Athens' Musicians Make Great Software Developers
David Rowe, Vice President of Partner Software, speaks with friend and fellow tech industry leader, Alessio Artuffo of Docebo, about why musicians make great software developers and his ideas on how to retain and attract more talent in Athens.
Q&A by Alessio Artuffo, Chief Revenue Officer of Docebo
Documented by Christina Van Allen
Alessio Artuffo: So, Dave, Partner Software? What is it about? And what do you do in the company?
Dave: So I am, I guess I'm technically now, we just got acquired, so I'm technically the Vice President of Partner Software, under the Harris Utilities Group.
Partner Software, we've been here since 1997 in Athens, I haven't, but the Company's been here since 1997, and we write mapping solutions, field solutions, for primarily electric utilities all over the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. So, basically, what that means is if an electric utility has a guy out in a truck, or a girl out in a truck, whatever, they're doing services, working on a line, a lot of time they'll have our proprietary map in the truck that gives them tons of information about who is this consumer? And what's on this pole? And when was the last time it was inspected? Or how we have design elements in our software as well, like this new subdivision's going and how do we write software for that? So that's basically kinda what we've been doing since '97, and then over the years we've been adding more and more products into our full field suite for free utilities.
AA: Where are you from, Sir?
DR: I am originally from Asheville, North Carolina. I was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and I grew up there until I was about 18 years old. Not about 18 years old, I was actually 18 years old.
AA: And then life brought you to Athens.
DR: Well, life kinda took me to ... Well, first of all it took me to Berkeley College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts for about four years, and then after that I was playing music all the time, I was a film score major. Played in bands, played in the recording orchestra. Went on guitar performance scholarship and was, you know, all the way into the music thing, 100 percent. So, after that, I kinda met a singer up there in Boston and he and I decided that we were gonna come back down to the South East to form a band, and then we were gonna go on the road and tour, and so that's precisely what we did. Came back down to Ashville, North Carolina, found a drummer, who actually works for us right now.
DR: So, yeah, we've known him forever. Found a drummer, he works for us right now. And, I think at some point there was an evening where we were all sitting round, there might have been adult beverages involved, and we decided we were either gonna go to Athens, Georgia, or Olympia, Washington. Just because, they're both music scenes and cheap, right? Cheap place to live, great central area to tour. And I think, not entirely sure, but I think we threw a dart and it hit Athens, Georgia, instead of Olympia.
AA: That's awesome.
DR: So that is what brought me here. Not software, nothing else.
AA: I'm supposed to ask you, why have you stayed in Athens? But before I get there, I really need to know ... Musician? Quick and swift transition to executive role in software company. What happened?
DR: Well, luckily the former owners of the Company weren't very smart, and so they ... No, I think what it was is that, the software ... It's a really great question ... The software industry, we're heavy on software design and I had done a lot of that in the music world when I was recording, audio engineering, etc. And so, really, I started at Partner Software here in 2008 and I was really just starting in the marketing department, working on marketing materials, etc. I was actually doing a lot of this, recording videos and doing animation, stuff like that. And then they hired me on, but prior to that I had opened up, and it's still running now, a music school in Athens here, called Athens School of Music. So it just sort of organically happened from there. I got more into product design and product development. I had run a business and opened a business before, so it was still going, and it just kinda snowballed. It's just learning, learning, learning, learning, learning, over and over again, until we had some success with the new products and the revenue grew, and I guess they said, "Well, you should run it now." So it was not the normal head hunter, go find somebody who's gonna be CEO of a company.
AA: And so why, since then, have you decided to pursue Athens as the base for Partner Software. Why haven't you moved elsewhere? And what made you stay?
DR: I think the biggest thing about Athens is there's such a, for us anyway, we're a heavy development shop. And I know with you and your business I don't think your developers are actually here. I think they're maybe over in Italy or somewhere else in Europe-
AA: They're in Europe, yeah. They're in Italy and Bulgaria, yeah.
DR: It's just there's a community of people that we knew here. We knew some very, very smart people that had stayed in Athens and were artists, or were musicians, and it just translated really well into developers and creative types that were gonna be able to actually run, to write the software. So we've always kind of loved Athens for that purpose, as that you can really find some talented developers here. And, honestly, the lifestyle. I think we've talked about this before. It's cheap to live here and, usually, in tech companies the salary's a little bit higher so the bang for your buck is great. It's a little bit easier to keep that development talent here, and the community is fantastic. I mean, you have great restaurants downtown. Here, we're sitting in this office and we're looking right our over downtown. Your office is right down there. It's just that the culture is really, really good here. So that's kind of what's kept us here, just really a love for the town. There's no reason that we couldn't be anywhere else, I suppose, but I think pretty much our Company is just associated with Athens, so-
AA: Do you feel that, had they told you in '08, fast forward then where things would be in Athens today, in 2017. Would you have been able to draw the picture in the way it is today? Or would you have, perhaps, envisioned Athens as being different from what it is today?
DR: It is today. Well, a couple of things there. One thing is in 2008 I really didn't know much about what was here from the software perspective, in the software business. So we are a very heads down sort of company, and for the longest time no one really knew we were here. It was just like, "Who's Partner Software? What do they do? Why are they ..." We don't serve the community, we don't serve Athens. We have 190 electric utilities all over the country, and in Canada and the Caribbean, etc. So we're usually a lot more outward focused, there's no reason to have a store front or anything.
