As part of a series on “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Morris.
Mike Morris is the CEO of Topcoder (the world’s largest technology network and on-demand digital talent platform with a global community of 1.5M+ design, development and data science experts) and Global Head of Crowdsourcing for IT-services leader Wipro. Second only to his commitment to family — and perhaps waterskiing — Mike has served in leadership roles at Topcoder since 2002. A gig economy expert, he speaks worldwide about cultivating a passionate workforce to drive the transformative nature of digital innovation across every industry imaginable.
Previously a GM|SVP at Appirio, Mike led its crowdsource offering (Cloudspokes) through the acquisition of Topcoder, and then managed customer, sales and services teams to solidify the Topcoder brand as the largest open workforce provider in the world. He was an integral part of Topcoder becoming a Wipro company through the acquisition of Appirio in 2016.
An active Boston College alumnus; guest lecturer at institutions like Harvard University, MIT, New York University and University of California Berkeley; and an engineer at heart, Mike continues to lead the open workforce revolution by empowering organizations with limitless software development possibilities and unprecedented access to Topcoder’s talented multinational technologists.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in the Boston area and come from a large family — the youngest of seven children. An avid athlete, I’ve played sports all my life — hockey, lacrosse and competitive water skiing are my passions. I developed an interest in physics and computers at an early age: my oldest brother, who was like a mentor, always said I should be “thinking about computers,” and that has always remained in the back of my mind. At Boston College, I majored in physics, at first, but that same brother convinced me to switch to computer science.
During my senior year at BC, I worked at a software company called Marcam Solutions and stayed on after graduation in 1997. I then moved into technical consulting at Tallan and quickly advanced. Quick lesson learned here — solidify your learning and application foundation, and keep them up as you climb the ladder. Another piece of advice from my brother still chirps in my ear today: don’t stop being technical as you learn management skills; mastering that combination enables you to move forward. My path from developer to vice president was swift because I stayed technical and current, while learning how to collaborate on teams and be a good manager.
My next major career shift happened in 2001 when I left Tallan. At the time, I thought I wanted to grow or start a biotech company. I connected with the chairman and founder of Tallan, who was busy with an idea for what would later become Topcoder. The concept was that the Internet completely flattens the world — if you want to get access to good tech talent, there’s no need for them to be in the same room, and that talent can be accessed more easily with a marketplace approach. Initially, I saw Topcoder as an enabler. I thought that if we got this off the ground, then I could use that to build the biotech company. Little did I know that once I got into Topcoder, I would get completely hooked into that business model.
Decades years later, Topcoder is still thriving on the concept of bringing innovative projects from global brands to the best tech talent in the world, no matter where they are, to advance innovation. This concept couldn’t be more needed or relevant to the future of work, especially during a pandemic.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
During one of my first software design assignments, my client (Bob) came to the office for a demo.This was my first demo and I was nervous. He was standing over me, watching, as I logged into the system. As I logged in and typed his name, nothing happened. I retyped it and hit enter, repeating that process again and again — still, nothing. I hadn’t realized I was duplicating the “o” in Bob until someone pointed out that not only was I making an error, but what Bob actually spells with a double “o.”
The lesson I learned was to find ways to relax and focus during important professional moments. To this day, I have rituals I use before any public speaking because I still get nervous. I turn off my phone about 15 minutes before the engagement, have a cup of tea and breathe deeply. If I do this, I’m fine. Everyone gets nervous and it’s natural. The key is to know yourself and know how to keep yourself calm.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a book that has always, and continues to, be a guide throughout my career. Its basic principles on how to get the most from yourself and your interactions with others are invaluable.
The key takeaway for me is that success is about alignment, which is something that people often don’t spend enough time making sure they have. The core concept is that one should ensure that any situation is a win-win situation for both you and the person you’re interacting with — whether that’s a colleague, customer, friend or even family member. If you find that win-win it means you’re aligned. If you’re looking at it just from your own perspective, you’re probably missing something.
