STX Next has been working with Decernis, a Washington-headquartered regulatory intelligence company, for almost seven years.
To reflect on the partnership and celebrate our joint achievements to date, we sat down with Patrick Waldo, the Director of Product Management and Planning at Decernis.
Patrick spoke to us about the complexities of working in the food regulation sector and why Decernis chose to partner with STX Next. He also outlined the benefits of outsourcing software development and the qualities that make a great software house.
What is your role at Decernis and how long have you been with the company?
My name is Patrick Waldo and I am the Director of Product Management and Planning at Decernis. The company was started in 2004, and just last year we were acquired by FoodChain ID.
Since I began working with Decernis in 2006, I’ve occupied almost every role in the company, from a part-time researcher to the Director of Product Management. So, it’s been a long journey along the way.
What does Decernis do? What are your company’s objectives?
Decernis is the leader in providing regulatory information to the largest global food and consumer product companies that helps them comply with international rules and regulations.
All of the companies we serve have the same kind of problem: they’re looking for regulatory truth. And what does that mean? Regulations, of course, are very complicated, and so we have researchers everywhere, from Brazil to Siberia.
In terms of the regulatory data we monitor and track on a daily basis, our scope is over 200 countries. We offer a variety of tools, such as reference library options, business intelligence and rule-based products, and news and horizon scanning products. We also provide supply and value chain tools.
What challenges were you facing that made you look into outsourcing? What problems were you hoping to solve?
In the summer of 2013, we were looking for help with Plone, a content management system that we were using very heavily at the time.
A representative of STX Next was one of the people who responded to our ads. When I looked at the company’s website and the services it provided, I was very quickly impressed by the quality and the scope of its offer.
I was impressed in particular with the work they were doing in the banking sector, which from a confidentiality and security perspective is very close to our world. We started with one developer and within six months we scaled up to a full Scrum team with three developers and a tester.
Did you try to solve your challenges on your own before you decided to hire STX?
Absolutely. At the time, I was the lead developer for two of our products, and we were looking to expand the team because I couldn’t do all of that work alone.
I was a self-taught programmer, so learning about scaling an application and all the engineering side of software development was really out of my scope. I could prototype very well, solve client problems, do the solutions-architect kind of work, but we really needed properly trained developers to do the software development.
And that’s why we sought out contractors and, in the end, decided to pick STX Next.
What challenges did STX Next help you overcome?
One thing that is unique within our context is that we deal with a tremendous amount of complexity. We work with laws that are barely understandable for people, let alone machines.
We have a huge amount of intellectual talent within Decernis: subject matter experts, chemists, lawyers, people with PhD degrees. They all work to turn complexity into a simple product that the end user can consume, with the help of STX Next.
It could be, for instance, displaying legal or regulatory information in a coherent way, or presenting scientific data in a way that both an expert and a junior person at the company can both use. Simplifying the systems is something that SXT Next has helped us with.
It’s also important that developers understand our domain well. They need to be able to comprehend and process the complexity that we’re working with in addition to being good developers.
Being a thought partner is an aspect that I think is unique to STX Next. And this is something that we appreciate about the company: they don’t run out of the room when we talk about the complexity that we deal with every day.
How has the tech stack evolved over the years?
The tech stack has evolved quite a bit over the years.
We started with a content management system called Plone, which is built on top of Zope. Over the last almost seven years we have transitioned to a Django API backend and an Angular frontend.
Most teams are divided into frontend and backend. We have some full-stack developers, and we also use SOLR for document indexing for our crawling operations as part of our news product.
How did you find out about STX Next?
We were looking for a full-time employee when we posted the job ad. However, since it was very difficult to find people who used that framework at the time, the only offers we received were from contractors. So, we fell into outsourcing without particularly looking for it.
Why did you decide to work with us in particular?
The number one reason I picked STX Next was the company’s background in the banking sector.
STX Next understood the needs of confidential, private, and other sensitive information. We work with the largest food and consumer goods manufacturers in the world and they treat their formulas, recipes, and materials as highly confidential trade secrets.
Therefore, we take data security and privacy very seriously. Partnering with someone who already had that in their back pocket made me feel far more comfortable than working with someone who perhaps knew the framework or had some experience with corporate SaaS, but didn’t have background in sensitive information to that level.
Did anything memorable happen during the implementation?
The story that stands out to me the most is when I came on a planning trip a number of years ago.
We were finishing out a client project and there were a lot of deliverables. Instead of doing a typical planning session we turned it into a hackathon. The whole team rallied together to finalize the project and solve all of the customer’s problems.
At the time I was still developing, so I saddled up with them, and we spent the next 48 hours fielding emails and feedback that we were getting live from the client.
One by one, we were implementing all the improvements and last-minute feature requests that they were making. And then we signed off on the project and everything went well.
That was probably one of the very early experiences that made me realize I could rely on STX Next. This is how I learned I could be in the trenches with their team—this is the level of trust I have for them.
