Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Tom O’Neill: A Study in Nerdology

(cover story photo) Tom at podium 9915
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Meet Tom

Tom is a computer nerd who loves snowboarding and the Minnesota Twins. If he could have any superpower, he would choose teleportation, since he could not only go anywhere in the world on a whim, he would also never have to wait in traffic. Tom hates traffic.

Tom O’Neill is also chief executive officer of The Nerdery, a smart custom software development and design firm based in Bloomington, Minnesota. He is a proud facilitator of imagination and the benevolent leader of an incubator of innovation where individuality is prized, creativity is encouraged and excellence is expected. There are no slackers here, but if your best programming brain comes to life at 2 a.m. working in the glow of your Star Trek desk lamp, with your loyal canine warming your feet and a potent stream of caffeine running amok in your veins, then you have found your mother ship.

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The Nerdery is living up to its mission of being the best place in the world for nerds to work, not simply because they pour free coffee and beer, or because the office is dog-friendly, or because employees have flexible hours and design their own workspace. Sure, all of that is pretty cool. But the ingenious innovators who lead this society of brainy engineers, designers and technologists know that to attract and keep the industry’s best talent, you have to cultivate an environment where nerds thrive. According to O’Neill, it’s all about “respecting the craft.”

I Forgot to Drink the Kool Aid (And Coffee And Beer)

From the time the company first opened its doors back in 2003, its founders envisioned a place that would be different from other software development companies. “We all came from different backgrounds, working for people who really didn’t appreciate our craft,” O’Neill explained. “They would stick us in a cubicle and were willing to make sacrifices with the technology for political-business reasons.”

Operating on the belief that to get the very best out of people, you must respect them for who they are and what they can do, the company’s first nerds formed a true nerdocracy, where people are empowered and positioned to do their best work. Today, The Nerdery is playing in the big leagues, competing with, and winning over mega-brands like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter for the best talent in the industry.

Nerds need to be challenged. The Nerdery’s success also turns on its ability to position its employees with big and interesting projects that stretch their talents and dare them to make a real difference using their craft. “Our nerds are surrounded by hundreds of other talented colleagues who help them to grow as they learn from, and are inspired by, one another. We have a team of almost 500 nerds here, and the more smart people we hire, the better it gets.”

The company takes a collaborative approach to working with clients, partnering with them to identify business opportunities to create innovative solutions, then meet budgets and timelines with regular communication and full transparency. They excel in “strategy, user experience, design, architecture, software engineering and data science to enable innovation with technology. We help business leaders realize their vision for change and unlock even more business innovation.”

According to O’Neill, nerds become so engaged they forget to drink the beer, soda and coffee. “The sophistication and quality of work we are doing today is far beyond what I ever dreamed it could be. We are positioning smart nerds with our clients’ business objectives, and they are as passionate about the businesses they are partnering with as they are about The Nerdery. This is what we mean when we talk about finding meaning and purpose in our work.”

Nerdology as an Export

Other companies have seen the success of The Nerdery’s culture and asked to be a part of it. The Nerdery is now sharing its formula for attracting and retaining tech talent, and by infecting other companies with its vision, they are driving them to greater success.

One of The Nerdery’s Fortune 50 clients was not afraid to infuse some nerdosity into its corporate culture. “One of our biggest clients had been working hard to innovate their culture to be best in class in software development and technology. Their executives asked if they could have a tour and see our culture and how we do what we do. Six or seven visits later we became business partners. They started to hold their strategic collaboration meetings here, so they could step out of life at their company and culture and experience ours first-hand. They realized that what we have here could help their customers, as well.”

O’Neill describes the tech industry as “cutthroat” when it comes to engaging and retaining talent. To compete in the industry, and to get the most out of your team, culture is everything. Another company recently looked to The Nerdery for leadership and direction in launching the multiyear build of a sizeable SAAS (software as a service) product. The company ended up spending their first few months under The Nerdery’s roof, and have since moved their 30-person team to their own corporate headquarters. This organization didn’t just buy The Nerdery’s software product development services, they bought the culture that makes it all work.

