Want to Run a Successful Firm? Treat Your People Well

Andy Youniss, co-founder and CEO of Rocket Software, tells a Tufts audience that his company’s long-term growth has its roots in a humanist outlook

Andy Youniss standing speaking in front of a slide projection. Youniss, founder and CEO of Rocket Software, says his company’s long-term growth has its roots in a humanist outlook.

Andy Youniss knows that founders of high-tech startups often imagine success as a “great idea that hopefully Google or Facebook wants to buy for a few billion dollars.”

But there’s a very different definition of success that Youniss has cultivated as founder, president, and CEO of Rocket Software. It’s rooted in a vision that he’s deployed to build a long-lasting company, one that has thrived over three decades, and that he expects to flourish “well into the future.”

It is a long view built on hard work, of course, and nimble responsiveness to the fast-moving demands of the tech world. But the bedrock of that foundation is a humanist outlook derived from four values: empathy, humanity, trust, and love.

These values are braided into the Rocket culture, Youniss said. They don’t exist as words on a PowerPoint, but define relationships with employees, customers, and partners. “We talk about empathy and humanity and trust and love all the time,” said Youniss, “. . . because that’s what really makes Rocket work every day.”

Youniss brought that message to Tufts when he delivered the Dean’s Lecture on October 24 at the School of Engineering. Candidly sharing the challenges, ambitions, and philosophy of the company, he chronicled the company’s growth from its humble beginnings—he started it writing code in his bedroom in 1990—to a global company now with some 1,5000 employees.

On the face of things, Rocket Software’s story is about understanding a massive market opportunity. The company bridges legacy systems to the modern world of mobile devices and iPads and even security scanners at Heathrow Airport—“it’s software,” said Youniss, “that runs the world.”

But Youniss impressed upon students that values are central to the firm’s upward trajectory. Empathy, he said, plays a big part in “truly understanding when a customer calls us and is unhappy,” he said. “Until you really have empathy, I don’t know how you can be in the customer service delivery business, you just can’t do it,” he said. 

Humanity has its pivotal place as well, though he granted that in the world of private equity, it’s too often “all about how much are you investing and how much return are you going to get on investment,” he said. But “how can you live in that world unless you treat people with humanity, and truly care about them?”

Trust and love are also indispensable to reaching the company’s fullest potential. “How do you deliver software in this world where every other day you’re reading about a cybersecurity hack,” he asked. “How do you live in that world and truly be a trusted supplier? How do you do that all [except by] truly loving each other, loving what you do, loving the people you serve, loving the communities that you live in.”

Rocket Software, he granted, is not what many people expect from a high-tech company. But he and his co-founder always had a sense that technology had to pay attention to, and respect, people to truly flourish and to better the world. From the start, he said, the company founders and staff agreed that “we’re going to go talk to customers, we’re going to find out what they want. We’re going to be good listeners. We’re going to then build what they need. And we’re going to do engineering well, and while we do that, we’re going to treat each other well.”

And that treating each other well was especially focused on the engineers.

Before he started Rocket Software, Youniss worked at several companies where the employees treated best were in sales. “I always thought that was a little bit backwards, because sales people couldn’t be successful unless we, the engineers, built good software for them to sell. So when Rocket started, I said, ‘We’re going to treat everybody well, including the engineers.’”

The “formula for success” would also evolve to include music. A guitarist and pianist who once considered becoming a professional musician, Youniss has long been intrigued by the links between music, software engineering, entrepreneurship, and business.

As he started meeting customers and working with partners, “music started to creep into the company” culture through conversations that affirmed music is indeed a universal language. That interest gave him the “courage to not only talk about music, but actually become a CEO who has no problem getting up and jamming with our customers and partners,” he said. “Technology is interesting, but that human element is really what makes it all work.”

It was in the company’s third decade, or “chapter three,” that Rocket community musicians mustered “the courage to become a band, go on stage and perform in front of people,” he said. “Today we have over 100 people in the Rocket band, from all over the company’s landscape, every single office all over the world.” Rocketeers making music together have become “a metaphor for the whole company.”

Looking ahead, Youniss is optimistic. The company runs a large summer internship program for college students, aptly called “Rocketships,” to support talented young people who may well become the next generation of Rocketeers. At the same time, new private equity investments have set the stage for robust growth into the company’s fourth decade. “That’s our strategic directive,” he said.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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