Joseph Gallivan Monday, November 12, 2018 - Portland Business Tribune
Around Hawthorne and 12th a tired old warehouse has been transformed into a software powerhouse. It's a place where 100 of AltSource's 120 staff can drink the kombucha together and get stuff done. The building is been dramatically remodeled in laid back tech hub style typical of Portland. It has a roof deck and penthouse level office with floor to ceiling windows, bike rooms and showers for commuters.
AltSource bills itself as "one of the fastest growing custom software development companies in the U.S." They make software you'll never see for companies you've never heard of. But they do it well enough that they're trying to hire 30 more people to add to their 120.
The business these days is called digital transformation.
According to a June 2018 report from IDC, "Worldwide spending on digital transformation will soar past $1 trillion in 2018, led by the manufacturing industries."
Dave Moore, president and founder of AltSource, explained the need for custom software to the Business Tribune. Many companies don't just buy software off the shelf and run with it, but tailor it to their needs or have something made new from scratch.
"We do general business software, no missile systems yet," jokes Moore.
One commission AltSource had was for a plant nursery. The software helped them with inventory and field mapping, and included intelligence such as suggesting when to fell a certain tree for a client.
"There's a ton of software out there. We bring their software into the world."
The nursery had an inventory, but it was not useful enough. "They needed a big feedback system, something that says, 'Those trees are late...' You're facilitating the data collection and doing some predictive thinking."
Another AltSource customer is Consumer Cellular of Tigard. They needed software that could do billing, call center management, inventory, and be able to ship telephone handsets. "They wanted the sales rep to sound like an expert, not always transferring the phone." So, they built an integrated system.
Moore says it usually takes two or three software developers, working with project managers and salespeople, to get the software made.
"Our goal is to only build what they want." They use the Agile method, building stuff that works well and adding features as they go. "We get our best feedback when they start to use it. We think of our projects as long-term relationships."
He remembers his first programming was in something called Fox Plus.
"I was in college. It was a pest exterminator in Northwest Portland. They wanted system maintenance, it ran on Wyse terminals and these pseudo-mainframe PCs running UNIX."
He still sees text-based systems in use today and revamping them is just one of the overhauls his company does. They did it for Hi-School Pharmacy of Vancouver, building for them a system that runs everywhere from retail stores to the warehouse. The pharmacy chain didn't just switch over one day, they did a bit at a time. "We look for parts of the system to get incremental adoption, and run them side by side."
Moore says much of what they do is build software that moves data from old systems to new.
"We don't have to cut over and roll back," meaning to try something and then go back to the old format when it fails.
Software these days is an ongoing project. It always needs updating. If that sounds like the customer is always on the hook for the next bill, he disagrees. AltSource still has to do it at lower cost than the alternative.
Sometimes they start out making a web-based app for two or three users, but when 10 people need to use it, they turn it into a native mobile app.
For a tugboat company near Seattle, they made software that could synch between boats and to the command on shore.
"You have people on a single tug doing difference exercises: training, or inspection...they want their devices to work together. Someone can say 'You said you didn't do this, but it shows you did.'" If this sounds like the world of system integration that has been around since the days of Dilbert, it is, only a lot faster and more intuitive. Bureacracy is the enemy.
Staff at AltSource use most of the common languages such as .Net and java, and what he calls "the middle-layer technologies." He namechecks some others like Flutter by Google. Basically, Moore knows or knows of them all, and his staff — who are experienced — are expected to keep up on them. Big companies hire AltSource because their own computer experts don't have time to keep up with the changing technology.
"I feel we have to claw our way to get in front of the business people, to get the best feedback about what we should be building." Often the customer goes to the business analyst, but Moore thinks his code writers should be in those meetings." For the last five years we've been working hard to make sure technical people are in the conversation, making sure we're solving for the right problems."
Read the full article at the Portland Business Tribune.