Getting Better in Bad Times
Written by Stan Schneider
April 27, 2021
When I was in 6th grade, I was in the lowest of three math “tracks” at school. I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, memorize my multiplication tables. I hated math. I couldn’t do math. If you’ve ever been in a place where you or others convince you that you can’t do something, it’s horrible. I felt like a failure and I was only 11.
Then, one night, I broke my leg ski jumping. It was a bad break, and I was in a cast and crutches for the rest of the winter. In Michigan, that meant I was stuck inside while all the other kids played outside for lunch and recess. My 6th grade teacher, a wonderful woman named Norma Berry, gave me a project: calculate the volume of the room in cubic centimeters. The room wasn’t square, and I couldn’t climb up to the ceiling to measure. So I had to measure and count window panes, ceiling tiles, and wall panels. But I did it…and it felt good. So I measured the hall, too. And then the other rooms down the hall. And then the entire school. I remember crawling under the gym crawlspace with my cast and meter stick. It took all winter.
That project relating math to physical reality inspired me. I liked math! I went on to get three degrees (essentially) in math. I still can’t multiply. What is 6x7? But I can solve partial differential equations and Fourier transforms. And I decided to pursue engineering as a career.
Were it not for breaking my leg, I would never have become an engineer. If I wasn’t an engineer, I wouldn’t have gone to Stanford, written any software, or started RTI.
You would think breaking your leg is bad. You would think being trapped inside alone while others play outside together is bad. But challenge itself is an opportunity. All that matters is that you see it that way. Breaking my leg gave me the opportunity to challenge all my assumptions, and that made me better.
The last year offered RTI, and the entire planet, that opportunity to rethink. Today, RTI announced our third consecutive recertification as a Great Place to Work® (GPTW). The GPTW certification rates the company mostly by the opinions of our greatest critics: our employees. It also includes a detailed culture audit, ranging from benefits to ethics policies. Certification is an honor indeed. This year, despite all the challenges, we managed to score even better than previous years. How? Well, like having a broken leg, the pandemic gave us a chance to revisit all our assumptions. And we took that opportunity to improve.
For instance, we increased our commitment to leading benefits. To get ahead of the global transformation to remote work, we implemented a new policy to allow unlimited work from home and location freedom across our geographies. We completely redesigned our growth guidance and training programs. We implemented a novel way to push more equity value to employees, giving them several times greater stake in the company’s growth than other companies. Along with our unique vacation plan that offers an additional bonus to employees who unplug for a “real” break every year, we now have comprehensive, forward-looking benefits top to bottom.
We also clarified our goal to run a smarter world. RTI is the world’s largest software infrastructure company for autonomy. We lead the transition of machines and real-world systems to the intelligent, distributed future. We enable intelligent computing to take a step out of the cloud to guide and improve the fundamental way the planet operates. Our goal is no less than to make the world run smarter, and thereby greener, healthier, safer, and more sustainably.
Perhaps more importantly, we also took on the cultural challenges without hesitation. Despite all the forces pushing us apart politically, physically, and emotionally, we stuck together. We faced the challenges, together. We grew as a culture, expanded our team, enabled even more flexibility, spent more time at home with our families, and found a way to enjoy the journey. Together.
We also improved our business. We reimagined marketing, sales, services, collaboration, interviewing, training, onboarding, and workplace. We redefined resilience, interaction, location, liquidity, huddle, diversity, persistence, and zoom. We grew our headcount by more than 25% across geographies. We grew our business across industries, with true bright spots in medical robotics and autonomous automotive systems. Our automotive business was the standout, achieving a 122% 5-year CAGR (compound annual growth rate). RTI is exiting the pandemic stronger, bigger, and healthier than we entered.
All that shows up in our GPTW results. Nearly all (96%) employees agree RTI is a great place to work. Our employee NPS score is a world-class 81 (50 is considered excellent). 100% of employees agree we’re all in this together, have a family feeling, promote employee health, encourage open and honest feedback, and use their best ability to pursue our mission.
Perhaps more personally, I am heartened to see that employees agree that everyone is treated fairly regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, or age. In today's charged political environment, our emphasis on equity and diversity makes us stand out.
But the GPTW process is really about listening to employees. Perhaps they say it best:
- “Nowhere in the valley have I encountered such a business before. I've seen a great number that talked a good game about not doing evil and treating their people well but they seem to go about demonstrating their philosophies largely through ostentatious perks instead of just treating people decently. Only RTI has ever walked the walk and talked the talk.”
- “All employees, at all levels, are treated fairly and honestly, with integrity and respect. We enjoy each other's company, and have fun, both inside and outside of work (even during a pandemic).”
- “At every level everyone permeates a positive energy, enthusiasm, respect and integrity. The emphasis is so much more on driving customer success by supporting one another, rather than what many companies do -- oversell and overpromise. [RTI management] cares about and invests in the growth potential and well being of ALL employees, it’s also a special culture where everyone is encouraged to voice ideas and leverage their strengths.”
- “Honesty is not only right because our customers depend upon it, but also because "it's the right thing to do".”
- “This company is firing on all cylinders.”
I am incredibly proud of our employees, and especially of our talented and caring management team that makes this possible. As a humble servant to the wonderful people who inhabit our culture, I am grateful for the opportunity to offer service. But let me be clear: the credit for being a Great Place to Work does not belong to the CEO nor to any person or team. It belongs to us all, to our customers, to our opportunity, and to our mission. This culture we call “1RTI” is our precious and unique glue. That glue holds us together and lets us work as one.
1RTI is also our biggest competitive advantage. A team that truly works together can offer superior customer service and earn deserved customer trust. In our pursuit to support customers taking the bold and risky leap into a smarter world, nothing is more important to offer than trust.
So, like breaking my leg, the pandemic, environmental, and political strife were painful challenges. But they were also opportunities to rethink and build our capabilities. Hard times test teams. Our global GPTW recertification, actually improving our world-class scores from previous years, is great evidence that we passed that test.
About the author
Stan Schneider is CEO of Real-Time Innovations (RTI), the largest software framework provider for smart machine and real-world systems.
Stan also serves on the advisory board for IoT Solutions World Congress. Stan holds a PhD in EE/CS from Stanford University.