Ruth Zamorano, from OSOCO: “A software development startup needs versatile talent and professionals”
Ruth Zamorano is one of the co-founders of OSOCO and a passionate about technology, fascinated by being part of the revolution brought by the information and knowledge society. After starting her career in Telefónica, when she was 26 she decided to become an entrepreneur and focus on creating new services and applications: to create software by and for the people. She is a Telecommunications Engineer by the Polytechnic University of Madrid and has an Executive MBA from the IESE Business School.
QUESTION: What are the three main requirements for a professional to start a software company?
ANSWER: It is important to have a good product, or to have customers, even if they are just potential, and of course good quantities of talent and entrepreneurship. Speaking of software companies, two different types come to my mind: basically those who are service-oriented and those offering one or more products. Obviously, in the latter, the product is very important; while for the service-oriented companies it is important to identify the potential customers and what are we going to offer them to differentiate ourselves from other competitors, i.e. specific technologies, methodologies, delivery times, costs, etc.
However, I believe that in both cases talent is the most important factor. Talent is a necessary requirement to achieve the other two. A good product needs talent behind its design and implementation. You can get your first customers through prior contacts, networking... but if there is no talent in what you offer, it will be difficult to keep them in the long term.
Talent is a buzz word, and it is easy to misunderstand its meaning. According to the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) dictionary, its first two meanings are intelligence –i.e. the ability to understand– and the ability or capacity to perform or exercise an occupation. Indeed it is very important to be able to understand what your customer needs, because a common mistake is to develop something that can be technically brilliant but does not fulfill any of the client’s requirements, so if will surely fail. Ability is also essential, because regardless of the strategic positioning of the company, you must be able to manage many variables to build a product or provide a service satisfactorily.
Q: What steps and tips would you recommend to any entrepreneur who wants to launch a software development startup?
A: First of all, ask yourself why do you want to launch a startup? Along the way –especially in difficult times, and you will go through them almost inevitably– you will face that question, and it is important to have a clear answer to respond quickly and keep on fighting relentlessly.
It is also important to imagine future scenarios, and even to be a little pessimistic. It is said that “paper can hold anything”, and yes, actually when you show the numbers for your idea’s business plan surely they seem to add up… but what if the break even point comes a year later than planned, or even two years? What you now think may not happen is likely to happen, so it is good to have a contingency plan. How will I get more funding in these cases? Can I personally assume the extra cost?...
Who are you going to start the adventure with? Are you starting alone or with others? In the second case it is important to take some time to prepare a good partners agreement. It is also important to have well established the responsibilities of each member to avoid duplicating efforts and be efficient in decision-making.
Finally, I think it is also important not to forget the implications in your personal life and evaluate the possible impact. Let’s face it, in the end, to make things work, especially in the startup phase, a lot of involvement is required, a lot of dedication, and unfortunately time is finite, so surely you'll end up stealing it from your family and friends. In the case of the family, it is essential to have their unconditional support.
I may have gotten a little pessimistic, but experience shows me that reality is often like this. Starting your own business is an exciting challenge, but also a difficult and demanding one that will steal you many hours and will cause many worries. I have just been a mom for the second time, and relatively speaking, entrepreneurship is like parenting: almost everyone complains about not sleeping at night, having more concerns and less time for your hobbies and friends… but at the same time you think that all these sacrifices are more than compensated.
Q: What areas, sectors or industries are currently the most powerful in software development? Which ones are concentrating the largest investment?
A: This is a tricky question. However, it is true that this sector is very changeable and it moves at a frantic pace. You can be today an early adopter and tomorrow be outdated; hence, it is crucial to have the right vision to anticipate future needs and be able to adapt to changes rapidly. You have to keep all kinds of trends and technologies on the radar and evaluate them, even in small pilot projects (pet projects), to be able to guess where to move or anticipate “the next big thing”.
In our industry, professionals must be continuously learning or we are obsolete, and the same goes for our companies. The collective knowledge of a software company is its most valuable asset, and as such it must be taken care of, and time and money have to be invested for its improvement and growth.
But back to your question, I can tell you a list of buzz words that you may hear a lot: Big Data, wearable devices, virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things... However, on the other hand, there are some sectors that may not be so innovative, but from my point of view they still have to be fully exploited, and therefore many opportunities may arise related to them. One of them can be cybersecurity. It is an old concept, but is a subject that is increasingly beginning to worry all sorts of technology users, not only large corporations as until now. The end user is still very vulnerable and is not aware of all the dangers out there.
