On the Air With Palantir, Ep. 06: A History of Palantir
A very special edition of our podcast commemorating the 20th anniversary of Palantir.
We want to make your project a success.
A very special edition of our podcast commemorating the 20th anniversary of Palantir.
Welcome to the latest episode of On the Air with Palantir, a long-form podcast by Palantir.net where we go in-depth on topics related to the business of web design and development. It’s July 2016 and this is episode #6. In this episode, Account Manager Allison Manley is joined by Palantir CEOs George DeMet and Tiffany Farriss.
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Allison Manley [AM]: Welcome to On the Air with Palantir, a podcast by Palantir.net where we go in-depth on topics related to the business of web design and development. It’s July 2016 and this is episode #6.
This is a special edition really, since this year marks the 20th anniversary of Palantir. It’s hard to fathom considering the internet was still very new in 1996, so there are very few web shops that have been around this long. Palantir started as a development agency, then over time added services such as design and strategy, to become the full, well-rounded, end to end company that it is today.
So we are celebrating our 20th anniversary later this month. I sat down with owners George DeMet and Tiffany Farriss to talk about how Palantir started, how it developed into the company it is today, and where we’re headed.
AM: Hello, Tiffany and George! How are you doing today?
George DeMet [GD]: We’re doing well.
Tiffany Farriss [TF]: Hi, Allison!
AM: Thanks for talking with me, I appreciate it. So we’re going to talk about the 20 years of Palantir. It’s hard to believe, right?
GD: It’s…yeah [laughs]. I’ve never really known anything else, it’s kind of funny.
AM: You’ve never had another job?
GD: That’s not true. I worked for my parents when I was in high school. They ran a disposal and recycling company. So I did have experience growing up driving a garbage truck and managing a recycling center.
TF: This wasn’t what I was going to do, but it is pretty much the only thing I’ve done. Other than having a NASA research grant as an undergrad, this is it.
AM: What were you going to do? I’m curious.
TF: I was going to go to grad school in astrophysics. That was my thing. I really wanted to do astrophysics, and I really liked cosmology in particular. I wanted to study the origins of the universe.
AM: Which we’re kind of doing [laughs]. So let’s have a quick overview of Palantir’s history. How did Palantir begin?
GD:So I actually started Palantir back in the summer of ’96, which was between my sophomore and junior year of college. I had discovered the Web back in the fall of ’94 when I was a freshman, and had really been kind of fascinated by it. It was very new – Netscape was still in beta at that point, and I was just really captivated by this idea of having pretty much anyone in the world being able to publish content that pretty much anyone else anywhere in the world would be able to read and access and view. I thought that was kind of revolutionary and I could see that this was the start of something kind of interesting, and I wanted to be a part of it. And so I started making some web pages, just sort of as a hobby. I made a fan page for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that is still around today, after 22 years. And then I discovered that folks would pay me money to build websites and web pages. So after doing this freelance for a while, I decided it was a good idea to start a company around it.
TF: Because that’s what your family does [laughs].
GD: So that’s probably a little bit of helpful background. Both sides of my family are a couple of generations of people who started and ran family businesses. I mentioned that my parents have a disposal company. My mom’s father had a couple of grocery stores in Leavenworth, Kansas. My dad’s family ran the DeMet candy company, the folks that brought you the chocolate Turtle. So that was really kind of all I knew, right? Working for someone else was really not part of my DNA. So I knew I was going to do something, and when the web came along, it seemed like this was definitely something I wanted to do.
TF: For me, I started on the web around the same time, in 1994. It was kind of an outgrowth of my love of Latin [laughs]. That’s the other thing about me is my love of the classics, particularly Latin, and I was involved in the Junior Classical League in Ohio. I first became the membership director and then the president of the Ohio chapter, and for them I learned how to do HTML. And the web was so new and so exciting, and I had a friend who was at MIT who could give me server space. And this was just so cool that we could be out there and be doing that. So when I met George, when I started at Northwestern, I joined up with him when we were creating a website for our dorm, for Willard Residential College. And we really wanted – our residential college was eclectic, which is probably the best way to talk about it [laughs].
GD: I think the proper way to talk about it was pan-thematic. Most of the other residential colleges had a theme, like arts or sciences or engineering. We were all the things.
