David Mansilla is the CEO of ISU Corp, a 100% remote software development company headquartered in Canada. We talk about how his colleagues stay visible to each other and to the clients, how to hire rock stars, and how he builds trust.
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Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great. And we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I am interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today on the line, all the way from Kitchener, Canada, I have David Mansilla. David, I see that you’re the founder and CEO of ISU Corp. And on your LinkedIn, it says leading high-tech companies to the next level. I like that. We’re going to dive into that. Welcome today. I want to start by asking what I always ask, which is what does your virtual office look like. What do you need to get your work done?
David: I’m a technical person, so I love gadgets. So I probably have more stuff than I actually need. And I [inaudible – 00:48]. So I have different setups depending on where I’m spending most of my time. So I’m going to give you an example. At home [inaudible – 00:59] Surface Pro 3, I have a large monitor, and I have Microsoft LifeChat headset. That one I use at home. [inaudible – 01:11] Microsoft LifeChat headsets are the best for [inaudible – 01:15] very inexpensive. So they are pretty good.
Lisette: Good tip?
David: Yeah. And I tried. Honestly, I tried hundreds of headsets, from expensive ones to anything. Once you’re in a bar or you’re in a party and you have to have an urgent call, you [inaudible – 01:31]. So [inaudible]. We have a house that we’ve turned into an office. So that’s where my main desk is. When I [inaudible – 01:48] that’s where I work most of my time from. [inaudible – 01:51] what I have is I have a set of three 24-inch monitors. I [inaudible – 01:56] MacBook Pro. That’s what I’m using right now. And I also have another Surface Pro 4 connected to those monitors. When [inaudible – 02:06] the office, I don’t like using headsets. So what I have is [inaudible – 02:11] mike and Bose stereo speakers. So that allows me to have conference calls with my hands-free. Sometimes I even stand up and go to… I have like a glass whiteboard on the back of my office. So it allows me to stand up and start writing on the whiteboard if I need to. But to be honest with you, 99 percent of the time, when I have a remote meeting, I don’t turn on the camera. It’s only with voice.
Lisette: Okay. Any particular reason for that?
David: Yes. I find, number one, depending on the country that I’m talking with, or even sometimes in Toronto, the Internet quality is not consistent. So we may have lags. And also, a lot of the times, we’re actually looking at somebody else’s stream. So we’re actually working remotely looking at code or looking at design for a website. So that’s where our focus needs to be at.
Lisette: Yeah, fair enough. Those are two very good reasons not to use video, in fact.
David: I also had a horror story. [inaudible – 03:16].
Lisette: Oh, now you have to tell it [laughs].
David: [inaudible – 03:19] we had a meeting with one of our corporate clients, big, big client that really had this rule that no webcams on. And one of our [inaudible – 03:32] was in his basement and [inaudible – 03:35] because it was a really hot day and he forgot to turn off his webcam. So obviously, nobody noticed [inaudible – 03:44] from a high-rise [inaudible], “Are you naked?” [inaudible] I told him quickly to turn it off [inaudible – 04:01] work from home.
Lisette: Right. It’s true. We do talk about you would never show up at the office without your shirt on or naked, of course. When working from home, we do often talk like we could work in our pajamas, but still, for a lot of remote workers, there is a level of professionalism in wearing professional clothes at home when on the webcam, at least professional shirts. So there is that differentiation. We still bring some of the in-office things to the virtual world because of how we work and how we judge each other.
David: Exactly. [inaudible – 04:39] a lot, especially when I’m traveling, [inaudible – 04:46]. And I have high-end earphones. And believe it or not, I [inaudible] also my [inaudible]. When I’m at the gym, if I have a [inaudible – 04:57] meeting, [inaudible] to a slow speed and I do it from there. And I can even see screencasting [inaudible – 05:06]. And it’s [inaudible] because if you [inaudible] environments, [inaudible] use the most is my phone.
Lisette: Right, amazing what we can do with these little blocks of…
Lisette: Yeah, it changes everything. So let’s talk a little bit about ISU Corp. So you’re a software development company. Tell us a little bit about what you guys do. And how you as a company work? Is it remote? Do you have a headquarters? What does that look like?
