January 17, 2017

For Modus 21's Woodhull, Tech Consulting Is About Solving Puzzles

Ashley Fletcher Frampton  /  Charleston Digital News
Peter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEOPeter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEO
Peter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEOPeter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEO
Peter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEOPeter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEO
Peter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEOPeter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEO
Peter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEOPeter Woodhull, Modus 21 CEO

The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile series is focused on the individuals who are driving Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.

Peter Woodhull is president and founder of Modus21, a 30-person business technology consulting firm in Charleston founded in 2004.

Where did you grow up? What was life like and your memories from there?

My parents moved a lot when I was a kid, up and down the East Coast. I was actually born south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in Richmond, Va., so officially I'm allowed to be here. But just because of various work things, we moved up and down the coast and settled in southern New Hampshire. I went to high school in New Hampshire.

There was lots of snow. Nobody shovels snow in New Hampshire. A guy comes and plows your driveway. Every year, sometime in late January or early February, the snowbank next to the house would be taller than the house. So you would climb the snowbank and step onto the roof of the house. Then you could do silly things like sled off the house, down the snowbank and across the driveway.

How did you come to be in Charleston?

I married someone who said, "I am moving to Charleston."

My wife's family runs a hospitality company here in downtown Charleston. She spent her summers and her holidays here. We met in college and lived in Chicago for a couple years after we graduated. It was inevitable that she was going to come down and work for her father's company. So one day she came home and said, "I am going to go take a job with Dad." That was in '99.

I came down and spent a couple years working for Blackbaud, and then was recruited to go work for a government contractor and spent a couple years working for a company called PDIT, which is now referred to as Modulant. I worked for them for a couple of years and then decided to start my own firm. I started Modus21 in 2004.

What drew you to your current business, or inspired you to start it?

At Modulant, we built technology for a government customer that you could loosely equate to a contemporary business process management suite, a BPM suite. Which is pretty common today, but in 2001, 2002, that thing did not exist. A small team of us had literally built one from the ground up because we had a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who said, "These are my requirements." He didn't know what he wanted, but we built it, and it turned out to be this business process management suite.

Modulant didn't want to continue to support it and maintain it, so I said, "OK, I think this is really cool. I am going to go out and start a company and we are going to work in this emerging space."

I stepped out and started the organization, partnered with a couple of then-emerging BPM products, and have spent the past 12 years working in that space and venturing into service-oriented architecture, business intelligence, data analytics, software development – the core capabilities of a technology consulting firm.

What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?

My father ran paint companies. When I was 14, I started working at the paint factory. The thing I really took away from that was I really don't want to work in a factory for the rest of my life. Now it's good, noble, honorable work – don't get me wrong. But it was hot in the summer, it was cold in the winter, it was dirty, and literally it was that stamping-out-widgets thing. You were evaluated based on how many gallons of paint did you made, or how many gallons of paint did you filled and boxed that day.

It instilled in me the thought that, alright, there has to be a better way. That was what drove me in going through college and into masters programs and ultimately into starting a company.

Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?

I've always been the kind of person who takes stuff apart and puts it back together, and I like to do puzzles. It's just intellectually stimulating. I find a problem and I will inherently try to come to a solution for it.

I would argue that's really what has driven my entrepreneurial bent, if you will. I have never really started a business just because I wanted to start a business. It has always been: I'm interested in this and I need to solve this problem. Well, we have to start a business to make that happen.

In your own words, what does your company do?

We are a technology consulting firm that does business process management, SOA, business intelligence, data analytics, software development. Mostly for the government, but also for some Fortune 500 firms. All of that stuff, when I boil it all down – what we do is solve problems that customers have tried to solve in the past, but not very successfully.

We have been able to do that time and time again because we decompose a problem into its constituent piece parts and then build a solution comprised of people, process and tools. Most organizations, unfortunately, have a tendency to focus on the tooling side of it. Tools are just enablers, so if you don't get the people to do the right things, then you are wasting time and money.

For me, and for my staff, it's almost always a function of there is a problem, and we have to decompose this problem and come up with an elegant solution. That's why I find the job intriguing. It's like solving a puzzle.

How would you describe your organization's culture?

I would describe it as pretty professional. We don't have a foosball table. We don't have a Ping-Pong table. My people come to work because they want to solve problems, and then they want to get their jobs done, and then they want to go home and do whatever else they are doing, whether that's being a parent, or philanthropy, or academic study, or whatever. I try to emphasize that we are all there to get a job done, and then I want people to go off and do whatever else makes them complete as an individual.

We are pretty professional around the office. Business casual. I am the only one who wears a bow tie.

What is your management style? Why is that your approach?