TF: We were all the things, we were all the interesting people interested in lots of things. And so we really wanted to do an amazing job creating that website, and that’s really how George and I started working together, in that capacity, and ultimately that’s how Palantir got its second client, or first paying client, depending on how you looked at it [laughs].
GD: That’s right. So one of the things I didn’t know how to do but Tiffany did quite well at the time was to actually go out and find clients. And that’s the skill that Tiffany brought to the table, in addition to her technical skills and managerial skills – really bringing some kind of structure to the enterprise, as it were.
TF: And it all happened in the way we still sell today, in that we’re looking for that good fit. You say, OK, this is what we can do and these are our ideas and this is what we bring to the table. And that’s essentially how we got – when I was a freshman and George was a junior – how two students got the job to do Northwestern’s main university site. It was also the 90s which was a bit of a Wild West [laughs]. But that’s how it happened.
We were at the awards ceremony for the residential college competition, which we won, of course [laughs], and I was talking to one of the judges who happened to be responsible for the web at Northwestern at the time. And she was talking to me about our thought process, and how we approached it, and I was talking about things that are so obvious to everyone now. The three-click rule. Thinking about how users would journey through the path and how you would organize information. And how you apply human-computer interaction theory to the web. But this being early ’97, you know, she said to me, I’m taking classes to learn what you guys already know, can I hire you for $2 an hour as a work-study? And I said, well, I already have a NASA research grant, so, no, but you can contract Palantir. My partner will be in Wisconsin but I can come in for meetings with you. And that’s how we got that contract, so that’s how it all worked out. And that first project was to redo the information technology site, and then in ’97 through ’98 we ended up doing the main Northwestern site.
GD: For the folks at Northwestern, I’ve heard people complain since about the fact that it’s northwestern.edu. We share a little bit of the blame for that [laughs]. But seriously, nobody calls it NWU. It’s Northwestern. Or maybe NU, but I think that might have been taken.
AM: Well, a pretty auspicious beginning, I would say. Now that you live in Evanston and the office is in Evanston.
GD: Yeah. We never moved [laughs].
TF: Well, this is the thing. I met George my third day at Northwestern, and we’ve been a couple ever since, but we’ve lived within a six-block radius since 1998 [laughs]. Our first off-campus apartment was literally a block over, two blocks away. This has just been where we’ve found a home. Neither of us is from here. I’m from Akron, Ohio, and George is from Wisconsin. We met in the middle and literally stayed.
GD: To be fair, I have some family connections to Chicago. My dad and his family are from Chicago, and so it’s always felt like a second home to me even though I grew up in northern Wisconsin. There’s also a lot more to do here, and it’s a place where even though we are a distributed company and have customers all over the world, it’s a really great place to be.
TF: What I like about it is that irrespective of a physical office, I do consider us to be a firm that’s rooted in Midwest values. And I love that Chicago means business, but it’s business with this ethic. You work hard and you play hard, and you treat people fairly, right? That’s the way that we do things here, and it’s really important to me. And even once we don’t have a physical office or we don’t have headquarters or whatever it is, it’s about the sense of philosophy of place, of being Midwestern. Of being very authentic, being very genuine, and bringing our best selves to what we do.
AM: What would you say, if you can project back 20 years, or 19 or 18 years, the focus was for Palantir the first couple of years? Was the focus just trying to stay afloat, was there a specific direction you were trying to take at the time?
GD: So if you go back in time to the mid-90s and remember what the Web looked like at that point, it was the era of Geocities websites, and everyone was into, like, banners that scrolled across your pages and little animated GIF clip art and animated background patterns, and just really horribly ugly garish sites that people were creating because they could. And one of the things that I really wanted to do at Palantir was to bring more of a design aesthetic to the Web. I really felt that it shouldn’t be too difficult to create websites that were not just functional but were actually easy to use, and didn’t make you want to claw your eyes out when you looked at them. So I thought there was a real opportunity there. Not just to be able to do business, but also to help make the Web a better place. And that was very much what we wanted to do, certainly for the first couple of years, and even beyond as we started partnering with other folks. I think making the Web look better and work better for people was really key in those first couple of years.
