Business professional on the balcony of an office building looking out over the rest of the city

My Career Journey

Here’s some context around how I got to where I am today and some stuff I picked up on the way.
 
*Warning * – There will be some IT Geek Speak which may be understood by only some folks who lived through some of the same experiences or have an interest. I hope to keep it to a minimum and that everyone can still get the gist.

My Start in Finance

My first non-retail/service industry job was working at Imperial Savings in San Diego. This made perfect sense, and worked out well at the time, as I was working towards my Finance degree during the evenings in SDSU’s impacted business program (it was incredibly hard to get a class during the day – there were waiting lists you wouldn’t believe). This was not only my first full-time job but introduced me to the very different world of the adult workforce. Within a year I was also introduced to the Resolution Trust Corporation, the Savings and Loan Crisis and the vagaries of unemployment. It was a discouraging start to my career in Finance.

I left San Diego for Los Angeles and a job with Sanwa Bank to be closer to family I had in the area. This job was the turning point for me; within months I was put on an IT project to systematize our auto lease/loan docs and never looked back. The IT Director there was incredibly encouraging, and since I hadn’t had the best experiences in Finance so far, I transferred over to IT full time.

IT Going Into the Late 80’s

To set the scene for those of you with some background in Tech: At this point in time we were working with Novell servers, token ring networks, and diskless x286 workstations that were being used as dumb terminals to connect to a mainframe (boot images were stored on the Novell server). This was not the poster child for cutting edge. This was also a time when networking (epitomized by Ethernet and switches rather than hubs) was taking off. It was also the beginning of Cisco forming in 1984, Microsoft releasing Windows in 1985 and Windows NT in 1993. It was a major expansion and you just needed to be passionate about the possibilities to find work.

Networking Explodes

I decided to leave the bank and their 2-3% annual raises and start working as a tech for an IT consultancy for a 10% increase. This period was like the wild wild west, and I could move from place to place every year without anyone flinching because these skills were in such high demand with so few people understanding the tech. This meant progressively adding another $10K to my salary with every move (a lot in those days and certainly more than the 2% I’d get by staying put). I moved from the consultancy to Great Western Bank, Huntington Provider Group (bought by Unimed), CBS Television, and finally Gibson Dunn & Crutcher (respectively). This progression lasted through most of the 90’s.

As I alluded to earlier, the networking and client-server landscape exploded through this period. While it was a ton of fun, it certainly had its challenges. For example, in those days we had to write batch files to load the drivers for the network cards and their protocols (e.g. IPX/SPX), and they all needed to load in just the first 64K of memory or it was no go.

Another example: at that time laptops did not have built-in networking cards. You would pick and choose wired and wireless network cards (and modems – this is the AOL dial-up era) from different vendors to put in the PCMCIA slots that were available. You would dictate the COM port and Interrupt (IRQ) that each device would use and there could be no conflicts. At Great Western Bank I was part of a team where our mandate was to test different card combinations in the latest laptops from Dell, HP, etc. and develop what the company standards would be for the following year. There’s a generation that has grown up with Plug and Play (PnP) who have no idea how good they’ve got it!

Joining the Dot-Com Era

Just as the Dot-Com bubble was at its height, I was approached by people I knew in San Diego to join Transnational Partners LLP (TNP). TNP was a consultancy that had contracts with Sempra Energy to help them navigate and profit from California’s deregulation of their industry in the late 90’s. The founders were developers who, at one point, came from the Defense Industry working on projects for the DoD before getting into commercial software development. At the time, I couldn’t realize how much I would learn from this experience and how it would start the process of bringing me full circle back to my Finance education.

What TNP did was to develop projects/lines of business in the deregulated side of Sempra’s business (there were clear lines of demarcation between regulated and deregulated) such as a business unit that provided fixed-price, fixed-timeline SAP implementation services to other energy providers across the country.

In addition to the financial upside for Sempra there was an additional benefit. TNP’s developers would work with and train Sempra coders who were seconded from the regulated business and put into small mixed TNP/Sempra development teams or “Pods” at the new “Center of Excellence”, a building on the other side of the city from the main Sempra headquarters. These folks had previously been trained in soon to be outdated languages such as COBOL which had been the standard for mainframe systems. The work they now did was to learn best practices in the latest object-oriented technologies, which at that time was Java, what would soon be coined as “middleware”, and the implementation of methodologies which were the precursor to Agile. They would then go back to their former positions with these new skill sets to improve efficiencies (e.g. more easily access silos of data via the implementation of middleware) and evangelize the object-oriented concepts they had learned. This was a win-win for Sempra – under this model they were able to not only train their staff in new technologies (usually a sunk cost) but the developers were contributing to revenue generation in the process!

