When employees arrive for work at Atomic Object, they get a friendly greeting from Maya, the office’s resident canine. They stop by the snack bar to grab a cup of coffee, and then leisurely settle in at their computers, which are scattered on desktops arranged across the hardwood floor in a wide open space. Throughout the day, they design computer software as the sights and sounds of an urban neighborhood filter in through the windows. Jeans are the uniform of choice; not a tie or business suit to be seen in the place.
Atomic Object is not your typical professional software development firm. And that might be why, six years after its creation, the company is pulling in more than double the dollars its owners expected when they started the business in 2001. At that time, Carl Erickson and Bill Bereza hoped that in five years their Grand Rapids-based company would earn one million dollars in annual revenue. This year, they’ll do $2.7 million in business with clients from across the country.
Erickson attributes that success to the company’s work environment and methodology, both of which deviate from the status quo. Atomic Object uses the Agile software development method, in which customers receive incomplete but functional versions of their software every week or two so that they can test those versions and measure how it performs against their expectations.
Likewise, Atomic Object has a laidback culture that strives to encourage innovation among its 20 employees. Workers design software in an open loft space that lets them share ideas from computer to computer. Meanwhile, perks like a communal snacking area offer informal spaces to bounce ideas off each other. It's all part of the vision Erickson and Bereza had when they formed the company in the wake of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.
"I'd been to IT firms and I’d seen where their developers worked,” Erickson says. “They had cubicles, artificial lighting and dead space. I wanted to create a company whose employees looked forward to work every day."
That concept came to fruition in the partnership that formed between Erickson, a former professor at Grand Valley State University, and Bereza, a GVSU grad. Both veterans of the computer industry, the pair started their own firm with just three apprentices in an office in the Eastown neighborhood.
"We had no customers," Erickson says, "but we had good people and a good process."
Getting ‘Er Done Right
The "no customers" part quickly changed as clients learned about Atomic Object's approach to software development. Traditional, or predictive, methods plan software far in advance, mapping out rigid performance features from the get go to guide the execution of the project. Customers might meet with the development firm a handful of times to answer questions and provide feedback. But, in the end, they typically take delivery of a software package that is in many ways untried and unproven in day-to-day business affairs.
With the Agile method, developers are in constant contact with customers, incorporating suggestions about one iteration of the unfinished software into the next. The technique not only makes the software more receptive to changes throughout its lifecycle. It also helps developers complete the software on time and on budget, Erickson says.
The process is based on pair-programming, in which developers work in two-person teams with one helming the computer and the other defining strategy and tactics. And because customers receive workable software every week, developers are constantly testing those programs to ensure the software is running correctly. The result tends to be a job done right the first time.
"Instead of an unhappy customer bringing back the software six months later, we're able to get the client's vision from the start and build the project according to their priorities," Erickson says.
Acting Locally, Reaching Globally
Benjamin Gott, cofounder of www.thecommon.org, agrees. He says Atomic Object’s project management style was exactly what was needed to build his organization’s unique web-based collaboration platform.
“They really, really got our vision right away," Gott said. "They seem to embrace and promote creative thought and execution of ideas within their staff. That's not something you see more traditional development shops doing."
Atomic Object's innovative spirit extends to its relationship with the community. In 2004, Bereza and Erickson finished renovation of the former Station C post office building and moved in among the historic homes and revitalized business district on Wealthy Street.
"It was a leap of faith," Erickson says. "But we're committed to the core city of Grand Rapids and it’s nice to be part of the neighborhood. Half our employees are able to walk or ride their bikes to work.”
That sense of community building extends to Atomic Object's launch of XP West Michigan, a non-profit trade association designed to build relationships and connections among the region’s IT professionals. The organization meets monthly to distribute information and promote Agile software development practices.
"We have anywhere from 30 to 90 people at our meetings, and the attendance goes well beyond our company. There’s wide participation from throughout the area," Erickson says.
In addition to their local work, Atomic Object developers publish papers and present their philosophy at conferences across the country. This national prominence has helped cultivate a diverse client base that includes major multinational companies such as DaimlerChrysler and The World Bank, as well as local businesses like X-Rite and Valley City Linen.
Realius, an online "fantasy real estate" program, is one of Atomic Object’s more unique projects. The web-based game enables players to rack up points by buying, selling, and renovating virtual properties in numerous cities. Chuck Teller, Realius cofounder and CEO, said that Atomic Object's approach meshed perfectly with his company's needs.
"I wanted a development team that could build a robust application that scales across the world, handles large volumes of data, is extremely easy to use, and able to change on a moments notice as we figure out what works best," Teller says. “Atomic Object delivered on every expectation."
Tonya Schafer is a freelance writer who lives in Grand Rapids. She also works as a technical writer for General Electric Aviation. She last wrote for Rapid Growth
about LaFontsee Galleries in downtown Grand Rapids
The offices of Atomic Object
Bill Bereza, co-founder of Atomic Object
Sasha greets clients at the top of the steps
Bill and Sasha shake on it
Many Atomic Object employees live in the neighborhood and bike to work
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved