REI Systems CEO Shyam Salona on scaling a company and 30 years of success

You may have never heard of REI Systems, the information technology services company based in Sterling, Virginia, but chances are you’re familiar with a couple of its customers, like NASA and the Executive Office of the President of the U.S.

Ladders spoke with REI Systems founder and CEO, Shyam Salona, to talk about 30 years of company success, advice for scaling a company and its culture, and how CEOs can keep from feeling lonely at the top.

Has the vision for REI Systems shifted since when you first founded the company?

“Let me take a minute to share with you what our original vision was. Our original mission was all about leveraging technology to help our customers help achieve an important public sector mission. That’s what our organization is about. I feel that it’s a unique privilege to be able to support our customers in the health sector and the law enforcement public safety sector, the small business and economic development, a whole bunch of different public sector programs where we use IT to help build solutions and services that can help our customers achieve their mission. So that’s what we are about.

“In terms of how our vision has shifted over the years … by the way I want you to know that this year in June we celebrated our thirtieth year in business. So if I think of what has changed over all these years, the what, the why, and the who we do it for has not changed. So it’s still focused on public sector missions … to make an impact in people’s lives and what we do is leverage technology. In terms of how we do it, that has changed over time. The technologies have changed … the processes … so yes, how we go about doing these things has shifted, but not the vision.”

What’s your advice for scaling a company as successfully as you have with REI Systems?

“As I reflect on my experience, I would say there are two things that I would point out to folks who want to scale their organization. One is this whole notion of partnership. At least in our journey, for the longest time whenever there was a challenge, whenever there was something we needed to do, we always said ‘Hey, we are smart people, we can go tackle this. We can take care of it.’ While that is possible, it just slows down your process. My suggestion is to consider partnership and not fall into the trap of saying ‘we must do it ourselves and only then is it great.’

“The second suggestion is around talent decisions. I think they are critical when you’re a small organization. The people you work with over the years, they help you get to a certain point. You build all those loyalties and you build individuals. My personal experience has been that if I were to make those talent choices quicker, that it would help my organization scale even better.”

As REI Systems grew, how did you learn to delegate?

“It definitely didn’t come naturally. It was trial and error. What I found was there were cases when it worked beautifully without any hiccups. There were certain individuals, certain types of initiators that I wanted to delegate. I shared with them what the intent is, what is it that you’re trying to accomplish, and things worked beautifully. There was no effort, no issue at all.

“But then there were other cases where it failed miserably. When I look at why that happened, it all boils down to the fact that each individual has their own style and own way of looking at things. Really what’s critical in delegation is setting expectations for the person you’re delegating to. It’s important to be very clear about what is expected, all aspects: time frame, end result, etc.

“And getting the commitment that they are on board to take it on. Sometimes we just assume that the person we are delegating it to not only understands the expectations but they are ready to take ownership of it – so getting an explicit commitment. And then, the follow-up and support so that they are successful. So over a period of time what I’ve learned is that based on the individual who you are delegating it to, you need to take time to go through the structure of setting expectations, getting a commitment, and then helping them succeed by providing resources and removing obstacles.”

What’s the most surprising aspect of being a CEO?

“In a phrase, it’s kind of lonely at this level, you know? You get to talk with people, hear their stories, or obstacles, and it gives me happiness to remove those obstacles, but you don’t have anyone else to go to who can hear your challenges and what you’re going through.

“So I’ve heard that phrase, but personally experiencing it is what I would say is a surprise. And I’m trying to address that so one way is I’ve joined CEO peer groups with colleagues from other companies who are in the same situation, so I find that very helpful. The second is to be upfront with my team. Saying, ‘I’m really experiencing these challenges and I need their help to figure them out.’ So being open to sharing that.”

“There are two dimensions to these trends. One is technology-based. So all this high-tech, artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, augmented reality, all the internet of things devices are all connected and collecting data that people can use to see the themes and the patterns. So all these are currently just coming into some actual applications where people can see its benefit. The biggest trend is that as we move forward, many of these things that are siloed, meaning they are being pursued independently, they will all come together and become part of some of the processes that we do in our day to day lives for our customers, for our organization. So this convergence of these different technology trends is going to make a humongous difference in how we do work. So that’s the difference in the technology aspect of it.

“From a management aspect of it, I think also there is a big trend and quite a lot of hype around ‘agile.’ And basically, that is the way we organize manage work. The traditional way of hierarchies, the business school mentality … that is shifting in favor of small, cross-functional teams that are empowered, that are able to do things without being told how to do things. That’s the trend of the management side that’s going to have a big impact on our industry.”

How do you think the future of work will play into what you do at REI Systems?

“There are two things that are coming to mind. One is the workforce. The newer generation, as they start working, they’re already technology savvy. They’re all used to using their phones and devices. So what’s important is this workforce is looking for meaning in what they are doing, and not as much in the technology that they are using. So in terms of an environment, it has to provide that meaningful experience of what they are working on truly matters, it’s making an impact. So that’s one aspect of the future, or how I see it.

“The other thing is that there’s a significant push towards this freelance, independent gig economy where people are doing freelance work for different projects and different companies. I think in the public sector, I truly feel that the structure of an organization has to allow for that empowerment, has to allow for individuals to make choices rather than having the multiple layers of hierarchy. I think that’s a thing of the past. The future workplace will be very flat, individual feeling, and employees can say ‘hey, I decide how best to get this done.’ That’s how I see the future of work.”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at REI Systems?

