Appian’s Michael Beckley: A New Kind of Tech Leader

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a SandHill series profiling leaders in the software industry. Michael Beckley is chief technology officer at Appian, which was founded in 1999 and has provided market-leading BPM software since 2004. 

A technology leader obviously needs to focus on product development and R&D. In your opinion, what else is in the big picture for a leader? 

Michael Beckley: It’s so easy to let passion for technology consume you. I think for technologists it’s intoxicating to spend long hours and nights digging deep into a technical problem and learning new technologies because there are so many challenging new things to learn coming at you non-stop. Things that we used to take for granted are constantly being reinvented — even something as mundane as databases. Suddenly we have 100 different NoSQL databases to choose from and play with, and each has its own different nuances. 

And these days, in the age of social media, we’re taught the importance of building a brand about yourself. It’s easy to think that because you are blogging about it, tweeting about it and branding yourself as an expert in technology that it will be good enough to convince everyone that they should want to work with you and they should want to buy your product.   

But the reality is that isn’t enough. You need all that and you still need a viable business model driven by a compelling and sustainable culture that values your people and your customers. In the bigger picture, it’s so important to not lose focus on the long-term success of the business. 

How do you do that? I assume that’s part of why some people refer to you as a new kind of tech leader. 

Michael Beckley:  I think a new technology leader is someone who thinks as deeply about people and culture as about the technology tools to institutionalize new business models. Mobile and social technologies are transforming every company and every industry, confronting business leaders with a need to understand the changing expectations of their customers and their employees and how to interact with them. I believe this requires focusing more broadly on the kind of culture and team you have and how to foster a culture of collaboration and a flatter business model than we’ve ever seen before. At Appian we always focused on building an institution first and a technology second.  

What kind of institution did you and your co-founders set out to build? 

Michael Beckley: An institution where the best idea wins and a culture that would be able to not just survive and persist but also thrive in an environment of constant change. 

How did you come up with the vision of the culture you would need to establish to support that thriving institution? 

Michael Beckley: Our CEO, Matt Calkins, I and the other two co-founders spent six months planning, building, training and preparing to launch the company. Deliberating about what our culture would be and the very intentional decision to build a culture of innovation were a big of part of that. We had no idea what our product would look like in 2013 and we didn’t care. We knew if we got the culture right, we would get the technology right. We knew it was very important to have the culture right on day one so that the first employee that came in the door would understand what we were trying to accomplish and would help us build it. 

I tell entrepreneurs all the time that it’s so important for them to think about the people they want to work with and the culture they want to build. There are hundreds of different ways you can build a culture that will be successful for whatever industry you try to approach. There is no one right way. But it’s so important to get the culture first. 

If you make sure new people coming into the organization are aligned with your culture from the start, set precedents and examples that the next generation of new employees can emulate and build on, that’s how you will avoid jarring problems when growth pulls the company in different directions and challenges your initial assumptions about your strategy. 

How did you build a culture that you just described as one that deeply considers the people and one in which the best idea wins? 

Michael Beckley: At the outset we set a clear precedent that we would have a very flat, non-bureaucratic culture and structure that would always encourage inclusion and allow employees from all backgrounds to contribute ideas and be recognized. We do a number of things formally and informally to recognize new stars, as opposed to just the stars that have been here for a long time (many as long as 5-10 years). 

We also provide a variety of financial incentives for innovation and give cash rewards for coming up with new project ideas. 

And we established a program in our employee review process that identifies how they contribute to our culture, how they contribute to innovation in the firm, and what they do to institutionalize our knowledge. These fundamentals haven’t changed throughout the 14 years we’ve been in business. 

Our CEO has also conducted a scientific poll every quarter so we have an incredible wealth of historical data and feedback from the people who work here about their experiences and expectations. Combined with the real-time feedback we get today using our own Worksocial platform to collaborate across Appian, we have unprecedented transparency and visibility into the daily triumphs and challenges affecting our people. 

What are some of the formal things you do to encourage inclusion, collaboration and giving back? 

Michael Beckley: We have an Appian Academy for all new employees. This is where they first get exposed to our democratic culture and the precedent we set for how people from different departments and backgrounds interact with and collaborate with each other. It’s strange for a company to hire people with executive experience and make them go through a multi-week academy training program. In the academy we have college grads and vice presidents working together and learning how we’re all expected to collaborate in the Appian culture. 

They learn in the academy that the best idea wins, not the person with the biggest title. They learn that their mission is to innovate and not simply follow orders. And they learn to take a long-term perspective on the company and the technology itself and help us reinvent BPM. 

To give our employees opportunities for giving back to our community, we hold weekly continuing education seminars that are run by the employees at all levels. The newest project manager frequently comes back from a client engagement and shares some lessons — such as a mobile roll-out or helping a company do store inspections nationwide. 

