March 15, 2016

Fast Growth Leads To ‘Breaking Things,’ Says SPARC’s Murphy

Ashley Fletcher Frampton  /  Charleston Digital News

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.

Marc Murphy is CEO of SPARC, a 320-person technology firm located in Charleston, South Carolina. Murphy joined SPARC in 2013 as chief operating officer and became CEO the following year. In late 2015, SPARC's software services unit was acquired by Booz Allen Hamilton.

Where did you grow up? What was life like there?

I grew up outside of New York City, in Westchester County. It's a great place to grow up, a lot going on. Great sports programs, great schools. I swam competitively and went on to swim in college, so I think, foundationally, it was a great place to do that. And there's just a lot of people, so there's a lot of activity.

How did you come to be in Charleston?

My wife and I were living in New Orleans, and after Hurricane Katrina, we needed a place to go, like many. We came up here relatively sight unseen. We had a chance (from my employer, Deloitte) to go to Charleston or San Diego, and we chose Charleston and just love it.

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

My first job and my most memorable are the same. I was an Army officer, and, gosh, what do you learn from that? You learn leadership, how to deal with people, how to deal with difficult situations. There are very few jobs at that age in which you get that much responsibility. I think for anyone that gets into that position, it's just foundational to whatever they're going to do next. I'm a big believer in military service.

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

I certainly developed it along the way. Part of what got me to SPARC was a real desire to get into a smaller startup environment. I really thought it was just a much better fit for my personality, what I want to achieve, the pace I like to work and the responsibility level that I like to have.

In your own words, what does your company do?

We build very complex software for a host of customers, both commercial and government, to solve their challenging business problems.

What drew you to your current business?

I had known about SPARC for quite some time before I got here because we had done some deals together. I had spent time here in this office space and just was always attracted by the culture here, the people, how the people worked together, the fun they were seeming to have from the outside and just a genuine spirit of enjoying the place you work while you're doing very disciplined and complex work. I was always an outsider looking in, thinking it would be a great place to work, and I was right.

How would you describe your organization's culture?

We have created a fun environment, where people want to come to work, but also we are doing challenging work side-by-side with a lot of great people. People like coming in here because of artifacts – it's a nice open culture, we have beer, we have dogs. But the root of it is they like the work we are doing, and they love coming to work side-by-side with each other. We've been very disciplined and focused on hiring top talent, really smart people that are committed to the engineering work we are doing. What that does is drive other smart people to want to work with those people.

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

We are such a flat organization that the level from me to the ground is only two or three people. By design – my design – we're all very much in the business we do, meaning – hands-on is not the right word – but very deep in understanding of what's going on and trying to contribute to the business we're doing from my level. I'm a big believer in giving people the tools and the support they need to do their jobs, and giving them a lot of room to do it.

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

I've found that a really good boss is someone with whom you can have a very direct conversation, even an argument, even a disagreement. And as long as it's foundational in what's best for the business, you can be very comfortable having that disagreement or even argument and leaving that when it's done and walking out and solving the next problem. If you can find yourself in a position where you can operate like that, with complete confidence that everyone is in it for the right reason, whether you agree or disagree, and then you move on – that's a great place to be.

The bad environment is where you can't really speak your mind or take actions that you think are for the good of the company because you think there's some overwhelming agenda to a company or an organization or even a boss.

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

The hardest and the most important lesson, particularly in a role as difficult as CEO, is who to surround yourself with and how to create the right balance with those people to get the most out of them, to get good recommendations and give good direction. Selecting the right people for your critical roles on your staff is absolutely the hardest to get right, and most critical. You have to be absolutely critical with yourself on what your shortcomings are. You have to be really comfortable with it. And then find people who support these shortcomings, can fill the gaps, and be super comfortable with them taking them on.

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

Having some form of exercise during the day is routine. I don't know if everyone operates like this, but that is an element of stress release, an element of energy.

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

The biggest obstacle we have is growth. We had meteoric growth of hiring 100 people in eight months. You're not ready for that. That stresses everything you have, all your systems you've built. Having that kind of growth in that short amount of time is a huge challenge. Things got very fragile for a while as we were adding so many people to this place. Running a company of 25 people is much different than running a company of 300 people. You have to be serious about it, you have to be ready for it and then make some major decisions about how you run the company. That's what's going to separate entrepreneurs from business people, being able to take that evolution of the company.

I got a word of encouragement and a tip from a colleague when we were going through this (last year). He said, "If everything is breaking at your company, that's a sign that you're growing. It's not a sign that you're not running a good company or you weren't prepared. Things break when you're growing, and that's a good sign."

