We interviewed AL’s co-founders Kris & Norm about their journey building Automation Logic into the business it is over the last 12 years. From the values they’ve set in place, to the struggles they’ve faced. And obviously, because it’s pretty difficult not to mention it these days, the impact covid had.
How have we demonstrated each value over the past 12 years?
A note from Norm on this; The values of AL are extremely personal. In the beginning of AL we could implicitly feel what our values had to be. We were a much smaller company, and our peers gained an understanding of these behavioural imperatives through osmosis of simplify working next to Kris and I. It then took a great deal of time and effort to carefully construct the right vocabulary to articulate what we believed, what we felt, how we would define the behavioural imperatives that form the foundation of our culture. As Automation Logic continues to grow, having our values written in text makes it easier for all existing and new employees to continually remind ourselves of the behaviours we come to expect in our culture.
We’re always learning and developing as a company. We’re big believers in constantly learning and evolving. This can be seen in the types of offerings we take to market to better cater to the challenges facing our clients. We also ensure we’re always bringing the data to validate what we’re thinking. Both of us are known for having big ideas, but we work well together because we have a leadership team we implicitly trust, and collectively we can take a step back to assess the numbers and alignment to our values before jumping into anything.
We gave power away and continue to do that. Giving away something can take a lot of courage. We’ve never let ego get in the way of achieving goals. By establishing a senior leadership team and middle management teams we’ve been able to hand over responsibilities for others to manage. We believe because our leaders demonstrate the courage needed to live “intent based leadership” we’ve seen all our teams do an amazing job and take pride in what they do.
When it comes to sticking to a strategy, sometimes it takes courage to just hold the line. When things happen in the world that you cannot change but can impact you and your business, the immediate reaction is often to pivot or even panic. Throughout most of AL’s history we’ve stuck to a strategy, waiting for convincing data that says we should change, whilst avoiding vanity metrics. It takes courage when you want to stick to a principle, especially when sticking to a principle costs you money. For example, our DevOps Academy being a 50:50 split; given our industry we naturally see more male applicants, but we choose to continue to invest in attracting a wider diversity of applicants, such as holding more assessment days, to ensure we’re seeing the best talent from all genders.
Kris: ‘I want to work in a company that looks like the world around me’
We know the kinds of challenges we solve are greater than any one person. The best solutions come from diversity in collaboration – truly understanding the challenge and what good looks like. Our job is bringing these people together. Collaboration is our bread and butter. We’re not the people that bark from up high, we’re a team. Every prospective client pitch we’ve ever done follows the same process: we assemble the panel that’s representative of AL, a mix of all the incredible talent we have here. The panels for bid presentations are where we’re at our best, they show our diversity so well.
There’s no big “shouty” voice at the top. We enjoy taking pride in our accomplishments, but without the ego. One of our greatest skills is using our ears and mouth in the proportion we’ve been given. In other words, first keep quiet and listen. Paraphrasing Stephen Covey, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. We believe by always actively trying to let others speak and take on responsibility, that has allowed us to build and promote a management team from within, and allow the team leads on projects to make decisions on their own.
Having humility as a value can also be our biggest challenge – we can be too humble. We’ve got a lot of humility in the bank as a company, and we can afford to be more courageous – another reason why courage is specifically called out as a value. We have a lot of experience, it’s time for us to start telling people what we think with a bit more confidence, which is part of the business operating model we matured into about 12 months ago (aka Automation Logic version 3).
Now reminiscing on the changes they’ve seen in the past 12 years…
How has the market changed over the past 12 years?
Kris: The biggest change is, in the beginning, we would have to persuade people to do what we do at all. Cloud, DevOps, they were all new things on the market that people didn’t know and trust. That was the challenge 12 years ago, now everybody claims to be doing it, but so many are doing it badly.
We’ve had to change our message from ‘you should do this’ to ‘you should do this – in this way’ The client doesn’t benefit if you don’t voice how it should be done, because it’s often done badly.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen at AL the last 12 years?