David: Sure, yeah. We’re 100 percent remote. We only have [inaudible – 05:40] house to make it our main office. We used to have an office back in 2005 for several years when we started, but it was just [inaudible – 05:49]. Things weren’t very different 11 years [inaudible] they are now. It was a lot harder to convince companies [inaudible – 05:58] work remotely. So we ended up being one of the most prestigious [inaudible – 06:03] in [Waterloo]. And that actually gave us a lot of credibility at the beginning. Funny enough though, the office was mainly for sales and accounting and marketing. None of the developers were there at all. But I could actually [inaudible – 06:23] clients [inaudible] and gain their trust. Also, as soon as they saw the [inaudible – 06:29], they realized, “Okay, this company is reputable,” because not everybody can afford a place like that. So we [inaudible – 06:37] that.
And then after 4-5 years of being there, I realized that only one client a year was coming to the office. Everybody else was 100 percent remote [inaudible – 06:49] client. So they [inaudible] you know what? I think I can actually mortgage a house and move those operations into [inaudible – 07:00] and [inaudible] will have a full kitchen, a full bathroom. So that’s where we are right now. [inaudible – 07:08] actually have no offices at all, but [inaudible – 07:12] maybe because I grew up in the corporate world, I’m the type of person that when I’m in town, I need to go to an office house [inaudible – 07:19] my house. The first six months when I started company, I was working out of Starbucks. And that got [inaudible – 07:29] really fast. So I think I tried working from home. And after 4-5 hours of being [inaudible – 07:35], I got very, very desperate.
So we feel that we’re working from home because it’s a house, but it’s still an office. And that’s only for me and my accounting team, my marketing team, nothing to do with technology. The rest of the people, everybody else is remote. And I would say [inaudible – 07:59] myself, if you put all the [inaudible] together in Canada, it’s for only five months out of the year that I’m [inaudible – 08:05].
Lisette: Oh wow, okay. And when you said you were noticing that less and less clients were coming into the office, that’s an interesting trend. Why is that?
David: Number one, we had a software consulting firm. So basically, we solved IT problems for our clients on the software development side. So [inaudible – 08:27] obligations, we have to [inaudible – 08:28] the business processes. Or we simply get hired to fix their development team because they might not be producing the way they should be. So we go in there and we see what’s going on and we give them help, get them out of their trouble, and then tech them how to run a proper software life cycle process. So inherently, our clients want us to go to their office, right? In fact, in the beginning [inaudible – 08:56], the company was really, really hard. I’m a coder. And when I started my own business, I was pretty much [inaudible – 09:06] myself. [inaudible] only me and two other guys. And the [inaudible – 09:09] that we had is [inaudible] in [inaudible] but they wanted us to work at their office. So it was basically [inaudible – 09:17] basically having 4-5-6-month contract on site [crosstalk]. So it took me at least three years to learn how to bring that change that I was building with the client, and letting them trust me without me being there.
Lisette: How did you build that trust? That’s a huge transition. That’s a big deal.
David: Yeah. Basically, I had to conquer my fears. And I had to [inaudible – 09:48] and tell them that I had people smarter than me doing the work. And it was going to be a lot more efficient for them and less expensive for them if they allow me to have my team [inaudible – 10:00]. But I will be ultimately responsible. So one of the things that I did is I raised my hourly rate from $100 an hour to $300 an hour. So if they wanted to hire me, they will have to pay a lot of money, which means it will be a lot more expensive. And this is only for the new clients.
So what happens now is that I never [inaudible – 10:22] my time. So I [inaudible] to my clients still, but I go just to check on them or to build rapport or to fix problems [inaudible – 10:31] running into troubling projects. I go there, try to give them advice on what to do or whether the problem is at our end or their end. There are always problems. And I have that skill that I can identify what the problem is and provide practical solution to it. So I still visit all my clients, but I’m not there 24/7 like I used to be.
Lisette: Right. But still they now trust that your team is going to deliver on the promises that you’ve made, even though your team is remote. So that’s a pretty big accomplishment. So I’m assuming part of the reason that you did it is because your team delivered and they saw that your team could deliver. So it’s just a matter of getting them to trust that first step.
David: And you know what? It didn’t happen overnight. It was a transition. It was a hard transition trying to work towards that. And when I told my clients that my developers are smarter than me, it’s true [chuckles]. I’m not lying. So my [inaudible – 11:32] be so much. But my job is to hire better people than me. So if I’m good enough, then they’re going to get rock stars and they’re going to [inaudible – 11:41], right?
