Nexient CEO Mark Orttung on leadership, the future of work, and ‘unreasonable success’

When you think of outsourcing, you most likely think of hiring offshore employees to pick up some slack in the office. But Nexient, the largest U.S.-based Agile software services firm founded in 2009, uses its Bay Area hub to connect companies with talent teams in Midwest tech hubs, therefore cutting out any language or time difference complications that usually are attached to outsourcing operations.

Ladders spoke with Nexient CEO Mark Orttung to get the scoop on the career and life of a Silicon Valley CEO, the outsourcing industry, and the future of work. (Click here to learn more about Nexient.)

1. What’s the best piece of career advice that you’ve ever received?

“It’s kind of a funny one. I had a CEO group that I was a part of for a number of years. One of the things that they would always talk about is that if you’re going to be a CEO you have to assume that most CEOs will get fired at some point. If you don’t want that to be you, think about why you would have been fired and be aggressive about addressing those issues proactively. What’s at the heart of that is to really try to understand, what are the issues that might be the elephant in the room that you really have to identify and proactively manage now so they don’t become bigger issues for the company?

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So I think that’s the challenge as the CEO … really get good at identifying those things that are unspoken and maybe people are aware of but don’t really want to confront…and then confront them in a productive and proactive way. It’s hard to do!”

2. Do you have a special morning routine?

“I’m more of a night person than a morning person. So it’s probably more of my evening routine. I usually spend some time just trying to wrap up from the day and just trying to get clear on what the priorities for the next day should be. I actually tend to do that more in the evening than in the morning.

My mornings tend to be that I dive right in and they tend to get going quickly. I’m based on the West Coast and a lot of my clients and a lot of my team are on the East Coast, so things get started really early. So for me, it’s all about figuring out my priorities for the next day the evening before.”

3. How do you describe your management style at Nexient?

“My management style is probably different from many. I like to hire people who are smarter than me at what they do. I like to empower them to get to results and I have a pretty good sense for when things are not going well and I will tend to reach out to people at that point and do whatever I can to move obstacles and to help them solve the problems.

I give people a lot of rope when things are going well. I want them to be independent and to run fast. So it tends to be pretty high energy and there’s a lot going on. I tend to hire people who are pretty ambitious and trying to get a lot done. As a team it’s very high energy, there’s a lot going on. I try to focus my energies on building the team, building the culture of focusing on results, and problem-solving or obstacle removing whenever I can.”

4. Do you change that leadership style at all when working with Millennial or Gen Z employees?

“I don’t. My take on Millennials and Gen Z … I think what they really want is authentic conversations. That’s one of the things I’ve learned that drives them and that’s always been something I’ve had as my management style.

Around my career, I’ve worked with a lot of software development engineers. Engineers tend to be very fact-based and they want to be led by data. They want you to help them understand why you’ve come to a conclusion and get them to come to the same conclusion rather than telling them what to do.

So it’s that working with engineers that has led me to a style that is very data-oriented and I found that that works well with Millennials and Gen Z. I don’t see it as being all that different than working with other people.”

5. Is mentorship an important relationship to have in your industry?

“Absolutely. I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of mentors throughout my career and I’ve learned a lot from each of them.

I’ve tried to give that back. In fact, I’ve just launched a leadership group. So we have a community within Nexient, WIN – which is ‘Women in Nexient’ – and through that community, I’ve launched a leadership development group. We just had our first meeting and next week is our second meeting. It’s a group of about eight people and myself and I’m sharing with them a lot of the things I’ve learned from my mentors over the years on how to develop as a leader and how to accelerate one’s career. It’s a great group. They bring a lot of energy to it and so I learn a lot from them as well. It’s a great environment.”

6. How do you think the future of work will play into what Nexient is doing?

“So what we’ve focused on is the product mindset and there’s a number of core aspects to that. One of the most critical is that we work in small, cross-functional teams. Typically the core of our team is a product-management person, a user experience person, software engineers, and quality engineers. That’s the core group that works together to have a clearly defined business goal and create software that delivers a great experience against that. That’s where work is really going … the ability to work in a cross-functional team is really important.

You need to be good at your own area … whether it be design, or software, or product management. We talk about what we call a ‘T-shaped employee.’ You want the depth, which is the vertical part of the T in one of their areas. But we also want the breadth and the ability to work with a cross-functional team, and that’s what we think of the horizontal part of the T-shape. That, to me, is critical. The ability to work with a diverse team, a team with diverse perspectives, and really arrive at a conclusion that meets all of the requirements in each area.”

7. Has Nexient always been 100% US-based, or is that something you implemented when you became CEO in 2014?

“From the beginning that is the ‘why’ for Nexient. We’re working on these product-oriented approaches, whether it be actually helping a company build a software product or helping a large enterprise use product techniques to build a great experience for the software they are building. In all of those cases, you need a lot of collaboration, so we believe that you need people that are in the same or similar time zone that has the context of the market that you’re in … that have the ability to communicate effectively throughout the business day.

Most of the projects we’re working on are leading-edge and they are not always well defined. So lots of questions and issues come up throughout the day and it really requires collaboration all day. Being in the market we’re in, our customers are US-based. To serve the US market we believe that staying in the US is the right answer.”

8. Do you ever see that changing?

“What I would say is that what’s important about the model is we’re trying to create these experiences by being close to our customers. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t one day have customers in Europe, but if we did we’d want to have the team that serves them be close to them. It’s more focused on trying to take the product approach and to do what we need to be able to do to collaborate well with our clients. At the moment we’re focused on the US market, and to serve the US market we’ll stay in the US.”

9. What’s the most exciting trend in the outsourcing industry right now?

“There’s a couple of trends that played out from 2000 to 2015. One trend was that most of corporate America was chasing cost-saving by outsourcing offshore. At the same time, the technology industry was going through a period of incredibly rapid growth. If you look at the leaders (Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Google), they were going through this incredible period of growth because they were creating great user experiences.

A lot of corporate America has realized that they went a little too far with offshore outsourcing. They need to build great user experiences as well. There’s incredible demand for what we do because a lot of companies gutted the capability to [build great user experience] when they went through this period of pushing everything offshore. So there’s a real resurgence that we’re seeing from companies wanting to be able to build a software that they want their customers to use.

So there’s just this real demand now across the market. For me, that’s exciting because it really fits the product mindset that we’ve been taking. From the perspective of our employees, it creates the opportunity for really interesting projects and really challenging projects to work on. We’re trying to hire people that like to learn and keep learning and that’s where you really get to learn a lot, working through some of these projects.”

10. You told startups to assume unreasonable success in order to be successful. Is that something Nexient still does?

“I’d say that’s something we still do. As an example, we are expanding into Columbus, Ohio and that’s based upon assuming we’re going to continue to grow as fast as we have been for the past few years. In order to grow, we have to think through how we’ll be able to hire and grow the team at the rate that we need to and we thought that being in one market would not give us enough.

So that was an example where we’re assuming we’re going to keep growing at this rate and we’ve proactively went out and opened up a new market … and it’s been fun. We’ll keep doing that. From what I can tell, there’s a huge amount of demand for what we’re doing. We’re getting lots of interest, lot’s of activity every day, and working as hard as we can to keep up the growth.”