How do we cope with Covid-19 as a software house?
As I’m sitting down to write this, it is June 2020. The world isn’t over (obviously), but the world-as-we-know-it — certainly feels quite distant. The coronavirus pandemic has touched almost every industry and human life aspect, IT being no exception. While our company has been among the lucky few which rode this wave quite well, no one can really say we did it effortlessly. So, let’s have a closer look at what it’s like to be a software house during Covid-19.
How has Covid-19 impacted the IT industry?
If you’re looking for a short answer… I won’t give you one. And that’s not me being malicious, but the industry being too complicated. Most IT companies work for clients on B2B terms, and these clients are who determined the outcome in the coronavirus business war.
Software houses that worked for travel, entertainment or petroleum industries are obviously taking the strongest hit. But if you were involved in food delivery or online-meeting tools, then by now you’re on the winning side of the Covid-19 lottery. And that’s what it actually is to some extent — a lottery.
However, when you sum everything up, IT as a whole has lost, together with the world economy. We’ve forgotten about new opportunities, gains, jobs, you name it. SoDA (Software Development Association Poland) claims a PLN 52 849 000 (ca. USD 13 500 000) loss in an internal report — and that’s in March/April, calculated with the reported Polish cases only. The real number is hard to determine and probably terribly depressing.
Our clients are fine…
… because they’re in the “right” industries. We’ve built Code Poets around cheminformatics and blockchain — two modern-day sectors that are quite immune to pandemics. In fact, they’re doing more than fine. Pharma is working full-on, trying to save the world with a coronavirus medicine and vaccine (actually, one of the projects we’re involved with — Synthia — could be the key to accelerating this process), while blockchain once again spikes common interest as a safe haven of privacy protection in times of tracking apps and other concerns we all share. Not to mention the widely recommended cashless transactions and e-commerce, where cryptocurrencies have a big say.
When all this craziness has started, the first thing I did was schedule calls with all of our clients. I wanted to make sure that we’re on the same page and they have everything they need from us. None of them was in a bad situation, but they obviously had a lot of general anxiety. I made myself even more available than usual and our team worked full speed. All that to ensure we shipped everything way before our deadlines and took some weight of our customers’ shoulders.
Code Poets under lockdown
While the Polish government has allowed for offices to remain open throughout the pandemic (with a set of strict regulations to follow), the recommendation was clear: work from home if possible. We’ve obliged happily — our business runs just as fine remotely, so there was no question about making this decision when it was the right thing to do in terms of public (and private) health.
In fact, we’ve been a partially remote company already, with a few employees working from other cities, as well as loads of overseas projects. That’s why, again, we’ve found ourselves in a very privileged position when it came time to shut down our office. There were practices in place (such as regular video chats and strong online tools habits) that helped us make this transition very smoothly.
This situation has also forced us to consider making the switch to being a fully remote company. We’ve toyed around with this idea for years but apparently needed a more intense trigger to start talking about it seriously. As of now, nothing’s been decided yet but we are considering a few options on both ends of the spectrum, as well as somewhere in-between — whether that applies to the kind of office space we use or where we search for new talent. We’ll see.
When life hands you Covid-19, make… the best of it
While I realize that the above is a slightly arrogant statement considering all kinds of financial difficulties companies are facing today, we also need to take a look at the innovation and acceleration that’s been facilitated, much like in times of war. Enterprises, especially ones on the smaller scale, are quite used to riding the wave of uncertainty, doubt and anxious anticipation of the future — we’ve been dealing with it on a daily basis.
Internally, we’ve implemented some initiatives that have helped all the employees make the smoothest transition possible. First thing to do was ensure that everyone has the right working conditions and all the equipment they need. Then we’ve thought about things we’ll miss about our office, like hanging out around the coffee machine and having a friendly (and somewhat gossipy) chat with our colleagues. Thankfully, we’ve been able to recreate that in the form of a daily online coffee meeting. Naturally, it lacks the warmth of direct human contact, but in some ways it’s actually better! Not only does it involve all employees at the same time, but it also took our meme creation and sharing game to a whole new level.