The Birth of Cayenta

As TNP’s profits skyrocketed, it came under the attention of one of the founder’s former employers, defense contractor Titan Corporation. At the time Titan was looking at a strategy to diversify outside of the public sector, capitalize on the Dot-Com boom, and thereby increase its valuation. Titan purchased TNP in 1999 and rebranded it as Cayenta. The strategy behind Cayenta was to evolve from a commercial software integration business to a services provider offering a full line of Internet-based management systems. To that end, not only did Titan roll one of its existing business units specializing in Defense-based integration services but funded the purchase of four commercial software companies. It was our job to take these four companies, all with completely different technologies, and find a way to make them Internet-accessible.

Into the Deep End

Okay, now I want you to ….

…build a corporate office to house 200+ employees, and a $15 million Network Operations Center (NOC) and Data Center in under 90 days. The NOC and data center were nothing huge in terms of square footage, but you still need a clean room, racks, redundant power, fire protection, etc. Fill it with millions in networking equipment, servers running Windows and Solaris, and add an AS400 too. Additionally, setup a presence in a colocation facility in L.A. and connect it to your data center. While it’s not that far from S.D. to L.A., about 120 miles, it’s not a drive you really want to make.

…have everything you do be under the pressure of preparing for an IPO that’s supposedly coming up fast, and the scrutiny of Credit Suisse, who’s venture arm was underwriting the IPO. While they guys were all incredible, we were “encouraged” to utilize vendors with whom Credit Suisse had made an investment (the L.A. colocation facility being an example). While it didn’t undermine the design of what we did or the quality, it could make some extra work when you’re already under the gun and doing more with less (time being the most valuable resource).

…get thrown onto a M&A team to assess software companies. While, as the person responsible for running the NOC and Data Center, my primary focus was looking at how to integrate their back-office systems and host their soon to be converted software, I was exposed to so much more. Among other things, this was my first real foray into real-world balance sheets and what to look for in terms of assessing an organizations actual financial health. The theory that’s taught in school doesn’t really prepare you – you need to be taught by folks with experience.

…now that you’ve acquired these companies/business units that are located in Los Angeles, Reston, Salt Lake City, and Vancouver CA, establish connectivity and merge all their back-office systems into one integrated infrastructure (e.g. merge/migrate from multiple Active Directory Forests).

…get thrown into the deep end of corporate politics. Imagine dealing with five former CEOs who are now business unit managers. Cayenta (actually “Kayenta” from the Anasazi) was imagined by the founder to act similarly to the Iroquois Confederacy, where the six tribes joined “united in a common council”. Let me just say that egos don’t always work that way. It’s hard for some folks to be an Indian once they’ve been a chief.

…learn about 4 very different software systems that include a utility management system (UMS), an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). Learn to operationally support an entire business process for each software company, not just the software but all supporting systems and process to complete that business process from end-to-end. For example, the business process surrounding the UMS included getting meter read uploads from the energy utility customer, providing access to Sempra’s Toronto-based customer support representatives, accepting payments from various sources including Western Union, and managing the bill extract process that sends out bills to the customers. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but we didn’t have API’s that were exposed externally back then.

…on top of running a 24/7 operation and a department of more than 30 people act as the technical salesperson for all the software business units. Get a crash course in “solution selling” while working with sales teams that are used to selling shrink-wrapped software, not software-as-a-service. Convince potential clients that you can keep the application running and their data safe. Additionally, see if you can sell some add-on consulting services to upgrade their internal infrastructure and ensure they can handle this new delivery paradigm.

As the Dot-com bubble burst, Cayenta came to a slow end, at least as we had known it. Instead of just shutting down, people were let go slowly and eventually the software companies that were purchased were sold again. This was done to not panic the market analysts and maintain the price per share that Titan had gained from this diversification strategy. This was the end of the most critical change to my career and its growth; everything afterwards was primarily just a refinement of what I learned during these years.

TechConnect

After Cayenta closed, one of the founders was then involved in a new venture in partnership with Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL) that was meant to provide a knowledge management (KM) solution to the defense sector. With the predicted changes in modern warfare from larger scale engagements to smaller regional conflicts, the larger government contracts were thought to be a thing of the past. This meant that defense contractors needed to be more agile and look for opportunities ahead of their competitors.

The TechConnect product combined data extracted from a multitude of sources including government contracts and appropriations, human intel, a database of the customers own IP, etc. The data was then represented in a semantic network to show hidden relationships and the relative strength of those relationships. The data was then analyzed by subject matter experts from ORNL, and the output was a report that was the result of the data and analysis.