TF: And for me, I think – I agree with everything that George said, but I also felt very strongly about how the information was organized and presented. At the time it was a lot of brochure-ware. People were essentially trying to put these very linear experiences up on the Web. Now we call it ‘content strategy’ but at the time it was ‘information architecture’, and I really loved to think about the way to organize information in a way that made sense to someone who had no familiarity. It wasn’t about creating this highly linear journey for them, it was about – I saw the promise as being able to present information, to allow people to get what they wanted, but still to also come away with the message you wanted them to have. I thought that was such an interesting challenge, to be able to allow people to take control of how they gathered information, to really put the control back in their hands, but still to have it be that kind of alignment where you as the content provider were getting your message through, right? And that’s still a lot of what underpins our work today, is really this kind of ‘choose your own adventure’. And that’s where the name really comes from and why it comes into play.
GD: So the name is something I came up with. It represents this idea of interconnectedness. The Palantiri are these communicators that in a fantasy realm are interconnected with each other, so you can look in one and communicate with anyone else who has a Palantir. The dominant metaphor at the time when Palantir started was the information superhighway, and I felt that metaphor was really flawed because it implied this kind of linearity, right? But the Web isn’t like that. The Web is this very decentralized interconnected place, and it really feels more and it actually is this network of interconnected communication, of nodes, really.
TF: And it’s interconnected not just in terms of people, which it certainly is and always has been since its beginning, but it’s also in terms of content. What I love and what I find so fascinating and interesting is the notion that you don’t have to encapsulate all of the knowledge – you can just link to it, right? So you can tell a story and you can pull together these varied threads, and braid it together into a narrative in such an interesting way. And anybody can do that. It’s so accessible that it’s really broken down some of those traditional barriers that essentially gated who was able to define the narrative. So any person now can define that narrative and string it together. This is why a lot more of our work recently has dealt with APIs and what we can do to bring pieces of content from different systems together. And ultimately it’s why I’m so passionate about Drupal, because the ability to weave different pieces of content together but allow them to remain authoritative external sources is so exciting.
AM: So it seems that, 20 years later, what you had outlined for yourselves back then still stands today.
GD: Absolutely, no question. We’re still facing some of the same sorts of challenges. They’re very different in nature, but fundamentally it’s a question of enabling people to be able to access information, or to create information, or to share information in a way that’s findable, that’s usable, that’s discoverable. That’s what we started out trying to do, and that’s what we’re still trying to do today.
TF: I have this very Teutonic brain, I like things to be very efficient. So for me the notion that I could weave these narratives together but allow there to be single authoritative sources of information, I don’t have to duplicate it – it’s very efficient, it’s so compelling to me. And this is where I think you see a lot of enterprises getting too narrow, with their notion of the omnichannel strategies – where you want there to be a single source but you need to kind of customize what that experience looks like. And you really get – by being so efficient with presenting that information and where you’re sourcing the information, you get to focus your efforts on how you differentiate it in different channels and different contexts, and have other people mix and potentially remix your information. That’s what’s so exciting about where we are today, but it’s not that different than in ’96. We were really trying to get authoritative sources, that was the key, to kind of have those sources be out there and have them be integrated together.
AM: So you would say that Palantir’s core values and mission really haven’t changed at all, or maybe just better definition.
GD: I would agree with that. What we’re trying to do, how we’re trying to do it, really hasn’t changed. What has changed is that we’ve talked about it, we’ve articulated it more publicly. It’s not just locked in our brains [laughs].
TF: Right, it’s those notions of assumptions so deep that you’re not even aware of them. For so many of the early years, we just knew. And because we were a smaller company and everybody worked with George and I on a daily basis, you just kind of felt it. You didn’t know it. I couldn’t articulate it very well, and it’s taken us several tries to be able to get it to the point where we feel confident saying, yes, this is it. Because words matter so much, and there’s such precision when I use language that I’m constantly trying to make sure, is this the right word to use, is this really capturing that feeling that’s so deep in our culture that I want other people to be able to grasp onto it.
Because we do have this growing firm, and our folks here today – George and I are clearly the longest-standing employees of Palantir, but we have folks who start in a week. So how do they get a sense of the history? So it’s this notion that we have to really have those core values, as guiding principles, articulated so that, without knowing the lore and history of Palantir, they can apply it going forward. It’s really been an interesting challenge and one that George and I have been focused on for probably the last 18 months, is realizing that all that shared history has to be able to be communicated, has to be able to be transferred. And that’s been a really exciting part of the challenge.
GD: And it’s not just communicated, it’s also contextualized. That’s the really fun part for me.
