We talked to Patrick Mathers, Co-founder of VSHN on how they automate the operation of applications in the cloud or on-premise, so that software developers can focus on their business and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Patrick Mathers: My family and I are doing well under the circumstances, thank you very much. Despite two lockdowns so far and the limited freedom to travel, we have had an eventful 2020. Last May we moved to a new home and in August our second daughter Aylin was born.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded VSHN.
Patrick Mathers: I grew up near Zurich as the son of a Northern Irish father and a Swiss mother. I started my first job at KPMG, after which I was the CEO of an IT startup for seven years.
In 2014, I co-founded VSHN AG with Aarno Aukia, our CTO, as we identified a business gap between software developers and traditional hosting companies. As a Lean Startup, VSHN specialized in the operation of IT platforms through automation, agility, and a continuous improvement process so that software developers could focus on their business and IT operations were relieved. Completely location-independent and without its own hardware, VSHN today operates applications according to the DevOps principle on any infrastructure or cloud.
Based in Zurich and with over 40 employees, VSHN currently manages more than 1,500 servers in various clouds and on-premises for 350 different partners and monitors more than 100,000 services. VSHN counts Swiss banks and fintechs, telcos, large e-commerce retailers, and the Swiss as well as the Australian government among its customers.
How does VSHN innovate?
Patrick Mathers: Today, digitalization no longer stops at a single business sector. This means that virtually all corporations must now also be IT companies, whether they are financial service providers or retailers. In addition, the IT required is becoming more complex, fast-moving, and risky, which is why software must be continuously developed.
VSHN supports its customers on their path to digital transformation in order to make applications automatically testable, deployable and scalable and run them on any infrastructure. In addition to close, agile and open collaboration and consulting, we also take responsibility for the stability of our services, including 24/7 support.
VSHN has prioritized strong customer relationships since the very beginning. Our ecosystem of partnerships has enabled us to drive innovations systematically and achieve a high level of quality. This has resulted, for example, in APPUiO, our Swiss container platform, which we built together with our partner Puzzle ITC.
Security is a further top priority, which is why VSHN AG is also ISO 27001 certified and audited according to ISAE 3402.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business, and how are you coping?
Patrick Mathers: In spring 2020, we adjusted our risk analysis due to the pandemic and then assumed no increase or even a decrease in turnover over the next few months. Fortunately, this did not happen. We were able to close 2020 with strong growth.
When the first lockdown was called here in Switzerland in mid-March 2020, all staff transferred to the home office. This went relatively smoothly, as the home office had already been possible for all employees beforehand and was being actively used. Additional hardware besides the laptop, e.g., extra monitors, were provided by VSHN. Since the COVID situation has not yet calmed down and we are now in the second lockdown, most staff members have consistently remained in the home office since last March.
The real challenge was to compensate for the loss of direct social interactions. With the absence of informal conversations in the office lounge or when fetching a glass of water, an emptiness opened up that had to be filled in order to prevent employees from feeling lonely at home.
We appointed a “remote advocate,” Adrian, to give all team members a good start in their home offices. Michèle, our manager responsible for PeopleOps (that’s what we call our HR), sent everyone a small plant to take care of and bring back to the workplace once things have calmed down. In the meantime, our plants have become an emotional topic of numerous conversations.
We also have a Zoom Room, which is open during the day and where staff can meet and chat with a coffee at hand. Remote gaming sessions are often arranged, e.g., playing a few rounds of “Among us.”
Since our annual Christmas dinner fell flat, each employee got a fondue and wine to serve themselves. We then held a joint Christmas dinner via Zoom. We did the same during Advent with mulled wine and do so every now and then after work.
Another challenge was the training of new staff. Last year we hired ten new employees, most of whom we have not yet been able to welcome personally at our offices. Induction by means of video calls led to Zoom fatigue. Therefore, it was and is right and important to consider exactly which calls are necessary and which could be dispensed of.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Patrick Mathers: Especially when you are not together on location in the office, communication with the staff is immensely important. How are they doing, how can we support them, what do they need from us? In recent months, countless one-on-one meetings have been held to meet this need.
One project we had to postpone until after the pandemic was setting up new offices in Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur. Since we offer 24/7 support to our clients, a follow-the-sun strategy with offices around the world is the way to go.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are helping you navigate the crisis?
Patrick Mathers: We made a virtue of necessity and turned our management upside down. Since we were already all decentralized and had a flat hierarchy in the company, we invested a lot of time developing the company and increasing scalability through self-organizing, customer-oriented, and semi-autonomous teams and further evolved the necessary organizational structures, based heavily on the concept of Sociocracy 3.0. We are already seeing the fruits of this development: Management meetings have become noticeably shorter, as many decisions are now made in the aforementioned teams.
As an open and transparent company, we furthermore feel committed to the open-source idea, supporting the Linux Foundation and the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, among others, and therefore now also publicly communicate our principles, goals, and values and how we work in our handbook.
Most of the tools we use, such as ERP, CRM, ticketing system, chat tool, Wiki, or our document management system, were already running on our private cloud and therefore could be easily accessed from home. Zoom, as our tool of choice for video calls, we now additionally use for incoming and outgoing phone calls. Each employee thus has his or her own telephone number and the required soft clients on their devices.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Patrick Mathers: Our competitors include providers of Managed Services, especially Managed PaaS. Increasingly, the big cloud companies are also entering the market. This is another reason why we are constantly developing our services and building on our existing products such as APPUiO.
With Project Syn, we are establishing the future basis for our Managed Services on any Kubernetes cluster, whether in the cloud or at the customer’s premises. The decisive factor for the development is our experience in the operation of Managed Services on classical virtual machines with means that are no longer up to date for modern cloud-native infrastructures. With Project Syn, we can achieve almost 100% automation of our services and optimize the self-service for the consumer by using sophisticated tools. The focus is always on the software developer and the application that is being operated. DevOps, the seamless interaction of development and operation, is supported by many integrated tools. For example, GitOps, the versioning of configuration data, plays a key role.
Project Syn is an open-source project initiated by us and can be used by everyone. The code is stored on GitHub. This way, we can actively contribute to the open-source community and expect to expand our technical lead.
Your final thoughts?
Patrick Mathers: When it became clear that the pandemic would affect us all, the uncertainty was huge. But with excellent staff who are all pulling in the same direction, such a disruption can also be a great opportunity to push for profound changes.
– Home office requires that you trust your staff completely. There is no alternative.
– And in the current troubled phase, it’s even more important to take care of each other.
– And last but not least: I am already looking forward to the day when the pandemic is over, and we can all meet again at the office. And if you, dear reader, are close to Zurich’s main station, then: come and see us. Our coffee is excellent!
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