Steven Grandchamp is a longtime software executive, with leadership experience at Microsoft, OpenLogic, and MariaDB, among others. Today he is CEO of Vaadin, the company behind the popular, award-winning, open source web application development platform for Java.
I had a chance to chat with Grandchamp about the software business, tech culture, developer passion, succeeding with distributed teams, and Vaadin’s new release.
Matthew Tyson: Thanks for the chance to chat, Steven. You recently took up the CEO post at Vaadin, which has been a leader in Java app development for years. What drew you to the company?
Steven Grandchamp: As a longtime open source champion, it’s pretty simple. I believe open source software has the power to accelerate digital transformation. And Vaadin is doing extraordinary work in enabling faster and better development of Java-based business apps.
The company has a track record of creating critical tools and contributing to the open source community, which are essential to me personally. The appreciation for the culture that open source creates keeps rising — Red Hat’s most recent annual survey found that 82 per cent of IT teams are more likely to work with a vendor who contributes to the open source community.
Developer passion for a project is the best barometer of its utility and potential. Developers love that Vaadin provides components and tools that make it faster and easier to build modern web apps with a great UX.
End-users in the enterprise now expect an intuitive and pleasing user experience, just like they are used to in their personal lives as consumers. I’m excited that we are making it easy for developers to deliver a compelling UX for the Java-based applications powering the enterprise.
Tyson: Vaadin is an internationally distributed team. What are the challenges there, and how do you manage them?
Grandchamp: I think this is the new norm, and like a lot of open source projects, Vaadin has been pretty adept at creating a model that supports remote work. Logistically, it’s always tricky when a call or meeting can’t be distilled into an email or Slack discussion.
We’ve eliminated extraneous meetings, so we don’t run into that too often. When we do, we share the burden — sometimes EMEA folks have to jump on calls at night, and others in the US call in the morning. I think it’s a pretty small price to pay for the disproportionate benefits you get.
Trust your people, let them set asynchronous schedules, and push as much as you can to collaboration tools. And while Slack can get a little crazy, we value smart communication. When a company values and trusts its people, employees don’t feel they have to prove themselves productive via online availability. You let their work speak for itself.
Grandchamp: Anybody committed to serious innovation in software knows it’s rooted in open source, especially at the enterprise level. With the more recent focus on cost savings, I think developers appreciate the value, transparency, and flexibility of not being locked into proprietary tools.
Also, people know what they’re getting with open source at this point in web development. In open source, the competition for the best technical solution results in everyone benefiting from the best innovation. Enterprise teams welcome that collaboration, recognise the benefits, build industry-leading apps, and then contribute to a virtuous cycle.
Tyson: Vaadin has a new release. What are some of the highlights you are excited about?
Grandchamp: Vaadin is at the forefront of empowering developers to build and modernise enterprise apps that users will love. In our recent 2022 customer survey, we were incredibly honoured that our customers told us that they achieved an average of 52 per cent of time savings by building their UI with the Vaadin platform vs. alternative options.
We continue to focus on increasing developer productivity in the upcoming release with a set of kits that make it faster and easier to integrate Java-based apps into your enterprise ecosystem. We are also providing new capabilities that help enterprises migrate Swing applications to the web incrementally.
Tyson: As a business leader who has worked with developers, what is unique about developers and running businesses that depend on them?
Grandchamp: It’s hard to match the unique combination of knowledge and passion that drives most developers. They’re the ones problem-solving, anticipating issues, and creating workarounds. They’re the architects of the future. Not to get hyperbolic, but there’s no way to substitute for developer contributions.
Tyson: How important is culture to software business success? How do you cultivate it?
Grandchamp: Incredibly important. Especially in 2022. Last year, the competition for tech talent was fierce, and many companies learned the hard way that if you’re not intentional about your culture, your talent can quickly find a new workplace that provides something that better meets their culture needs.
Part of that is investing in understanding what developers do, understanding the technologies they use, listening to pain points, and smoothing the day-to-day path so they can do what they do best.
You need to offer flexibility—not just in terms of work/life balance and autonomy, but also maintaining an agile enough environment to account for new tool preferences and process efficiencies as determined by the developers. You also need to make sure to invest in developer growth and up-skilling.
Tyson: Do you have any tips on guiding technology teams for the best performance?
Grandchamp: It’s nothing earth-shattering, but I would say that listening is the first step. With roadmaps and release schedules, managers can easily have tunnel vision that silences feedback. When you create space for development teams to share honestly, you get all kinds of valuable feedback around where unforeseen issues might exist and where time may be wasted (or where more time needs to be spent).
I think that’s why developers are at the heart of so many great businesses. They connect with technology at a different level and are essentially kind of personally vested in its success. Supporting that process with as little interference as possible is critical to that success. And don’t surround yourself with yes folks.
Tyson: What are some major trends in software development you see on the horizon?
Grandchamp: We see the improved UX of enterprise applications as the most significant trend. Organisations need to develop apps that meet employees’ expectations from the applications on their mobile devices that they use in their personal lives. It sounds easy, but it’s hard to do without the right tools.
Tyson: Do you have any general career advice (especially in the midst of an economic downturn)?
Grandchamp: Be a good person to work with and work for. Focus on cooperation, and empower others where you can. Look for an environment where you can thrive, and seek to create one where others do. But know that your workplace isn’t always going to be a dream.
Refocus on seeing negatives as an opportunity to grow and learn. You can learn as much — or more — from terrible circumstances and bosses as you can from good ones. And always be open to feedback. You’ll distill your sense of what’s nonsense and what has a kernel of truth.
Tyson: You’ve worked with many developer tool makers like Microsoft and MariaDB. Did you have any defining experiences you could highlight?
Grandchamp: While Microsoft and MariaDB were very different companies from a business model perspective, there are some incredible similarities.
At Microsoft, I’d say the defining experience was understanding how Microsoft beat IBM in the banking industry when IBM was the clear leader. We were in the “operating system wars,” where OS/2 was the clear favourite. IBM had the mainframe and mid-frame market sewed up, and it was logical that banks would choose OS/2 when it came to developing on the PC platform.
However, Microsoft went hard after the developer community. Microsoft supported developers with tools and resources. It quickly became clear that if you wanted access to a broad variety of applications and developer tools, Microsoft was what you’d use. It was truly an eye-opening experience to see how much influence developers have over technologies used to build business apps.
At MariaDB, it was a bit of a different model with open source really taking hold among developers and enterprises in a much more significant way than during my time at Microsoft. But a common thread was that developers once again led the way.
Developers had the autonomy to choose tech stacks for building applications, rather than having those decisions dictated from the top. Certainly, legacy applications would continue to be supported, but this shift meant developers found easy and convenient ways to get the tools to be productive.
So the defining theme is still quite effective today. Developer-led technologies create massive productivity gains.
Tyson: I notice you studied both computer science and business. How did you ultimately decide to focus on the business aspect? What was it like in the software world at that time?
Grandchamp: I love problem-solving. However, it turns out that I am not that great of a developer! What came naturally to me was solving business challenges. I spent years as a CTO actively working with prospects and customers to ensure that technologies solved critical business problems. Sometimes this meant understanding the technologies, but most of the time, it meant understanding the business challenge.
I’ve had the good fortune to work in many software companies, solving many kinds of problems, but each of those companies had to focus on solving real business pain to be successful.
My first real software company experience was timed very closely with the release of the initial IBM PC, so the software world as we know it today did not yet exist. The large mainframe players dominated the field.
The PC, client-server computing, and the internet evolved the industry beyond our vision in the early days. But software is never done. Business problems change, technology changes, and the demand for software that helps move a business forward remains very strong.