“I believe they have taken our culture with them,” O’Neill said. “They have been able to attract and retain great talent, and given us credit for what they learned from our culture of innovation. It all comes back to understanding the meaning and purpose of the work, and then creating an environment where nerds are surrounded by people who are striving for and held to the same high standard. At The Nerdery, it’s the individual contributors who are our focus. We position people to succeed, and then get out of their way.”

When asked if the nerd culture could translate to any business environment, like say, a law firm, O’Neill explained that the magic isn’t so much in the structure or the perks, as in a company’s ability to articulate its values and identify what makes someone a good fit. “We’re not just looking for people who are fingers on keyboards and butts in seats. The recruiting process is a huge part of our success. We look for people who are passionate about technology, learning, growing and teaching. We tell prospects about experiences described by other nerds who’ve said they learn more at The Nerdery in a matter of months than years in previous positions. Or the feeling described as ‘imposter syndrome’ – when you first join the team and discover your peers are so smart. Eventually everyone here learns that the best nerds are learning and teaching every day. Most eventually find their niche where they can give back – be the smartest nerd in the room – and can help others grow. When we see their eyes light up while we’re describing the opportunity to work in an environment like ours, we know we’ve got the right nerd.”

Any business can have a nerd culture if it is populated by people with passion. O’Neill defines a nerd as anyone who is “extremely passionate about their interests. In our company someone will be a great fit because they are extremely passionate about what they do. And we want them to be able to express why they do what they do with passion. We are very deliberate about who we bring on and why they are an important part of the team.”

Nerd of the Herd

Occupying the role of the company’s biggest nerd, O’Neill must grapple with the challenges inherent to leading a group of brilliant minds who are used to being mostly self-directed. As a result, he has become a master of re-direction. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve had no less than 500 conversations with hundreds of different people who thought we should build our own software product to re-sell and move away from professional services. They have had some awesome ideas, but that’s just not where our focus is now. While I think it would be fun to experiment with other business models, I believe that we would sacrifice valuable focus on our customers. In response, I try to inspire our team to get excited about our primary business model. It usually helps to simplify and explain how our business model works. Ultimately, I believe everyone wants what’s best for our business and our customers, and they want to understand where they fit into the puzzle, and where they can contribute. I want to help them get excited about their current role and where the company is going. The challenge of directing passionate people is that you can’t always direct that passion where you want it to go.”

Respect at The Nerdery extends beyond the craft to the people who wield it. O’Neill’s strength as a leader comes from being a good listener who seeks to empower, not suppress. “It’s important to be really respectful of people – seeking to understand before you’re understood. Whenever someone is misaligned, I try first to understand what they’re really talking about and seek alignment. A lot of times, I end up saying, ‘You’re right.’ A core value here is to empower people. We strongly believe the best idea should win, no matter where it came from. Sometimes I end up empowering people to make a change where it wasn’t a priority before.”

Technology continues to provide an exciting and ever-changing environment for nerds to use their mighty brain power to change (and even rule) the world. “New ideas, more effective processes, better solutions to complex problems, and improving the human experience are all opportunities for innovation. Just 10 years ago, software was so much harder to make and the goals were so different. Back then, a lot of people looked at software as a necessary evil. Now, they are looking at it as the driver to innovations in their business. They’re saying, ‘I want to increase sales by 20 percent. How do I use technology to do that?’ What used to take us three years, we can get done in months. We are more equipped for rapid change than ever before.”

If you have a consuming passion for what you do, you might just be a nerd, too. “Our hobbies are our obsessions, and luckily some of these hobby-obsessions are actual jobs,” O’Neill said. “We’re really into what we’re really into – whether that’s Stack Overflow or Star Wars. Often we find that our culture is infectious; it’s our goal to leave the best of ourselves behind in every engagement.”

At a Glance

  • Before becoming the company’s CEO, Tom O’Neill served as The Nerdery’s President, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, Vice President of Software Development, and Software Engineer.
  • There are nearly 500 Nerds at The Nerdery.
  • Every nerd in the company is also a co-president, granting them the power to harness their passion to positively impact clients’ businesses.
  • Nerds regularly congregate for the Overnight Website Challenge and volunteer 24 hours to serving a non-profit. Since 2008, volunteers have given more than $6 million of professional services to 175 organizations.
  • When a nerd talks to you about Java, he may not be asking for coffee.

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