AM: It’s very hard to define your own selves, too. It’s definitely tough work.
GD:It is. But I think it’s essential. I think it’s something that has been kind of a hallmark of who we are. It’s really this constantly asking ourselves and trying to be as self-aware as possible about who we are and what we do and why we do it.
TF: And also what we don’t do, right? I think that as we look at the growth over the last 10 years, it’s really easy to think that we were something we weren’t. We were never a start-up. We’re celebrating our 20th year so by definition we can’t be a start-up, and even in the past 10 years we weren’t a start-up. But it might have felt that way, or it might have looked that way. And so it’s on us, it’s our responsibility, to make sure that people understand – both our clients and our friends and our colleagues – that we are approaching this with very much a fundamental family business mentality. Really old-school principles. You don’t spend money you don’t have, you treat people fairly. This kind of notion that you’re always building, that every decision you constantly make has to be adding up to something. And I think that’s been – we certainly have friends who made other choices with their companies, whether they consider themselves a tech company or a start-up and they go after VC. We’re just not that. And we totally admire them and wish them well with what they’re doing. We’re doing something a little bit different over here. So in order for folks to understand that, we have to talk about it. We have to say, you know, we don’t spend other people’s money, we don’t spend money we don’t have.
It’s been such an interesting journey, particularly for me not coming from a family business background, to understand really what that means and why that applies and to be really proud of it. I really think that’s the compelling thing here. Because at the end of the day, I’ve always believed that what you do outside of work makes you better when you are at work. And you have to have time and space in your life for that. And I believed that before I had a family, and I certainly believe it to be true now. How I live it, how I articulate it, is very different. And I think that’s right, that’s appropriate, to be able to evolve with you and to be able to change with you. And that’s the kind of company that we’ve built.
AM: Well, one of the things I’ve noticed specifically about Palantir is how involved you’ve gotten in several communities. One of the reasons that I actually knew Palantir for years before working here was your commitment to design, which George mentioned was an early interest, and you did partner with design firms in Chicago when at the time you didn’t have an in-house design department, you were strictly development-only. So you were prescient and smart enough to know that you should partner with some very good design firms in the city, and there is a very strong design community here. And so you actually joined the American Institute of Graphic Arts board at one point, to become, I think, the Web liaison.
TF: Electronic Media Chair, yes. I was lucky enough to be Electronic Media Chair for AIGA Chicago, and that came after several years of working with and partnering with those design firms. And that was such an invaluable time in Palantir’s history. Chicago does have such a very storied and internationally respected design community, and the opportunity to work in such an early stage in my career, and in Palantir’s lifespan, with some of the best – looking back on it, it was unbelievable. To be able to learn and work so closely with really, really smart designers as they were making that transition from being exclusively print designers to thinking about interactive design and Web design – it was such a neat time for all of us. We were bringing this very digital sensibility with us and they were bringing expectations of typography and color fidelity. And those were things that were really difficult in that early Web. It was really amazing. And that all came out of our early work at Northwestern. We originally started out partnering with the information technology department over there, and through that work we advocated that the university relations people be included in that conversation. Because we felt that there was a role for branding and photography, and just design standards as part of the work we were doing for the Northwestern home page. And through that we ended up learning how to work with traditional print designers.
And our business has always been built on this word of mouth, on reputation. And so through that experience we ended up getting connected into the Chicago design community, and passed from firm to firm to firm, and I see that being appointed to the board was really the outcome from that, after the several years we’d been working with and partnering with design firms, from 2001 – I think it was 2001 when I became Electronic Media Chair, until 2008 – we had been working for six or seven years. But I still reflect on those experiences and what I learned from working with those folks, just in terms of how to relate to clients and how to really be a consultant. It was an amazing opportunity, it was really great. I’m really grateful for it.
AM: And around the same time, around 2008-ish, was when you started to get involved heavily in the Drupal community as well.
GD: That’s right.
AM: So a pretty pivotal year there [laughs].
GD: Well, the Drupal decision we actually made in 2007. We had started working with Drupal in 2006, but to lay a little bit of background, we’ve always worked primarily with open source technologies – open source software, free software, from the very beginning. The LAMP stack, Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and used those technologies. And I had always been interested in getting a little more involved with open source on the content management side. We did a little bit of looking into that around 2001, when some of the first generation open source CMSs started to come on the scene, and none of them were really never mature enough at that point. And at that point we actually thought we could probably do our own, just as well if not better. So we had our own CMS for a while – it was called the Community Platform and we did four major versions of it, each of which was pretty much a complete rewrite. Was it just three?