At the time, the stress of the growth was impacting everything. Down to like, we didn't have enough bathrooms, we didn't have enough parking spaces. Problems you don't think you're going to have to solve, you have to solve. Getting that advice was a great moment for me, and I wrote a blog post to the floor, to all the employees, saying, "Things are going to break. We're breaking things, you know why? Because we're being successful. We're growing at a pace that we didn't anticipate, no one could anticipate this. It's good. We're going to fix things as they break and then we're going to come out the other end and we're going to be fine." And we were. I said, "Late summer, we're going to be fine." And we got to late summer and everything leveled out.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

Technical talent at SPARC is table stakes. Everyone who gets through the first interview, if they're a software developer, they can write code. We test them on code; it's binary – you can either write code or you can't. What we're looking for after that, and how you get a job here, is can you fit in this environment, can you work in the teams? It's all about culture fit. Not everyone can work in this environment. Some people need a more disciplined environment.

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

I'm from New York, so it's anything that's overly lengthy. Any kind of preamble to a conference call that is weather-related or holiday-related or anything like that, and an overly lengthy ending to any meeting. The team will tell you that – when we wrap things up, we wrap them up. When they're done, they're done.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

Take the risk. Look for advice, don't be afraid to look for help, it's out there. Absolutely drive forward with those ideas. There's tons of resources to help you through it, and it's an extremely rewarding experience.

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

Find your first job that can support some aspect of learning. Find a job that's going to pair you up with people and surround you with more experienced people who will spend the time to not necessarily train you, but to give you the opportunity to learn. You need to find that first job that's going to invest in your learning.

What do you see as the future of your company?

If you asked me that six months ago, I would tell you we were trying to work on an exit. We have successfully completed that, which is a monstrous accomplishment for SPARC and for the community, I think. So now, part of the story is we're going to successfully grow through this acquisition. I want to finish (expanding) the building. The optimal size is to grow this to 400 or 500 people, and as we get to that size, continue to maintain this culture, continue to maintain a very disciplined software development shop and an enjoyable place to work. And all that is achievable and ahead of us.

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

It is challenging. We are at a really positive inflection point. We – and I'm talking about the Charleston tech community – have been successful at growing, building or attracting technical companies to this area, and we are challenged to find talent to match the jobs. I have had 30-plus openings for software developers for the past year. Constantly needing about 30 people, that's challenging. That's challenging to our growth, it's obviously challenging to our bottom line. I've talked to other CEOs and leaders, and that's a problem for all of us. It's not solved by us stealing each other's people. It's solved by growing them here locally or somehow importing them to an attractive place like Charleston. We need to figure out how to do that on scale or it's going to become a limiting factor of our success.

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

You look back, I don't know, five years, but not too much more than that, and you were looking at Blackbaud and Benefitfocus as your two opportunities here. That's not the case anymore. You have that and then you have the next tier down, in which I would put BoomTown, SPARC, PeopleMatter, PhishLabs. Then you have a whole slew of startups here, serious startups. Then we have a fairly robust incubator scene, and then the surrounding cast of the Charleston Digital Corridor and venture capital popping up. Even in the short period I've been CEO, we've seen a massive shift and growth in the amount and the profile of the companies.

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

There's two factors here: We lack a major research and engineering school. If you look at the major tech cities on the map – California, Austin, Boston –-everyone's got a major research institution that acts as a feeder school on scale. We don't have that. So that's one. Two, we haven't quite branded Charleston as a technology center that will bring people in on scale and keep them here. So those two factors are limiting what we can do.

I think we are starting to solve both of them, but until we crack both of those things, we're going to struggle. But, to put a positive spin on it, we're getting there. We're definitely getting there. But the press we're getting around being a great tourist attraction, it's great, but those people still leave Monday morning or Sunday night. We need to brand ourselves as a destination to start and run a company, and then grow a company.

Through acquisitions and some major venture capital events that have happened to the community in the past year, people are taking us seriously. We know that because people don't buy companies if they're not serious about what's going on. People are taking notice that there's serious stuff going on down here. We need to take that and run with it and really use that to attract serious amounts of talent. Because now they can come for a job and stay for a career. People need to know these opportunities are here. This is a great place to live, and you combine that with an opportunity to grow a great career – there's a lot there.

The biggest thing I see that we've done is the Zucker Family Graduate Education Center that's opening up. It's a Clemson University extension graduate center, focused on engineering. They're going to have software disciplines and will actually be graduating people out of that school here in Charleston with engineering degrees from Clemson in disciplines that we need here. That's game-changing. That's the kind of stuff we need to be doing. 

Outside of work, what keeps you busy?

The kids. My wife owns a business downtown, so between us we have two businesses, three kids. We try to stay focused on working out, we're both very into that. That's a pretty full plate. The occasional travel and trying to vacation.

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

I'm a PC guy. I think there are probably three people at SPARC who have PCs. So I'm a PC and a Droid guy, and I'm like the 1% minority at SPARC. I laugh because they give me a hard time about it. But I am totally dedicated to this machine, I love it. Now I'm resisting Mac products just out of spite to these people. I read a lot of documents in my job; for my job, this (PC) is a better machine for me.

What is your usual Starbucks order?

My go-to order is flat white. I was ordering flat whites before it was hip to order flat whites. Before it even was on the Starbucks menu, I was ordering them.