Moving to Agile helped a lot. We adopted Agile in 2006, a year after we started. We started learning Agile and adopting it. And because [inaudible – 11:55], we wrote a piece of software [inaudible – 11:59]. We wrote a piece of software [inaudible] standup scrums via Scrum chat. So we call it Scrum chat and we [inaudible – 12:07] system within this [inaudible] that basically would produce their report for them, the Scrum report, what they did before, what they’re doing today, and what are the blockers. So it was automatic. Instead of taking 15-20 minutes, it took 5 minutes. And still an online interaction [inaudible – 12:23] reports already. And then [inaudible – 12:25] talk to each other, will go off. They [inaudible – 12:29]. So I was still able to provide this ability through the projects without having [inaudible – 12:36]. That helped a lot. And then I created something [inaudible – 12:40] report [inaudible] standards [inaudible] all the [inaudible] progress [inaudible]. It’s showing [inaudible] behind [inaudible] schedule. And we’d have weekly meetings with our clients so that they can see.
So the way to get people to trust you to provide 100 percent [inaudible – 13:01] and never lie. You do that and then they realize, “Oh my God, this guys are actually doing what they are supposed to be doing.” If there is any trouble, we never hide it. We expose the problems and we tell them what [inaudible – 13:11] can do to fix. [inaudible] ask for help from their end. You build that company on trust and transparency. You can be anywhere in the world. That has to be there.
Lisette: Right, I love it, 100 percent transparency and never lie.
Lisette: It’s hard to do, easier said than done.
David: It’s super hard to do. But when we’re hiring somebody, like a new hire, they go through a three-month process of getting rid of their old habits because a lot of people, especially when they come from the corporate world, I think they play corporate politics. They try to [inaudible – 13:50] box. That’s ingrained in that big corporation. Not all of them are like that, but pretty much a pretty high percentage of them are like that. So we have to actually [inaudible – 14:04] come over. And we have to [inaudible] so they actually start adopting our process. And they realize, “Oh my God, it’s a lot easier to be transparent, it’s a lot easier to be honest, and it’s a lot more fun,” because you won’t have to be hiding anything. [inaudible – 14:20] what you’re doing and [inaudible] to do better. And it’s through culture basically. It’s like I have a problem. I’m stuck. I [inaudible – 14:30] was going to take two hours. It’s taken two days already. I need help. Then we get somebody to help them and we figure it out together as a team.
Lisette: Yeah. So it sounds like you guys are great at providing visibility and also what I like to call working out loud where you’re letting each other know what you’re working on. Through the Scrum chat and the weekly meetings and status reports, what’s something that you guys struggle with as a remote team? What’s hard for you?
David: One of the biggest issues that we have is being able to let go of having the developer being in front of you and trusting the developer that he is going to finish up on time. And sometimes I still get scared. But you’ve got to remember that I was a corporate employee for 15 years before I started my own business. So I still have that mindset. And sometimes we actually get behind in projects. And despite we all have all this amazing tool that we’ve built and we use the latest technology in communication, sometimes [inaudible – 15:38]. And what they understood we needed to do was exactly what we needed them to do. So once they come back, they are like, “Oh my God, no. I want it green. [I live on – 15:50] blue,” for example. So those are challenges that we still go through from time to time. [inaudible – 15:57] better and it gets easier. And [inaudible – 16:00] practices. That’s why we don’t allow to [inaudible – 16:05] finishes for a review. That’s why [inaudible – 16:08] waiting period because if the Scrum reporter, the Scrum [inaudible – 16:13] tells you, “Okay, [inaudible – 16:15],” do you have this ability to [inaudible] done? So by creating a [weekly status – 16:24] meeting and showing what you have so far, you can quickly say, “Oh my God, you’re going left. We’re supposed to go right.” So we’re not wasting a lot of time [inaudible – 16:33] waiting for [inaudible – 16:34] to realize [inaudible] correct. [crosstalk] partial work.
Lisette: So faster feedback loops. One of the better things of Agile is all the feedback loops that are built into the whole methodology.
David: Exactly, yes.
Lisette: What are some of the tools that you guys use to communicate with each other?
