Recently I had a chance to talk with Geeman Yip, founder and CEO of BitTitan, a SaaS-based cloud enablement provider based in Bellevue, Wash. Geeman founded BitTitan in 2007 to help IT service providers and businesses assess, deploy, and manage technology solutions in a rapidly changing cloud world. Before BitTitan, Geeman was a program manager for Microsoft Exchange, architecting what would become the foundation for today’s Office 365 suite. He has over two decades’ worth of experience in the software and IT spaces. The following is the text of my interview with him on how businesses can smooth their transition into the “new normal” paradigm that’s emerging everywhere.
MITCH: Thanks, Geeman, for agreeing to let me interview you about the “new normal” of ubiquitous remote work that many companies are moving toward due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how businesses can accelerate their transition to the cloud and IT automation. Let me begin by asking how your own company’s business has been impacted by the current pandemic and related shutdowns.
GEEMAN: For BitTitan, there were two primary aspects in which we were affected, which were from internal and external perspectives. Externally, we were bracing for a loss of sales. Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t new opportunities, but we anticipate we’ll encounter softer sales numbers for a multitude of reasons. Many companies are losing business and are strapped for cash, so IT projects may not be a priority. However, from an external perspective, there’s also opportunity for organizations like BitTitan to assist with digital transformation and help companies accelerate their move to the cloud. We know some organizations are behind in moving to the cloud, and technology companies like BitTitan are here to help because we can enable them to communicate digitally and maintain business continuity while employees work from home. Internally, there’s been a lot of change for how most companies operate, as many workplace cultures are oriented for in-person interaction. There’s often a lot of day-to-day whiteboarding, in-person meetings, and internal watercooler discussions. We built a social hall at BitTitan where we can have coincidental conversations between employees, and now, all that has changed as we moved all of our communications to a digital environment. This poses challenges, as now it can become harder to gauge feedback from co-workers and colleagues while communicating. Visual cues may be eliminated, as I can’t see everyone’s faces when I communicate with the entire company. I can’t glance around the room and assess if my messages are being received and understood, which can interfere with engagement and getting feedback. So, we’ve got to look at different ways to measure engagement and evaluate how we’re communicating to ensure communication and engagement remain effective.
The next challenge comes with maintaining workplace culture. As an employer, I work toward motivating and inspiring my employees to maintain a high level of workplace energy, which is more difficult when the entire company is working remotely. To combat this, my objective is to communicate frequently to foster engagement with employees. At BitTitan, we’ve increased our digital efforts. My involvement with communication has significantly increased, as I currently spend about 50 percent of my time communicating with employees, providing messaging on items such as weekly business updates. Prior to the COVID-19 situation, we had an open role for internal communications and employer branding. Filling that role was accelerated, as we prioritized communication during this time.
Maintaining camaraderie is also important to engagement. We emphasize a culture of “BitTitan One” at our company, which is very much like a family. It’s a friendly and in-person culture. While working remotely, our employees are unable to get the full “BitTitan One” experience, which has been eye-opening for me and something I’m actively working to address. The silver lining is the current situation is helping BitTitan identify and address any gaps that exist within our company. The changes we need to make to improve how we manage employees and their experience working at BitTitan are incredibly helpful because these aren’t things that are specific to the current pandemic. These are opportunities that will help make us a better overall company moving forward and achieve amazing results.
MITCH: How prepared was BitTitan to handle moving to 100 percent remote for work and customer interactions?
GEEMAN: From a technology perspective, it was actually pretty seamless. We’re very fortunate as an organization, as we emphasized technology prior to the pandemic, and as a global company, we have enabled remote work on a large-scale. We had already implemented the infrastructure to operate digitally. We leverage collaboration software like Microsoft Teams. We did encounter a few gaps around access to certain resources in our Bellevue office, but those were addressed quickly, and we didn’t have to deploy a lot of new technology.
For the most part, I thought we were set up for success, and this was after many, many years of strengthening our digital security, enabling remote access for our employees, and treating every office as a remote office. There were areas that were negatively impacted. How we onboard and train new employees surfaced as an area that needs improvement while our company operates remotely. We’ve rolled out digital training efforts and continue to do so. Again, these are all opportunities that will allow us to scale our business further beyond this pandemic, as we improve our operations and look toward pursuing opportunities for growth.
From a management perspective, a lot of managers are used to in-person interaction, which is not specific to BitTitan. I think a lot of managers are learning how to empower employees while working remotely and enabling employees to hold themselves accountable for their actions. I firmly believe people need to hold themselves accountable, and I believe there’s constant improvement in every organization to support this. From a business standpoint, we’re a technology company and all of our sales are online. From a sales and marketing perspective, we haven’t been significantly affected, because we don’t have an in-person store. The primary purpose of our office is to support our employees.
