Elkie Holland catches up with Vinnie Smith, Managing Director of R&D at Rocket Software to see how Covid-19 has affected Rocket Software
ELKIE: How has Covid affected your daily internal way of working within Rocket?
Rocket moved quickly to a work-from home format, and for many of us, this is the new norm. We actually shut all of our offices very early in the pandemic. In many ways, the company was ideally prepared for the situation because we have more than 1400 people around the world and many of us were already used to being on calls throughout the day with people on other continents. The transition to WebEx instead of face-to-face meetings was seamless.
One thing that we have encouraged across Rocket is for people to turn on their cameras so that we can still connect and have that visual interaction. For almost everything else, the processes and systems we’ve had in place for years continue to support us operationally. We still have our daily standups and other agile ceremonies including fortnightly programme review meetings to coordinate our development across the portfolio and the worldwide teams, and we still stay connected with our customers on regular calls and participate in our programs for the new products and releases coming out this year. The pandemic has definitely been a challenge in a lot of ways, but I’m happy to report that we have actually weathered it from an internal operations standpoint incredibly well.
ELKIE: What were your main challenges working through the COVID time?
Initially, the biggest challenge was making sure that everyone had the equipment needed to facilitate working from home. Many of our employees already work remotely, so this didn’t affect everyone in the same way. The company also launched a thorough communications campaign to all employees to let everyone know how the company was responding to the pandemic. We actually had daily leadership meetings for the first several weeks from the executive leadership team to make sure that everyone was clear on how Rocket was responding. I would say it was the best demonstration of clarity across the organization that I have seen, and it was much needed at the time. We also ran surveys across the organization to validate what we heard on our regular check-in calls so we would know how people felt and adjusted things as needed. Even though we’ve scaled back our daily updates based on what we heard, Andy Youniss sends a weekly CEO update to the entire company on current topics and shares his thoughts on how Rocket is progressing.
From the team’s perspective, I don’t think they anticipated how draining being on back-to-back remote calls can be, so people are watching their work/life balance and modifying their workdays. To keep themselves sane, they’re taking breaks, going for walks, and doing other things to keep well. We ran several sessions on remote working, including a great session from Jonathan Smith (our UniData Advanced Technical Support engineer) who had been working from home for many years. Jonathan shared several techniques for better work-from-home practices and pitfalls to watch out for.
ELKIE: What were the main challenges that seemed to face your user base?
Many of our customers also shifted to working from home, so they sometimes experienced challenges in supporting their applications remotely. For example, I was on one call with a customer where support was asking them to reboot a system, but they said they couldn’t do that, as the physical server was in the office and they didn’t know how to do it remotely. Luckily, our support team is used to working with remote systems and helped the customer through this. Some customers also experienced a shortfall in licenses for their systems because people needed additional capacity to support remote workers or a different way of working.
ELKIE: How do you feel you managed to help your user base through this?
We asked our people in the field to check in with our customers and make sure they had what they needed to support their remote workers. One issue that we had to deal with was the number of licenses for our technology. Because people were working on different devices, including computers at home and their smartphones, we had to make sure that everyone was supported. As a result, we provided temporary licenses free for several months so that this wouldn’t be a problem as organizations adjusted to the new normal.
ELKIE: Any suggestions or support for your users on how you can help moving forward?
The important thing that we are telling all of our customers and partners is that Rocket is here for you. Customer centricity is one of our foundational themes, so if customers need anything they should reach out through their sales contacts, through support, or through the product managers and let us know what challenges they face. It’s important to be at our most flexible to help lift one another through these troublesome times. All of the customers I have spoken to seem to have readily adapted to the “new normal” pretty quickly.
ELKIE: Any wonderful feel good Covid stories to share from yourselves or your customers?
Obviously, the pandemic has been difficult for everyone. But I’ve been really proud of some of the things that we have done as a company to help our customers and partners. For example, one U.S. state was struggling to keep up with processing demand to handle the massive increase in unemployment claims. We stepped in to give them more resources, and the state government was able to handle everything without a problem. I have dozens of stories like that, and it makes me really proud to work at a company like Rocket. We are also in the middle of our annual coding competition called Rocket.Build. This year it is a virtual event, but we are still creating hundreds of amazing new tools that all have the potential to make a real difference in the world. Several of them are related to fighting the pandemic, both in terms of a public health response and even tracking the disease.
ELKIE: Any positives to come out of the COVID times?
I think it’s important for us to recognize the devastating toll that the pandemic is having all over the world. While I am incredibly proud of many of the things that we are doing at Rocket Software, I don’t want to minimize the human suffering that is happening because of the virus.
At the same time, we have come together as a company in a way that I have never seen before. On the MultiValue side, I am impressed by the fact that we were able to relaunch our MultiValue University (MVU) program, even during the pandemic. We had this idea in March that our customers might have additional time to spend on deeper technical training, so we identified multiple topics that our customers could benefit from. Our R&D lab and support people rose to the challenge and have made over a dozen low level topics available. We began creating presentation materials and examples that we could share, so our customers could follow during or after the sessions. We also recorded all of these sessions to allow our customers the ability to download them later. We weren’t sure how this would be received, but the response has been overwhelming; to date we have done 14 webinars and provided 55+ short videos that customers can watch. Customers can also download examples from GitHub to understand each technical session. These sessions have covered new releases, specific functionality such as audit, RFS and our MultiValue Integration Server for API and modernization. They have also covered new capabilities such as MV BASIC for Visual Studio Code and UniObjects for Python offerings that will be available for testing shortly.
ELKIE: Was there anything you changed / concentrated on during Covid?
In a word, everything. Things here in North America were relatively normal on March 10, and within a week absolutely everything had changed. We had to rapidly adjust to a model where we were all working from home, rather than from offices. We had to make sure that our own IT systems and procedures were in place so that we could continue supporting our customers and partners. It was a massive overhaul of our entire company that happened very quickly. And we had to change how we interact with each other and with people outside the organisation. Many of us traveled multiple times a month, and now everything is virtual at least until the end of the year. If you knew how many road warriors there are at this company, you would understand what a cultural change this is for all of us. I live in Denver and used to visit our headquarters in Boston regularly. Now, I haven’t been on an airplane in over six months.
ELKIE: What can you see in Rocket's near future? Conference in new format ?
Physical meetings aren’t happening, whether it’s two people who work in the same office or a large-scale event. So conferences are simply out of the question in the near future. What we are creating, however, are amazing virtual events. I mentioned MVU and Rocket.Build already, and we are already planning the next Rocket President’s Advisory Committee (RPAC) meeting this autumn. This is usually an in-person event led by our CEO, but obviously we can’t do that right now. Bringing this event online is a significant challenge, but I’m really optimistic about how the planning is going so far.
ELKIE: And longer term?
No one has a crystal ball, and it’s impossible to predict what the future of the pandemic will be, when a vaccine might be available, and when we might be able to get back to some semblance of normal. This is where organizations that have a culture based on innovation and flexibility have a real advantage. We’ve already made several important pivots over the last six months, and I guarantee that there will be more. It’s all about being able to deal with the unexpected on a moment’s notice and deal with reality, rather than hoping for better circumstances. That’s how we are weathering the storm now, and I see that trend continuing into next year.