Pivotal wants to turn your business into a Silicon Valley start-up

The multi billion-dollar US technology firm has just launched its European hub in London.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 14 Sep 2016

In an open plan office, a gong is struck and the first meeting of the day begins. ‘Any new faces?’ calls out the meeting’s convenor. A few of the several dozen people gathered around in a standing circle introduce themselves. ‘Hello,’ the rest all call out in unison.

‘Any helps?’ the chair asks. I’m helping to start a new Meetup group about diversity in systems engineering, says one attendee. ‘Any interestings?’ An update on the state of the office ping pong tournament. There’s a ‘lunch and learn’ coming up about how to build network voice protocols and the company book club is planning to read Sprint this month.

Pivotal ticks all the Silicon Valley cliché boxes (right down to the ‘contemplation rooms’) and with good reason. The company’s MO is all about helping big, slow companies adopt the practices that make ‘agile’ tech companies successful. Now majority-owned by Dell after its tie-up with EMC, the company has received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from backers including Ford, Microsoft and General Electric and is valued at $2.8bn (£2.1bn – yes, the exchange rate is that bad now).

‘If you look at software development today and look at companies like Facebook or Uber or Google, you see that they assume constant change is just part of what they do,’ its CEO Rob Mee told journalists yesterday. ‘Companies born in the cloud era do that by default. Larger companies across industries don’t and, in general, have not historically done that. Change introduces risk, change introduces costs. But due to the rapid digital transformation that’s sweeping across industries and the importance of software as a strategic part of pretty much any business, these companies are realising they have to do the same kinds of things, they have to operate like a start-up.’

Keen to expand beyond its home shores it has now opened this office, its European hub, right beside east London’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ (where else?). Pivotal’s clients this side of the Atlantic include Sainsbury’s and VW (which could certainly benefit from a focus on the future given its difficult recent history). It already employs around 120 people in the capital and plans to reach a headcount of 200 by the end of next year.

Pivotal works by bringing its clients’ software teams into its offices to teach them its methods of software development and help them create new product, and it also sells them use of its cloud platform and big data software. ‘Pivotal’s way of working is to do co-development with these companies and transfer that knowledge of how to work in that way to our clients in a relatively short period of time by building new software in blended teams,’ says Mee.

The dual national Anglo-American says for many companies undergoing transformation the biggest challenge is cultural – ‘getting their workforces to work in new ways that are much more collaborative and more rapid.’ But he doesn’t see his company as a job killer, something many a consultancy has been accused of in the past. ‘Many companies that work with us do a lot of hiring.’

The investment is conveniently timed for the government, which is trying to reassure everyone who will listen that Britain remains a magnet for foreign cash. So it was no surprise to find Matt Hancock, minister for culture and technology in attendance at the launch. Having backed Remain, Hancock now has the awkward job of having to insist everything will be just fine.

Pivotal CEO Rob Mee with culture and digital minister Matt Hancock 

‘Being open and outward-looking and attracting investment from around the world is incredibly important and we’re determined to make Brexit a success by making sure we’re a great place to do business,’ he said. ‘What I want to emphasise is how attracting businesses to grow here in London and across the UK is mission critical to our future success. The announcement of Pivotal’s investment is a very positive step in that direction.’

Was Mee not worried about expanding in the aftermath of the vote? ‘No I think we’re still here and still committed. I won’t say that it doesn’t provide everyone with a few roadbumps but I’m still confident in our ability to expand here and do business.’

As for this morning’s West Coast-style meeting, ‘as a dual national myself it feels a little bit awkward at times. A lot of the cultural things that we do ourselves that come out of Silicon Valley are a bit uncomfortable for me. But they’re very effective.’


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