How to transition a company into a SaaS model within a few months?

Cari Davidson, VP of Engineering ● Jul 11th, 2023

The full transcript

Stephen May

Cari, good morning! Welcome to our Devico Breakfast Bar! We've had a number of people in the industry come and talk to us about what's happening in their organization and what's happening in the industry in general, so I thought you could start maybe by telling us what is your role in your organization, but more importantly, tell us about your organization. What's happening right now?

Cari Davidson

When I worked with Devico I was with Planetly, and at Planetly I was the Head of Engineering and ultimately the VP of engineering. I was functionally the CTO. I did everything from IT to infosec, to engineering itself at Planetly which was an engineering team at our peak of around seventy people.

Stephen May

Tell us a bit about Planetly. Who are they? What do they do?

Cari Davidson

Planetly was a carbon counting software as a service solution. We helped companies calculate their carbon emissions so that they could then manage that, and offset it, and do reduction strategies, and so forth.

Stephen May

Okay, and the role that you do there now, which you just described, tell us a bit about your journey to that role right from your very junior start and as you do that perhaps share with us what you thought your most important accomplishment has been to date on that journey.

Cari Davidson

When I joined Planetly they were mostly a consulting firm. They did all the carbon calculations on spreadsheets and would take a job, make a deal, and then do the calculations on spreadsheets, generate a report – and not even generate a report – write a report, and then hand the report to the customer, and exchange money, and so forth. And that's what they were doing and I came in and turned it from that into a Software as a Service Solution.

We started by building a frontend to collect data and also then we made this better by providing integration strategies and also the ability to upload your data from different data sources. There is also what I am most proud of is coming in about November of 2020 I started working there and then by March 2021, actually by mid-January 2021, we had what we were calling automated calculations working and live on the site.

So, within just a really few months I had transformed the company into a SaaS company and that's when we started to really grow and that's when I needed more people fast and that's when I got in touch with Oleg and we made a plan for this - QA happened. He also supplemented our frontend engineering because we were having a hard time hiring them. So yeah, that worked out really well for us.

Stephen May

We'll come to that, to your relationship with Devico and how that's worked because I think that's interesting how it's linked to your deliverables. So thinking again about your role and your journey and I wonder if you’d look back and you could share with us any kind of bizarre or funny situation that you accounted that you look back on and think: “Well, that was a really interesting learning point for me on that journey”?

Cari Davidson

As I said, Planetly was – I used the past tense because we were acquired within about a year and a half of me, actually a year and a month of me, starting working at this company. We caught the eye of OneTrust, which is a company that primarily does privacy, but they were branching into ESG, and they loved us. They did a lot of due diligence, had a lot of interviews with them, and worked with them. They believed in us out of something like a hundred candidates that they were looking to acquire.

And they made an offer that our founders couldn't refuse and they bought us. Now the sad part is that a year later they decided to give up on ESG and just laid all of us off. They closed Planetly down including all ex-team. What did I learn from that? Well, now I'm in my current role. I'm the founder and CTO of Tecker which is making software to help engineering leaders be at their best.

This is not our official mission statement bringing it like I said but I'm currently working on that by myself with one co-founder. I'm the tech co-founder and he's the business side co-founder, and lessons learned. If we get an acquisition offer, to make sure that my people are taking care of, and to make sure that we get it all in writing, get all the stuff in writing. That was a big mistake from our founders, I think, and they know it. So, that's just the way it is.

Stephen May

But an exciting new role focus and I'm sure some conversations with Oleg and the team about where you take that in the future. When you think about your profession in the securing, give us one thing that you would say “I'm really passionate about this! This is what makes the difference in success in the environment I’m working in!”

Cari Davidson

Scalability.

Stephen May

Okay, scalability.

Cari Davidson

Things have to work, they have to scale, they have to be maintainable. You have to be able to scale not only your code, not only your systems. but your teams. You have to build your teams in a way that they can scale. You can't build software in a giant monolith very effectively. It starts out, it's great in the very beginning but at the end, that is going to bite you in the ass that's what I'm passionate about.

Stephen May

Okay, thinking about the industry, I know people, a lot of people, listening and know that it's a fast-moving environment, lots are particularly in the sect that we're in. How do you keep yourself up to date with the latest tech and development?

Cari Davidson

Well, I'm currently coding again. I'm doing it and that's, I guess, how I'm keeping up to date. And I'm actually pushing my boundaries quite a lot. I'm intentionally coding in frameworks I never knew before, I'm learning something new in the process. Because doing what I did before would be boring, I guess. Also, this is newer, and what I was doing before was a little older. I guess, that's how. I also read blogs, and read news sites and TechCrunch, and things, and see what people are putting out there.

There's so much happening. I can't possibly keep up with all of it. There's also a community of CTOs, a couple of communities of CTOs that I am a member of, we ask questions of each other and I read that and I ask questions and things. We kind of help each other out.

Stephen May

Okay, that’s good knowledge-sharing and networking. Could I ask you how would you make choices about what computer language or development framework you would decide to use?

Cari Davidson

A couple of factors. Availability of resources of course is very important. It's very important to make sure that you can hire like Haskell is a great language but it's really difficult to find engineers who are gonna work on Haskell. And that's probably one of the main ones. But also, you want something that is modern, something that's going to attract people who are passionate about their code, who are passionate about building good software.

In my experience, some languages tend to be “this is what makes the most money”. Becoming, you know, maybe an SAP or ABAP developer great for business, but not so great for passion. I don't think anyone's passionate about writing ABAP but you can get some amazing, you know, Vue.js or React engineers and Node engineers, and they're readily available. There are loads of them. That's one. The other is also just the compatibility of, for instance, your frontend and backend.

I said Node, Node is a great example because it's much easier to find full-stack engineers that are doing frontend and backend both in JavaScript. Whereas if your backend is in Python and your frontend is in JavaScript, then you have this division between Python and JavaScript developers and you have some people working on something and handing it over to others. In some cases that's exactly what you have to do once you scale out to a certain level.

For instance, especially in data science, and machine learning, and so forth, Python is the language. You get them to set up those services. Then you can start doing that but you have to get to a certain scale, I think, before that makes any sense. Early on it's really hard to split a team of four engineers into two frontend and two backend. I'd rather have four full-stack in the very beginning.

Stephen May

Okay, and it's interesting that a few times you've talked about resources and the availability of skill sets of resources. Thinking about teams and as a CTO what have you used as tools to help drive efficiency in your teams?

Cari Davidson

Well, mostly use spreadsheets. That's, in fact, what we're doing at Tecker – we're building tools for tech leaders. That was the idea that came out of my experience at Planetly. I did so many things on spreadsheets. I used sheets for everything – for organizing my people, for keeping track of my people. HR doesn't seem to understand that - how you build software. The teams that are actually working on the software are different from the teams that they are reporting to that HR is considering.

And also, you need to consider and you want to treat your contractors and freelancers the same as everybody else on your team. Whereas HR does not see them the same HR sees them differently. How do you manage that? Well, pretty much every tech leader that I know puts together a bunch of spreadsheets and they manage it there.

In addition, you know, keeping track of all the things going on on your teams, all the things that your people need, all the things that your people want, and their career frameworks – all of that stuff was just basically on spreadsheets for me and an that's why I'm building this app actually.

Stephen May

Well, you're in the right place to do the app and it sounds like it’s a pretty good experience. Thinking about resources, we've talked about that a few times but when you think about some of the skills that are required today to help you now and in previous roles, what would you say are some of those primary skill sets that you've been looking for and look to seek out?

Cari Davidson

In engineers?

Stephen May

Yeah.

Cari Davidson

Well, of course, the ability to code. They have to be able to do the work. They have to understand why it works. It's very easy to go to a stack overflow and copy paste some code and say: “Look, I did it”. But understanding why it works that's something that we have to do in an interview. Passion for what they're building. It's great to see people who love what they're doing. I'm not saying it’s necessarily that they have to do it 24 hours a day.

But it's really nice to see when they have side interests, side projects, when you can see the passion in their face when they're talking about the work that they did, when it's cool, when it's exciting. But also, they have to be able to communicate with each other. This is not something. I don't care if you're the best engineer in the world, if you can't communicate with your teammates, if you don't respect them, if you're not a good team player, then you're not gonna last on a company, on a team that is more than a few people. You might be great for the first engineer when you're first starting out because you're an amazing engineer but once we start having a team it's really hard.

Stephen May

Yeah, it's a great shoping this. Right, of things that you're looking for, tell me how difficult is it finding that type of profile?

Cari Davidson

It's not easy to find that. You just make sure you screen for that in the interview process, teach your recruiter how to look for those things.

Stephen May

What would you advise to developers in the space around? What should they look at to develop the skills and knowledge as they try to seek further opportunities?

Cari Davidson

Don't just do what you're told. Explore what interests you. Do projects on the side. Do some open source projects.

Stephen May

Ok, and you've alluded a few times, I think, and previous people we've spoken with have talked a lot about that need for communication and softer skills, that interpersonal skills. Would you reinforce that that's something that the developer should look at in the kind of progress and development plans?

Cari Davidson

Yeah, absolutely. I don't know how else to expand on that.

Stephen May

No, no, that's fine. It's just not important. So, when you start to look at your kind of resourcing model clearly IT outplacement has played a part of that for you? Took us through your thinking process that drew you to that as a potential solution for you in meeting your goals?

Cari Davidson

At that time we had one QA engineer and she was a part-time student and now, I've worked in companies that have no QA at all. I was thinking: “Well, we already have QA and the team had become dependent on having some QA.” So, I said: “Okay, let's double down on that.” And I talked to several different companies that were doing QA outsourcing. Devico or DeviQA as I found them were specialized – seemingly anyway – in QA.

And the people I talked to, Oleg actually, was very knowledgeable about QA systems and test case management, and so forth. And I talked to a few people, and I was able to talk to individual people and give them individual interviews, and select which people that I wanted on my team. And we just basically used Devico as a source of people to hire from. And we treated them as part of the team.