It’s also been important to our success that we’ve never tolerated the stereotypical software company “Bro” culture so common in Silicon Valley.  We’ve supported and encouraged women in management and executive positions at Appian in establishing a set of programs to train and support our present and future female leaders. 

As a new kind of tech leader, how do you manage your time? 

Michael Beckley: Part of what I get to do as CTO is think about what’s going on with our biggest accounts, what’s going on with our newest projects, how are we getting our message out to new industries that we’re targeting and are we creating value? 

I never forget about the clients but my role as CTO focuses much more on making sure I have the right team in place and that they have the right incentives and the tools they need to succeed. I need to make sure we have the right people so we will make the right decisions and investments that enable creating enduring value for our clients for years to come. 

So I actually spend 80 percent of my time on recruiting and hiring — making sure we have the right people — and 20 percent on our product and tech vision. 

Did you apply the 80-20 rule consciously at the outset, or did it evolve over time to where it became more and more time in recruiting? 

Michael Beckley: It definitely evolved over time. And it also evolves through the year. Hiring is a cyclical business. In late August through November, I will travel non-stop to MIT, Dartmouth, Carnegie Mellon, University of Maryland, University of Virginia, Duke and other schools. And we don’t just hire pure computer scientists; we look for the top people from all backgrounds. 

This is the most competitive climate for engineering talent that we have ever experienced in this country, so it’s incumbent upon us to innovate not only in our technology and our culture but also in how we go to market to find talent. That’s something that requires constant change and constant reaction to how other companies are recruiting and making sure we’re getting our message heard because it’s such a noisy climate on campus these days. 

As a tech leader, what is your advice for entrepreneurs to help them succeed over the long term? 

Michael Beckley: My first bit of advice is: don’t write a business plan. Instead, focus on what value you bring to a client. Find that first client. Don’t worry about writing a complex plan that you’ll end up having to tear up anyway. Really prepare for how you’re going to deliver real value for your first customer. The plans will come later after you figure out what that value is. 

Another important tactic for success: Over and over again, people say don’t start a business with your friends. I think that’s terrible advice. I think the advice needs to be modified to say: start a company with friends with whom you share the same goals. 

Starting a company is much like a marriage. If you have the same goals, you’ll grow together and experience life together and grow closer for it. If you have divergent goals, you’ll grow apart. If you start a business with someone whose goal is to sell out quickly and yours is to build an institution that will endure beyond you, that’s a recipe for disaster. 

It is so hard to build a company. It involves so much conflict and tension as you encounter adversity and competition as well as environmental factors. At Appian we’ve been through the recent financial crisis, the dot-com crash, and the telecom bust before that. And yet we thrived in those climates.

And part of our business comes from the federal government. But with sequestration suddenly we’re seeing a large number of companies in the D.C. area scale back because they don’t have the patience and discipline to wait out a temporary interruption in demand. For us, that’s a huge opportunity, and it’s because we trust each other and trust the people running our federal group even though Q1 2013 might not have been their best quarter ever. We understand the context and trust their judgment that we still need to hire people because the opportunity is now, even though the government didn’t spend much on new technology this quarter. The opportunity is to take advantage of everyone else shrinking and find great people who are on the market in this moment in time. 

It takes a huge amount of trust to make bets like that. But that’s how you build a great business — seize opportunities that other people are afraid of. And I don’t know how you can do that without a friend being on the other end of that conversation, someone you have a deep history with and whom you respect implicitly. 

How do you see the BPM space evolving during the next two to three years? Do you think it will be mostly along the lines of the vertical industries, or will it be something broader than that because of cloud, mobile and social converging? 

Michael Beckley: I think it’s more of the latter. If any technology matures, more developed solutions for specific industry markets naturally will emerge. And that’s happening in BPM. But what I’m seeing as a more important change is a divergence. We’ve already seen massive consolidation and exits from the market. What’s happening now is a divergence among the leaders. 

Appian is choosing a path of the enterprise social networks and focusing on revolutionizing the user experience around new technology for mobility and social collaboration. Other vendors are choosing the path of focusing on industry verticals and solution frameworks as their area of innovation and not really focusing at all on the technology. 

They’re considering the technology as commoditized, whereas we don’t see BPM as close to being a commoditized technology yet because we’re reinventing what it is around concepts of mobility and social technology. And those technologies are rapidly changing in ways that we may not be able to predict. 

With the consumerization of IT, BPM will have to change to be relevant. We’ve tried to stay ahead of that and take a leadership role in reinventing BPM and transforming the way people work in a social context in every industry. 

Michael Beckley is co-founder and chief technology officer of Appian. He is an industry visionary and pioneer in cloud, mobile and social business process management technology. He is responsible for guiding and evangelizing Appian’s Worksocial product vision, advancing software industry standards, and overseeing Appian’s executive and university recruiting efforts worldwide. Prior to Appian, he was a product manager at business intelligence software firm MicroStrategy. Follow Michael on Twitter at @AppianCTO. 

Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.



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