MITCH: What critical things have you personally done or are currently doing as CEO to enable BitTitan to successfully transition through this pandemic?
GEEMAN: There are many things. First, broader communication and ensuring there is effective communication at all levels is very important, and that begins with me. One thing I’ve learned over time is that communication can be a game of telephone: What people hear downstream isn’t always interpreted as the message I intended to send. I really enjoy communicating with our employees. All my communication is typed, reviewed, and executed by me. I’m very particular about what I say and will review and modify everything so that it captures my voice.
I’ve also focused on the metrics with which we work to better assess how we measure our company’s performance. I’ve personally taken on creating and implementing a lot of business intelligence. I’m fortunate to have a software engineering background, so I’ve instituted a significant amount of business intelligence within the company. At BitTitan, we leverage dashboards, data, and data mining across the organization to measure how effectively we’re operating, both from an employee perspective and as an overall company.
Additionally, I invest time in one-on-one meetings with employees. At the end of the day, my customers are really my employees. On a weekly basis, I do more than 20 one-on-ones. This effort helps me understand the mental health of my employees and how they’re doing. I’m kind of an extroverted introvert, so for me, I can stay at home forever, but not everyone is like that.
MITCH: What areas of investment are you currently making within your company’s IT department because of the pandemic? And what sort of things are you taking into account for any new IT projects you are planning to implement?
GEEMAN: From an IT perspective, we have to reprioritize everything. There is a lot of uncertainty in the market, so as an IT organization, preservation of cash is a priority for every business, which is one thing we’re doing. This is not because we’re short on cash, we just don’t know what will happen within the next six months, which is difficult.
I’m paying close attention to how our business is operating. We’re not doing a reduction in our workforce. As an employer, I believe we have to do what we can to help our community, which begins with our employees. That is an ongoing commitment our organization has. From a cost perspective, we’re scrutinizing where to allocate our future dollars. We’re assessing our company’s future headcount and making sure we can continue to derive ROI during this pandemic. We’re still hiring in full force and have more than 30 positions open through the end of the year.
I continue to ask myself, “What is going to help us deliver operational excellence?” Those areas are where I’m going to spend money. Business intelligence is one area that enables our organization to make real-time decisions, which is important. My workplace setup at home connects my computer to a 12-inch monitor that has 20 dashboards scrolling and rotating every 20 seconds, allowing real-time updates on how BitTitan is performing from cashflow to customer inbound to purchasing to customer support requests to hiring metrics. I can tell you exactly how we’re performing as an organization. This is an area we will continue to invest in.
Another area we invest in is employee effectiveness. I continually ask myself, “How do I help employees be better at their own jobs?” We provide our employees a technology allowance in a stipend to equip their homes with the technology that will enable them to maintain productivity. We’re also investing in communication and collaboration. We already have digital cloud collaboration software, so we’re not spending money on new technology so much as we’re driving adoption of existing technology. We leverage Microsoft Teams and are exploring how we can use it better as a company. We’re rolling out training and monitoring how people use this technology to further drive adoption. Usage is a key metric of success for our IT department.
We’re not doing a reduction in our workforce. As an employer, I believe we have to do what we can to help our community, which begins with our employees.
We’ll continue to invest in communication. We’re rolling out new communication messaging such as departmental newsletters. We’re also looking at adopting technology programs that enable enhanced communication throughout our company and the ability to create this content faster. We will also invest in the remote management of IT. With new employees continuing to be hired, our IT department will be tasked with onboarding and offboarding employees. There will be more focus on protecting our IP, as our technology is now leaving the building. People may use unsecured networks, and so we must be able to protect our employees from external threats. Given the increase in working remotely, there are significantly more devices to monitor. Protecting our employees is a high priority for our company.
Finally, we will invest in e-learning. We are pushing our learning initiatives out to employees. We’ve rolled out an internal LMS system and we continue to push out content. This is an area in which I’ve personally invested in creating training, which includes remote-learning content on various topics and how-to videos for our managers and employees to leverage.
MITCH: Has your company’s culture changed much since the pandemic started? And how do you see this evolving over the next 12-18 months?
GEEMAN: BitTitan is also big on face-to-face interaction and leverages applications like Teams and other video-chat software to maintain this interaction. Our employees crave this interaction. Additionally, using video chat gives employees a reason to dress up for work and maintain their regular routine as if they were going into the office.
But beyond that, I don’t think our culture has changed. One thing I’ve invested in is really just continuing to define and refine what our culture means. It’s kind of like HDTV versus a low-definition television: You’re getting more detail and going more in-depth.
