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Dutch IT security firm dumps corporate structure

Boss of Netherlands-based Computest turns to self-management model to make company more nimble

Happy employees ensure happy customers – that is the underlying vision and business philosophy of Hartger Ruijs, founder of Dutch IT security company Computest. And to achieve this, Ruijs has spent three years working to make his company self-organising.

Ruijs, a 37-year-old technician, founded Computest in 2005. The company specialises in performance and security testing for online applications. Located in the Dutch town of Zoetermeer, it has about 120 employees.

Initially, Ruijs created a traditional layered structure for his growing company. “Otherwise, it would be very difficult to keep control on my own,” he said.

When Computest took over Pine Digital Security in 2015, Ruijs took on that organisation’s 35 employees.

“According to my board, it was then time to appoint an operations director and build the traditional organisational pyramid,” he said. But that idea gave Ruijs the creeps.

“I am a bit averse to that model, because I have often seen team leaders chosen on the basis of their position and not necessarily because it was a good idea. I found that super frustrating, because it doesn’t get you happy employees or happy customers.”

Ruijs also ran into more and more bureaucracy in his own company, which was when he decided to seek a more suitable organisational structure.

He looked at the agile culture of Spotify, for example. “I’ve been taking ideas from everything and I’ve started to make my company self-managing,” he said.

As well as creating happy employees, another goal of this new structure is to create scalability, so that the company can continue to grow without overheads increasing, he said. “In the end, I want us, despite the fact that we are a large organisation, to remain flexible and to be able to move quickly. Leadership is not a position, but a characteristic – and everyone with that characteristic should be able to develop it. That’s what I want to create with this system.”

Automatic correction

Although making Computest self-organising is an ongoing process, Ruijs is already seeing many advantages, particularly the fact that his teams consist of different disciplines that have to work together.

“Previously, there could be a discrepancy between what sales offered and what was delivered by a consultant,” he said. “All that is now over, because the lines of communication are much shorter and what colleagues do is much more visible. There is less competition between departments.”

Also, all team members, including ethical hackers, have become a lot more commercially minded – they know what they should be earning and how long they have been working on a particular assignment, said Ruijs. “So they can also tell a sales colleague that he is offering something too cheap. This automatic correction is now a feature of the team, instead of having a manager to keep on top of it.” 

But Ruijs concedes that it is not an easy process to make Computest’s teams self-organising. “Change is definitely badly received by people,” he said.

For example, he highlights the transparency that is necessary for a team of employees to become self-directed. “This creates pressure among employees, because when someone performs less well, this suddenly becomes very visible,” he said.

The firm’s ethical hackers also had to get used to having to send an invoice and think about turnover, said Ruijs. “Ultimately, it is important to make people understand what influence they have on the company and to make them think about customers and propositions. It is motivating to come up with your own ideas to do something with.” 

Nowadays, Ruijs mainly looks at the company’s output and no longer at the input. “Whether they work from home or anywhere else, I really don’t care,” he said.

Employees can also buy necessary items for themselves, he pointed out. “Did you know that if you work in a huge company and need a few pens, it is almost impossible to order?” he said. “It involves so many layers [of infrastructure] that you often just run to the store yourself to get a pen.

“We have set things up in such a way that our employees are allowed to buy anything, as long as they have two colleagues approve their purchase. This ensure that people can arrange small things very quickly, without it costing me more overhead.”

Self-determination as a goal 

Ruijs occasionally hears stories about organisations that have tried his approach but it has not worked well. Nevertheless, he believes a self-managing structure is a good idea for every company.

“Anyone can buy a house or arrange a weekend away with friends, so why is it impossible to organise things ourselves at work – do we need managers to do that for us?” he said. “Of course, even in a group of friends, there are always some people who take the lead, and you need such people in your organisation, but this structure is suitable for every company.”

Ruijs suspects that organisations might see a self-directed structure as a goal – and that makes things go wrong. “Then you lose sight of what it is really about,” he said. “In my case – happy employees and happy customers.”

He also thinks companies can deploy this new strategy too quickly. “That doesn’t work, believe me, because that’s what we did in the beginning,” he said. “But people freeze when they suddenly have to do everything themselves. They don’t know where the boundaries are any more and nothing happens.”

In the beginning, Ruijs found it hard to give directions. “But that is sometimes necessary – don’t be afraid of that,” he said. “The better you become as a self-directed organisation, the less you have to do it.”

Asked if anyone is ultimately responsible at Computest, Ruijs said: “I make sure I bring it all together. We work with various coaches who coach the teams in specific areas, such as finance, sales, tech, marketing and HR [human resources]. As a sales coach, I regularly sit down with all the sales people and show how we are doing overall as a company. I make sure everyone has everything in order, so that I have an overview of the total. Where necessary, I coach sales, help with quotations or difficulties with a customer.”

Some of Computest’s coaches still have traditional job titles on LinkedIn, said Ruijs. “This is because not all organisations are used to our structure and, for some companies, it is very important that the CEO or CTO comes in, instead of the sales or tech coach.”

The coaches coordinate the direction of the company with the input of the teams, he said. “There was more guiding in the beginning than there is now. We are learning more and more.”

Read more about keeping staff happy

This is the first year when Computest’s HR assessment is taking place at team level, rather than individual level. The company uses a system with three key performance indicators (KPIs): the health of the team, the development of the team, and the added value for the company.

The teams score on these KPIs against each other, said Ruijs, but the assessment system does present a new challenge. “Because we no longer focus on the individual, it is important to keep an eye on personal development,” he said. “We want to create a platform where people can make their own choices, for example to follow a training course.”

Computest also no longer has a traditional model when it comes to other HR-related issues, such as days off and salary. However, its consultancy division finds it is a bit more difficult to let go of the number of holidays completely, because staff still work on an hourly basis. “Every hour worked simply means turnover,” said Ruijs.

But in the firm’s project business, holidays have been completely let go. “We just make sure that people take at least the minimum number of days,” he said.

Salary increases apply to teams as there is no longer any focus on individuals. Each team then distributes the increase among its members, and at the moment, this is worked out with marbles, said Ruijs.

“Everyone gets a number of marbles. Then, on the basis of the three KPIs, everyone tells us what they have done and contributed. Colleagues can give marbles to someone on that basis. The ratio of the marbles in the team determines the distribution of the pay increase.”

Happy employees

The same structure applies to the “retrospective” that Computest organises every quarter to collect feedback from employees and to learn from them. “Each team provides input on three points – what is going well, what is not going well and how can we improve it?” said Ruijs. “Three points are then taken up, even if there are perhaps 15 points for improvement from this meeting.”

These three points will be taken up for improvement by the coaches, he said, adding: “This focus makes what we do very visible.”

The retrospective also gives staff the feeling that what they think helps in the development of the company.

For Ruijs, the journey to a self-managing organisation has been a success if the company can easily scale up without affecting its culture. “We are also in a market where turnover is high,” he said. “For me, this process has also succeeded if we can keep the staff turnover in our organisation low. That tells me that I have happy employees. And that, of course, is my ultimate goal.”

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