They were paid differently but other than how they were paid and of course the fact that they were in different parts of the world then us, they were treated very much like part of our team. Unfortunately, they were in Ukraine and, as you know, they were not able to leave the country, at least the men were not able to leave the country once the war started. But they kept working. They were just great. They kept working through the whole thing. Sometimes even just like telling us about how they are we can hear the bombs but they still have the internet so they're still working. It’s great.

Stephen May

If I was asking you to produce a label for me that we could stick on the side of the tin that said, you know, what are the benefits of IT outsourcing, what would they be for you?

Cari Davidson

Makes it really easy to get people very fast. Of course, that's the obvious thing. I would even say - secondary is the fact that they are cheaper probably for most people. But the best part of it was just that we could get good people very quickly and they were also under contract.

It's not like we have the long process – if someone isn't working out, we can just say: “You're not working out”, and they can go. And it's not easy finding freelancers either, and they're also ridiculously expensive. It's kind of like the best of both worlds between freelance and outsourcing.

Stephen May

What about the drawbacks? Somebody said to you: “'I’m not sure what those are for you”?

Cari Davidson

Sometimes – is that better? – Sometimes companies make decisions outside their control, outside of your control as a leader and don't want freelancers or don't want contractors. That's, I guess, I don't know if that's really a drawback, but I mean the biggest drawback is probably just that they're still not exactly part of the team. Most of the team members are here in Germany, somewhere elsewhere, but they were primarily in Germany.

We also had people in Portugal. And when we had team events, the people in Portugal would come, the people in Germany would come, but the people in Ukraine couldn't come. I don't know if that's because they were in Ukraine. I think that chances are most of them wouldn't have come anyway. They still have a bit of a loyalty to their company, to Devico, and not necessarily to us for good reason but.

Missing that loyalty, I guess, is what you could say: “I would have happily hired almost all of them but they wouldn't come because they were happy there”.

Stephen May

Would you say that that loyalty piece, once it could go missing, if you've got the right partner then they will help manage that piece so that the people feel part of your organization?

Cari Davidson

Yeah, that's true. And for what it's worth, our people love the people that we had loved working for us. They were seemingly very loyal. I mean it's not even that big of a drawback. The whole time that we worked with them, most of them stayed on our project. There were a couple that left mostly because we had a change. And we had enough front-end engineers. We didn't need that supplement any more. That was also a bit hard because we had to let them let go.

I mean they're not fired because they still work for Devico but we had to sort of tell them that we didn't need them. And then we also had a couple of people leave of their own accord because they found other jobs somewhere else. But generally, my experience with outsourcing: usually turnover is much worse. I've worked with Indian companies where the turnover rate is ridiculous and people are coming in, they get some experience, and then they leave.

But this experience with Devico in Ukraine was good. And I actually had a while ago, about just ten years ago, thirteen years ago, I was the Head of Engineering at a company doing Augmented Reality in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam, and we had a team also in Ukraine, and they were also great and completely loyal, with a different outsourcing company.

Stephen May

Okay.

Cari Davidson

Yeah, that was a good experience.

Stephen May

Thank you. And you've alluded to a few examples before, but I wonder if you could just talk us through a specific example for building software you thought: “Yeah, I'm glad I had outsourcing linked to that and that really helped with that particular solution or challenge that we had.”

Cari Davidson

Well, our outsourcing was primarily in QA and we, at that time when they started, we didn't really have a professional QA. We had like I said one part-time QA person. They came in and they built test cases, and they set up Test trial for managing the test cases, and they were like machines just cranking out the test cases for us. And then we got in a couple of test automation engineers who helped build some end-to-end tests for us and even some of the unit tests because they're also front-end engineers.

That was really helpful because, I think, the regular engineers were too busy with feature writing. And the product was very insistent that we wouldn’t divert resources away from writing product code, but we needed to focus on quality. Testing, hiring external people to do testing helped me manage my stakeholders and also make sure that my code was of good quality.

Stephen May

Okay, thank you. Now, I know, obviously, you chose to work with Devico, and there are lots of people, lots of competitors offering similar services. I'm curious when you reflect if I was to say to you – give me some reasons maybe why you chose Devico and maybe some reasons from other competitors you thought “I didn't want to work with those people”, what they might be?

Cari Davidson

I talked to a lot of salespeople who sounded more like sales people and all sounded pretty tech knowledgeable and I appreciated them so.

Stephen May

Yeah, cool. That's not the first time we've heard that. Thank you for the thanks said. Listen, there are people out there who still aren’t convinced whether or not they should take the jump to look at outsourcing or IT outplacement, whatever reference we use, what advice would you give to those that haven't yet tried it but may be thinking about including it within their model?

Cari Davidson

I would say to go for a hybrid. I would say to not go full remote and also to do everything you can to make them feel like part of your team. Invite them to your Christmas party and so forth. Like really that's what I do. And as far as recommending Devico I have already to one of my friends who's doing a start-up right now and need some people. I don't know what the deal is, what the state of that is but I would recommend them again.

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