Interview With Jim den Otter, CTO

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.

Interestingly, although Herman Leusink is the founder of Computronix and led the company its first 34 years, he has been passed up as the longest continually employed member of Computronix by Jim den Otter. Jim started with Computronix in the early 80’s, and has been a fixture at the company ever since. One could hardly publish a series of interviews with Computronix employees and neglect to talk to Jim, so we sat down with him to hear his story, and the story of the company along with it.

In the early days of Computronix, Herman taught programming classes at the office on evenings and weekends, providing a rare opportunity for young people to gain experience with computers prior to attending university. Jim was recruited out of this crop of young programmers. As Jim describes it, “it’s almost like Computronix chose me…it was just a very natural fit.” For many years, he stayed in his initial role, doing contract work on-site for clients. As the company steadily grew, there was a need for more leadership, so Jim’s role changed as well. He is now the Chief Technical Officer, leading research and development, guiding the company’s technical direction and product direction, as well as a wide range of other responsibilities. And he still gets the chance to “write a little snippet of code every now and then that makes its way into our products.”

Perhaps Jim’s most significant, impactful achievement at Computronix was the creation of the POSSE software, our award-winning flagship product, which, “20 years later, is still innovative and being pushed forward all the time.” He was the leader of the team that developed the software, and even did some of the programming himself. While that in itself is more than worthy to be a source of pride, he says that “I’m actually more proud of the impact that the software has had on our customers.” Because of POSSE, clients are doing better business, their staff are better equipped, and thousands of people have been positively impacted.

The impetus for POSSE was, essentially, just a really difficult problem that needed solving. However, what Jim and his team did at that time, and what Computronix continues to do, is “solve classes of problems rather than individual problems.” This means that, instead of building unique solutions for every single issue encountered, we create a solution that can be used for similar issues that come up in the future – solving problems before they even come up!

When talking to Jim about Computronix, there are two subjects that come up over and over again. The first is problem-solving, and it’s obvious that he relishes, and even seeks out, interesting and difficult problems to solve. The second is people. He clearly believes it when he says that “every person is intrinsically valuable.” Each person’s health – physical, mental and spiritual – is important to Jim and the rest of the executive team. He takes issue with the classic idea of “work-life balance,” because sometimes work just isn’t as important as other things that are going on in life, such as in cases of medical issues or family emergencies. Instead, the term that Jim (and others at Computronix) uses is “life balance – because work is just a part of life.”

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

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.

This is Part 2 of an interview series. Please read Part 1 first

For any company to survive for over 35 years, especially in the technology industry, they have to be innovative and do something different then the majority of businesses. That could mean creating an exceptional product, providing excellent service, or simply meeting an essential need. As the long-time leader of Computronix, Herman Leusink was responsible for steering the company, developing those differences that would allow it to endure challenges and continue growing. So what is it that makes us unique? Herman explains it by explaining that the basic business philosophy for most companies is, essentially: “we’re in business to make money. Period. End of story. Whatever helps us make more money, that’s what we’ll do, whatever doesn’t, we won’t. Obviously within the framework of being legal.” He pauses briefly, grinning as he adds “at least for most of them!”

However, the decision-making process at Computronix is guided by what Herman calls a “balanced scorecard,” which is made up of four key factors that are weighed together for every high-level decision. So for any project that is undertaken, the executives consider “the ability to make money (we share that with other companies), a concern for our clients, a concern for our staff, and a desire for innovation.” This means that the jobs we take on and the strategies we employ may not necessarily be chosen because they’re able to make the most money, but perhaps in order to improve a client’s user conditions or to give our staff more practical experience.

Obviously, many of the decisions that the CEO of a company has to make aren’t easy or even widely known. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that many people never see or hear about, including even the employees of the company. In Herman’s case, the entire process of “walking the tightrope between what’s best for the staff, what’s best for the clients, what’s best for the owners” is a big part of the job that most people don’t fully understand, and he says it was always a challenge for him.

He recalled a major project from several years ago where that balancing act became especially difficult, the Winchester project. It brought Computronix’s POSSE product from the client-server model into the web environment, which enabled us to serve our clients better. However, the needs of the project were more demanding than anticipated, and ran over time and over budget. Herman described it as “a juggling act between how much do we spend, how much don’t we spend, and how to do it. Because if we do something richer and better, it might serve the client better, but it’ll take longer and cost more money in the process. So how far do you go?”

But he had full confidence that the Computronix staff were up to the task. When asked what the company’s employees are best at, his response is quick and decisive: “Building software!” He takes a moment before clarifying “well, serving our clients, and initially that was just building software, but now we’re building innovative software solutions, which allow us to partner with our clients.”

It’s interesting how often the conversation returns to either the staff or the clients when talking to Herman about Computronix. He brings up the company’s products and services only in relation to the benefit they had for clients or the effort that the staff put into creating them. When questioned about this, he acts as though it shouldn’t seem unusual at all. “People are critical to the success or failure of a company. It is our people that make us as a company. The fact that people are going to help each other, encourage one another, that we can recognize successes. Those kinds of things are what make Computronix unique.” In fact, he identifies that statement as the single most important thing he’s learned from Computronix.

Herman isn’t shy about the pride he has for the company he built. In over three decades of business success, his achievements are far too numerous to list them all. In naming what he is most proud of, one might expect him to mention that the POSSE software was inducted into the Smithsonian, or the incredibly high rate of client retention, or perhaps just the fact that the company has steadily been profitable and steadily grown.

But after some consideration, Herman answered that “my biggest, most significant accomplishment has been building a healthy organization, where we support each other in both our professional and personal lives. Having a workplace where we focus on doing the interesting stuff, and having fun doing it. And then building a place where people matter.”

As we closed our time together, he continued, “I think you need to have fun in your work. I’ve always tried to create an environment where we could do that – besides doing interesting, challenging things and helping each other, we could actually have fun doing so and feel good about the things that we’ve built.” After taking a long moment to reflect and look out the window of his office to where the sun is setting in the distance, he finished by simply reaffirming, “I’m most proud of that.”