So when I first started at Athens, I had no idea, like, I don't know what Athens is gonna look like at Software. I just thought it was weird that there was a software company. Even later on, as I started, and I would say both you and I know Jim Flannery and the Four Athens Group, I didn't really realize how many software companies ... Obviously in Docebo, I had no idea that there's an Italian company, you know, in Athens, Georgia, where the CRO is Italian, on a Canadian sort of context now. And we're bought out by a Canadian company now, and we're also in Athens. I had no idea that that would be here. Having learned that I do wish that Athens were a little bit further along on just the community, the professional side, particularly in tech.
You have an amazing college right next to downtown, and you have a lot of artists, a lot of musicians, a fantastic art community here. But there's so much focus on the downtown development based around the students that you really don't get the students to filter out of the college and stay in the tech industry, or stay in a professional industry in Athens. They usually end up filtering out and going to Atlanta, or moving on, and I wish that we could ... Go back round to your question, do I see it being this way, did I see it being this way in 2017? I really didn't have any idea in 2008, but now I know a little bit more, I really wish we would capitalize on the opportunity to keep those jobs here, those high tech jobs and the professional jobs, certainly.
AA: And what do you think, it will take people like you or like us to accelerate the growth in Athens? What are those initiatives that you think we should aim for that will allow future entrepreneurs to build big businesses here?
DR: I think that number one, you have to keep, just as I've mentioned, you have to keep the talent from UGA to stay here. And in our industry, to me that's sales talent. You've mentioned, Corey, before. I mean that's awesome. You can keep that core sales talent here and successful, but a lot of that has to do with the infrastructure here. Our sales guys travel all the time. So they're going from Athens and driving to the Atlanta airport an hour and a half, and flying out of here, and then going to a client, flying back to the Atlanta airport and driving back to Athens an hour and a half. That's an hour and a half each way they're losing productivity, and eventually it just wears on them with the traveling. And they say, "Why don't I just go to Atlanta because I'm gonna be flying out of Atlanta anyway? Right?" And so all the jobs are over there. I wish that we had kind of a viable airport. I know that everybody at Four Athens is always like, "There's the airport guy, he keeps harping on it." But reality is, if I can drive three miles down the road, hop a flight to Atlanta, or to Charlotte, or wherever, and then hop a flight to wherever I need to go, I really do think a lot more businesses would look at Athens as a viable place to stay. Oh I could-
AA: Invest in.
DR: Invest in that infrastructure. And I think the last thing is just downtown. I think the University and the city government, along with private donations or private investment, need to really look at how we're spending our resources downtown. There are tons of new student housing developments going on. If we see another student housing going up, all you're saying is, "We just built this town just for students." There's a lot of empty spaces above buildings downtown that really could ... Startups, tech startups, which have high paying jobs, which have high tax base, could come in and really ... I think For Athens has really tried to do that and I'd really like to see that partnership happen, private, government and the university come together to try to build a tech community.
AA: Amazing. And talking about this community and your involvement in the community, what is it you're working on right now? What is it that's most exciting to you? What are your future plans with regards to Partner Software, but a little bit about you, Dave, as well?
DR: Well I think that, in regards to Partner Software, we're really excited 'cause we just got acquired by a larger Canadian company out of Vancouver. The parent company's out of Ottawa, I guess, but out of Vancouver. And usually when an acquisition like that happens everybody gets scared, because, "Oh they're gonna move us away from Athens," or, "They're gonna fire a bunch of people," whatever. But, honestly, we kept our name, we're Athens centric. I got to keep my job, that was awesome. So I'm really excited about that. That transition period's going on right now. There's people from Vancouver right now here in the office, and so I'm excited about all the new opportunities for growth that that presents to us. This company's upmarket from us, and they want our solutions up market, so that's a great place to be.
Me, personally, I'm just excited to continue being in Athens in the sense that I still do a lot of music production in Atlanta and in Athens, and it affords me the opportunity, the job here affords me the opportunity and the freedom to do that here amongst the artist community as well.
DR: That's all I'm excited about. That's it, nothing else.
AA: That's a lot to be excited of. Now you should tell me, in your Athens network, in our field, in the software field, who would you name that's worth an interview or a nice conversation with, that would be fun to talk to?
DR: You know, thinking about that it's really difficult, because there's so many people that you could really think about that would be great interviews. But honestly, the guy in my mind that shines in Jonathan Wallace, who is ... He used to work at Peach Tree Medical, but he is an excellent lead developer and Director of Development. I think he works at Stitch Fix now-
AA: He does.
DR: And Stich Fix has taken off, you know? And he's killer. I mean we-
DR: Yeah, super successful. Great guy too. I know that we wanted to hire him at some point, and I was like he'd just gotten the Stitch Fix thing, so ... Yeah, what a wonderful guy. Super dynamic.
AA: He's amazing.
DR: Yeah, super, super sharp. And I think the other person I would say is right here in the partner office, Andy Hollingsworth, is about as Athens as you can get. He is a musician. He has a ridiculous amount of stories. He's our Director of Development. He's a fantastic developer, but just probably the best interview I'd ever have, without a doubt. He's been around Athens for a very, very long time. Played in a bunch of metal bands, sleeve tattoos, has the whole artist thing going on. At the same time one of the best, most professional and intelligent guys I know.
AA: Fantastic. Beautiful. Thank you, Dave, really appreciate it.