FIELDING AN ALL-STAR TEAM
When they started Visionist, Chris Berry and Brian Lehman had already had successful careers in software engineering. They wanted to build not just a good software company, but a great one. And now, after six years in business, they keep telling people — and folks are starting to believe them — that Visionist is not for sale.
In the software sector, when a company grows to 100 or 125 people, it often gets bought. When Visionist had 30 employees, Berry and Lehman told everyone the goal was not growth for growth’s sake. Now, with 90 employees, the pair is still singing the same tune.
“We’ve been through that before, and we are very explicit that we are not for sale. We want to be around 10, 15 years from now,” says Berry, who serves as the company’s president. The pair maintain this idea even in an industry where the best talent is highly sought after and companies are constantly being sold and merged.
At Visionist, which focuses on data analytics and data visualization, mainly for customers in the federal government, talent reigns. “We emphasize that employees are our number one priority,” Berry says.
The firm maintains an open atmosphere, wherein software engineers are encouraged to let the bosses know when they want to try something new.
“Career growth is a personal thing,” says Lehman, who serves as vice president. “Everybody has different passions, they have different career goals. We try to know each individual and try to help them grow in their career. We appreciate that each person has their own gifts, their own talents, and our job is to make them want to come to work every day and enjoy their work. We’re very selective about the work we go after and the people we hire because if we have good people, we can find good work for them.”
Berry notes that the labor market for the best software engineers is highly competitive, and the level of worker Visionist hires can easily find other job offers. “We tell them, ‘If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, let us know and we’ll find a place where you can be happy,’” Berry says. “And it’s hard to get people to really believe you when you say that stuff, but we’ve had a lot of people in the last two years come and say, ‘I’ve been in a project for two years. I’m looking for something new,’ and instead of looking for other companies and not trusting us to find them new things, they do come to us, and we do find them new work. You build that trust with the employees, and then they know next time that they certainly can come to us and ask for something new.”
With just a third of its employees reporting to its Columbia headquarters on a daily basis, the firm has sought ways to help new employees fit in, and to encourage a cohesive culture throughout the company. Visionist uses the chat platform Slack, which allows employees to maintain various channels both for work and outside interests — they have channels for everything from cooking tips and recipes to Pokémon. Last year, each employee brought a guest on an all-expenses-paid trip to Punta Cana, and the company has at least two official team-building outings a year. Each one of those meetings includes a State of the Company address and question and answer session, which is part of Berry and Lehman’s approach to being transparent with their employees about the plans and direction of the firm.
What’s more, Visionist takes great pride in its non-traditional interview process — taking a conversational approach as opposed to requiring applicants to pass a series of high-pressure tests.
“We don’t grill them,” Lehman says. “We don’t have them write code.” Instead, the company has a conversation with the applicants, with four or five people sitting in. Applicants have told Visionist that it’s the only company where people actually smile and laugh during the interview process. Having a genuine conversation tells the Visionist team something about the applicant’s actual personality, and vice versa, Lehman notes.
Then, he says, comes the hard part — once Visionist has gone out and hired the best people, getting them all to play together can take some work.
“The challenge is, we hire top talent, and you can kind of think of our job as all-star coaches,” Lehman says. “You’ve got a lot of people who can stand on their own and be superstars on their own, [but] we have to keep the notion that you’ve got to be a team — so you have to play together. It’s not as much about the individual accomplishments as it is about making other people in the company better, and making the company successful as a whole.”
Photo (L to R): Front row: Chris Berry, President; Brian Lehman, VP. Middle row: Matt Loff and Chris Cavey, Co-founders. Top row: John Scillieri, Joe Wright, Jim Orndorff, Jim LaTondre and Jon Kent, Co-founders.