An Interview with Founder and CEO Ben Wilson by the Pittsburgh Tech Council
In February 2017, Ben Wilson was interviewed by Audrey Russo and Jonathan Kersting on TechVibe Radio 1020 KDKA. Below are excerpts from that question and answer session which define the Rivers Agile service offerings.
Audrey: So talk about Rivers Agile.
Ben: Sure, let’s dive in. I started this company in 2008 purely as a QA consultancy.
Jonathan: And what’s QA? Tell everyone what QA is.
Ben: Quality assurance, specifically software quality assurance, is often a problem within an organization because the investment typically comes after software development. You have to have built something in order to test it. So often times you wind up with either sub-par QA resources or someone essentially who is just receiving the builds and making the best they can with the time that’s left. Instead of having this proactive, ‘hey I’m going to take a look at your requirements and make sure they’re even testable.’
Audrey: So you started with that. Like hey we’re the people that can help you with QA.
Ben: Right, so if you look at what a proactive QA resource can do, you’re really talking about efficiencies gained throughout the SDLC. So improving time to market and reducing defects to get out into production, which we all know can be extremely costly.
Audrey: Which happens a lot. And actually we have a culture of expecting that stuff to happen. Don’t you agree, there’s this pervasiveness in the software industry?
Ben: Yes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can put your best foot forward with each release by just implementing some simple tweaks. So we started by coming in and doing some QA assessments. For two to four weeks we basically join your team and start to track some key metrics. That usually identifies a small list of things we can do to reverse that reactionary mode into one that’s proactive.
Audrey: So this is pre-release?
Ben: That’s right, basically the further down the line you get within the SDLC, the closer to the release, the more costly it is to fix it.
Jonathan: Find bugs early.
Ben: Find the bugs early and save money.
Jonathan: Exactly right.
Audrey: So you started that way, but that’s not how you are today.
Ben: No, in 2014 we started to do custom software development.
Jonathan: How did you make that switch over? You’re finding bugs in the software, so you know how to build it if you know how to find the bugs in it?
Ben: I was brought in to do an assessment on a current project that wasn’t going well. They were asking, ‘what was going wrong with my investment.’ And by asking some pointed questions about what they’re doing, their unit testing and quality assurance, and how their release process went, we were able to uncover that the vendor that they had selected really just wasn’t big enough to handle it. It was a pretty large project; so we ended up taking it on and building a team around that. So now that we’re starting to do custom software development, that proved to be a really big rocket for the company and we really started to build a culture.
Jonathan: You’ve got a cool culture – I was at your offices a few weeks ago in Canonsburg. You walk in there and the Star Wars stuff is there, you got the darkened room, the guys are coding; it just seems like a fun place to work.
Ben: We’re a company that believes in engineering excellence. But if you build a company without taking the typical corporate approach, just break down those walls, and get great engineers, you’ll build a company from that.
Audrey: So what does that mean, to break down the walls?
Ben: A lot of times in a more corporate environment, in tech, you are basically a service provider and you’re not really given a chance to express what your best practice is or provide guidance. Maybe you see a problem coming down the line four months from now but essentially you have no leeway to affect anything. Where at Rivers you’re given a voice and we expect you to use it. Really powerful things happen – we have a den area that we’ve designed for the company and when we get together, we have front end devs, back end devs, UX folks, QA, everyone together – it makes a powerful brainstorming session or white boarding session.
Audrey: So you grew from QA to include software development. And then your company really starts to take off again.
Ben: Right so the name gets bigger. If you always deliver, people come back to you. And that’s how we measure success – by having repeat business. Anyone can convince someone, one time.
Jonathan: They know you’re a trusted partner at that time.
Audrey: So people are listening, why would they call you right now?
Ben: So right now we have a number of different offerings. We still have the QA consulting, that’s very much alive within our organization… But we’ve actually translated that into our custom software development by offering a 12-month warranty on anything we do for you. That gives people a reassurance.
Jonathan: Your QA is that good – you know it’s going to be a flawless design.
Ben: We will miss something eventually, it does happen. Our promise to you is, we’ll fix it for free.
Jonathan: Exactly right. Now you’ve also taken that QA stuff – and offered it as a service. This is very unique in the marketplace to actually say, ‘we can provide QA as a service to somebody.’
Ben: Right so, we just launched quality assurance as a service, and to explain what that really… we come into an organization to understand what systems simply cannot be down, your mission critical items. If you were at a law firm, your document management system simply cannot be down right before you go into litigation. So what we do is we come in and automate some test scripts for things that must be working every day, we run those every night, and we provide insight to you in the morning about what exactly might be wrong today.
Audrey: How do you keep your culture? Cause it’s really not just about your decorations and your gaming.
Jonathan: But empowering people as you said before and them having a voice, that’s the culture, and as you add more people to that it becomes more complicated. It’s gotta be tough to maintain that culture.
Ben: Well, not if you have the right people. A common phrase that I use within the office is having the right foundational people, ones that we can build off of, ones that understand what good engineering can yield, and what over-delivering actually means.