I like to give people challenges and see them rise to the occasion. I provide mentoring and counseling to people, but I am not an active, hands-on manager. I will sit down with someone and say, "Here's a problem," or, "Here's something that needs to get done. Are you interested in taking this on?" And then I will ask, "How do you think you could do this?" or, "How do you think you need to approach this problem?" What I like to do is come back and check on that on a regular and consistent basis, but not every day.

I have worked for people who were concrete task managers, where they wanted to see a work-breakdown structure and they want to know what is the status of line three and what is the status of line four. That is arduous and time-consuming. I have also worked for really laissez-faire managers who have said, "You know, somebody needs to do this," and then they just wait for it to happen. Or if it doesn't happen, then they get all upset and complain bitterly to the team.

For the most part, the people who work with us are self-driven and motivated individuals. They like a little bit of guidance, but they also like the ability to kind of bounce back and forth between bumpers, if you will, and come to the right conclusion.

What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?

From good bosses, I think it really comes down to respect and treating your people well, like you'd like to be treated. I am a big proponent of that. I try to treat Modus21's resources like they are adults. They are intelligent human beings. They may stumble every once in a while, but everybody does. As long as you learn from it, that's fine.

From some bad bosses, I've learned the opposite of that. I also have realized that I cannot and will not work for people who I don't trust or don't respect. That also goes to clients, by the way. Working for good or bad bosses also correlates to good or bad clients. Life is too short and business is too difficult to work with or for people you don't respect or like. It's just not worth it.

What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?

I should probably get a placard made and hang it on the wall in my office that says, "Everything costs twice as much as it should and takes three times as long as it should." What business has taught me is you can sit down and decompose a problem and come up with a solution pretty readily. It's the implementation of that solution where you always run into the hurdles. It's the minutiae and the details of that implementation that always impact the cost and the schedule for execution.

Early in my career, I was always so frustrated by, "Why is this taking so long? This shouldn't take so long. It's easy. You do this, you do this, you do this, and you do this." It has taken me a while to get my head wrapped around the fact that, yes, if it was just me operating in a vacuum, you could do those four things and it would take you 37 and ½ minutes, no problem. But you try to do those things in the real world, where you've got other people, you've got decision criteria, you've got budgeting, you've got other projects that are being implemented – all that stuff adds up, and all of a sudden you have a six-month effort.

It's kind of contrary to my entrepreneurial spirit, because I constantly go back to, "This should be simple."

What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?

People will say, "It must be great to be your own boss, or to have a company." I will respond, "Yes, until you realize that I am responsible for paying 30 mortgages. I am sending kids to school, to college, that aren't my kids. I am paying for graduate programs for people that aren't me."

If you think of it that way, it really gets to become daunting. But at the end of the day, you kind of have to. You have to accept that there is some sort of responsibility there. So I would say that being an entrepreneur is great. It can be a lot of fun. But as you grow in scale, it comes with some obligations and responsibilities, and you have to take those things seriously.

Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?

There are some things that I do on a fairly consistent basis, but I wouldn't say that it's routine on a daily basis. For example, every morning I will get up, and I make coffee, and I drink my coffee. The kids will get up, all in a flurry, and the kids go off to school. And then either I will walk the dog, or my wife and I will walk the dog.

Invariably that 20 minutes together in the morning walking the dog is very cathartic. If it's just me and the dog, that's great. I don't take my phone. It's just me and the dog walking around the neighborhood. It takes about 22 minutes to do it. I can plan my day. I can think about things that my brain has digested overnight. I can try to solve problems, whether they be business or personal. And if I'm with my wife, then we will talk about planning for the weekend or the next week or whatever, and we will also talk through whatever is going on.

That probably is the best example. It's certainly not meditation, but I get back to the house and I have a game plan for what is going on for the next 24 hours.

What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?

One of the biggest obstacles we've had is that we are a small consulting firm out of Charleston, S.C. Simply the fact that we are based in Charleston, S.C., is something I have had to deal with. I spend a lot of time in an airplane going to see people. There was a time not too long ago where you couldn't fly in and out of Charleston for under $700. Now, I can fly back and forth to D.C. and it's $136 each way. That's reasonable.

The other part of it is having to convince people that we're a small firm out of Charleston – but that doesn't mean anything. We are all professionals. We are intelligent. We are highly skilled. We've got great capabilities.

Now, we can say we have worked around the world for multiple Fortune 500 companies, some of the largest defense agencies in the world. We've got the capability to do this. But I will say that back in the day, I really had to sell the fact that we may be from Charleston, but we are still capable.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

I like to hire smart people. Generally speaking, skills are things you can give people. What I have found to be really telling is, is this a smart individual? And more importantly, is this individual willing to work?

That has been one of the hardest things to determine. When you sit down and do an hour-long discussion or a half-hour interview with a person, how do you really determine what that person's work ethic is? It's really hard to get to that.