TF: We were thinking about doing a fourth.
GD: Right, right. And that was a really interesting learning experience for us, because when you are responsible for creating your own product that you are then in turn using for customer projects, you have to really be careful. Because there’s a huge temptation to modify it or tweak it or change it every single time. So what we actually found was that we didn’t have one CMS, we had however many dozen CMSs, each of which was a bespoke version for that particular client, because we had had to make some sort of tweak for the business needs of that customer. Which was great in terms of the short-term customer need, right? Because we could very quickly and inexpensively roll out a site for a customer, get it up very quickly, but when it came time to expand that site or support that site or make that site do something different, it was incredibly difficult. So that was one of the big issues that we were running into. We had worked with some other proprietary platforms – there was a product that was being used by a lot of higher education institutions we were working with in the early 2000s. It definitely had its challenges, but it was something our customers were using and it worked well for a lot of our customers. And ultimately the company ended up deciding to end-of-life that product, actually without telling any of their customers [laughs]. We had a little inside knowledge on that, and Tiffany actually announced it up on stage at South by Southwest, I think this was 2007.
GD: 2008. And it was really kind of interesting seeing everyone flee the room when you made that announcement.
TF: The 20 people.
GD: The 20 people, yes [laughs]. I mean, you know, it was a pretty big session. So at that point, things were kind of – we realized we really needed to get involved with, you know, something that was going to be more widely supported by a wider community, and that also wasn’t going to be tied to the commercial whims of one particular company. And so I’m actually going to let you tell the story of how we started working with Drupal.
TF: It happened over several years, really. In 2006, Robert Petrick, who’s one of those amazing Chicago designers that we were lucky enough to work with, he brought us in on a project for Washington University in St. Louis. And the project was a little unusual, because it wasn’t an implementation project. It was going to be an implementation project, but first it started with a consulting project, where they wanted us to look at the available landscape of content management solutions, but both bespoke – our Community Platform was on the table for consideration – and open source projects as well as proprietary. And I helped them make the decision, and open source was absolutely the right choice for them. Again, we narrowed it down – should it be Drupal, should it be Joomla, and there were a couple of other options they were considering at the time. And for them Drupal was the right choice. So we built out that first site for WSTL in Drupal 4.6, and it was a little bit frustrating. But 4.7 came out actually before the site launched, and we immediately upgraded it to 4.7. We had looked at 4.6 before and not used it, because we couldn’t do the things we needed to visually. We were working with a lot of the design firms, and we couldn’t tell them, oh, the technology choice we’ve made won’t allow us to present the interface visually the way you want it to be done. That was why we had our own community platform, and in 4.6 we felt that was still very much the case, we were very much limited by that theming layer. Then 4.7 ended up being the right choice for Washington University in St. Louis, and we built out the site there, and it was still a bit frustrating but we achieved the level of fidelity we wanted. And as we were wrapping up that project and getting ready to launch it, Drupal 5 came out. And without launching the 4.7 version we ended up going to Drupal 5 right away. And that was when our team said, oh, this is different, and we can do everything that is being asked of us visually, everything we want to do visually. And by the way the security team that Drupal has is larger than our entire firm.
So it was really in early 2007, in February 2007, when we were faced with rewriting our community platform from version 3 to version 4, it was going to be a complete rewrite – I just looked at George and said, I think we need to deprecate our own CMS in favor of Drupal. I think we need to put our efforts in that direction. So the next month we actually sent George and one of our colleagues at the time, Larry Garfield, who’s known as Crell in the Drupal community, we sent them both out to Sunnyvale where Drupal was having a DrupalCon, to learn more about it. And George came back and said, I think this is a community you’d really like. And you could really get involved in this. Ah, I don’t know, let’s just start with where we’re at right now. And then you do fast forward, that year of 2007 was when we did a lot of our first projects. We got all of our clients off our own community platform, and any new project we’d start doing in Drupal.
AM: How were they when you suggested getting them off the existing platform and getting them onto Drupal? Were they receptive to that, or were they hesitant…?
