Pillar Technology specializes in technologies that are going to be prevalent tomorrow. It helps build them today — things like autonomous vehicles, smart grids, artificial intelligence, drones and more.
“We’re doing Silicon Valley level work out of Columbus, Ohio,” says CEO Bob Myers. That includes building the operating system for Smart Columbus.
But the business and IT consulting firm, which generates more than $50 million in annual revenue, not only helps companies get new products into the marketplace, it also helps businesses transform into contemporary digital companies. For example, the six-time Inc. 5000 winner helped Cardinal Health create its incubator, Fuse.
By thin slicing the organization and taking a portion out of the corporate environment, you build a creative environment, Myers says. Once one part of the organization changes and everyone sees the results, it builds momentum. You can start flipping the organization, piece by piece, until it’s firmly in the 21st century.
However, Pillar often cannot discuss what it’s creating because of the proprietary nature of it. Myers says they code their projects and don’t even use the name of the company, like Pillar’s work for a very large automotive company, which it calls “panther.”
In August, Accenture, a $35 billion global professional services company, acquired Pillar. After the acquisition, Myers will continue to be responsible for Pillar’s business and also will lead Accenture Industry X.0’s smart products and embedded solutions practice.
‘Don’t try to boil the ocean’
Myers’ model has been to set up offices, under Pillar’s forge concept, in the Midwest for the 300-plus employees. However, the company also has an office in Palo Alto, California, two blocks from Stanford University.
“We call that a listening post,” he says. “What we do is we’re basically tapped in to what’s happening in the Valley, but we actually pull the work into the Midwest, and do it out of Iowa, or we do it out of Ann Arbor (Michigan) or Ohio.”
It’s not uncommon for Pillar to be hired to help with a piece of software that a company has been working on for years. Pillar gets it working, in some form, in a month or a quarter, because it only builds the features that are needed to solve the problem. Once it’s on the market, it tackles the next problem.
“When we release something, it does something completely and hopefully, very effectively,” Myers says. “We don’t try to boil the ocean.”
Pillar also follows an agile business model where its employees work in pairs. Two people solving the same problem at the same time doesn’t slow things down because they write tests first before writing the full software code, he says.
“We actually get 30 to 40 percent more productivity because you’re not making mistakes and you’re cutting down the learning curve,” Myers says.
Change your mindset
When customers see the results, often they want to learn how to do it themselves. But Myers says it can be challenging to get traditional companies to think differently.
“They have a lot of bureaucracy, and a lot of things that prohibit them from being innovative,” he says. “And they know that it’s prohibiting them from being innovative, but it takes leadership to try to move the organization in a different direction.”
Large companies also can be risk adverse. They became efficient companies by knocking down variation, and streamlining and processing.
“Innovation, as a general rule of thumb, is a variation. So, they tend to knock down the thing that can actually help them surge the company forward,” Myers says.
While nearly all organizations have innovation centers, it’s critical to start with no-constraints thinking, Myers says. When someone throws out an idea, don’t immediately say, “We tried that a year ago and it didn’t work” or “Where do we get the budget?” If you shut down the idea flow, you shut down creativity.
“It doesn’t mean that there’s no constraints. Just don’t start there,” he says. “That’s the seed for getting your organization to be more creative.”
But it takes a strong leader to open up the dialog, Myers says. You might hear things you don’t want to.
Strong leadership isn’t a problem for Myers, whose passion is easy to hear.
“It’s been super exciting. We’re doing some really, really cool stuff, and we’re doing it in the Midwest,” he says.
Pillar started more than 20 years ago. While the company has changed a lot, adding new services, and will continue to do so under its new ownership, Myers says the core message remains the same.
“We have this thing called speed to value, and then ideas to reality,” he says. “We commonly remind our customers that ideas are easy, reality is hard, so let’s get busy building something.”