David: We [inaudible – 16:57] lately. We can [inaudible] more and more. Our standard is GoToMeeting. And it’s just because [inaudible – 17:04] it was fantastic. And we can actually record sessions. So we use a lot of GoToMeeting. We have our internal team called [inaudible – 17:14]. That’s what provides [inaudible – 17:17] to the clients. So every conversation happens there. We upload the meetings. So we record every meeting. We upload it as a movie. Basically, it’s little portals. Each portal is a project. And then the client is in there. If they have questions, they go through [inaudible – 17:34]. You can make a blog or make a post. You can have a conversation. And everything is documented there. So you [inaudible – 17:39] your files. The files don’t have to be [inaudible], but all the file links to Dropbox or Google Drive are in there organized in the project, which we call the portals. And it’s beautiful because as soon as we deliver this to the client, then we eliminate the phone calls. We eliminate the email chains. And that eliminates ambiguity. And then if anybody has any questions that [inaudible – 18:08] portal, they don’t have to search for the information. The portal makes sure that the information is at their fingertips.
Lisette: I love it. They can check in at any time.
David: Any time. For example, we’re making a sign for an Android application right now. Very, very complicated, it’s a [service – 18:25] application [inaudible] completely disconnected. But it has to synchronize over Wi-Fi. So we had a meeting with a client. It was like a three-hour meeting to define this thing because [inaudible – 18:37] desktop. We just a mobile version. And [inaudible] designers. And it was incredible that we actually had the movie. And then we just went back to the movie and just through the forward, backward, and pause, we actually got all our questions answered. Before, we would have to have another meeting with the client and waste their time. [inaudible – 19:01] conversation. You tend to go off track. So having those recordings is phenomenal. And we’ve been doing it for five years already.
Lisette: Wow! That’s a tip that I usually give to people that most haven’t heard about. What made you start recording your meetings? I think it’s genius.
David: 80/20 [laughs].
David: [inaudible – 19:23] came to the conclusion that everything that I analyzed has to be 80/20. So I’m like okay, I’m going to steal my client’s time. I have to make sure I’m going to take the most out of it. I’m going to try to make sure [inaudible – 19:38]. How do I do that? Because we [inaudible] questions. Well, we have recorded conversation. We can go back. And you know what? That is the single factor that allows to have my clients trust me because they can see the movies in the portal. They can see that we actually [inaudible – 19:55]. And then the questions go back in the portals and everything gets documented there. So we’ve invested heavily [inaudible – 20:02] to allow us to be more efficient in our process.
Lisette: And is your team all located within Canada? Are you all over the world? What does that look like?
David: We’re mostly in the Americas. We have people in eight countries. We’re [inaudible – 20:18] company, very, very small. But we have people in Canada, the USA, Latin America. And we have one guy in Spain. One of our top architects are in Spain. And everybody else is throughout Latin America. We don’t go past that because we still work together. So we want to [inaudible – 20:39] reasonable time [inaudible]. Our maximum allowance is three hours. [inaudible – 20:44], he actually moved from Latin America to Spain. And I told him, “Let’s [inaudible – 20:49].” [inaudible] because of our processes, somebody else takes [inaudible] for him. And six hours, seven hours, [inaudible – 21:01] at 11 a.m. [inaudible] 10 a.m. So because he’s so efficient, I’ve had no problem. But he’s the exception. Usually, I try to [inaudible – 21:10] within three-hour [inaudible – 21:11].
Lisette: Sure, time zones are tough for everybody. So I think it’s smart. You organized from north to south [crosstalk – 21:17] instead of East-West, which is also something I’ve heard recommended, very, very wise. And do you have things… Except for the guy in Spain, does most of your team have some sort of agreement in terms of what hours they need to work? Are there core hours? Or does everybody decide? How does that work?
David: Again, we only hire rock stars. So we try to make sure our people have an entrepreneurial mindset and transparency. They do what they said they’re going to do. And they have to be there for meetings. Everything else is up to them. So we paid them a full-time salary. And the hours, because we’re a consulting [inaudible – 21:57], we have to make sure they work 40 hours a week. But they can work from wherever they want and at whatever time they want. As long as they are available for client meetings [inaudible – 22:05] meetings. Again, that was an evolution too. At the beginning, I was forcing people to do this and that. And actually, the business analysts and the [inaudible – 22:16] tend to have to work [inaudible] work hours. But the [inaudible – 22:23] I had a guy. He’s actually our director of architecture. So he’s the smartest, brightest guy in the company. And sometimes he goes to Thailand, China, Indonesia. And [inaudible – 22:37] there because [inaudible].
Lisette: Right. Yeah, indeed. So do you have any hiring tips? How do you find those rock stars? Is there something that you do in your hiring process that weeds the non-rock stars out?
