It may sound blasphemous to hear a business executive claim his customers don't come first. While Chris Berry is quick to note that clients come a very close second, he nevertheless maintains that the top priority at Visionist Inc. is fulfilling the needs of his employees.
"If we're doing a great job of educating our employees and keeping them involved with work they're passionate about, then they're going to do an awesome job for the customers we have," said Berry, the company's president.
Those customers are the Department of Defense and members of the intelligence world. Visionist, strategically based at the outskirts of Columbia, takes big data and produces visualizations and analytics that make sense of the information.
Berry got his start in the intelligence community. Company Vice President Brian Lehman worked for a defense contractor. When Berry, Lehman and six fellow co-owners founded Visionist in 2010, their goal was to create the kind of workplace culture seen in small companies, where employees all know each other and the office feels like a community.
They want their staff to be happy. And that begins with the hiring process. While Visionist's job listings, like those of other companies, include titles, job summaries, core responsibilities and desired qualifications, the fundamental intention is to hire someone who will be good at the job, then figure out what that employee is passionate about and place them on projects that will engage that passion.
"That dialogue with each employee continues," Lehman said. "We have enough opportunities in different areas that we have other options or places for people to go. Those options mean people can make a career out of Visionist rather than have to go elsewhere."
This approach seems to be working. In five years, Visionist has expanded to about 75 employees, and leadership is confident the business will continue to grow. Many of the new hires have been referrals from current employees who recommend the company to their acquaintances.
An employee's first day of work includes a traditional welcome lunch with about 20 new colleagues. They'll arrive at a headquarters that includes table tennis and foosball — offering momentary respites to clear the heads of those writing software for eight hours a day.
Although the company's philosophy prioritizes individual strengths and passions, Lehman said Visionist has an informal network of developers who help each other out. The relatively flat office hierarchy is actually a good thing, he said, because employees aren't competing or politicking to advance to the next level. Instead, they're empowered and treated like entrepreneurs, including receiving research and design funding when they come up with great ideas.
"I get to define it," one employee wrote. "Visionist is a place where I can pursue my career in whatever way is the most interesting to me."
In the ever-evolving IT field, continuing education is imperative, said Dan Johnson, senior software engineer at Visionist. Visionist managers encourage staff to find technology conferences they want to attend, he said, including sending one staffer in June to a software development conference in Amsterdam.
"The biggest reason I like working here is they invest very heavily in the skill set of their developers," he said.
The team building continues twice a year, with days that start with talking business and celebrating successes before moving on to group activities such as an office poker tournament, go-kart racing, skeet shooting or even curling (sliding stones on ice, not hair styling).
Employees participate together in fundraisers as well, including the 24 Hours of Booty bike ride to raise money to fight cancer. About 30 employees rode more than 1,000 combined miles. They also traveled in November to a resort at Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, where Visionist paid for employees and their guests to celebrate the company's fifth anniversary.
Among other benefits: New parents get $500 in reimbursement for takeout dinners during the first three months after their baby is born, a perk the executives feel is more beneficial than a basket of flowers.
"I love my job because it's the right balance of challenging and encouraging, all while having healthy doses of fun," an employee said. "There's no such thing as a 'day to day,' because there's nothing mundane about my job."