Interview with Herman Leusink, Founder (Part 1)

For our Computronix employee interviews, we sit down with people from all levels of our company and ask them about their jobs, and what it’s like working for Computronix.

Just before his interview, Herman Leusink was in the main kitchen of the Computronix offices, working on a puzzle. He slotted a couple pieces of a butterfly’s wing into place, adding to the forest scene, then led the way down the hall to his corner office, located directly below the “CX Place” sign which hangs on the outside of the building. His office isn’t what you might expect from the retired founder of a software company. Mementos of trips to Malaysia and Rwanda decorate his coffee table. He sits on the small couch behind it, two photos of mountain landscapes hanging on the wall above his head.

The story of this office, of this company, is very closely tied to the story of Herman himself. We sat down with him to discover what those stories are, how he would tell them. We wanted to learn how Computronix has grown and evolved from just one employee (Herman) in 1979, to over 150 today. How the environment of respecting, trusting and serving each other and our clients came to be, and how it was put into practice over the years.

There has sometimes been a tendency to wax poetic about Computronix’s beginnings, painting it as a grand experiment, an inspired break from traditional corporate practices. While Herman certainly wanted to be consciously different in how he ran the company, his original inspiration behind Computronix wasn’t quite so elegant. Rather than a planned, strategic action, it was guided largely by “opportunity!” Herman says with a chuckle. “A friend of mine introduced me to a fellow, a developer who had a company here in Edmonton, and he said ‘Look, I only use my computer about four hours a week, why don’t we start a company together?’”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that respecting, trusting and serving individuals wasn’t important, even at the start. As he’ll tell you, the company’s goals have always been “to serve clients really well,” to which he adds “and to have fun doing so!” Fun may seem like a strange, difficult goal for a software company, but Herman’s model was simple: “I enjoyed programming, I enjoyed designing and building software, and I hired people who were like me, who enjoyed that too. That worked really, really well.”

So the core values have remained the same. But throughout the lifespan of any business, there are transitions that happen when faced with new challenges and opportunities. Challenges are “innate in having a business,” is Herman’s firm assertion. “You can’t help but have challenges, [running a business is] difficult. Which is why most companies fail in the first five years.” For Computronix to survive 35 years, it has had to overcome countless difficulties, ranging from financial stress to project management to “staying current in the rapidly evolving [technology] industry.”

Herman laughs as he explains how quickly technology changes: “I have a computing science degree and a lot of experience. And I sit in on what the guys are doing now, saying, ‘We’ll do it this way or that way,’ and I’m thinking ‘That sounds really interesting. I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ These days, I couldn’t program my way out of a wet paper bag!”

It’s been necessary for Computronix to adapt to “repeated change in basic core technology, mastering each new technology and using it to continue serving our clients.” Thinking back, Herman lists the many different programming languages that have been used over the course of his career: “Assembler and COBOL, and some Fortran. Then came PowerHouse, with Quick, Quiz, and QTP as some components, and then came PowerBuilder. And now we’re in C#, and Python, and Oracle.”

Beyond just the technology that we use, even the simple foundation of what we do has changed. In the beginning, the company was essentially a service provider, tackling individual problems from a wide variety of clients. That was the business model for almost 20 years, until a particularly unique client problem required the company to branch out. “In the late 90s, we created a product, known as POSSE, and now we’re basically a product company that still does lots of services – but with our own product,” Herman explains.

Asking about the early days of the company brings a smile and a look of reminiscence to his face, as though he’s flipping through a slideshow of hundreds of possible stories before settling on one. “When we were about three or four years old as a company, a friend of mine called me up and said ‘Herman, Syncrude Canada has a problem.’ We ended up being contracted to build a loss reporting system, so that anytime that something happens – for instance, somebody drops a hammer and it hits somebody on the head and the guy ends up in the hospital – all of it gets recorded, and then they analyze it to spot patterns.

So we built a system for them. I designed it and did much of the building, and we put it into production in about a year. And then about two months later they had a [Worker’s Compensation Board] audit, and they had better information than the WCB had!” He chuckles at that for a moment before adding a final comment. “As a result, their WCB premiums were reduced by so much that it more than made up for the cost of the project.”

Continue reading Herman’s interview in Part 2