Q: What profiles are needed when starting a software company? What skills should they have?
A: Obviously, technical profiles are very important, but there are other profiles that are fundamental and can initially be underestimated. Everything related to the user experience (UX) is important. Those of us with a technical background can be a bit rigid sometimes, and we tend to forget how important it is that something is beautiful, attractive and, above all, easy to use. I also believe that today it is important to have devops profiles, i.e. developers who are not scared about systems.
Overall I think that profiles have to be versatile, or to say it with a fashionable term: full stack developers. That doesn’t mean that specialization isn’t good, but I also believe that, especially when you are starting, it is essential to have that flexibility. I remember that early in my career there were many more categories, and there were profiles such as analysts, architects, database and systems administrators, graphic designers, layout designers, frontend programmers, illustrators... Today, at least in OSOCO, we all do almost everything.
Depending on the company, especially if it is oriented to products, it is also very important to have people specialized in digital marketing.
Regarding the skills, I would like to mention the Agile methodology. I remember that when we started with the company (11 years ago), Agile was just beginning to become a trend. Today, in my opinion, it is a must. Therefore, it is essential to have people able to work in teams, communicate effectively, and organize themselves.
Finally, and even as I have already mentioned our industry is subject to the constant ups and downs of tech trends, there is also a body of knowledge in software engineering based on principles and best practices much more stable and universal, which are valid regardless of the technology or concrete framework with which we are going to work at a given time. Therefore, these are the skills we should look for in a good developer.
You have to keep in mind that there is a big difference in productivity (some say a 10x factor) between good and mediocre developers. Hence, it is key to build a team of excellent developers, which logically have to be paid accordingly.
Q: How does the typical structure of a startup dedicated to software look like?
A: I believe that hierarchical structures do not fit in this kind of business today. As I mentioned in the previous question, before there were many more profile categories, there were juniors, seniors, project managers...
In OSOCO we are all software engineers; some have more experience than others, and this is reflected in the level of demand and the remuneration, but we don’t classify or organize the team according to a hierarchical chart. Teams are created depending on the projects and, as I said, we try to be involved periodically in all sorts of tasks and to work with all the members of the company. This is the best way to learn and to spread knowledge among all the team members.
Q: What are the main hurdles for companies looking for suitable profiles? Is there a good training in Spain of high-level technical profiles?
A: I suppose it happens in all sectors, but for me the most difficult part is the selection process, i.e. to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are many people, and very good, but sometimes it is very difficult to find the right candidates among such a big offer. Furthermore, although there are many recruitment companies, it is not easy to find one that can do that job for you and does it well. Not to mention that a startup can’t always afford that extra cost in the hiring process.
Forming a good team is essential for a startup. If you have a good team, you have a lot of work done in advance. But a good team are not only good professionals… they are good professionals who can work well in your team.
Today it is very important to create your personal brand. There is good training, but it is vital to keep continuously updated, lifelong learning. Your work is your best curriculum, and today it is very easy to track that kind of information.
Q: What type of projects has or may have a company like yours?
A: A type of customers we have and with whom we really enjoy working are precisely startups. Personally, I like these projects very much because they are always a challenge, as you see their birth and help them during their first steps, which can take two or three years. Now that I have the theme of motherhood so present, I would say that we are a sort of midwife or doula for startups.
We are passionate about turning ideas into real projects. This is not just a technical work. We also assist and accompany the customer in defining their product or service, and describing and implementing the best plan to carry it out.
We also develop other projects that are not for startups. Even in these cases, we always look for a technological challenge that makes us go a step further as a company.
Q: Do projects in a company like yours require less technical and more editorial profiles, or of any other kind?
A: Yes. In OSOCO we usually try to develop our projects from beginning to end, because we believe that if it goes through too many hands many times the cost increases unnecessarily, without being necessarily reflected in an increase in value. However we have external professionals with whom we collaborate for those profiles that we don’t have in-house and that may be required, such as translators, illustrators, photo or video technicians, etc.
Q: Within software development, would you recommend startups to follow some kind of specialization, or is it much more attractive to find customers from different sectors and with radically different requests?
A: This is a strategic decision of each company, and it depends on many factors. If you're small, either by necessity or by choice as in our case, I think it is better to be specialized. You have to be focused and be good at what you do. In fact, being good is not enough… you must try to be the best. That should be your goal.
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