I explain this to my kids all the time. I say, "You can be the smartest person in the world. But if you're not willing to work, you are of no practical use to anybody."

What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?

I really don't like working with people who treat others poorly.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

They are going to get this from everybody, or at least they should. Fail fast. Absolutely. When you start, nobody knows what they are doing. The successful people are the people who are willing to fail, brush themselves off and then start running again. The best thing that you can do is just know that going in.

What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?

I would encourage people entering the workforce to consider that we are still in an age where corporate entities are kind of a requirement. Not everybody can be a freelance developer or an independent consultant.

What people need to understand is that the organization has needs, too. Young people entering the workforce need to understand that the organization exists to provide value to its stakeholders – that's both internal and external. But external customers, they reciprocate to the organization by virtue of money, payment. The internal stakeholders, the employees, need to remember that they are responsible for the care and feeding of the organization.

While they give their time and their skills and their talents to the organization to provide value to the external customer, they also have to remember that the organization needs nurturing. All of that is to say that they shouldn't look at it as, "What can the organization do for me?" They need to say, "How do I help the organization achieve its goals? Which, in turn, helps the organization do good things for me." It really needs to be a symbiotic relationship.

What do you see as the future of your company?

My goal is to grow the organization organically and slowly over time. I have been doing this for 12 years, and I'm in my mid 40s now. What I don't think I want to do is try to run a 500-person organization. I want to grow the organization over a period of time and get it to a reasonable size, and then we'll figure out what to do with it.

But right now, I am having fun continuing to run this little organization out of Charleston, S.C., expanding the client base, doing work for law firms, insurance companies, accounting firms, manufacturing firms, and then doing a lot of defense work. You get to solve some really interesting problems. And I am going to try to do that for as long as I can, or at least as long as I continue to be interested.

Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?

I'm an Android. I have my little Samsung right here. I use it and my PC computer. But I'm a closet Luddite. If it were up to me, I would still be using a mainframe. Which is funny, because you can't really do distributed computing on a mainframe. But I am always one of the late adopters of technology.

What is your usual Starbucks order?

Grande Pike Place, black.

Outside of work what keeps you busy?

I'm married. I have two kids. So outside of work, I spend as much time as possible with the family. We travel a fair bit. Both of my kids are year-round swimmers, so I spent this past weekend in Rock Hill at a swim meet.

What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?

It's gotten significantly easier over the last couple of years, I will say that. There are now a fair number of masters in computer science floating around who have gotten their graduate degrees from The Citadel and the College of Charleston. Back when I started Modus21, that wasn't the case. The program at that point was still relatively new and they just hadn't built up a corpus of people who had been through it. But now you can find them.

I will also say that the expansion of the tech sector in Charleston has made younger professionals pretty readily available. So, it's gotten significantly better than it was 10 to 12 years ago. That being said, I still believe that there's probably not enough people floating around that really know what they're doing.

What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?

When I started Modus21, other than the technology firms that support exclusively SPAWAR and the Navy, really the only two tech firms in Charleston that anybody knew were Blackbaud and Benefitfocus. Now, thanks to the Charleston Digital Corridor's work, there are dozens and dozens of tech firms in Charleston.

It's not just the academic side of it. It's also the fact that there are people who say, "Well, I can do that." Another component of that is there was no funding here 10 or 12 years ago. So the fact that there's actually opportunity to find capital or angel investment has helped a lot as well.

Ultimately, the community has just had to take a while to grow. There's a question of whether we are at a critical mass or not. I don't know the answer to that. But I think if we're not, we're getting pretty close.

If you go to other places in the country, I don't think people think of Charleston as a hotbed of technology. But if you survey the landscape, you pretty quickly realize that we have some really talented people and some organizations that do some really cool things. The nice thing is the technology has evolved to the point where you can pretty much do those things anywhere. The fact that everybody is aggregating in Charleston to do it – it has established a really cool dynamic environment.

What do you see as some of the challenges recruiting tech talent to Charleston?

The biggest challenge is not stealing a good person from somebody else. As a business owner, when I have a demand, I want to fill that demand as quickly as possible. But as an invested participant in the community, filling my demand shouldn't cause angst or concern somewhere else. And often I find literally that's what happens.

It's also backward for the economics of the environment. Because the other thing you don't like to see is people just job-hopping from firm to firm to firm and getting a little raise each time, and then ultimately putting themselves in a position where they are economically backward, and it gets hard to deal with that situation.

The community needs to be cognizant of the fact that we all have a responsibility to each other, as much as anything else. What we should collectively be trying to do is bring an influx of fresh, new talent into the community and not try to solve short-term problems by picking people who are willing to jump from firm to firm.