“Researching the organization, getting to know the kind of work they do … that’s all basic stuff.

“The one thing I would emphasize is consciously, explicitly look for a culture fit. As individuals, we all have certain values that we hold near and dear to us. Each organization has certain values that they consider important. Given that you’ll be engaged at that workplace hopefully for years to come, it’s important that there is alignment in what you think the values should be and what the organization culture values. So that’s one aspect that we don’t talk about as much. From a person who is interviewing, it’s all focused on skills, specific competency, all those things. I think even the interviewee should also be asking questions to see if they see it as a good culture fit.”

When looking to add members to the REI Systems team, what kind of traits do you look for in candidates?

“When I’m looking for talent I would classify it into three areas. There are certain common traits. You can view some of them as soft skills. For example, the learning agility. Things are changing so fast you need to be able to learn, and more importantly, be able to unlearn what you learned earlier. So things like learning agility, taking ownership of whatever you are working on, that hunger or fire in the belly saying ‘Yea I want to do it more and I want to do better.’ Critical thinking and interpersonal skills…those are the common traits that I look for our organization for bringing an individual, regardless of the position that they’re applying for.

“I feel that once they have these common traits, even if they don’t have the skill, they can develop those skills. So that’s the underlying framework. If it is an individual contributor position, of course we look for the hard skills. But, if at the end of it, it is a position that requires working with other people, leveraging other people, then soft skills are the key and hard skills are not as important.”

Why are these types of relationships important to you and to REI Systems?

“The key reason we have been able to maintain these relationships and continue to serve our customers is in our organization we ask, ‘how do we define success?’ So the way we define success is that it’s not just that you have a project, there are certain scopes, schedules, budgets, and you deliver it within that. That’s not how we define success.

“Our definition is, once you are done with the project, did your customer, without even asking, come back and say ‘What you have done for me is having a huge impact on my day to day work and the mission that we are serving.’ When you get that, unsolicited, you are successful. So the focus is more on that impact that your project or your solution service, is making. I’m not saying that those other things are not important, but they are table stakes. What differentiates you, what makes you special, is a connection with the mission and making an impact.”

What do you think makes the REI Systems workplace stand out?

“In a nutshell, it’s our culture. I know culture is a very, very nebulous thing to define. The way I look at it is that it’s more of, no matter who you are and what role you are playing, if you have to make a decision that’s difficult or tough, always ask yourself, what is in the best interest of our customers? What’s in the best interest of our employees? And you’re answering that question not for today or tomorrow but with the perspective of in the long term. And whatever choice you come up with using these questions is the right choice. You don’t have to check with anyone else. So this belief in serving the customer, serving the mission, caring for other people and their growth…that I would say is at the heart of some of the recognition we have received.

“The fact that we get to work on these public sector missions inherently provides the meaning behind what they were doing. It’s not just that they’re writing a program but ultimately it’s being used to give out funds to law enforcement officers within the country and when you receive a call on the help desk that goes, ‘Hey, thank you, you saved my life yesterday because I was using the armor that you helped me get.’ Small things like that really make it clear that what you’re doing is really important. So the meaning behind the work you’re doing.

“We have a heavy emphasis on training and development. In fact, we have a full-time professional coach that runs the program that’s all centered around soft skills, being a better observer of our internal stories, our internal beliefs, things like that. Cohorts have started that run for 8 months and all the employees are welcomed to join. Of course, there is an application process.

“The last thing I would mention is that there’s a strong employee-initiated club called ‘Happy Feet’ where they participate in a lot of different types of activities, such as marathons, competitions, bicycling, there are plenty of different activities in which they participate in. In one year we had 40 employees from our organization complete the marine corp marathon. This year a team of nine employees is training to go to the Mount Everest base camp.”

As REI Systems has grown so much over the past 30 years, has it become harder to maintain the type of work culture that you want for the company?

“Short answer is ‘yes.’ It’s very difficult to maintain and this is something you have to work on each and every day. When we are bringing in talent, paying attention to those aspects, whether it’s on an ongoing basis as people are going about doing their work … recognizing, sharing stories that emphasize the culture and our beliefs. When it comes to recognition, whenever something is demonstrating that to make it really a big deal and make it public so that other people can see that as an example to follow. You have to work really hard every day to sustain it.”

Does working with the public sector change your role as CEO at all?

“I would only say that, of course, it’s a personal choice that you make. The big difference that I see is when you’re working with the public sector, some of the missions and impact that they offer you an opportunity to participate in … there is no comparison. While in the private sector … they still have missions like if you look at the mission statements from many of the big companies. So that is on the positive side.

On the not as exciting side, the regulations, the pace at which change happens in a little slower in the public sector. Although, it also depends on the leadership and the agency. Some of them are really inspiring, what their beliefs are about the mission and the urgency with which they are pursuing it. So that’s a little bit different on the not so exciting side.”

What else do you want people to know about REI Systems?

“Reflecting on the 30 years, when we started there was this dream of creating such an environment, we didn’t have an intent to be here 30 years after that and be where we are. So it’s really fulfilling to see that journey. Whatever our dreams and aspirations are, often we get hung up on the goals of where we are, what we have accomplished. I’ve learned over the years that it’s best to enjoy the journey, the tough times you face, how you face them, the growth you experience … just have fun doing it.”