(playlist: Free As A Bird by The Beatles)
It was three weeks into the summer vacation in July 2021, at the northern end of Örö, sitting on the rocks with a Fat Lizard in hand, a rented bicycle on the rocky path behind me, and a sunset in front of me, when I started to again feel like I might actually be alive. The picture above is from northern Örö (middle of the map at Google Maps).
2020, the worst year in a long while
On the 12th of March, 2020, Zure went remote first. We all burrowed into our lairs, to help the society as much as possible by not spreading anything, because we could. Our luck is that in our profession, we can deliver results remotely.
During the pandemic, it has felt like a privilege that we can create impact without seeing anyone live. At the same time, working remotely sucks for some of us (with me, it is slowly squeezing all the meaning out of daily work, but I digress, and we’ll get back to this later).
In March 2020 our work wasn’t really impacted, but the next month, April, now, that was a doozy. It came with a bit of shock when a few of our customers suddenly dropped their projects. Simply “thanks guys, let’s get back to this maybe at some later date, not soon“. This left approximately 20% of our developers (10 people at the time) without a project.
“Shit“, I thought, eloquently, and started shoveling chocolate to my mouth to stave the stress reaction (a very successful short-term strategy, but long-term side effects may include new pants and heavy breathing in the stairs). The worst case scenario was easy to come by: “If the trend is linear and we lose 20% per week, we’ll all be free as birds come summer (cue The Beatles song).“
At Zure, we have traditionally held a strong cash buffer, after the debacle of 2013 especially (described more in Part 2 of Zure 2020 10-year-series). We’ve never shared a majority of the profit as dividends, and have always had profitable years. Unfortunately, even knowing we could last quite a while haemorrhaging money, it didn’t help emotionally. The issue was the aimlessness of it all. There was no visibility, roadmap, or horizon – instead there was a fear of the next day or week bringing more bad, uncontrollable news.
I feel we did what we could. We urged everyone to be extra vocal about their project situation. Those with projects were encouraged to continue working as before. We lowered the amount of internal trainings, and halted salary raises. We started internal projects to improve and automate our tooling, both because we had a lot of improvement ideas and also several developers with nothing to do. We started reaching out to customers and finding new opportunities more actively.
(playlist: Land of Confusion by Katzenjammer)
So what could we do if the downhill continues?
If push came to shove, we decided to do the following actions, in prioritized order:
- Offer discounts
- Approach new and old customers with clearly defined, cost-effective campaigns, related to for example Azure cost optimizations or operation automatization
- Get loan and/or credit from banks
- Start doing non-Azure work (blergh)
- Lower salaries across the board
- Sell stock
In the next weeks, we ended up giving discounts to struggling customers, and no more projects were axed. Fast forward a bit and a few gained kilos, to June 2020, and the situation had stabilized somewhat. We still had less work, but, as a surprising relief, working fully remotely lead to significant cost savings as well, to the tune of 30 000 € per month. That is a somewhat staggering amount to a small outfit like us.
To survive is to find some meaning in the suffering
People went to holidays knowing we would stand. I went to holiday as a zombie, and came out as a greater undead – not fully recovered, but with some juice in the battery pack. It was pretty clear that people had not recovered fully during holidays, and something needed to be done.
You ask, what about you, Sakari? Where you at? Here I am, too, doing my best.
It was August 2020, with Covid numbers in the decline in Finland, when we saw each other at Laguuni water park. In addition, we started some other measures to re-energize everyone, such as Zed Bull (below) and Zevents (group events during the work day). In case you are unlucky enough to not speak Finnish, but would really like to know what it says below, you can find the translated text in the alt attribute of the image.
These measures after the vacation seemed successful in injecting some energy to the crew (and me). In addition, the business started to feel stable enough to restart giving salary increases again in September 2020. The worst months seemed to be behind us.
The idea of Zure requires a strong community. Instead of rules, we speak of trying out different things and learning from those. Instead of bureaucracy, we look for fast decision-making and sharing of experiences. Instead of control, we decide to trust each other and do our best. Rigid structures and organizations can be taught, while our system is, by design, somewhat indefinable. We need time together, for our common values and approaches to become Gestalt.
Pre-Covid, we all saw each other quite often. Even if some people were remote every now and then, we worked at the same office most of the week. Suddenly, the pandemic and remote work invalidated our core ceremonies. The issues with lowered customer demand were exacerbated by the contrast between our existing culture and the sudden requirement of fully remote way of working. As a CEO, I personally had trouble coping with the fact that I had no clue how our people were doing – most probably, most were doing quite fine, but not knowing was a daily struggle.
Like many companies, we needed to learn how to run all of our meetings remotely. Zure’s continuous improvement has always been based on our twice-a-month all-hands-on-deck meetings, and let me tell you, in the beginning these meetings were disastrous. They became bearable when we learned how to remote brainstorm at scale (Miro, yay!), and useful after we also learned to use the breakout rooms. We’ve learned that tens of Miro notes translate to one or a few actionable tasks in Azure DevOps for follow-ups, seemingly at a rate of about 1:10.
Hereabouts we also started producing very professional (sarcasm: 100%) advertisements, such as this.
(playlist: Regulate by Warren G, Nate Dogg)
While some of us were faring better than others, and while we were struggling to find fit ways of working, and while we were losing our collective capability to banter (link to Oatmeal’s crude yet relevant comic), we were also hiring people. Not because we were looking for anyone. Indeed, we had already decided to not actively hire, but, as is usually the case, the environment, the market, the collective behavior of the society, the Zeitgeist, whatever – it doesn’t care about any decisions.
Planning is priceless, yet plans are useless, like some general somewhere used to say, and opportunities are to be grasped. The change in routines shook both companies and individuals, and many are those who thought and still think about their jobs and related opportunities. End result was, we simply could not NOT hire these people. They were a fit to us, and have since brought the whole group forward.