What does working with STX Next look like day-to-day, week-to-week?
As a product manager, I work with the team on a daily basis. We have regular planning sessions during which we do backlog grooming, review the tickets, etc.
We also do sprint planning and retrospectives together. Twice or three times a week in the mornings, US time, we have formal meetings with the team to focus on product management issues. Every week, we also have meetings with all of our IT staff, including STX Next, to deal with any production issues.
STX Next works closely with our infrastructure and IT teams, and we have a communication channel that we’re all a part of. We really treat STX Next more like a partner and an in-house development team than an outsourced company.
How do you manage working with the time difference between US and Poland?
Decernis is based in the Washington, D.C. area, so that’s Eastern Time in the US. I’m personally based in Houston, Texas, so that’s Central Time. About half of our business is in Europe, and we have researchers and teams located around the world.
So, managing time differences is what we do, and what we do it quite well with our different teams. Working with STX Next is not a challenge for us.
We speak almost every morning at 8 a.m. Central Time. We usually use Slack, as it’s probably the best way to deal with time difference. We have a number of night owls on the team, so they can keep close to business hours when needed.
Overall, there’s always one person on the team who’s available for most or all of the business hours that we have.
The cooperation has been going on for almost seven years now. How has it impacted your work?
What I appreciate about STX Next is that not only are they a strong Python shop, but they’re also experts on Agile, particularly Scrum.
Over the last seven years, I’ve learned a lot from STX Next personally as a Product Manager and an Agilist. I began my own Agile journey at the same time as we hired STX Next. Learning from them, talking to the different Scrum Masters and people who are trained in Agile in various ways has been a joy for me.
Learning and picking their brains from time to time, then applying it within the context that I work in has been very successful and it has helped me develop my career and my professional views on Agile in general.
If I would have a problem at work, or a particular stakeholder issue, or a client issue that I wasn’t quite sure how to resolve from a methodology perspective, I could usually lean on my account person or my Scrum Master for good ideas, whiteboarding, or lending an ear.
I learned quite a bit just through monthly one-hour meetings where I got education in Agile in general. And, certainly, I combined that with my own continuing education.
How have we earned such a long-term partnership?
STX Next earned my trust as a partner in software development over the years we’ve worked together.
I ran cross-country and track in college. The words that are unsaid, running many miles on the road, is really how you create a team.
With STX Next, we’ve gone many miles together and just worked really hard over the years. And that working together on the different problems has probably been the best way that I’ve learned about STX and how they work, and that I can rely on them. Because when there’s a problem, I know that they’re there.
It could be spinning up a team on short notice, downsizing a team if the budget requires that, or a day-to-day issue; I know that I can call someone from STX Next and the issue will usually be resolved very quickly.
Only yesterday, there was a major blocker that we had discovered, and the team resolved it in about 40 minutes. I knew that I could inform the team on Slack there was an issue and they would drop everything, and they did it.
That’s something that I appreciate and respect about everyone on the team—that they’re very dedicated to not only what they do, but what we need and what we do, too.
We know that if someone leaves a team for whatever reason, I can rely on STX Next to do the knowledge transfer. They handle all of the HR, the sourcing, the training, and the team disagreements whenever they occur.
I can also rely on STX Next to cultivate their teams, foster a good work dynamic, and that’s something at the end of the day creates results.
What advice would you give to product managers who are considering outsourcing?
The one thing that comes to mind when I think about my outsourcing experiences is that you tend to have two types of outsourcing companies.
One of them is focused on the skills and tells you they can solve your problem. The other one is the company that listens to you.
What I found with STX Next over the years, and certainly at the beginning, is that they really listened to our problems. They were able to sit with them and come up with some options, or let us know what they thought about them based on their own experience.
I think that this is something that distinguishes STX Next from the other companies that I’ve either reached out to or evaluated over the years.
For me, having a body in a seat for a developer is not a development team. That person might be able to push out code, but I think you need someone who is able to think with you about the problem. That, I think, is unique to STX Next.
In the past, I would often have to create a detailed specification, a work order or detailed tickets, which meant I basically had to do most of the work without actually coding it. Whereas with STX Next, I can say, “This is the mountain; how do we climb it?”
The developers can take some time and think about it, and we can do a research spike or mockups. It’s very much a collaborative environment, which is very unique. Typically, when I work with outsourcing companies, it’s more directional than collaborative. I usually say, “This is the work we need you to do,” they do it and then that’s it.
With STX Next, it’s far more of a partnership and a collaboration in many ways. I know that they have good ideas as well as good coders.
Does anything else stand out?
The new offices are great!
Here at STX Next, we grow immensely with every partnership we forge. We've cherished our collaboration with Decernis over the past seven years and the invaluable experience it's helped us gain.
If you'd like to find out more about Decernis and how we helped the company reach its business objectives, take a look at its portfolio entry.
And, if you're also thinking of outsourcing software development, why not get in touch with us? We'd love to hear from you and discuss how we can work together.