We talked to Francesco trans, Founder of Erlang Solutions about how they build transformative solutions and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Francesco Cesarini: We are doing well, thank you. We are exercising more than before, cooking healthy meals and keeping busy. All this while appreciating the effort and hard work put in by teachers all over the world, as we’ve been forced to step into their shoes. I used to travel a lot for work, visiting clients, speaking at conferences, or running them. While I do not miss the travel itself, I miss our friends and colleagues all over the world and can’t wait to see them in person again.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Erlang Solutions.
Francesco Cesarini: I started my career at the Ericsson Computer Science Lab in Stockholm, where the Erlang programming language was invented. I got attracted to Erlang in its early days, as I felt it was a language ahead of its time, showcasing features and paradigms which would influence the software industry for years to come. After using it on Ericsson’s broadband solutions (fixed and wireless), I moved to London for personal reasons in 1999. Without actively looking for work (or telling anyone outside of my inner circle about my move), I got three consulting and a permanent job offer in the course of two weeks. It was clear there was a business case to start my own company. Over the years, I was joined by a passionate team of colleagues who played an integral part in helping transform a programming language into an ecosystem of languages, tools, libraries, and frameworks. We’ve expanded our offering and grown organically, with offices across many European cities and a distributed team in the Americas. Twenty-five years on, it is nice to know that that gut feeling I had in the mid-90s was right. To anyone thinking of founding their own company, follow your instincts and your passions.
How does Erlang Solutions innovate?
Francesco Cesarini: We like to solve hard problems. Problems of scale and resilience which ordinary tools and artefacts do not handle out of the box. Most of our projects start with a prototype or proof of concept, where we test new ideas and approaches. Following the words of Erlang co-inventor Mike Williams, it is not good enough to have ideas, and you need to be sure they work in the real world. Inspiration comes from our conferences and meetups, which are at the heart of what we do, as well as internal talks, where team members are encouraged to share their lessons learnt.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Francesco Cesarini: We work with digital infrastructure such as messaging, video conferencing, online payments, telecom infrastructure, e-commerce, IoT, and banking, to mention but a few. With everyone working remotely, moving their presence online has increased the pressure on these systems. Not all were designed with scale and resilience in mind, so the need for our services is greater now than it has ever been. Our conferences have suffered, but the team has managed to pivot to virtual events, hoping that in-person conferences will again pick up in the last quarter of this year.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Francesco Cesarini: This is the third major recession we have experienced, the first one being the dot.com bubble bursting in 2000 and the aftermath of 911, followed by the global financial crisis of 2008. We learnt a lot from both and saw recessions as an opportunity to lay the foundations which will fuel future growth. When other companies cut costs, we invested in the brand and our staff, as we knew that when a rebound came along, it would go fast. We pivoted into a fully remote company, cutting office costs and travel overhead. While adopting the culture and the lessons learnt from our Americas team, we did so who has been distributed since its inception. The result was an increase in the pool of talent available, improved the quality of life, and for those of us living in large cities, no more time-wasting commuting. Moving forward, even once offices reopen, our primary place of work will be from home. While all of this was taking place, we also invested in a company-wide training program, focusing on technical and soft skills. And just a couple of weeks ago, we completed the first major rebranding in 20 years. We are now actively recruiting in all of our offices, expanding quickly.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Francesco Cesarini: The pandemic helped forge the relationship with our customers. While our European staff was office-based, they were used to working with teams distributed across offices. We helped them with the transition, sharing our culture and ways of working and lessons learned. While many customers used to want us to work on-site, they have now realized you can be as efficient and achieve the same results while working remotely. The tools we use now are no different from the ones we used before the pandemic. But what we have changed is how we use the tools. If on a conference call, make sure cameras are always on, use a decent microphone and proper lighting. Check-in on slack every morning and provide visibility of what is going on in Jira or Monday.com. And if you are working from your bedroom, make sure the bed is made.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Francesco Cesarini: We did, but very little. We put some of our office managers on furlough, as offices were closed and no travel needed to be booked. There were also some incentives in the various countries where we have subsidiaries, alongside deferred tax payments. In the grand scheme of things, they were not huge, but they did help us manage our cash flow. I hope they helped businesses smaller than us, who needed them more than we did.
Your final thoughts?
Francesco Cesarini: A lot of people have had the time to stop and reflect on their priorities during this pandemic. Now that we see the light at the end of the tunnel, I am looking forward to seeing all of its positives. One is realizing that we can be productive remotely. Spending less time commuting to the office or traveling to customer sites was an eye-opener for many. We are not only saving on the travel costs but also gaining more time, allowing us to do the things we enjoy most while reducing our carbon footprint. I spent six weeks working from a medieval hilltop town in Italy this summer. While my productivity was as high as when working from our London office, it felt like an extended vacation. Walking through a 12th century arch into the town’s main square, drinking my espresso at the local bar before sitting at a desk I had borrowed with had a view of the Lake Trasimeno across Umbria all the way into Tuscany or taking an extended lunch in one of the outdoor restaurants makes you think of what you have been missing out on.
I also love teaching but was restricted to doing it once or twice a year, as travel time and being away from home for extended periods was not always possible. With virtual, instructor-led courses, it is easy to spread out over multiple days, staying on top of your regular work, getting help from other colleagues without any of the overheads. I have given five courses and tutorials to audiences in Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa, and America. One of my students was on maternity leave, stepping out every now and then to take care of her three-month-old child. This would not have been possible in a class. The same applies to conference talks. I was limited to one or two conference talks per year. In the last 12 months, I have given four keynotes and four regular talks. Not to mention meetups and guest lectures in universities. I have been able to share and inspire others like never before, reaching a much wider and diverse audience than before, from the comfort of my own home.
So I hope that moving forward, we will be doing more of what we enjoy doing, spending time on things that matter, and make a difference while reducing our carbon footprint. Virtual events and meetings will not replace seeing people in person, but they will complement them. Moving forward, it will hopefully be a hybrid of the two, allowing us to make the best of both worlds.
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