Norm: In the early days of Automation Logic we were very much an engineer centric organisation. I’ve often called this Automation Logic version 1. We did a great job solving technical engineering problems. Providing “extremely competent capacity” to the market is very useful, but it does mean the technical solution team could be working at least one or two steps removed from the business goals of the client. At some point in all our careers we’ve all been on projects like this, doing a great job solving technical problems, only to realise, often too late, the business is measuring success completely differently.
Fast forward a number of years, we’re now in the period of what I call Automation Logic version 3. We’ve preserved our core strength, brilliant engineering and delivery management, and now augmented with Service Offerings directly positioned to address our client’s business objectives and how they measure success. An example is our Workload Migration Service Offering, leveraging AWS’ Global Migration Acceleration Programme, that starts with day one to understand not just the technical challenges, but also the organisational, operational, and process challenges – aligning us to the client’s definition of success whilst helping them improve their understanding of things they may not have considered when embarking on a workload migration programme.
What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve faced?
Norm: In the early days it was cash flow. Kris and I funded the business ourselves, we haven’t taken debt or external financing. Many of our clients had 90+ day payment terms, yet we had to make staff payroll every month. There were many stressful months.
Kris: In the early days losing big accounts was always a big worry, we pride ourselves on embedding ourselves on client site and providing them with the skills to manage without us, so all projects had to come to an end. In hindsight we recovered really quickly and the next project was never far away, but we didn’t know that we would recover so easily, and we had highly skilled expensive engineers to pay. Right now our biggest hurdles are around staff turnover – but all things are temporary, even bad things.
So how would you describe AL now?
Kris: “The UK public sector’s favourite Cloud & DevOps supplier”. 🎉
Norm: We’re a company that has grit and determination. Pre-pandemic everybody in Automation Logic regularly came together, collaboratively working hard to solve complex problems, and equally coming together to socialise. It’s inspiring to see the company’s courage to continue delivering on our mission in the face of a global pandemic, identifying new ways of working whilst still having fun, proving we have staying power.
In more recent times, the pandemic was extremely difficult for everyone including businesses.
How did you make big decisions during the pandemic?
Norm: we used our company values to guide us, and early on the senior leadership team agreed a set of guiding principles we would apply as part of business continuity planning, including setting up a Covid Committee response team. Luckily the vast majority of our planning wasn’t needed, but we felt comfortable that at least we had a plan.
What gave you the confidence to make big decisions during the pandemic?
Kris: Having money in the bank, we’re debt free. We took measured risks during the pandemic whilst constantly keeping an eye on the relevant numbers when doing so. As we mentioned before, watching the data and making informed and not panicked decisions gives us confidence.
Norm: The planning done by the senior leadership team allowed us to appropriately respond to events, as opposed to knee-jerk reactions.
Biggest worry during pandemic?
Kris: We just took each day as it came, we reviewed, we reflected, but we also knew from history that it would pass. It would change the narrative of why digital transformation was necessary. The money might not flow but the demand wouldn’t go away. Automation Logic was founded in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. That crisis was influencing people’s decisions for years afterwards, they were cutting costs rather than improving user experiences, and then eventually it went back. People always need to save money, luckily we can help.
Norm: the mental health of the employees. Automation Logic is a very sociable company. The pandemic has so far witnessed two severe lockdowns and other periods of various restrictions. Things we took for granted before March 2020 had to be rethought through. Having the senior leadership team so quickly establish a Covid Committee was a brilliant response to the challenges faced since the pandemic began.
Moving forward from the challenges we faced.
What do you view as the biggest achievements over the past 12 years?
Kris: Automation Logic, unless my wife is reading this, in which case obviously my kids.
Within AL though, the DevOps Academy, and I’m also quite proud of our current strategy. It’s an abstract thing, but getting to the point where you have enough financial security to lift the company out of ‘survival mode’ and start running things based on a shared vision and strategy. That’s a great feeling, because you
start to feel like the master of your own destiny.‘ We’re here to prove nice guys finish at least 2nd’ (AL may be growing slower than other companies, and it may be harder to do things the right way. But we’re successful and have a happy team)
Norm: For me there are many big achievements, and I know I’m going to miss some of them. The first five that come to mind are: 1) articulating our values, using four imperatives to communicate who we are and our behaviour (curious, humble, courageous, collaborative). It seems simple, but it was a very philosophical, lengthy, emotional, and often challenging process to get to that point. 2) Like Kris, our DevOps Academy is definitely another big achievement. We’ve been running the academy for a number of years now, and we’ve recently had one of our early cohort members promoted to Senior Engineer. It’s a proud moment when you see something you invested in years ago producing the future leaders of our business. 3) Establishing our leadership team and well defined operating model to deliver on our business strategy. 4) Evolution of our business strategy from what I’ve called AL version 1 (competent capacity) through AL version 3 (providing Service Offerings directly aligned to our client’s business objectives). 5) Automation Logic is now engaged in every major central government department in the UK, many of which are now being enabled by the Service Offerings of our AL verison 3 strategy.
So, if your biggest achievement now is a new strategy and the current team, has every year since you started been better than the last?
Kris: Until Covid yes, every year got better than the last, but we know how to survive, we’ve done it before.
Norm: The recent Covid-years demonstrate the grit, persistence, and determination that we’ve had from the beginning. We could have easily chosen to fail, but there’s no fun in that; and we all want to work in a fun place. So it was an easy decision to persevere, to put in more effort where needed, knowing we have a rare opportunity to shape the new-normal of post-covid working, to make next year even better than the previous.
With that being said,
How do you measure success?
‘Establish a reputation for genius – then sleep’ – Mexican proverb (via Antonio Peña). – Basically, we’re at a point now where we’re well known for being good at what we do, and we can take a bit more of a back seat and watch our team thrive.
Norm: For me, success is knowing you’ve built a sustainable leadership team that demonstrates the grit and determination to make work an enjoyable place to be, whilst growing the business year on year. The latter point on growth is important. Without growth I believe it constrains the successes you can experience. Continuous growth gives the curious minds of Automation Logic a continuous stream of new successes we can experience year on year.
Kris: Staying power and how well we enable the people who work here to grow, how we do sales, career development or even how we hire. We focus on each section for a while and get it into the best state possible, and make sure the team running it is self-sufficient. That’s satisfying and has an impact on people’s lives. Seeing people love their manager, grow, get promoted, get certifications is all success to me.
That and the number of people who tell us from outside the business looking in, ‘congratulating us on building a successful business’ I think we forget sometimes when we’re in the day-to -day running of it.
With that in mind,
How do we support career development at AL?
Kris: Compared to where we were five years ago when it came to career development or what was expected, there was very little, which is okay when you’re a small company, but now with over 130 people, you need something more structured and clear, so people can feel confident that they can build a career here.
Norm: As Automation Logic has evolved over the years, our approach to career development has matured too. Kris is right, what we have today is light years ahead of where career development was only five years ago; and it will continue to evolve and improve. Today employees measure their achievements against a defined set of skills, abilities, values, and behaviours we know the business needs to be successful. These are plotted on a spider graph (aka “Career Development Wheel” or CDW). The employee and their manager then agree an action plan to achieve the areas for development in order to attain the shape of the CDW needed to advance their career. It’s enjoyable watching the managers provide positive reinforcement by “catching people out doing the right things” as the employees advance their CDW.
What has been your proudest moment at AL?
Norm: The DevOps Academy, consistently placing in the UK Best Workplaces awards (GPTW), and especially seeing people build families around what we do. For most people, when you work somewhere small and want to have children, the uncertainty can be scary. Working for a much larger company can give the perception of safety and stability. And yet while Automation Logic still remains a small-ish business, people trust us to provide the stability and safety needed for them to start their family, and that’s something I’m really proud of.
Kris: For me, it’s when someone comes up to me and says they’ve achieved a major milestone in their lives and it’s in some way attributed to AL. Like a member of staff putting a deposit down on their home, proud moments when people are building lives with AL as part of that foundation.
We look forward to what the future of AL brings for us, reminiscing over the past 12 years with Kris and Norm has been an absolute pleasure.
Want to join the growing team at AL? Check out our vacancies here
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