecting all this and I actually found I was fascinated with the topic. The first thought was essentially that why has this value that we seemed to very much value back in maybe the greatest generation sort of gone to the wayside? And what does that mean when you look at the rise of narcissism in our society, social media; these kind of trends seem like we’re going in the wrong direction. So quick step from the book when I start talking about this is back in the 1950s they started asking people this question; do you consider yourself a very important person? In the 1950s what do you think the percentage was that said yes?
Russ: Less than 1%? Not many…
Andrew: It was about 12%. By 2005 when they were asking that question it was up to 80%. So there’s definitely been a mindset shift and what I realized in doing a lot of this research is that being overly confident – we’ve preached this gospel of confidence and fake it till you make it and all these kind of things these days to kids, but being over confident is very dangerous to you. It’s very dangerous to your career and to your company. And so I’ve tried to build into the book a mindset of how do we actively pursue humility? What does that even look like? Because a lot of people sort say you’re either humble or you’re not. I would take the approach of it’s a mindset and how do you get yourself in that mindset and understand the value and the power of humility? And then how do you have a plan to walk in that direction? Because the name imperative came from the fact that what I decided was that humility will come and visit you at some point. And it will either be you’re pursuing it or it will come find you, and you don’t want it to come find you.
Russ: I think it’s fantastic advice. It seems like running a modern company these days, particularly a company that is made up of real smart people – which developers are – that humility is a must. If you’re just trying to be the charger and follow me off to mountain no matter what you’re not going to succeed these days.
Andrew: I think you hit the nail on the head. When you look at just the knowledge economy in general they say the global knowledge doubles every 18 months, something like that, so the amount of knowledge that we’re creating these days you can’t be the expert, not for very long anymore. And so you either adopt this mentality of I’m going to be a continuous learner and there’s always going to be stuff that I don’t know and I’m going to pursue it. Or you get into a comfort zone where you say I’m going to defend my niche because that’s where I’m comfortable and that’s where I’m known as the authority. You know Peter Drucker used to say beware the gurus because when you’re the guru people come to you for answers that means you’re not learning anymore.
Russ: And this is a real book, people can buy it?
Russ: On Amazon?
Andrew: eBooks on Amazon and Lulu.com has the hardback there. It’s available now, I actually launched it about a month and a half ago so it’s been a fin process of trying to get that out there.
Russ: Are your employees required to read it?
Andrew: They’re not but they will see the inspiration for 40AU is in the very last chapter there and I got to reference some things I’m really passionate about so I’ve enjoyed doing the project.
Russ: Well I would recommend if any of you are watching right now – if my CEO had written a book this cool I would read it.
Andrew: Maybe I ought to go back and ask them.
Russ: You should. Well Andrew I really appreciate you sharing the story of 40AU and The Humility Imperative.
Andrew: Thank you so much.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Andrew Kerr, the CEO of 40AU and this is BusinessMakers USA.
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