Here’s some faces of our amazing new colleagues who joined us in August 2021. In total, 23 people have joined Zure during the pandemic since April 2020.
Here’s something embarrassing. A new expert joined us in August 2020, and after getting onboarded and receiving his machine, we, err, forgot about him. During those two weeks, he watched all of our training videos in Microsoft Stream. He is the only one every to have done so. When we realized we’d forgotten him and I made the Teams call to apologize, he replied “Well, it was getting slightly boring.” Laid back, and forgiving, fellow, for sure, but also ugh so mortifying to type this here. Here’s to learning something about this.
According to our surveys the people who joined during Covid are slightly happier than others. That’s a surprise. Maybe they are still on their honeymoon, or maybe their expectations were so low that they’re positively surprised when anything works? I don’t know what this means, but that honeymoon is bound to be over soon 🙂
Two thoughts about the end of year 2020.
First, what a financially absurd year. Our costs for the year were down by ~400 000e compared to the previous year, so even though we worked less, we still made a nice profit. It was a jarring experience, since I felt crappy, yet the company made the best profit ever. Just goes to show; money’s not the purpose.
And the second is, we’d grown a bunch. We were about 60 people, and I couldn’t hack my old responsibilities anymore. Just the twice-a-year development discussions with everyone was over 120 meetings a year. We needed to reorganize ourselves.
So, that’s what we did. To guide us in thinking about our reorganizing effort, we wrote down some principles:
- We will not have a purely managerial position, where our “people managers” or leads would not have substance expertise. Our leads would be experienced at the kind of work our people do, and they would still continue doing project work with at least 50% effort.
- We will not have a single person in a role getting ever-more-stressed, instead we will have a team of leads who autonomously organize themselves for the well-being and success of all.
- We will define the areas of responsibility for every “lead team”, so the teams can have clear ownership and capability for decision-making.
As an end result of the reorganization, in January 2021 three new teams started in operation: Expert leads, Domain leads, and Project mentors.
Expert leads is currently a group of 5 experts, responsible for the well-being, personal development, and team composition/allocations across Zure. As part of their responsibility, they are very aware and can help with recruitment and pre-sales. They spend approximately half of their time doing a project, and the other half on expert lead responsibilities.
Domain leads is a group of 6 experts, each being responsible for a single offering domain, with a shared responsibility for Zure sales. They also spend about half of their time on domain leads -stuff, and the rest on being an expert. And, to make matters easier, at the same time as we created domain leads, we also renewed our offering. The old offering was simplistic, while the new structure better represents what we do.
And last but not the least, Project mentors are a group of 6, spending 20% of their time actively sparring and touring on-going projects, seeing if anybody needs support or a friend to brainstorm with. Mentors see our projects widely and are very familiar with the guidelines provided by our Guilds, and are therefore the ideal experts to help in distributing information and understanding between similar kinds of projects.
We have now practiced our new organizational structure for almost a year, and on the whole, I’m happy with it.
It is good to be back (re: Tired, again)
(playlist: You’ve Got To Have Freedom by Pharoah Sanders)
At the end of June, 2021, I only had one goal: empty the todo list before holidays. The previous year at the same time I had probably been in something of a shock. This year, I was tired and losing my motivation daily. Nothing was interesting, except clearing the todo and getting away. The start of holiday was a relief, but didn’t really help. I was an automaton – functional, yet pretty much mindless.
It took 3 weeks of holiday to wake up a bit, at the beautiful landscapes of Örö. Couple of weeks later back at “work” (the home office), I felt listless again. The walls of the office room kept strangling me. During bad days (e.g. filled with not-the-most-exciting-stuff, such as a day of contract negotiations and sales efforts), I started wondering why do I even bother. I wasn’t even doing anything I like.
Then I went to office.
Now I remember.
Every job contains shitty tasks. That’s okay, as long as those tasks have a meaning. Even the bad days matter, to this community.
These pictures are from our Zummerday event in September 2021.
My headspace got fixed right quick when I started going to office to chat with whoever is present. The issue of working at home, is there’s nothing else. You work too efficiently, the brain cannot stand it (science-speak). In addition, to me at least, the meaning of my work comes mostly from my colleagues.
I’ll let Glenn and Pieter tell you about how the Belgium office is doing. What I’ll say is, I’m proud of them. It cannot have been easy, founding a company in the middle of the pandemic.
Zure 3rd country
Only a teaser here, mum’s the word still. 🙂
We founded Zure Group Oy at the end of 2020. It now owns Zure Finland and majority of Zure Belgium. The goal of it is to own majorities of country instances. For many years now, we’ve offered a chance for people to buy into Zure. That ownership has now transferred from ownership of Zure Finland to Zure Group. In the future, when we offer options of ownership, next time in 2022 again, they’ll all be into Zure Group. For all employees, in any country.
We’ll keep doing what we believe in. We’ll keep focusing on quality. We’ll do our best and own our mistakes. We’ll keep on restructuring the company to facilitate the autonomy, mastery, transparency, social sensitivity, and focus. We’ll stay as far as possible from exceedingly rigid structures and rule-laden organizational models, and instead focus on human relationships, at the quest to be able to deliver answers with consummate professionalism.
Below, there are two diagrams on our revenue, profit, and company size. I’m especially happy that due to our growth we’ve been able to at last fix some of our earlier gender misalignment.
Let’s not end this post on something as boring as numbers, so here’s a picture of our new t-shirt.
And here’s a picture of freedom in short shorts.
If you feel like reading more, I suggest starting here (not a Rick Roll). Thank you for reading, and have a pleasant journey. 🙂