A great example is we recently redefined our core values. Our four core values — which emphasize our customers, professional excellence, positive results, and constant learning — have not changed, but how we think about and apply those values has become more specific. This raises the bar tremendously. For instance, if our values say, “We love our customers,” who’s really going to say they’re not living that value? But if our values say, “You must understand and solve our customers’ problems, demonstrate empathy, and meet or exceed the timelines of your customers,” that provides a different perspective. This is critical for measuring the effectiveness of employees. The No. 1 question I ask myself is, “How do I help our employees operate and be accountable for their own actions?”
It’s a completely different mindset shift here and that’s really my intent. I want to build a sustainable organization where people will hold themselves accountable and hold each other accountable.
MITCH: Where does BitTitan plan to invest most over the next 12-18 months when aiming toward growth? Have you made any significant changes to your company’s long-term business strategy because of the pandemic?
GEEMAN: When we think about our business growth, some things have changed given this pandemic. It’s a lot more difficult to do mergers and acquisitions. We’re definitely looking at possible M&A targets over the next 12 months, but that is going to be delayed because how do you acquire a company that you’ve never visited? When I think about acquiring an organization, I’m investing in people. People are the lifeblood that run an organization. That’s true of M&As. To complete a merger or acquisition, I have to be there. I have to go see someone’s body language and gauge whether or not they care. I have to see whether I trust them. These are things that I might not be able to assess over a video call, which affects our M&A methodology.
We’ve definitely tried to modify some of our offerings. We’re looking at new product ideas and what kind of new products we can create that will align with our business and continue to fuel growth. We’re going to double down on our R&D efforts. You’ll see a bunch of new things coming from BitTitan in the second half of this year.
MITCH: Looking at the broader picture now, what do you feel are the biggest challenges that businesses are going to face moving forward, and what are some of the challenges employees will face in the new normal?
GEEMAN: Adopting a mentality to truly embrace working remotely doesn’t happen overnight. It took me three years to really embrace remote work, dating back to the early days of BitTitan. I made every excuse known to man to put off work. Even though people can’t really leave the house, there are still distractions, especially for people who are parents. As a parent myself, my kids are constantly coming into my home office and wanting attention. Having everyone around the house can be challenging for employees. It’s going to take time for people to get used to these distractions and set boundaries.
The other challenge for employees is maintaining mental health. I think organizations will have to invest more in mental health because people aren’t used to isolation. From a business perspective, we really have to evaluate how we’re operating, which is both a challenge and a great opportunity. With regard to physical operations, I think this pandemic will make companies operate better during periods like flu season and help mitigate sickness among employees by not bringing illness into the office.
MITCH: Do you think 100 percent remote work is going to become the new normal for many businesses? Will some industry sectors be less affected by this than others?
GEEMAN: Yes, I think 100 percent remote work will become the new norm for many roles. At BitTitan, we’re already investigating this. We have two primary products, and in our newer product unit, we created a remote work culture when we started the team because we wanted to be able to scale quickly. One of the things we’ve aggressively done over the last couple of months is open all positions to be remote. It’s actually a great opportunity because we’re finding great candidates a lot faster now. It used to require 90 to 120 days for us to staff these roles. But now, we open a position and can staff it in 30 days. Of course, this requires our organization to be vigilant about onboarding management to support this. We haven’t rolled this out globally throughout the entire company because we’re still experimenting with this and how we’re able to support it.
We’re continuing to experiment with how we roll out new products and how we structure our organization. Even though we have an office where people can meet, we want to make sure we have effective communication regardless of where our employees are working from.
At the end of the day, we are a product organization so we need to make sure that we’re able to find the best talent possible. But in the same regard, we need to make sure we’re able to effectively manage that talent, too. And the infrastructure, which includes the people, the technology and the process, has to be set up to make that possible.
MITCH: How do you feel the impact of the coronavirus is generally going to influence business workflows, processes, and operations at most companies?
GEEMAN: I think it comes down to companies evaluating what operations they’re doing in person, be it physical activities or communication, and moving as much of those operations as you can to a virtual environment. Of course, we will see the impacts of this, as there have been recent outages by some very large industry players. A lot of call centers are impacted and have become difficult to reach because their business is not set up for a remote working environment.
In-person sales are going to be impacted. There will likely be less reliance on tangible things like paper. How much a business is impacted will hinge on the amount of digital services they utilize across their organization. Companies that rely on less digital services will likely be impacted more from this pandemic. We’re incredibly fortunate at BitTitan because we leverage hundreds of digital services, whether they’re services we’ve created in-house or external services we’ve purchased. Our company has access to the same information regardless of where we operate.