I first read the book to be a better manager. Then, to learn how to work more effectively with customers. Now, I read it to get advice on how to lead an organization and make its principles part of the culture of Topcoder.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision was to build a place (on the Internet) where the world’s best tech talent wanted to come and spend time, learn and benefit in a multitude of ways. Topcoder has always set out to be more than just a place to work, but to create a passionate community bound by shared interests. Our viewpoint was that if we could create this experience, then we could also build a business on top of it.
This purpose evolved into a community and that’s a prime example of what is largely called the “passion economy” today. It’s a pretty simple concept — give people work they love to do and perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise been able to access. Make someone’s hobby and their work the same thing. This is what we try to do at Topcoder. For our 1.6 million community members working remotely around the world (190+ countries), it’s about giving them that option for self selection, where they choose what they want to work on, and then work on it, as time allows in their lives.
We created and built Topcoder as a place where we can give the talent good work opportunities. It’s not the other way around, where we find customers we can connect with the talent. Our approach is the best way to make Tocoder purpose-driven. By providing amazing work opportunities to our community, we’ve been able to build a business and make money (and our talent makes money, too).
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My guiding principle is that trends don’t lie. Pay attention to the data and watch out for false positives. When you’re running a business, there are two parts of a leader that are needed — the brain and the heart. The latter is where the passion comes in. The brain is needed to keep the passion piece in check, especially when you’re doing something new. You will fail so many times and that’s ok, but you also need to realize that when you’ve failed it’s time to rethink something being done.
Entrepreneurs often get “false positives” — a blip of something encouraging after you keep trying something and then it doesn’t work many more times after that. For example, you are trying to bring something to market, but it’s not growing in the trajectory you expect. You have one good quarter, then sales go back down. Look at the data and figure out why. In many cases, the brain will be in contradiction with the heart and people will keep chasing this false positive, settling on something instead of having the courage to start over. It’s hard to revamp a process and start again, but being transformative is an essential quality of a good leader.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
At the beginning of the pandemic, it was challenging for my family to socially distance. At first, our four kids thought it was like a snow day, they just wanted to go out and play with their friends. So my wife and I decided to take bolder steps to isolate our family. We rented an RV, packed up the kids and dogs and hit the road. For three weeks, we traveled up and down the East Coast, from Pennsylvania to the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Maryland and countless drive through states in between. It was quickly evident to the children that this wasn’t a vacation. My wife and I both worked remotely, they did virtual school, we were strategic in our location selections based on multiple outbreak data sources and we lived off of whatever we had left the house with. Certainly, we hiked, biked and experienced numerous landscapes that taught different lessons than what academics lend. For our family, removing ourselves from the initial quarantine experience enabled for an easier transition into social isolation.
Once we arrived home, our team was in a good remote work flow, although “office hours” seemed to never end. We stay committed to honoring family time and traditions — dinner together, movie/game nights, activities/sports — and be sure to log off of everything at a certain point in the day.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
While this time is novel, this way of working for Topcoder is not. Topcoder has always been a virtual/remote/work from anywhere company. Right now, however, I find there are no barriers to the continuous work day — I used to travel a lot, but that time is now additional work time. Productivity has sped up and increased, which is good and bad. Life balance is still important.
Time management is especially difficult, as is meeting management. For example, if meeting objectives have been met in less time, end the meeting — no need to fill the allotted time just to fill it. I block out certain windows on my calendar, so I have a chance to think and work. Topcoder can empower people to do what works for them because we are a performance-based company offering the flexibility for people to do what they need to as they can, within the timeframes allowed.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Recognize when you are anxious. My family doesn’t have news streaming 24x7 and when we seek it out we leverage multiple sources. We also balance the “hard” with the “soft” — mainstream media followed by something like “Some Good News” from John Krasinki. Activity wise, we keep busy with sports skills and try to maintain somewhat of a daily schedule. My wife and I are also very lucky to have four kids that can entertain themselves.
