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?
I have been working at Talis Information full-time
Very people centric.
Very sensible pragmatic decisions are made.
I have to share some cons - but I'm not really sure there are any.
a great place to be if you want to be visible and accountable and want to work with some smart, very committed people, doing some interesting fun things. Opportunities arise quite often by making a personal decision to understand and develop a knowledge of something. This personal initiative is encouraged and supported. Learning is expected
Its full on and can be relentless. The visibility can be a double edged sword. Making your own role is great if that's what you want but can be incredibly personally challenging
its not in California
Advice to Management
Keep listening across all parts of the company all of the time, keep that listening evident for all and maintain the information sharing as the challenges increase
The company is organised into 3 divisions, so the type of work developers are involved in varies depending on the focus of the division. I have only experienced working in one of these divisions, but from my own time in post, Talis offers the following:
- Very strong technical team with a forward thinking mindset and a broad and deep range of skills; there are a lot of people here from whom you can learn
- Interesting and challenging projects in emerging areas (e.g. Semantic Web, Collective Intelligence)
- Human scale employer (c. 100 employees and planning to remain around a similar size), meaning you are considered and treated as a real person as opposed to just a faceless cog in a big machine
- "20% time" (and not just for developers) to pursue technologies and projects of interest during core working hours, most recently through internal hack days
- Working with interesting, cutting edge and emerging technologies on a regular basis
- Agile development practices and a commitment to continuous improvement, fully backed at management level. TDD, continuous integration, pairing, etc. are pretty much standard across all divisions, but each team is free to adopt and refine a process that works for them
- Flexible working; every employee has a laptop (you can choose whether you want to go with Mac, Windows or Linux) and working from home when required is never a problem
- The opportunity to have a real influence on your own working environment in terms of technologies, tools and processes
- Open and friendly culture
- Regular and valuable feedback from director & senior management level, including quarterly company meetings providing detailed information on the financial and strategic goals and performance of the company and each division within it
- Employee share option scheme
- Lack of internal politics, squabbling and ego-driven behaviour
- Excellent visibility and standing in the Semantic Web community, which is an area Talis is investing in increasingly for the future. Don't take my word for that; just Google "semantic web talis" and spend a few minutes following some of the links. The same is also true for the Library community, which was the original focus of the company and is still the biggest source of company revenue
- As a developer, I report directly to a developer (and a very good one at that), i.e. someone that has a full understanding of my job. The developer I report to also reports to a very strong developer, so the 2 layers of management directly above me are both highly technical people with a very solid appreciation of software development. In my experience, this is invaluable.
The location could be better; Talis is situated on a modern business park close to Birmingham International airport. Whilst the environment is pleasant enough, there isn't really anything much around in terms of amenities (shops, banks, etc.) within walking distance.
Advice to Management
I don't have any advice for the senior management team; they seem to know what they are doing. The only reason I am filling in this section of the form is that it is a mandatory field and I couldn't submit without completing it.
Great technology, some great people (that avoid becoming managers), good work life balance on the surface
There appears to have evolved a distancing between senior management and the rest of the business, which has manifested itself in a very dictatorial, none-consultative and opaque style of management. This is not only worrying and undermining for those directly on the receiving end, but has also helped create a culture of fear and distrust amongst the majority of Talis employees.
This is particularly true of two members of the Senior Management Team (SMT) who have very little management experience.
There are numerous people who will confirm that the SMT continue to make decisions behind closed doors, without negotiation, consultation or even reasonable explanation with those the decisions will effect, even if the effects are profound and result in changes to the individual's core role, responsibilities and sometimes employment contract. Often decisions are communicated in a worse than dismissive way, verging on bullying.
There is a growing impression based on the way SMT has conducted its self over the last few years or so, that anyone who speaks out against what are clearly mistakes by the SMT, that they will eventually leave the company aggrieved, even if no formal process is started.
There is a sense that particularly when managers reporting to SMT start to question or challenge the two SMT members in particular, that the issue stops there. Also that if the CEO becomes involved or is directly challenged he will seek council only from the SMT members and do nothing to take a wider view. In fact probably part of the problem is that the CEO has removed almost all channels of feedback that go below the SMT; it has been noted in company meetings by those brave enough to speak out that the CEO appears to be distancing himself from Talis. It is clear that he has a lot of trust in his SMT members, which in some ways is commendable, but it verges on blind trust and allows no room to seek sensible mechanisms to appraise the SMT's performance. His impression of what is happening at Talis comes almost exclusively via the SMT.
Worse than the fact that if there are serious issues raised to the two mentioned SMT members the issue stops with them, is that it appears almost as though they close ranks to protect themselves from any negative impression that should make it to the CEO, and are prepared to twist the truth, quote out of context and deny past statements and conversations so as to direct the blame away from themselves, they do all this hoping the opacity they've created will hide the truth from us, so when, inevitably their tactics require them to focus their failures on a scape goat, and there have been many at Talis, we wont notice.
Advice to Management
read less, I was going to say do more, but actually do less too, do less of what you are doing and do more of respecting the people who actually make the thing tick. If its about the people find a people person who is in fact personable
Talis have flexibility at the heart of their work ethos. Home working, laptops for every employee and flexible working hours are all what I experienced as a developer at Talis. However, these priviliedges were being curbed towards the end by a manager who didn't understand the team, had little grasp of how to communicate with us and ignored our advice effectively demanding we accept and implement his ideas, effectively dismantling the team.
Top heavy management structure. For a company of roughly 100 people we had 4 layers of management, CEO (chief exec), CTO (chief tech), TA (tech architect) and team leads. The two top levels sat in offices away from the rest of the company and hardly spoke to the rest of us. Communication between the layers was poor and decision making was massively impacted.
Be assured there is little scope for career advancement at Talis. People are put in and taken out of roles at the whims of top tier management. You are more likely to get ahead through sycophancy than merit. In fact I've seen two very competent senior managers constructively dismissed because they were trying to improve their areas of the business which was highlighting the deficiencies of their managers. Projects with source code in a poor state have been half completed by those in team leaders that are in favour and passed across to teams less in favour to do the hard bit and the blame for the lack of progress has then landed on the shoulders of the largely innocent recipients.
They make out to their customers that progress on key products is continuting at a steady rate when the teams that worked on those products have mostly moved on to pastures new to escape the destructive atmosphere. Staff turnover at Talis is massive with over 100 people moving on or being forcibly removed in the last three years. That's 1/3 of the company each year.
The last internal company meeting (which, at the time of writing, was Dec 2008) indicated that profit was nearly 0%. Staff pay structure is almost non-existant with wages reflecting your ability to massage the egos of the top tiers of management than deliver good, quality software/products.
They have diverted cash away from their main library software products in a gamble on semantic web technology. Whilst not necessarily a bad thing in itself their approach is doomed to failure. They have left hardly any money for future development of their existing product suite putting their existing client base at risk and are piping the cash into a SaaS semantic web platform that doesn't scale and is difficult to use. A simple open source offereing hosted in the cloud would derail their whole approach and any business model based on it would collapse leaving all the money invested wasted.
Edit: - whoops, there already is one. It's called OpenLink Virtuoso.
Advice to Management
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