MITCH: How is it going to influence the use of office space?
GEEMAN: This is a tricky area. We are looking into the long-term strategy of whether or not we are going to continue to grow and build out offices and how our offices are laid out. I’m not sure if it’s a wise strategy anymore to build large offices, the reason being that with any sort of illness or disease that’s widespread, it is very detrimental to the business.
One thing that I am examining right now is whether we should convert our office space to more of a co-working type of space. This would feature hot desks and more conference rooms, which would make the office more of a meet-up spot if employees want to get away from the house. A co-working space could be more effective than having a large office. I’m personally committed to working more remotely because I want to understand what BitTitan’s gaps are and I want to continually improve. But I think that office space will be impacted and you will see less of the larger office spaces, less of the large congregations, and potentially more co-working spaces.
MITCH: What role will the cloud and automation play in shaping the new normal?
GEEMAN: I think our current situation is going to accelerate a large amount of cloud growth because of the effectiveness and efficiency it enables. For every business, revenue has to go up and expenses have to go down. That’s ultimately how businesses are run. If you look at the role of automation and why it is important, it’s because automation helps you be more effective. There are many manual and tedious jobs that people don’t want to do. Automation can do those jobs and maintain consistency. And computers don’t sleep. Even my home computer is constantly crunching data 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to feed the business intelligence for my dashboards. When I wake up, I have a dashboard right at my fingertips that’s already crunched the data I need. I’m not trying to eliminate jobs, I’m trying to help my company make real-time decisions. I can’t plan for the next coronavirus, but should it arrive, I can see how my business is doing so that I can make effective business decisions. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for my employees and their wellbeing. I take this responsibility very seriously. If I’m unable to deliver on that, then I’m not really doing my job.
Companies that rely on less digital services will likely be impacted more from this pandemic. We’re incredibly fortunate at BitTitan because we leverage hundreds of digital services.
MITCH: What kind of steps should businesses take when they move toward having a remote workforce so they can ensure productivity and business continuity are maintained?
GEEMAN: Having the right tools in place, and really the right cloud tools in place, are really the most important thing. The five areas I previously mentioned — business intelligence, employee effectiveness, employee communication, remote management of devices, and e-learning — those are really the five areas where businesses really need to focus on and invest in for growth. You may not be able to apply each of these to every business, but whatever you can should definitely be applied.
MITCH: Are their certain areas that businesses can target to find simpler and less expensive ways to operate? What kinds of things should they consider when they are re-evaluating their business model?
GEEMAN: I think this comes back to digital adoption and how businesses can make their operations more effective. I believe that investing in technology is a great way to create a sustainable business from the ground up. For me, the most important areas to evaluate are always people, processes, and systems, and not necessarily in that order. Those are three critical elements in creating an effective business.
Generally, I begin by evaluating the process and thinking critically about what the right process should be. Next, I evaluate the systems and determine what systems I can put in place to drive my process. And then the last step is identifying the right people to put in place to address the gaps that I can’t resolve with technology. By adopting this type of mindset, decision-makers will make an effective business and they will continue, regardless of this pandemic, to create a really effective business that they’ll be able to sustain in any environment.
MITCH: Marketing and sales is another key area that must be invested in for businesses to succeed. IT vendors and cloud services companies have often used conferences to get the message out about their products and services. How is the pandemic affecting the conference landscape for exhibitors and attendees?
GEEMAN: I think we’re going to see an uptick in social selling, which is significant because there are no physical events anymore, and we’re still determining the ROI on virtual events. At BitTitan, we went to events because of the coincidental business that would result from networking and meeting people. It’s much more difficult to have a chance encounter with someone online that results in a business opportunity. Because of this, I question the viability of conferences moving forward.
Because people no longer have in-person interaction with colleagues anymore and need to be more resourceful, areas that will see more activity will be online, social selling, and advertisements. The traditional methodology of emails won’t work anymore.
However, I am personally investing a significant amount of resources in social media. A lot of people are finding their information on platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Reddit. Because people no longer have in-person interaction with colleagues anymore and need to be more resourceful, areas that will see more activity will be online, social selling, and advertisements. The traditional methodology of emails won’t work anymore. There is so much external email these days, and often, it just results in a delete-fest.
MITCH: If you had to sum everything up, what do you feel is most critical for businesses to focus on and do to succeed in this new normal environment?
GEEMAN: The preservation of cash is the No. 1 thing. The more cash companies can preserve, the better off they will be with regard to weathering the pandemic. Save dollars where you are able and focus your investments on operational excellence.
MITCH: Geeman, thank you very much for giving us so much of your valuable time!
GEEMAN: Thank you, Mitch! It was wonderful connecting with you.
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