TF: We did it gradually, as people needed new enhancements or new versions of their sites. At the time, none of the sites we were working on had particularly long life spans, right? And we ended up having to support the community platform for several years thereafter. So it was really when someone came to us for new work, it was, oh, here’s Drupal and we think you should move here for the following reasons. We would lay it out, but we weren’t going to do any new enhancements to it, and we told them very clearly, we’re not in active development on the community platform any more.
GD: One distinction that’s important to make, I think, is that with our own product, the Community Platform, it wasn’t an open source product, but we did have our customers have the right to modify the source code themselves. They just didn’t have the right to redistribute those changes. So if customers wanted to take on that responsibility of updating or maintaining the site themselves, they were certainly able to do that, or we gave them the option of moving to Drupal.
TF:Right. So really through 2007 and into 2008 – 2008 is really where we got involved in the Drupal community per se. And that’s when I went out to Boston, and I said, oh, this is a community I will love. This is something that – the ethos of it, getting to meet Dries and Angie Byron and Moshe Weitzman, all the early and very influential Drupal developers, and just how welcoming and how open they all were. And what we were able to build with Drupal was just so much more than we would be able to build if we were responsible for the whole stack. It just started to fall into place, it started to make sense that we could do more for our clients. And that’s ultimately what’s always driven us. We’re trying to add value. We’re trying to say, because the clients we work with have limited resources and are always under constraints, what’s the most we can do for them? How much can we accomplish, how much value can we give back to them? How much easier can we make their lives by the choices that we make all along the project? And Drupal was one of the ones that made a lot of sense for them. It had roughly the same implementation cost as any other proprietary or custom solution, but in terms of the long term, it was much less expensive. Because you didn’t have the long-term licensing fees, you had the community patching issues – so sometimes a client would say, oh, I’m noticing this bug on the site, and we’d say, oh, actually that’s a module that’s been patched in, we can patch that for you. It really opened it up and allowed us to focus.
So all these kind of pivotal points that you’ve noted in Palantir’s history, they come around our ability to focus. Right? So in 2001 when we really started partnering in earnest with design firms, it allowed us to focus and really hone our craft, and understand how to do content strategy and how to architect solid technical solutions. And then again in 2008, when we focused in on Drupal it allowed us to realize, okay, here’s how – only build what you absolutely need to build. That really allowed us to do more with our client budgets, and again, I would say 2016 is another one of those pivotal years for us, when we realized how to focus in and how to really get to the nugget of the business problem that needs to be solved. We have the opportunity now to influence businesses and the success of those businesses, and organizations as well since we do so much work with non-profits and higher ed in particular, and really how to solve core problems that aren’t technology problems. They’re problems that reach across the organization at every level, and so the fact that we’re able to focus in on it from that perspective, with that lens, I see that as another transformational moment for Palantir.
AM: It seems like you had some very pivotal choices that you made, in 2001 to 2008 in particular - partnering with design firms, choosing open source and eventually choosing Drupal – and that you were sort of on the forefront when the mid-2000s hit. That was when it seems to me, from my perspective, that you were a very big fish in a tiny pond at that time. You had this incredible design aesthetic and appreciation, you knew how to work with design firms at that point – you weren’t doing in-house design yet – and you were one of the few firms who had really embraced Drupal in particular. And that community was exploding, and I’m not sure if you could see that community was going to explode, if you were able to predict that.
GD:It was pretty apparent when I went to Sunnyvale in early 2007. That was a very small conference, it was maybe a couple of hundred people, and not all of them were Drupal people. But it was really, really clear just from the conversations that were happening and the folks that were there that Drupal was on the verge of becoming a big deal. And it was really funny, because I think the first couple of years that we started working with Drupal, we would go to industry conferences like higher ed conferences or museum conferences, and people would be like, oh, what do you do, and we’d say, we work with Drupal. And people would be, Drupal, what’s that? And then a couple of years later, we would go to the same conferences, and people would literally come up to me, like, I hear you guys are experts in Drupal and I need a Drupal expert [laughs]. So there really was a huge shift, I think, between 2008 and 2011, when Drupal went from being kind of this niche open source project that very few people had heard of that powers some of the biggest and most ambitious sites on the Web.