At first, customers were readily available. However, after a while it was apparent that what customers really wanted was access to the ORNL analysts and an inside track to getting the contracts coming out of the Department of Energy (DOE) who managed ORNL; there wasn’t really a market for the product. For the second time, I was involved in a startup that had some momentum but couldn’t get off the ground.

Seattle

After the bubble had burst and TechConnect shut its doors, being in San Diego, I found myself in a city that didn’t have much in terms of opportunity. At that time the only Fortune 500 companies were Qualcomm and Sempra Energy, and the only tech companies were biotech. So, where else does an IT guy pick up and move his entire family, but Seattle.

While I had setup my own company on paper, I needed to generate income. In the first couple of years, I went to work for three different IT support companies. In each case, I found myself the right-hand of an owner who just didn’t get it and/or played it fast and loose in some manner, the last two with their ethics. My last position provides an example of both not getting it and being ethically challenged. It’s also how I eventually started my own company.

The Last Straw

This was the time when IT services companies had started to become known as Managed Service Providers (MSP) and were moving from break/fix business to model to monthly recurring revenue (MRR), or simply put, a flat monthly fee instead of hourly. I was helping the owner move to this model by lining up existing clients to switch over to the monthly contract. To me, the MRR model had great appeal since the owner would scramble at the end of the month to find billable hours (sometimes generating them out of thin air…). We were sitting in the contract signing meeting with the first customer when the office manager commented to my boss that he “must love this new model” with its guaranteed money. His response was “no, I hate it”. You could feel the air leave the room.

A little later, the board of directors of another client was looking to sell their software company and recoup their investment. In preparing the company for acquisition and as part of the valuation process, they hired a very senior consultant to come in and inventory all their IT assets and intellectual property. One day he pulls me into their computer room and asks me about a group of servers that were there and didn’t seem to be in the inventory. I was in the very awkward position of either lying to him or explaining that those servers belonged to another client and had been placed there by my boss (stealing their power and internet bandwidth) with no pre-authorization or discount to the bill as compensation. Being put in this position was really the last straw for me and I knew I had to get free. Through the valuation process, the consultant and I had built something of a relationship, and he encouraged me to get out of what was obviously a bad situation and start a company where I could do things the right way. Thus, the BTS Group was born.

The BTS Group

I opened BTS in 2008 and began the difficult path towards success. In the beginning I had to do everything from sales and marketing to operations and project delivery. A lot of lessons learned here, including:

  • You can’t replicate yourself, but you can offload portions where you aren’t critical to success, or someone can do it even better.
  • When you do hand it over, you need to provide oversight but let go of it and trust them. Just because it isn’t done exactly the way you would do it doesn’t mean it won’t get done very, very well. If they can’t get it done, make a change quick.
  • It’s all about the numbers. You need to understand and have a handle on your financial ratios and what numbers you want/need to hit. If there’s a change in your costs, are you going to raise prices or reduce profit? Can you temporarily lower your spend in some areas (e.g. ad spend) to deal with fluctuations in revenue.
  • It’s a small world and all you have is your reputation. I can’t tell you how many times I sat with someone and found that we had connections in common with a person I had known or worked with who was on the other side of the country. Social was still in its infancy.

Steadily, things moved to the cloud and being an MSP was evolving and moving in another direction. I wasn’t sure it was somewhere I wanted to go. In 2022 I sold my client contracts, took some time off to recharge my batteries, and started thinking about what I wanted to do next.

The Startup Itch

Throughout the years, I’ve always had a passion for startups (or the need to gamble in a different way than going to a casino). Since Cayenta ended, I’ve been involved in five other startups as a Director, COO or CEO. Whether it was due to a disruptive technology, lack of a well thought out value proposition, or poor execution none of these were viable. Do I feel bad about this? Not when you realize that 90% of startups fail, 20% within the first year. I learned a lot from the venture capitalists that I met early on, the most important being that you learn more from failing than succeeding, which is why they look to place people with that background in their ventures – they know what NOT to do.

Florida

In 2023, joined by our daughter, my wife and I packed up our two English Labradors and drove out to Florida so she could be closer to her parents and extended family. We are now bicoastal ‘snowbirds’ and return to Seattle to visit our two sons as often as possible (not to mention avoid hurricane season).

What’s Next

Right now, I’m just looking for another challenge whether that’s working in another startup, consulting with SMBs through BTSG, or being member of an advisory board. Whatever it is, I just want to add value and see something grow!
One female and two male office workers looking at information on laptop while standing at a railing

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Phil Porreca
philip.porreca@thebtsgroup.com


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