We talked to Rod Plummer, Managing Director of Shoothill about how COVID-19 catalyzed permanent operational changes his firm and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rod Plummer: Considering how much COVID-19 has impacted the world, surprisingly, we have done quite well all things considered. I am very lucky that I live in the countryside in rural Shropshire, England. Therefore, I don’t feel as ‘locked up’ as others, and abiding by social distancing rules is easier here than it would be in a busy city, and I am very grateful for that.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Shoothill.
Rod Plummer: I have been in the software industry for around 30 years and I got into it by accident really. In 1991, I was looking for a job, but couldn’t find one as I found I was not getting many interviews. In those days people used to have to write their CVs/Resumes out on pieces of paper and send them to potential employers to apply for jobs. Then I had this idea, why not put a CV on a floppy disk to make it easier for both the applicant and employer? So I invented ‘Visual CV’, which was basically all the information a company could want to know about a prospective employee displayed on a screen, on one floppy disk (this was before the internet), and since I am not a coder myself a good friend of mine, who is now my business partner and Chief Technical Officer of Shoothill (Erik Nodland) built it for me in Visual Basic. I then sent that off to a local software company and they gave me a job as a Product Marketing Manager, and that’s how I got started in the software industry.
How does Shoothill innovate?
Rod Plummer: Primarily, because necessity is the mother of invention, we research ‘what is there is a need for’, or ‘what hasn’t been done before’. Next, we find out what emerging technologies are coming downstream that we could perhaps use this new technology to solve these problems. For example, in 2011, when working on a project for Microsoft, we discovered that there was no internet-based live flooding map for the UK, and so we produced www.floodalerts.com using Environment Agency data, which they had at the time but had used in this way before. On the day it released, the BBC picked it up and featured the story on the front page of the BBC Website, and from there it went completely viral. Another example is AI. where we have used machine learning to improve the business processes of our customers. So I guess in essence, we look to see what isn’t there today first, then check to see if it’s been done before and if the answer to that question is ‘no’, then we go for it. Of course, this approach does have risks, in that, you can go down a dead-end but better to try and fail, than to never try at all.
How does the coronavirus pandemic impact your business and how are you coping?
Rod Plummer: Well, the first shock of the initial lockdown back in March of 2020 forced us to change the way we operated. Initially, we were all office-based, so it took a little time to sort out how we were going to operate in these new circumstances, but we are all very fortunate that software such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc, were invented before the pandemic, as without them I am not sure how we would have been able to function and communicate as well as we have done. Within about a month or two of the initial lockdown, we were able to get fully up and running with everyone able to work from home, and today, we have nearly all of our development team working from home permanently. Happy to say that despite my initial reservations, our productivity has gone up, although I never thought everyone working from home could possibly work and so it took a world pandemic to convince me I was wrong!
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Rod Plummer: I, like everyone else, did not expect the pandemic to last this long, and so we have had to make some difficult decisions along the way. For example, many of our people do not want to be office based in the future, and so recently, we have had to make the decision to move out of our current offices (where we have been for over 10 years) into a smaller (and far cheaper) premises because put simply, we just don’t need this much space anymore. All this sounds very good (and so far it has been) but I do worry about how we will introduce new employees to the rest of the firm if everyone is working from home, and in my experience, I prefer the office environment as I miss the banter!
Who are your competitors? How do you plan to stay in the game?
Rod Plummer: That’s a difficult one because we are ‘custom software’ developers and we create software solutions based on individual business needs, and so we don’t often find ourselves in a competitive situation. This sounds perfect but I think one of the reasons for this is that what we do is very difficult, and sometimes I wonder if we are mad doing it!! In reality, what often happens is that we start off doing something relatively small for a business, e.g. improving a particular business process within the company, and then once a client sees the difference we can make to their business, so the projects we do for the increase in size and scope. As every project we undertake is unique, and every customer is unique and because there aren’t a lot of software businesses that do what, we don’t often get into a competitive situation with another company like Shoothill. Of course, there are fantastic firms out there like ours but we don’t find ourselves in bidding wars very often.