David: Yeah, it is so hard. That’s why we’re not bigger. [inaudible – 23:00] because we actually try to get [inaudible] 2010 to 2011. What we did was we broke the culture and we put a whole bunch of people because we have more contracts. But it was counterproductive. And our profit margin went down. Our morale went down. It was a mess just because we relaxed our hiring process. So I always say to my clients I spend more time looking for talent than looking for work. And for us, it’s not easy. The people that want to work with us basically get trained before we hire them because it takes so long. So we have five to six job interview processes. The first one is attitude interview, psychological test. The next one is a technical one. Then the other one is another technical. Then we have another attitude test. Then we have another technical. And they are not exams. What we do is we tell them, “You have two days to do this, three days to do this, figure out.” We want to know that they can learn by themselves. And we want to know that by the end of the process, if they are eager enough to work for us, they’ve got to be ready. For example, one of the technical interviews is create a Scrum plan and define your [inaudible – 24:25]. And some of the coders know about Scrum and they deliver. They are not Scrum masters. At the end of the job interview process, [inaudible – 24:34] pass the Scrum master exam [crosstalk]. So we try to stretch them. Then you can see whether they have a good attitude or not. And even after that, we have the three-month probation process where they [inaudible – 24:51]. And for us, the technical part has to be [inaudible – 24:55] strong. But most important is the attitude part. Are you willing to share your information? Are you willing to be positive? Are you a rock star or are you not? Do you want to stay with us for a long time? We try to make relationships forever. And that’s why we don’t [inaudible – 25:11] because remember what project [inaudible – 25:14] business model. So that’s my job. I have to get more work to [inaudible – 25:20] people that I love. And I have to love everybody that is in the company. In return, they give me the best of their time and they give me their best of their brain. And that’s how we build that culture.
Lisette: Right. I’ve heard quite a lot that don’t skimp on the hiring. Always, just take as long as you can as long as you need to get the right people in the company. And it’s so hard. I ask this question specifically because so many companies struggle with finding good people that will really fit in the culture. And of course it’s really trial and error for both people. You don’t always know what you’re going to get. People can look really good on paper and do great in the interview and then just don’t fit somehow. So I don’t think there’s a magic bullet. I’m just always curious what people do.
We’re coming to the end of the time, which is crazy. It’s gone so fast. I want to ask you about advice that you would have for teams that are just starting out from what you’ve learned in this whole experience. It sounds like you guys have really been really deliberate about how you’ve done things, very smart. So what advice do you have?
David: The first thing I tell them to do, the first thing [inaudible – 26:28] is all their [inaudible – 26:31]. Be completely transparent. Have vision for what you want to do and how you want to grow. And be honest. When you run into trouble, expose it as soon as the trouble starts and ask for help. And at the very beginning, you have to take [inaudible – 26:56]. You don’t have the luxury to choose your clients. But once you have an established client set, then you can start getting pickier. For example, with us, we only work with companies now that share our values or have at least 80 percent alignment with our values. And that’s very important. We want to be five times as big as we are right now, but what does that mean? We really need more money, or we want to be happy working every day. Do I want to get up in the morning and go to my office? Or I’m going to dread making that [inaudible – 27:29]. That’s a big, big decision you have to make early in your life because [inaudible – 27:36]. Money really helps us be happier with our health and our time. So you really have to focus on where do you want to spend. Yeah, you can [inaudible – 27:45] yourself to death and become a multimillionaire super fast. Or you can focus on things that matter most in life and be happy most of the time. And when trouble comes… because trouble comes regardless. And it’s a lot nicer to solve problems with people that are like you and people that are willing to help, including your clients and working for somebody that all they want to do is take advantage of you because you’re getting so much money [inaudible – 28:15].
Lisette: That is some great advice. I can ask another question but I think that’s a great way to end the interview. We go into one last thing, which is if people want to learn more about you and your company, what’s the best place to go to? Assuming your website, of course. So you can give your URL. But what’s the best way? If people want to work for you, if there are some rock stars out there who want to come your way, how do they get in touch with you?
David: Obviously, through the website. They can contact from there. They can follow me on Twitter. I’m @davidmansilla.
Lisette: Great. And I’ll put all of this in the show notes too for people so that they can easily find you. Thank you so much for your time today. I think the people working for your company are lucky to work for you. Sounds like a great atmosphere and a great environment. So kudos to you for that. And thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
David: It was a pleasure being here. Thank you so much for doing this podcast.
Lisette: All right, everybody, until next time, be powerful.