Interview with Justin Gehtland (Relevance)
Relevance develops software and provides consulting for start-ups and enterprises.
I interviewed Justin Gehtland, Relevance co-founder and CEO to find out more. This is the hundred and twenty ninth in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Justin!
How would you describe Relevance in under 50 words?
Relevance is a full-service design and development team. Our passion is to improve lives, simplify hard problems, and create software that leaves an impression. We work in Ruby and Clojure, on web and mobile, for projects tiny to enormous. We’re located in Durham, NC and the east coast.
Describe yourself in one sentence.
I’m a father, husband, founder, programmer, CEO, author, speaker, gamer, musician, skater, who has a vision for the future where technology makes things simpler.
What made you decide to start-up Relevance?
My co-founder and I had spent 12 years in the industry, and realized that we didn’t like the way software was being developed. This was very early in the Agile days, and the tools and technologies and processes in effect across the industry then were complicated, slow, ponderous beasts that led, mostly, to failure. We wanted to form a team dedicated to successful software projects – one that would seek out tools for their efficacy, not their acceptance, and would work with people who cared about their outcomes. We didn’t know it would be a consultancy at first, but that’s where we decided we could have the most impact.
Relevance has grown by 425% over the last three years and was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the 500 fastest growing companies for 2011. What are the main factors that have led to this success?
I think it is a combination of having a really good hiring process, leading us to have a team of people that can sell themselves through their excellence, and being willing to pursue projects across a wide variety of domains, customer sizes, and delivery platforms. That, and having some customers that just needed a LOT of work done.
What roles do you and co-founder, Stuart Halloway, undertake?
I’m the CEO, which means I’m involved in most areas of the company, but I have a specific focus on sales and on strategic planning for business initiatives. Stuart is dedicated to the technical research side of the company, both in pushing our technology advantages forward as well as building products, like Datomic, a database we built with Rich Hickey.
Where did you grow up and how did your interest in software development come about?
I grew up in North Carolina, both in the Research Triangle area and in Charlotte. I was a pretty standard child of the 80’s (video games, Apple II, Commodore 64, etc.) but I also had an aunt and uncle who worked at IBM. So, one Christmas, I wake up to find the original IBM PC 5150 with the dual garage-door 5-1/4″ drives sitting under the tree. Thanks, Uncle Mike! From there, I started taking all the programming classes I could in high school, and became the tech guy for everybody (the yearbook, the literary journal, etc.).
When I got to college, I took one programming class and then switched to English as my major, but I paid my way through school as a programmer. When I graduated, I was thinking I’d become an English professor, but my roommate (and now co-founder, Stuart) came home from his coding job one day with a copy of Visual Basic 3.0 and said “do something interesting with this in a week and we’ll hire you”. I’ve been in this business ever since.
Has your initial vision changed since starting up?
Yes, absolutely. When we began, our mission was to improve the way software is developed. We wanted development processes that favored people, we wanted tools that were more effective and flexible, we wanted a more creative atmosphere. Along the way, we’ve come to value the outcomes themselves just as (if not more) highly. Now, we have a focus on building systems that can have those same effects on other domains besides just software. We think a lot of the software we are forced to use in the world is soul-suckingly awful, and we want to build systems that remove awfulness from the world, not add to it.
Who came up with the name?
Honestly, neither of us can remember. We were going through a giant list of essentially random mixtures of words and numbers, trying to get one not being used in software development, and kept coming up empty. Eventually, we found out that “Relevance” was not being used in the software development space, and it was on our list because we wanted people to choose tools and technologies that were relevant to their actual problems and not just because somebody told them they had to.
You are co-author of ‘Better, Faster, Lighter Java’ which won the Jolt Award for Technical Writing, and authored eight other technical books. How did you get into writing?
As an English major, writing was what I wanted to do. I spent a long time honing my craft, and once I decided to be a professional technologist, it was essentially a no-brainer to try my hand at technical writing. I did a lot of blogging before the first book, which was a nice way to train myself.
What do you love being most – a programmer, author or speaker?
Tough question. Being a speaker has the most immediate impact – the adrenaline rush before walking to the podium, the feedback from the crowd while you speak, the interactions directly afterwards. It is always a blast in the moment, but those moments fade. You have to keep having them, and the travel is hard.
