‘In the center of town’

From spare bedroom startup to international nearshoring pioneer, agility drives Unosquare’s success

Mike Barrett
Mike Barrett, Unosquare Chief Revenue Officer, recently moved to downtown Vancouver. His view is of his new home on the Waterfront. Courtesy of Unosquare

From a nimble startup in 2009 to a 505-employee software development thought leader today, Unosquare is poised for longevity in the ever-changing economic landscape that is the perennial undoing of tech startups.

Agility is at the heart of the recent Vancouver transplant’s prosperity and profitability.

Agile on purpose

Michael Barrett, Unosquare’s founder and Chief Revenue Officer, says the company has played a role in maturing the industry itself, creating a necessary shift from offshoring to “nearshoring,” a location strategy that provides services outside the U.S. border but in a similar time zone. To that end, the company employs 450 in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, a growing presence in Leon, and recently opened up an office in Belfast, Ireland, where the company employs 55 and plans to grow to 100. Unosquare has marketplace advisors in Chicago, Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Philadelphia, Lake Oswego and Vancouver.

Unosquare uses the distributed agile development methodology for integrating its developers in with their clients, and nearshoring is at the heart of this method. Every day, there is a stand -up meeting in the morning that identifies the three key goals for the day in addition to what’s blocking them. The engineers post code all day long working side by side – virtually – with onsite engineers until close of business. The next day, there is another meeting, a realignment, a new three-point plan, and it’s off to the races. These daily meetings punctuate a series of two-week sprints. When the software is released, the stakeholders have a release retrospective to evaluate and move forward. The whole method depends heavily on software developers working in real-time.

“In software development, communication is needed all day long for the code to be good,” Barrett said.

In 2011, Barrett founded the Nearshore Executive Alliance in order to help mature the software industry into this new way of doing business, which just 10 years ago was nearly unheard of, when the emphasis was on offshoring to places like India.

“Software development is being led by agile service providers with better results than the classic (way of doing business),” Barrett said.

Agile by nature

In June 2018, Unosquare moved its Portland metro operations to Vancouver, opening in the Regus offices at 1220 Main St., and it will close down its Lake Oswego operation in October. Ever on the leading edge, Barrett and his wife Donna moved into the waterfront apartment building, the Rediviva, on Dec. 15 with the first wave of occupants.

According to Barrett, Unosquare was started in a spare bedroom in Lincoln City, in the middle of the recession. Barrett speaks candidly of being in debt, desperate and hungry for change when he founded the company on a shoestring with Mario Di Vece, chairman and CIO.

“Mario was the engineer and project manager. I’d go get clients,” Barrett said.

Unosquare’s first client was MedAssets, a “$400 million publicly traded healthcare company” where Barrett’s friend and colleague Randy Sparkman was the CTO. However, when the first job was invoiced, Barrett knew Unosquare would be out of business if the company didn’t pay upon receipt. Sparkman pulled in a favor from the CFO, and four years later, Unosquare was still getting paid on receipt. By the time a new CFO put a stop to this exception to the rule, Unosquare was solvent. Sparkman moved on from MedAssets but is still an Unosquare client today.

Unosquare creates enterprise class software focused on three verticals: financial services (such as banking, insurance and payments); health care (such as diagnostics, labs, electronic medical records and custom software); and high tech.

“We work with all the biggest health care companies in the region except for Legacy, and our largest client is a $10 billion federally chartered bank in San Diego,” Barrett said.

Unosquare appears to thrive on the complicated and changeable compliance and regulatory issues that its clients face.

“It’s those changes that drive our business – the more compliance there is, the more work we have to do,” Barrett said.

Finding partners in a changing landscape

Barrett remains undaunted by a turn of the economic tide.

“We know the downturn is coming and we are able to shift,” he said. “Business drivers in 2009 were totally different from today. Unemployment was high, the economy was bad, companies were nervous about hiring and we were doing a lot of projects. Now the employment rate is phenomenally low, we can’t find software developers. There’s not a lot of available talent, we’re not graduating enough engineers.”

Enter Washington State University Vancouver and new Assistant Vice Chancellor for Strategic Partnerships Max Ault. The two have been talking about WSU’s role in workforce development, and potentially growing a “subset of tech” locally. Barrett is impressed by what “Max Ault is doing at WSU and their partnership with businesses.”

“As a true community-focused campus, collaborative industry and community partnerships have been part of WSU Vancouver’s DNA since its inception in 1989, with early support from the Southwest Washington High Tech Council, that set the stage for continued and closely integrated work with our region’s high-tech industries for the last 30 years,” Ault said in an email. “This strong and continued involvement with regional and statewide employers has allowed WSU and WSU Vancouver to respond to shifting industry and economic trends that align with the university’s core academic and research competencies while supporting a next generation workforce, positioning the Pacific Northwest as one of the most sought-after and competitive business environments in the country.”

Specifically, WSU Vancouver’s School of Engineering and Computer Science offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science, in addition to targeted programs in web and mobile app development, game studies and design, and physical computing focusing directly on virtual reality, augmented reality and motion tracking through the Creative Media and Digital Culture Program.

“WSU Vancouver is constantly seeking to be at the forefront of relevant industry technical innovation and research,” Ault said.

According to statistics provided by the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC), as of 2017, Clark County employed 2,400 people across the software sector and another 3,000 people across the computers and electronics sector.

Tech jobs keep growing

“We see great opportunity for growth within these two sectors, with data pointing to over 100 new potential job openings in Clark County each year for the next decade in the software sector alone,” said CREDC President Jennifer Baker, in a statement prepared for the Vancouver Business Journal. “Jobs in these two sectors are critical to the regional economy as these occupations are among the highest income earners in Clark County, with an average annual salary of $102,545 across the software sector and $49,000 in the computers and electronics sector.”

Over the next decade, the CREDC anticipates to see the talent base grow by an additional 16 percent across the software sector and an additional 15 percent across the computers and electronics sector.

Both Ault, who is the former interim director of the CREDC, and Baker point to the Clark County Comprehensive Economic Development Plan, adopted in 2017, as a driver in creating the kind of competitive advantages that will draw companies like tech startups Unosquare, DiscoverOrg and RealWear to join established companies like nLight and SEH America in Southwest Washington.

“(The plan) established a 20-year vision and identified five key industry clusters that present high opportunity for growth and set our competitive advantage as a region … computers and electronics, metals and machinery, clean tech, software and life sciences,” Baker said. “While software and computers and electronics both fall directly under the technology umbrella, tech is driving continued innovation throughout the rest of the top sectors – making it critical across the board for economic development.”

“That plan takes a proactive approach to highlighting and building on the region’s greatest competitive advantage that range from the quality of place – our investment in unique spaces across our community, reliable and adaptable infrastructure and a commitment to a strong community brand and ethos,” Ault added. “In addition to quality of place, overall affordability and access to a broad array of outdoor and recreational amenities is a key driver, in addition to the people – access to an existing and emerging workforce that meets not just current industry demands, but the demands of the future 5, 10, and 20 years down the road.”

Barrett put it another way, drawing a comparison between opening in Belfast and opening in Vancouver, “There are a lot of opportunities in the B cities.” He added the waterfront, the dining scene and energy of innovators who want to work on the north side of the river add an unexpected vibrancy to his relocation. “Vancouver,” he said, “is surprisingly wonderful.”

He emphasized that his next goal is to reach out to local creatives and entrepreneurs. “There’s a Portland diaspora here in Vancouver. I’d love to get together with them and figure out what are we going to do for Vancouver?”

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