TF: And I think a lot of that has to do with the ecosystem that was built up around Drupal. Not just Acquia but especially Acquia, which is the firm that Dries Buytaert founded and is CTO of, that really brought a lot of visibility to Drupal particularly around hosting and 24/7 support. I think that was a really important moment for Drupal. But I think what was happening before then as well, not just with firms like Palantir but the work that Phase2 was doing in the government sector – there are a lot of firms both in the US and Europe that were doing this very ambitious very large-scale work. You had Examiner really pushing the development of Drupal 7, and then eventually the White House goes to Drupal, and everything that was happening with Warner Brothers and SonyBMG putting all their artists on Drupal – Drupal became this kind of de facto go-to. When you had a project that was, as George said, ambitious – it didn’t necessarily have to be large, sometimes they were technically complicated and involved a lot of integrations between different kinds of data sources. That was the kind of work that we did, both for higher ed and for museums, where we were combining, say, digital asset management systems with content management systems with active directory or LDAP-based user solutions. Any kind of complexity at that level, Drupal’s so good at tying those systems together. Or if you wanted to go headless, right now Drupal’s very good if you want to have, you know, no front end to your data source. Drupal just knows how to connect people, how to connect things, and it gives you such a good basis for what you’re trying to do, or trying to replicate. If you need a thousand sites, right, this is again what Pfizer does, and they’ve got such huge regulatory concerns that Drupal, you know, was just always there.
And those of us in the, I would say, the second wave of Drupal – Palantir’s not a first wave Drupal shop, we really did start to come on line with Drupal 6, and we were essentially writing for those pieces that our clients need. So again this is that ethos that we have, where we’re going to find that win-win solution. And what we did early on, and in particular when we made our name with Drupal 7 where we created Workbench, it was because this was a need that our clients had, and multiple clients had that need at the exact same time. It was a space that Drupal just wasn’t solving, and it was something that we had the capacity, we had the expertise in-house to be able to write. So we were able to combine pooled budgets from some of the smaller non-profit clients that we had, combine them together and get that better solution than they would be able to afford on their own, and make Drupal better – those are those niches that we’re constantly looking for. Okay, where can we add the most value here, where’s that problem that we can pull the resources together to solve – whether it’s people or time or money.
AM: Well, I think one of the direct results of – maybe Palantir wasn’t a first adopter, but pretty early, still, and the creation of Workbench which has proven to be very popular, and going back to the fact that those choices led Palantir to be a pretty big fish in a small pond for a long time – one of the things that I think is amazing about Palantir is that for 17 years, I think you told me, you never had to do any marketing.
GD: That’s right. No outbound marketing.
AM: That’s a dream, right? [laughs] To never have to look, the referrals came so naturally. But then, 17 years in, as Drupal became more ubiquitous and more people were adopting it and more people were recognizing the design abilities of it and the flexibility on the front end, marketing all of a sudden was needed [laughs] because there was more competition. So how would you say the landscape has changed? I’m going to guess that was a pivotal moment too, just how that landscape changed.
GD: Well, I don’t know that it’s a pivotal moment – I think it’s been a general trend we’ve been seeing over the past few years. And fundamentally I think if you – we talked about focusing, and that’s important, but if you narrow your focus too much and you find yourself in too much of a niche and people associate you with a specific technology or a specific type of client, that’s not a great situation to be in. And I wouldn’t actually describe us so much as a Drupal shop, we’re a full service boutique firm that helps customers be successful on the Web. And fundamentally the tools we use to accomplish that – what’s important to us is helping our customers make the right choices, collaborating with our customers, being able to help them to achieve success. Drupal is and historically has been a really great way to do that for an awful lot of our customers. But at the end of the day, it’s not about being the biggest or the best or the most well-known Drupal shop. It’s about being a firm that can help achieve success for our customers, in a really smart way. And because we were so closely associated with Drupal, that’s something we didn’t talk about as much. But we have started talking about it a lot more in the last few years. So if that’s marketing, sure [laughs].
TF: Well, I think it is. Early on, in those days when we were partnering, it was, oh, you’re the people who know tech who know how to talk to designers. So we want to work with you.
AM: Which is a valuable skill [laughs].
