At the beginning of ThoughtWorks University we were told to establish four goals. One of my goals was to find out how ThoughtWorks can be so different from other IT and software development companies, yet still be able to maintain a very successful business. The purpose of this blog is to answer that question. I will, as briefly as possible, describe how I arrived at my conclusion.
My assigned TWU trainer was key in giving me direction to find an answer to this question. I needed to first find out how ThoughtWorks separates itself from other companies. In search of a solution I interviewed some of the other TWU trainers and ThoughtWorks employees. From their answers it is evident that in every case ThoughtWorks was unlike their previous company, companies they'd known about, or for which they'd also applied. ThoughtWorks differed from other companies in three main areas: openness and transparency, unsettling people and processes, and the primary focus of the company.
Openness and Transparency
ThoughtWorks distinguishes itself from other companies by having an open door policy. As a conjecture, the reason for the closed communication in other companies is to support a strict hierarchical system. This structure is essential so that decisions can be made very quickly if necessary. It assigns one person to take responsibility at each level. This allows the company to be run in military fashion, in which people do what they are told and don't ask many questions. ThoughtWorks is open enough to allow a new developer in training to simply walk up to the founder of the company at conference just to chat. This can possibly be problematic. It makes the employees believe that their opinion matters. So, not only do decisions take longer, the employees may feel they have the power to question existing procedures and policies. However, ThoughtWorks isn't just aware of these phenomena it is an active supporter. This type of disorderly behavior is an integral piece of what sets this company apart.
Disruptive People & Processes
ThoughtWorks has committed to encompassing “disruptive thinking” in it's consultancy as stated on the homepage at Thoughtworks.com. This thought includes people and processes alike. Firstly, the company is devoted to unsettling practices like agile. For example, breaking down cubicles and turning them into open desks to stimulate communication is not uncommon. Quick and often feedback is encouraged, which puts a lot of people in an uncomfortable position to have to be criticized. Secondly, the company is devoted is to supporting disruptive people. ThoughtWorks associates with people like Aaron Swartz, and Kiran Chandra the leader of the open source software movement in India. It supports people like Edward Snowden who act out against the government. Of course encouraging insubordination could obviously propose a problem if it becomes excessive or disruptive in a negative way. ThoughtWorks combats this issue by employing morally conscious people, presenting its values, and letting its environment steer them in the right direction. It seems that often employees find that they have been nudged toward ideas of help and sharing.
We've established the major differences and how ThoughtWorks is able to work around their issues. Logically the next question that arises is that of ThoughtWorks success. A company's success is usually measured in things like gross profit margin or return on assets. Compared to a company like Google, who uses similar structure and practices, ThoughtWorks' growth and profit doesn't even compare. Also, the company has been running on just cash flow for quite some time. So the question is: Is ThoughtWorks really a successful business? Dictionary.com gives a definition of success as: “The attainment of one's goals”. ThoughtWorks goal is to: "better humanity though software and help drive the creation of socially and economically just world."
This being the case, success can be measured in hours dedicated to Humanitarian Software Programs like rapidFTR in which technology helps lost loved ones find their relatives much faster. It can be measured in the amount of time and people ThoughtWorks donates to a software called JSS, which helps a hospital in rural India give free or minimal cost healthcare to the poor. Success can be measured by the platform that it gives to misplaced farmers, or civil rights activists to voice their concerns to over 800 middle class workers eager to make a difference. Success is bringing together sixty people from 11 different countries, teaching them to overcome their differences and work together toward a common goal.
Defining a ThoughtWorker
In my short time with this company I have seen evidence of this success first hand, in my home office and while attending ThoughtWorks University. According our founder Roy Singham, the reason that we are able to maintain a growing business without compromising the ThoughtWorks culture is at the foundation: the employees. These are the forever learning, passion driven, disruptive thinking people that challenge stigmas and not only participate, but engineer change in society. They are informally known as “ThoughtWorkers”. From the Chicago beach to the Bangalore Away day I have yet to meet one employee of ThoughtWorks who was not a “ThoughtWorker”. Going forward, I can only hope that when people come in contact with me they have the same sentiment.