Writing can have a more lasting effect, but is substantially more taxing to do. And the written word can go stale pretty fast, especially in the realm of technology. So even though I love the process of writing, the feedback cycle is really long and sometimes the resulting artifacts have a pretty short shelf life.
Writing code is a great middle ground – you get the immediate feedback of seeing the code running and working with customers to get their feedback, and if you are good AND lucky, the resulting system may be working in the field for a loooooong time.
So, depending on what I’m looking for, it could be any of the three.
What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?
Never sign a seven year lease.
Did you expect the feedback and rate of growth that Relevance has experienced?
No, not at all. When we started, we always said that there would never come a time when we would be bigger than 10 people. Then that became 15. Then 20. Now we’re at 40 (with an alumni network of another 10 or so) and that is just crazy to me. Stuart recently found out that the average size of American companies has been declining recently, and in 2011 passed us going the other direction, which makes us larger than average. Wasn’t expecting to ever be in that position.
Among your clients are Best Buy, AOL, IBM and the BBC. How did you land such large and high profile clients?
Some of them came from personal networks; when you speak as often was we did early in our careers, you meet a lot of really interesting people. Those people often call you up when you least expect it with crazy opportunities.
Some of it was more traditional – an RFP goes out, it ends up on your desk, and you win the bid.
And some if it was just hustle, figuring out if somebody was doing something cool and trying to find a way to get involved.
A lot of our relationships with larger organizations started as training gigs, helping their teams come up to speed on technologies or processes we were using, and that led to working together more broadly once we got to know each other.
Where do you see Relevance in 5 years time?
Bigger, better, faster, stronger, and with a few more products in our family. I think we’ll continue to distill the lessons we’re learning every day into repeatable successes and we’ll have teams all over the U.S. leveraging those lessons to craft awesome software.
Who would you say is your biggest competitor?
Offshoring. As the technologies we favor have become more mainstream, and “agile” has become commoditized, we face continued pressure from offshore providers that offer a similar message at a reduced cost. This makes us continue to evolve what we do, how we do it, and how we package it, which is a good thing.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?
Financial boom-and-bust cycles are pretty hard to deal with. 2008 was especially bad, and we’re seeing continued weakness in the market right now, both because of the financial picture but also, we think, because a lot of people sit tight during election season. Those have been the biggest threats to us historically.
Who helped you get to where you are today?
We’ve had a ton of help along the way. John Glushik, an investor at Intersouth Partners here in Durham, has been a key advisor and crucial sounding board. Neil Bagchi, our lawyer and friend, has been a constant presence since the very early days. Personally, our wives have been an enormous influence and support network. They were the ones who listened to our cockamamie plan to quit our nice jobs and start a company together and said “well, if anybody can do it, you two can.” Without that faith, we’d be nowhere.
When you’re not in the office, where can you be found?
I hang out in the coffee shops and streets of Durham a lot. I’m a huge fan of the “walking meeting”, and I take a lot of calls walking in Durham or in the Duke Gardens. I like to get outside as much as possible. We have nice offices, and I love my teammates, but I love the sunlight and the sky and reminding myself that there is a world outside of Relevance that we’re trying to impact and improve. It is valuable context for the rest of my day.
With your background in start-ups, what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up?
Just do it. Quit worrying about applying to incubators, lining up your seed rounds, doing all the pre-requisites. There are no pre-reqs, this isn’t college. But make sure that what you are going to do is different; have a view-point, have an opinion, make it different so you can make a difference.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
The work we’re doing with tools like Clojure, ClojureScript and Datomic, and our continued work with Ruby, and their intersection with modern infrastructure. We are coming into a world where simple, powerful tools can be combined with infinitely scalable infrastructure to tackle old problems in a new way, but to also let us discover vast new kinds of problems we can start solving. It feels like stumbling on a new ocean to sail.
Can you convince the reader to contact Relevance in under 50 words?
When you come to us, we’re going to simplify the problem you are facing and help you create something new that is going to change lives by making the world a simpler, saner place. If you care, call us. If you don’t, we’re not the right partner.
Finished reading? Check out Relevance!