An interview with Jennifer Lawton, CEO and co-founder of Net Daemon Associates
Hats, T-shirts, parties and softball games: What do these elements have to do with computer network consulting? Everything, according to Jennifer Lawton, CEO and co-founder of Net Daemons Associates, Inc. (NDA), a system and network administration provider. After all, these are tangible manifestations of corporate culture -- and these days in high tech, if you don't have a strong corporate culture, you are at a serious disadvantage.
Corporate culture is rapidly joining salary and benefits as an attractive reason for sought-after computer industry recruits to accept positions, and can mean anything from free lunches to flexible hours to weekly parties. For Lawton, however, a thriving culture is more than just a chance to gratify employees; corporate culture and the teamwork it fosters are what holds her business together.
One wouldn't typically expect to see the system and network administration field tied in with the word "team." After all, network administration services are often performed by single employees, isolated departments or independent contractors. A common assumption is, in fact, that people in tech support and I.S. must be pasty-faced geeks who rush from terminal to terminal not speaking with anyone.
The reality of the situation, of course, is that the lone network administrator at your company whom you see rushing from machine to machine with a list of tasks is probably just too busy to chat. That network administrator, either an independent contractor or a full-time employee, could be the only one your company employs to service its entire network, and is probably well on the way to burnout. That's why NDA has endeavored to change the model.
NDA provides outsourced computer networking solutions. "Which means," says Lawton, "that we provide people on-site who support our clients' computer networking needs, including server, desktop and Internet based solutions." Sounds pretty standard, right? Here, Lawton explains, is where they go off the map. "We provide our people not as a single bodies or single minds, but as resources with access to our very broad and deep knowledge base and team of engineers."
There's that "team" word again.
When NDA was founded, the corporate network was gaining new importance, and the Internet was only on the verge of becoming a viable business tool. Lawton and her co-founder, Chris Caldwell, felt that a company like NDA was needed to support the networks of small and medium-sized firms who were using not system administrators but their own engineers to support their networks, or going without support entirely because they lacked resources. Lawton and her co-founder felt that by combining their own expertise, they could provide full coverage on a less than full-time basis. NDA added more comprehensive Internet services in 1993, when The Monster Board hired them to create the entire backend of the original monster.com site.
The team support philosophy the pair created was not an afterthought; rather, it has been a fact of life at NDA since day one. Why did NDA go the team route instead of becoming a contract house? Says Lawton, now 34, "It had always been an important goal of mine that we have an open environment with open communication, where people felt that they could work together, and working together meant that [they] could solve problems quicker instead of beating [their] heads against a wall. I had come from environments where things were just the opposite."
This group-oriented approach, although almost obvious in its simplicity, is a 180-degree turn from industry norms. Most companies hire full-time engineers who are expected to know everything about every operating system and rogue piece of hardware or they bring on independent contractors who work for themselves. Their resumes are often kept with contract houses, and when opportunities arise for work, the contract house "lends" the employees out.
As a result of this unique approach, NDA's 45-plus on-site engineers can draw from resources including a corporate intranet with an archived list of problems and solutions, and buzzing e-mail accounts, to query one another when they run into questions or difficulties while on-site.
Although NDA services clients of all sizes, Lawton says that NDA's typical client "has a computer network of 20 to 100 seats, using NT, UNIX, MacOS or some combination of those, and needs regular ongoing support for computer network and internetworking needs. Our typical [Internet Services] client is someone who has a rapidly growing Web site and needs a technical team to manage the growth of that site."
While clients keep NDA's engineers busy enough, Lawton's goal is to keep the "pasty-faced network engineer" out of the picture by making sure that her people stay connected. "Network engineers [are thought to be] loners who get a problem and work on it until they have a solution," she says. "We like to get people to work together to solve problems, and the only way we can do that is to have a culture where it's OK to get to know each other, solve problems together, and work as a team."
NDA's team-based business model seems to have been successful; since Lawton co-founded NDA in 1992 as a fully-bootstrapped two-person consulting business, the company has grown steadily. NDA currently employs more than 65 people, who work out of its headquarters in Woburn, Mass., and branch offices in California's Bay Area and Boulder, Colorado.
Despite NDA's unique business model, the company is always fighting the hiring crunch. High-tech jobs come and go at what seems like the speed of light, but NDA's biggest hiring challenge rests not in finding qualified people, but in snapping them up before someone else does. One advantage they have in that arena is their growing reputation for not overworking their staff. "Our engineers work 40-hour weeks on average, [they] aren't on call all the time, and all of our clients get the attention they need," says Beard.
Recruiting coordinator Becky Beard asserts that NDA's employment practices benefit both clients and employees. "[NDA's] employees get full-time, salaried work, a great benefits package and a sense of belonging that typical systems administrators and consultants don't usually get," says Beard. "Because our engineers work [at a variety of client sites], there is a variety of projects and technologies to work on, [instead of] being with one company, working full-time with the same old technologies."
Another way that NDA attracts and retains their valued technical workers is by building a culture that employees enjoy. Lawton realizes that culture can be a nebulous concept, and that much care and feeding is required in order to nurture the team feeling. Still, Lawton, known to her employees as "Jenny," wouldn't have it any other way. She goes to great lengths to ensure that her team buys into NDA's corporate culture, because she knows that the rewards of a happy team are great.
Some of NDA's more social culture-building activities, in which Lawton is an avid participant, include annual summer picnics and holiday parties (at which hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the corporate logo often appear), weekly summer softball games, and impromptu social outings. Lawton also does her part from day to day, by keeping her office door open and her office stocked with goofy toys, sending birthday cards to employees, and eating lunch with the in-office staff.
More serious activities include an annual all-company off-site meeting, at which employees and management work together on resolving issues and revising the business plan. Lawton also enforces a schedule of mandatory monthly meetings for each branch office, because these meetings are often the only chance NDA's employees, who are usually off at client sites, get for face-to-face interaction.
In 1998 Lawton was named one of the Improper Bostonian's "Most Wired Bostonians," and this year, she was among Boston Business Journal's "40 Under 40" community, and is currently the Technology officer for the International Chapter of the Young Entrepreneur's Organization (YEO), and the Boston Chapter President. Additionally, she serves on the advisory boards for a number of other entrepreneurial companies. She insists, however, that becoming an entrepreneur and the CEO of a successful company "was all by accident (although my mother would say that I've been planning this since I was five)."
Looking towards the future, Lawton sees NDA's core competencies remaining the same, and predicts that the now separate worlds of the Internet and individual computer networks will mesh with one another. This, she says, "will make NDA an even stronger player. There are just millions of new computer networks being installed on a daily basis and lots of small companies that haven't even started dealing with these issues. We want to grow and continue to provide the quality service that we do, but we're not planning to be anything more than the people you turn to who will support your computer network, because that need will always be there."
NDA was recently ranked among the 50 fastest-growing technology companies in New England for the second year in a row, by Deloitte & Touche LLP and Hale and Dorr LLP. With projected revenues of approximately $6 million for this year, NDA should be able to buy plenty of T-shirts for the team that continues to make this growth possible.
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