I worked at Talis Information full-time (Less than a year)
I took a permanent engineer position with Talis about three years ago, and it did not work out as expected. At the time, I put this down to my "face not fitting", and tacitly accepted most of the responsibility for having to leave after a number of months. However, having more recently come out of a very successful long stint with another start-up in the region, I find myself mentally revising my opinion of what happened. I've just signed up to Glassdoor, so I thought I'd share my thoughts publicly with interested readers.
Let's start with the plus-points first. The technical talent in the company is excellent, and the variety of technologies in use should please anyone looking for a challenge in engineering or operations. There is a "getting things done" mentality that does not mind what languages/tech is used, as long as decisions can be justified, it passes continuous integration, and it works. There's some PHP, Java, Mongo, cross-platform mobile dev, desktop apps (embedded Node), graph databases, dev-ops, Puppet, AWS. The level of functional testing is excellent, all on Selenium.
The sales team have an impressive track record: last I checked the company has a perfect sales renewals record to their university customers, and from what I recall they're not the cheapest on the market. The company runs open-day seminars for its customers, where customers exchange tips on integrating Talis software with their complex enterprise systems, and where Talis reps can showcase best practice usage.
Most people at the company are genuinely personable, welcoming and helpful. Everyone is committed in what they do.
The benefits are very good: employees who are kept on after probation can expect a pension with excellent company contributions, and paper shares that can be cashed in should the company be sold. Salaries seem to be at least at market rate.
There are a few fun things, like board games on a Friday, the odd hack day, and team meals in the pub.
The HQ office in the Jewellery Quarter is 15 minutes walk into Birmingham city centre, and is close to a very beautiful St. Paul's Square and Cathedral, which is especially lovely in the summer.
Now onto the minuses. I am afraid to say that this section is likely to be rather longer, but I write it because Talis is a switched-on company and will want to learn from its mistakes.
After a couple of weeks at Talis, I was asked to schedule one-to-one coffee meetings with a supplied list of colleagues, around ten people. For each one, we'd pop to a local coffee shop, and the bill would be paid by the company. This sounds awesome, but I should have spotted this device a mile off: I was still being interviewed. In hindsight, it wouldn't have been more obvious if it had a hand-signed label attached to it, "good luck, with love from the executive team". In three especially terse and awkward meetings, questions that should have been conversational seemed poised to trip me up repeatedly, and when I spoke, somehow my answers hung in the air, to be examined by a hostile interlocutor for signs of dreadful inadequacy, pregnant pauses included.
I am sorry to say the CEO meeting was the most difficult of the lot. I couldn't say anything right, and in the end it was easiest to let him talk about himself for ninety minutes, and to duck metaphorically out of his searching cross-hairs as much as possible. Hand on heart, I just can't recall anything said to me at that meeting that was designed to set me at ease, or to welcome me as a new colleague. Perhaps a "baptism of fire" was the whole point. To be fair to this individual though, he did remember to ask me some conversational and acquainting questions during the two minute walk back to the office.
Now, I should say to my readership that I have two characteristics that mark me out as typical of a software engineer. The first is I experience imposter syndrome at least every other day, and the other, entirely related, is that I have (a reasonably well-managed) social anxiety. It is in this context that the coffee meetings become emblematic for the rest of my Talis experience: the team is talented, but in parts it is hierarchical and cliquey.
Some months pass, and I am digging more deeply into monolithic PHP applications, which have been hugely over-engineered by a poorly managed (but cheap) offshore development team. The office is often so quiet you can hear a pin drop, though conversation sometimes happens between people who've outed themselves as decent-minded and friendly. Unfortunately the extremely talented developer in the corner is sitting in a "rock star" chair, through no fault of his own, and every time I need his attention I feel I am rudely interrupting his (much more important) work.
And so it was that we delved into tougher deadlines, and I am beginning to struggle with the pressure. It's not that it was particularly complex work, but my professional confidence was already wavering. The team lead starts to take me into a series of private meetings to "express concerns", and, in hindsight, I don't think I have ever felt so unsupported in a professional setting. A management system that should have been looking to help was looking to blame, and criticism is so sharp and hidden I wonder if I am being bullied. I approached the CTO to help smooth things over, but this meeting did not go well, and I realised that seeking out support from the hierarchy was futile. I either had to jump or be pushed at this point, so I jumped.
One of the criticisms of the tech industry in the last few years is that participants have sometimes become too pushy, too competitive, and in the end a shiny lovely app like Uber gets a dreadful reputation like, well, Uber. My experience of Talis was the unfortunate embodiment of that principle, even though there are a good many decent and approachable people who still work there.
Here, two and something years later, it occurs to me for the first time that some of this may be an unfortunate consequence of the share plan. A device intended to motivate and inspire results in a circling-of-the-wagons, and a gnawing suspicion that every new hire is diluting the company's chances of success (and whopper payday). So I put that down, for the reader, as both a "pro" and a "con".
It occurs to me that I should have seen the little clues that point to what it's like in a start-up that likes a game of hardball. The first was that I was in coffee conversation (one of the nice ones), and my new drinking companion was thrilled at the recent news that Talis had hired a key resource away from a competitor. Whether that was the point of that hire I can only guess, but my charming and loquacious colleague was evidently delighted at this kneecapping. I am not exactly an enthusiastic capitalist, but I recall thinking that perhaps we should be playing a better game, rather than taking the ball home. Maybe I am just not hard-nosed enough.
Although Talis hasn't been totally overcome by "brogrammer" culture, shortly afterwards another (equally nice) chap set up a Chuck Norris bot on HipChat. So, if you want to receive periodic desktop notifications about having balls so big they need to be nailed to the wall then you'll, erm, fit right in! (No, I didn't understand it either).
In summary, given these cultural problems, am I telling the reader not to apply to work at Talis? Not really, no - the company has a good record of staff retention, and if a new hire can negotiate the face-fit hurdles, a rewarding and well-remunerated career is still possible. You'll need to be robust, and willing to throw yourself happily into a somewhat scrappy, machismo culture. I would note also that my observations are 2.5+ years out of date, and I would be thrilled if these issues had already been addressed. And, of course, you shouldn't listen to anonymous strangers on the internet! :-)
(I'd like to rate Talis a 2.5 stars, since 2 seems a bit low, and 3 seems rather generous. Since it is better to have an opinion than to express one too mildly, I am going for a 2.)
Advice to Management
I've identified a number of environmental issues that would be worth thinking about. It may be that the company is considered tickety-boo as it is, or that no-one is complaining, or that grumblers like myself have been safely excised. But, insofar as there are some wonderful people at the company, I should love to see it do well, and to that end, I'd like to hear that efforts are being made to address problems that undoubtedly complicate on-boarding. Most of the below are questions rather than solutions, but they should be food for thought:
Are introverts welcome at the company? Are women welcome in the bantering, male-oriented environment? Is a helpful face revealed when senior staff meet new hires for the first time? How can the company acquire a reputation for being supportive?
How is team cohesion developed and monitored? If you don't have it already, I suggest using employee engagement software to look at this (there are several hosted apps on the market).
Do you have an anti-bullying policy? How do you smooth out the power differentials in a team? How can estimating/planning meetings protect against team members with the strongest personalities? Do you move people around teams based on the most appropriate social dynamics?
Let us know if we're missing any workplace or industry recognition –