An Interview with GeekHive’s first employee Jay Oliver
December 14, 2015
GeekHive breeds loyalty. Founded in 1998, we started out with just 3 employees and all of them are still here today! Their long tenure is credited, in large part to GeekHive’s culture which includes:
- work-life balance
- the ability to speak their mind
- the type of projects they get to work on
- their relationship with founder Peter Ladka
- opportunities for growth and development
To get the inside scoop on all things Geeky including our approach to technology and client partnerships, let’s chat with GeekHive’s first employee and Chief Technology Officer Jay Oliver. He’s been a part of GeekHive’s direction and development since the beginning and has helped shape who we are today. I’ve asked him to step out of the Batcave to answer these questions, here goes…
Jay, tell me about meeting Peter and how you wound up working for GeekHive. I heard it involved ketchup…
Jay: We were introduced through a friend of a friend. The business was getting to a point where Peter couldn’t handle everything himself anymore, and I really needed something more interesting to do. We met for the first time at a local cafe to see if it was a good fit and I proceeded to get ketchup all over my white shirt, it was a really classy moment. I got the job, but wound up taking a pay cut- I’ve often wondered how much the ketchup incident had to do with that.
HA! That’s a great story. I’m sure it really set the tone for your relationship. Speaking of which, what’s one thing you’d want people to know about Peter?
Jay: Buried somewhere deep underneath that gruff surface, there’s a deeply reflective and sensitive person.
Editor’s Note: Peter was actually Jay’s best man in his wedding last year, alas we’re a sarcastic bunch. You can read all about why that’s a good thing here.
To what do you attribute both your own longevity and that you see of so many people who work for GeekHive?
People are people first, and employees second. Family matters
Jay: I think the average annual turnover for developers in our industry is somewhere around 20%. That’s huge. Five years later, that’s a LOT of new people. I don’t have an exact figure offhand, but the last time I checked GeekHive’s annual turnover hovered around 3%. Why? Culturally it’s a very different kind of company. People are people first, and employees second. Family matters.
The true cost of a new hire is much greater than most people realize, once we make that investment (into a person, not just a position) we really try to keep them around. We don’t burn people out and dispose of them.
Career advancement pathways are a big part of it too. In our industry there always seems to be an attitude that the only way to get a meaningful promotion is to take a job with another firm. Given the cost of a new hire, factoring in training, onboarding, ramp-up time… that’s a very shortsighted view. We strive to offer people real, meaningful ways to advance throughout their career without having to move on.
It feels wrong to force someone to choose between doing what they love/are great at, and supporting their family.
Also, this may sound rather obvious, but most developers love developing. The majority of the ones that go into management seem to do so because they hit a ceiling in their career as a developer, not because they love management. It feels wrong to force someone to choose between doing what they love/are great at, and supporting their family. If our developers have no interest in being people managers, we don’t push them in that direction. There’s plenty of room for really talented developers. Why would I force my best people into doing something they don’t like to do and aren’t necessarily great at?
Editor’s note: Our low turnover rate has benefits for our customers as well. Once you work with us, and our team gets to know your product and business structure, the next time you work with us – either for support or a new project – you’ll likely work with the same people. This saves you both the time and energy of explaining things and re-integrating a new team.
What have been some of the biggest challenges GeekHive has faced over the years?
Jay: Underneath it all, we’re a bunch of people who love building things. When someone asks us for a widget our natural desire is to build them the best widget the world has ever seen. That isn’t always what our customers want or need and sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult to strike the right balance.
How do you handle this challenge?
Jay: What our customers want trumps what we want to build. It’s our job to explore the possibilities and foster discussions when we see things differently, but at the end of the day their needs matter more. Sometimes it’s a budget issue and we can find a creative way to bridge the gap so everyone wins. Other times, it’s a fundamental difference of opinions in how things should work, but once all the discussions are over, we build what we were hired to build.
How would you describe GeekHive’s approach to working with clients as their technology partner?
Jay: One-word answer? Flexibly. We work with an incredibly diverse set of clients, using many different technologies, across virtually all industries. All else being equal we do have ways we’d prefer to work, but we’re not the type of company that inflicts our “One True Methodology” on our customers.
