Atomic Object’s Watson on Its “No Brainer” Expansion to Detroit
[Corrected 3/22/13, 2:20 p.m. See below.] Bruce Watson spent 20 years working in IT for Nike in Beaverton, OR, and another six years doing consulting work. Finally, he was ready to settle into retirement in a big house on a boutique organic blueberry farm overlooking Mt. Hood, one of the most picturesque spots in the northwestern United States. Then he got a call from Atomic Object, a custom software company based in Grand Rapids, MI, that wanted to open a Detroit office.
Watson knew the company well as a former customer, and he said he was fascinated with Atomic Object’s values and the culture it was trying to build. “But that’s not what brought us to Detroit,” he explains. “Detroit is making a comeback, and nobody on the outside believes us, but it’s here. There’s a groundswell, and we wanted to be a part of it. ”
With Watson at the helm as managing partner, Atomic Object officially opened the doors of its beautifully restored office space in the Harmonie Park section of downtown Detroit last spring. The company has been an active member of Detroit’s tech scene ever since, hosting countless meetups, classes, and other community events. “We believe the tech community will be revitalized here—it’s one of the keys to Detroit’s future that it be seen not only as a thriving auto center, but also a tech center. The creativity side is here, but nobody thinks about that.”
Watson says Atomic Object creates custom software for everyone from startups like ReapSo to Fortune 500 companies to entities like the International Finance Corporation. The company has fully integrated design and software development capabilities and is guided by a fairly straightforward set of principles: Give a shit, share the pain, teach and learn, own it, and act transparently. “We care about our craft, company, and customer,” Watson says. “It’s not our intent to get big, but to be great. You have to focus on people and customers and constantly refining what you do.”
As Watson, pictured below, takes me on a tour of the Detroit office, he shows me an entire wall of storyboards, which is the medium the company uses to create personas for its clients before it even starts building software. What Watson wants to solve is the industry-wide problem of developing billions of dollars worth of software that’s never used. “We focus on who’s using it and how they’re using it,” he points out. “We laser focus in on the actual features and functions that are necessary for a minimum viable product. Our designers stay with the team all the way through the coding process and some of the user interfaces, as well.”
Atomic Object regularly offers up its space and expertise to community groups like Girl Develop It, an initiative to teach more local young women how to code. (Watch this space for more on Girl Develop It next week.) Atomic Object has
also teamed up with a Quicken Loans employee named John Fair to co-found Detroit Lambda Lounge, which Watson calls “an uber-nerd Meetup” dedicated to programming paradigms, abstraction, and more. “We could just be here bringing jobs and paying taxes, but it’s important to us to give back to the community,” Watson notes. [An earlier version of this paragraph said that Lambda Lounge was co-founded with Detroit Labs. We regret the error.]
Atomic Object was founded 12 years ago in Grand Rapids; its office there now employs 35 while the one in Detroit employs four full-time people, and Watson says he’s hiring. Though the company is passionate about being a part of Detroit’s revitalization, it also was attracted to the city because operating costs here are so low.
“What Compuware and Dan Gilbert have done [through their investments in Detroit] has been a magnet for companies like us,” Watson adds. “We’re successful, and people may say, ‘Why Detroit?’ But to us, it seemed like a no-brainer. It’s a case of a Michigan firm investing in Michigan. If Detroit makes a comeback, that’s only going to strengthen our company.”