TF: Absolutely. And we keep it with us, we still have it today. But at the time, what we were doing was problem solving. We were hearing what they wanted, what their clients wanted, and how we solved it, right? But then you fast-forward to Drupal, and then we had this really great run where it was like, Palantir! You know Drupal! We want to work with you! But at the end of the day we did the same thing. You come in, you have a problem to solve. They picked us for different reasons and they were pleased with the outcomes, and that’s how we ended up getting those referrals and that engine. But as Drupal matured and as Palantir matured, and, quite honestly, as the Web matured as a channel in its own right, not kind of as ancillary to the traditional channels that businesses and organizations relied on – as it became co-equal and even dominant, the expectations of what people needed from the Web started to go up. So I think that the notion that, oh, you’re good at this tech thing was no longer going to be compelling, it was kind of a given. Oh, we’re going to bring you in as a partner, we assume that you have technical expertise, but we need to know that you have the strategic expertise to help us make those good decisions. And we need to know that you are going to work with us to help us build our internal capacity around this. Because the Web has gone beyond something that you would just give to, you know, your neighbor’s kid who knew how to do HTML, to, you know, the core of many businesses. And right now we’re in this era where even the oldest and most established businesses are going through digital transformation. It is reshaping how everyone works right now. So the expectations, and rightly so, have changed. They’ve increased, And Palantir has had the luxury of all of this time to mature and to hone our craft, and we are still excellent problem-solvers. That approach, combined with all the expertise we’ve built up over the last 20 years, makes us a really great partner.
AM: So now it’s July 2016, celebrating the 20th anniversary, and we’re having a company retreat – we’re shutting down everything for a week to bring all the employees, one from as far as South Africa, to Chicago so we can all get together and celebrate and – there’s going to be some work too, internally, but there’s going to be a lot of celebrating. So my final question: what would you like to see for the next five years, moving forward, or two years, what would you say?
AM: Is it overwhelming, is it too much…?
GD: No, no – you know, actually a couple of years ago we set out a couple of very high-level goals for the company, and we’re kind of in the middle of the process of that, of working toward those goals. We refined them a little bit at the beginning of this year, but they’re still fundamentally the same. And it’s about helping our clients achieve success on all of our projects, that’s number one. Number two, continuously learning, sharing and applying new knowledge, and this is one I’m really interested in having us focus a lot more on in the coming years. That this learning and applying new knowledge is really not just about technical skill or expertise, but it’s really about new ways of understanding people’s problems and looking at people’s problems in new and different ways. And developing our skills internally in terms of being able to understand and address those issues and questions and concerns, and the goals that our customers have. And then of course continuing to be a sustainable well-run organization with healthy finances and a happy staff. Those are the three things we’re working on. I think when we get together here for our on-site we are going to really talk a lot about how we’re going to do those things, and figure out and talk about what we’re going to do. We’ve spent a fair amount of time over the past year talking about what we have done – you know, how we are where we are today – and I think it’s time to start looking to the future.
TF: Building on what George said, I think learning really is the key. It’s about taking what we learn on every project and elevating it to the level of organizational learning, and doing the same thing for our clients. We have a long track record of collaboration and we have clients who embed with us and who we help level up and we make kind of essential parts of our projects. And that’s fabulous, and that’s a huge service for capacity building for our clients. And I think the opportunity I see is being able to take that and transform the organizations as well, so that they also have an organizational learning moment. So for me, I’m really focused on the notion of making sure that we’re getting the most out of every opportunity, out of every decision, and understanding why things worked or why things didn’t work, and how we make it better. And it’s this notion of continuous improvement, and really making that a core part of our service. I see that as kind of the biggest change. Because as the industry and the Web kind of matures, and continues to mature, I think we’re getting to this point where we’re going to see fewer and fewer exponential leaps, and I think it’s going to start to plateau off. And so the notion that you kind of create and institutionalize incremental learning is really going to be key for us and for our clients. So that’s what I want to focus on – how we help them continuously improve, not only in their website and their Web presence and their infrastructure and their digital strategy, but how they can continue to incrementally improve their teams and their organizations to be able to take advantage of and recognize opportunities when they come up.
AM: And cake. There will be cake.
GD: I hope there will be cake. Who’s in charge of the cake? I’m not in charge of the cake! [laughs].
AM: Well, thank you very much. Looking forward to our retreat, and looking forward to the next five.
TF: The next 20! [laughs]
AM: Why stop at five? The next 20! [laughs]
AM: Thank you so much for listening. I have to say, after three years of being with Palantir myself, and after having worked with them for several years prior to that, I’m thankful that I get to go to work every day with really, really smart and thoughtful people who are creating great work and toiling every day to make the Web a better place. So - happy anniversary, Palantir!
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