A lot of us have also noticed an increase in productivity. Working at an office is a distraction paradise and the temptation to ask people all-the-time-about-all-the-things is strong. This applies especially to our senior developers, who obviously have the biggest expertise. Thanks to a slight delay feature of online communication, we’ve been able to think twice about hitting people up with minor requests, which strengthened everyone’s self-reliance and… googling skills.
Our remote work know-how
After a few weeks of remote work, we’ve run a survey among our co-workers to find out what they might lack or need. It made us more aware of all the weak points this working model has and jump-started conversations about how to address them. So far, we’re discussing a home-office budget for all the employees, trying our new online communicators and thinking of other ways to remain “in touch”, even during periods of quarantine.
The survey was also a starting point to a series of meetings we’ve had, during which we’ve discussed our experiences with working remotely and exchanged ideas on how to maintain a healthy work-life balance. While for some of us this situation was completely new, others already had several years of experience in working from home, so it was a great opportunity to help each other with a few tips & tricks and encourage a knowledge-exchange culture in the team.
While we’re on the topic of knowledge-exchange, we didn’t want to let quarantine stop our self-improvement efforts. Thankfully, more and more experts offer their training online. At the moment, we’re taking part in a four-part feedback course and learning how to share our observations with the clients and each other in the most helpful way. We’ve also decided to try out new initiatives during our weekly retrospective sessions that gather all team members. In order to shake things up and massage our brain cells a bit more, we’ve been eg. working with a digital blackboard to try and find new ways we can delight our customers.
Having something to fall back on
Business-wise, our biggest asset was the financial cushion we’ve built over the years. I’ll leave the details of our fiscal strategy for another article, but this point is too important to be left-out. Setting your revenue aside is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do — balancing on the verge of reinvesting and security, an offensive and defensive strategy. I, myself, am however a huge believer in having a cushion to fall on, especially since the Code Poets family grew beyond its two co-founders.
The intentional decision to remain a small enterprise despite growth opportunities has also worked out well in this situation. No one in the company is redundant, so… no one was made redundant. In fact, here we took an offensive approach and actually extended our team. The corona crisis has caused a big stir on the job market and we were quick to snatch the best specialists who became available. It is also the time when we’ve decided to build a small marketing-sales team, in hopes of reaching new customers who might need our help. :)
Those who know what they’re talking about state clearly that the coronavirus pandemic will be one of many in the years and decades to come. Lots of small companies won’t be able to survive the huge sales season for venture capitals — it really is the survival of the fittest. That’s why it’s so crucial to take the right steps in order to become pandemic- and crisis-proof.
Realizing that remote work can be just as (if not more) effective as on-site is one of the biggest breakthroughs of 2020 for a lot of companies. Implementing strategies such as setting aside a budget for each employee’s private work station will probably become the new private healthcare or gym membership benefits of the years to come.
This is a huge opportunity for the whole IT industry. We’re able to adjust extremely quickly to new market demands and we’re standing in front of… a market full of new demands. The rise of e-commerce, new tools that support remote work, transitioning “classic” industries and way, way more: all great areas for software houses to come in handy.
All businesses, us included, need to take this time to rethink their customer base. It’s no longer acceptable to rely on just one industry. We need to carefully consider possible future scenarios and make sure our client portfolio is well-diversified against all kinds of possible crises. This has also motivated our decision to focus on two such different areas as cheminformatics and blockchain — the first one only entering the phase of mass-digitization. Both have performed well in these times, but what else does 2020 (and beyond) have in store for us? Which directions should we take the company? Those are the kinds of questions all CEOs should ask themselves daily.
So, what’s it like to be a software house during Covid-19? Here at Code Poets, we’ve been able to test our emergency strategies and they worked out pretty well. The goal is to keep strengthening them and looking for even more ways to make the company stand firmly amidst future turbulences. It was good to be reminded that the unexpected really does and will come from time to time.
If the current crisis has convinced you that you need to implement some changes in your company software-wise, or you just want to chat about your experiences, I’m at your disposal.