For example, if we’re working on a website to back a campaign that has a media buy in 6 weeks, while the scope is still being hashed out, we’d prefer to work together agilely since requirements will likely shift. Working on another project in a tightly regulated industry with rigorous documentation requirements on every change, a different approach might work better. We assess on a project by project basis.
What do you like about working with both .NET and PHP platforms like Sitecore and Drupal?
Jay: It’s all about picking the right tool for the job. Everything has a place. Going back to when I first got into programming, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for interpreted languages – but it’s about the entire ecosystem, not just the language. For example, I love being able to easily use tools like Chef, Vagrant, Docker to clone a repo, provision a clean dev environment and run the full test suite. That’s amazingly powerful.
Microsoft has done an amazing job of continuing to improve .NET over the years and Visual Studio is probably the best editor around. Looking forward, ASP.NET 5 will be fully open source and I’m eager to level the playing field on the dev ops front.
When might a client need open sourced vs. enterprise platforms?
Is making that recommendation a part of the assessment and strategy you help with?
Jay: There’s isn’t really a clear line between the two anymore. WordPress, Drupal, and Magento are open source, companies of all sizes use them, and they have enterprise level support available. Scala is an open source language used by some of the biggest companies in their products and services. ASP.NET 5 and the CoreCLR are fully open source now. We don’t make our decisions based on those labels, we try to find the best tool for the situation looking at multiple factors including what technologies the customer currently uses and what they have the ability to maintain and support.
What was your favorite project to work on and why?
Jay: I don’t know how I can pick just one. We worked on a research project for Microsoft in the very early days of Azure. That one was personally satisfying because it let me get very early hands-on experience with new technologies and learn a lot about what cloud computing really meant, both the good and the bad. There was another project that we did for a pharmaceutical company that didn’t use particularly new or cutting edge technologies but made a real difference in many people’s lives. That’s a totally different kind of satisfaction but made me proud to be a part of the team nonetheless.
Any advice for new developers?
Jay: Debuggers are great tools, but don’t let them become a crutch. If you can’t tell what might be going wrong with your code without stepping through it, what are you going to do when there’s a problem in production that you can’t replicate locally?
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Jay: That I get paid to do all these things I’d probably be doing for free if I had a different job. (shudder)
What do you think sets GeekHive apart from other technology partners out there?
Jay: Our willingness, at every level of the company, to figure out and do what’s in the best interest of our clients, not simply convincing them to do things with our favorite tools and processes.
I think we’re much more likely than most firms to tell a prospective customer when we don’t think we’re the right fit for the opportunity.
It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does I believe it really stands out in people’s minds and they respect it. Often in these cases the customers come back 6 months or a year later with a different job or sometimes even the same job.
Actually, one of the larger projects we have going on right now started this way, we had a 90-minute initial consultation at the end of which I told the customer in no uncertain terms that we weren’t the right partner for them for that job. They got back in touch a week later and wanted to hear more about my reasons for thinking so. None of the other firms they had interviewed up until that point had anything but the most positive, glowing things to say about the project, and it was really bothering them that we had dissented so strongly. We had a long talk, discussed our reservations and now our joint team is poised to deliver something really great.
What makes you a Geek?
Jay: My love for technology. Most people would probably call it an obsession. I remember trying to figure out the best, most idiomatic way to do something in Swift 2, and my wife walks into my office and asks me “What are you doing? It’s 4 AM. Come to bed already!” I hadn’t even realized it was dinner time yet. Oops!
Jay: As in what superpowers would I like to have, or which one do I like the most? I like Wolverine because so much of what’s interesting about him is really more of an emergent property of his healing abilities than a direct “power”.
Biggest Accomplishment outside of work?
Jay: Getting my wife to agree to marry me.
Wow, I don’t know about you but I learned a lot about GeekHive and Jay himself. Makes me like the company I work for even more than I did before. We’re not perfect but we put the client first, we’re immersed in the technology and product daily, and we care about the people on our team. Not a bad place to work for, or have work for you, if you ask me.
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