Additionally, it’s important to understand if you get a reaction from someone that is unexpected that you need to step back and try to understand what they are going through/where they are coming from. Especially now, you don’t know the exact situation others are in and what their stresses might be. Work is important, but family and health are the most important. Let anyone you work with make that the first priority. Not just as an employer or employee, but as a good citizen of the world, everyone needs to spend a little extra time just being human.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We’ll look back at this time and see this as a major economic pivot, just like we saw in the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression and other socioeconomic events in history. Remote work started to become more mainstream pre-COVID, but will surely be the “new norm” and continue even after social distancing restrictions ease. Many of the major tech companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft have already announced that employees can work from home through the fall, and in some cases the end of the year. And why wouldn’t they? Remote works and streamlines costs. After operating this way during the pandemic, post-COVID-19, smart companies will opt for “resilient enterprise” strategies, which keep innovation happening quickly with remote, agile teams and a focus to find the best person to do the job, in the most efficient way, no matter where they reside. These new ways of working and accessing talent will become more mainstream. This is how Topcoder has been functioning for 20+ years, so we’re not surprised.
Employees won’t want to give up this new norm either. Research by Buffer found that 98 percent of remote workers surveyed want to continue to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers.
Topcoder has always believed in the flexible, on-demand workforce. It’s more efficient for companies and for the talent. It allows companies to innovate in a more agile way. Others are finally realizing the value of the resilient workforce and enterprise, where they can complement internal staff, and scale up and down and react to things more quickly, with virtual, on-demand talent. In this climate, certain areas of technology will grow very rapidly like AI and automation.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act, or live?
From here on out, there will be an even bigger move into gig economy labor models as more and more people work from home. Already, 40+ percent of the American workforce engages with the on-demand talent model, working on a freelance or contract basis. These people are members of the passion economy, enticed by the flexibility and opportunity to choose what they work on.
Within this world, the 9a-5p Monday-Friday work week is gone. Hours will be when you are available and when you are not. The measure of success will be what you produce, verses when you do it. Topcoder has always approached work this way. As a company, we have 100 percent transparent calendars. If you’re going to your kid’s soccer game, that is great, simply block that out on your calendar. However, if you show you’re free and you aren’t, that’s going to be a problem.
Certainly some will want to go back into the office, as they need the social interaction. Other people will never go back into the office again. I predict that more than 50 percent of the people that were in the office will not go back ever again. In a year from now, WFO (work from office) will be the rarity, not WFH (work from home). It will be interesting to see how this shift affects our Internet and communications infrastructure.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Topcoder is already set up to thrive in a post-pandemic environment where people are looking for a more flexible and resilient workforce. Our mission will be to help other companies adapt to this new way of working — partnering with them as they become more resilient and flexible, and find amazing projects for our talented community to work on.
Topcoder as a business is currently accelerating. We are experiencing an influx in demand from customers and prospects who don’t want to hit the pause button on innovation, and want to tap into the most well qualified, on-demand digital talent network.
The telecommunications industry is a good example of what we think innovation in the post-pandemic era will look like. It hasn’t slowed down — in many cases, it has had to speed up innovation timelines and build resilience to respond to how people are now working and accessing their services. They have had to step up to offer more network bandwidth and new capabilities, very rapidly.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage other leaders to do what is right and makes the economy run. Companies that do have a viable business right now need to drive the economy until other companies rebound. Also, do what is right for your employees.
Integrity matters, now more than ever. Innovators like Hilton, T-Mobile, Harvard, British Telecom and NASA are doing all they can to keep people working, create opportunities, provide continued development and not take advantage of the situation. The public notices and will recognize/reward companies doing the right things. For example, the travel industry couldn’t have been hit harder by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, but Hilton is taking action to help employees they furloughed find income opportunities in technology. The hotelier industry leader is encouraging employees to join the Topcoder Community (for free) learn/improve coding/tech skills with Topcoder (for free) and then compete in (no charge to enter) Topcoder Events to earn money. Hilton knows that whether employees return to their organization or go elsewhere, they will be more valuable and have improved skills — that’s a win-win.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” (Wayne Gretzky’s dad). Some say this is an overused mantra, but I disagree and believe it’s perfect for anyone serious about innovation and organizational transformation. It means that if your head is down reacting to what is happening to you, you’ll miss things. The quote reminds us to be focused on what’s going to happen next and be prepared.
Also, I believe confidence in one’s capabilities is critical. It’s not gambling if you’re betting on yourself.