Interview with Tiffany Farriss, CEO of Palantir: The advantage of being digital native in times of crisis
We're starting another new series of interviews in 2020; in addition to our open-source community interviews, we're now introducing the Business Leaders Interviews series! This is the place to get to know more about the digital and agency business, and get exclusive insights into the unique approaches and challenges of some of the leading digital native companies.
Our first business leader to be featured is Tiffany Farriss, CEO of the digital consultancy Palantir.net. We spoke with Tiffany about the power of the Drupal CMS and being digital native, and discussed the current global crisis and how it necessitates a shift in the way we approach remote work.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your company. How did you get into the agency business?
I’m Tiffany Farriss and I’m the CEO of Palantir.net. We’ve been working with web design and development since 1996, so this will be our 24th year. It’s one of those stories, like most firms of our age, it happened at that intersection between passion and curiosity.
Because it was so nascent as a profession, people just started coming to you because you could do things, and then it took off and snowballed because we were just really curious about it.
So, George and I have been here the whole time. We were very passionate about this new medium as a tool: what its potential was for both communication and how it was both similar to and completely different from any of the other tools that existed.
2. For those who haven’t heard of it, what is the best way to describe Palantir?
We consider ourselves a consultancy rather than an agency. We’re a consultancy for complex digital systems; we focus on solving really gnarly problems, and we use technology as part of how we co-create solutions with our clients.
We bring the expertise that we have both in terms of the technology solutions, many of which are open source, as well as the process through which we problem solve in an agile manner.
Our clients bring their deep expertise in their sectors of experience. We traditionally work in institutional non-profits: universities, hospital systems or even large non-profits or large government agencies, such as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the state of Wisconsin, etc.
These are the kind of institutions that have a tremendous amount of knowledge that they need to be able to communicate and share with others, who need to be able to discover that information easily, but probably don’t have a lot of time to invest in that search. So, we really want to focus on helping people get what they need quickly.
What’s interesting about the work that we do is when we’ve done our job well, no one notices it. When something is well designed, you don’t notice how intuitive and easy it is to use. I really like that aspect of what we do. I think it’s when we’ve not quite gotten it right yet, that’s when people are aware of the kind of work that we do.
It comes from this mindset of continuous improvement: there’s always something to be learned, whether it’s on the technical side or on the operational side, or how we enable our clients and partners to be able to better communicate and engage with the audiences that they serve.
Our clients do a lot of good in the world, and we want to help be that enabling tool for them to do that. Technology is one of the ways that we do that but we also help them think differently about how they leverage those tools as a communication pathway.
3. What is the main focus of your company? What makes you stand out among the competition? What is the unique offering you are able to provide to your clients?
We are a really good fit for certain kinds of problems. The ones that we’re best suited to solve are really complex in nature, with a lot of integrations, or lots of different departments, etc.
We specialize in working with organizations at various stages of their digital transformation: including organizations that have not yet embraced their online channels as part of their strategic communications with their audiences or that have not yet embraced digital throughout their organization as a key strategic and operational pillar.
Those are the kind of organizations that benefit the most by working with us, because we drive results not only in terms of the outcomes for the web platform and the CMS, but also from our support of how they evolve their internal process, as they adapt and learn how to work in a more agile and collaborative way. Those are the kind of engagements that realize the long-term benefits from working with Palantir.
It’s not just the output of the work, which is obviously the most immediately tangible, but the outcome of the process, the ways in which we focus on improved user engagement. We help you create metrics for that, so you can measure the success of your site and then continue to iterate over time, to continue to serve those users better.
But there are also the outcomes in terms of the ways in which your internal team thinks differently and is able to engage differently with each other. As digital becomes a key platform for your organization, it becomes a very different way of working within the organization.
We’re not a transactional vendor, we are a deep partner, and we’re able to serve the full lifecycle, but our engagements take many forms: whether it’s a quick engagement where we jumpstart a conversation within your organization with a week long workshop on Federated Search, or a coaching come in and help get you started with your own implementation of it or handle the entire project from strategy and design through execution, we’re able to match our services to the need and capacities our clients have.
Ultimately, if you have a complex problem, we’re here to help you with that, whether you need us to supplement your internal team with a managed support relationship where you need to know that somebody’s got your back for the long haul, or you have a 9 to 18 month project where you need someone to step in to deliver everything from your content strategy, to your brand platform, to your style guide and your content management system. It’s not about the size, it really is about the complexity of what you’re looking to do and the partnership that you’re looking for from us.
We optimize for what we call “focus and flow”. We’re looking for those opportunities so that our team can embed into and collaborate with your team in a way that allows us to bring our deep expertise, and then help you bring your deep expertise at a place where we can really work together and create some amazing outcomes.
4. How much of your offering is in digital? What services do you provide that involve digital and which one would you highlight?
We’re digital native, and we’re open source myopic; we do the majority of our consulting work within and around Drupal and adjacent technologies, so that’s really why people come to us; they know us for working with Drupal and on Drupal.
We already had the client base, and like most firms of our age we had our own CMS which we had written and rewritten several times by the time we discovered Drupal.
And it was really a testament to Drupal’s flexibility and its powerful community that we decided it was certainly a benefit not only to us but to our clients for us to put our mindshare behind that community. I think we’ve given a lot and we’ve certainly received a lot from that community. It’s one of the best business decisions that I’ve ever made.
5. You’ve just mentioned that you’re especially investing in and relying on the open-source Drupal CMS. What does that solution bring to the table for your clients?
In our experience, the really complex, large-scale projects that we do have multiple levels of integration, and Drupal has for many years been the dominant glue layer for a best-of-breed stack.
It does a better job of consuming and distributing data than anything else, and so we increasingly have more and more systems, whether it’s content management systems or CDNs, or e-commerce or marketing systems - there’s any number of systems that you can be asked to integrate at any given time.
Drupal just does a better job of bringing all those disparate data sources together, and then knitting it up and then spitting it out in a way that is coherent and omnichannel.
It allows you to be able to consolidate an infinite number of different systems and then be able to push it out in an infinite number of ways. I’ve never seen another product that really has that flexibility, that robusticity and that reliability.
Drupal 9 is only getting better on that front, so from that perspective the flexibility of Drupal has always been just unmatched. And what I’ve always appreciated is just that interoperability; there are things that Drupal does natively, but you’re never locked into those things. So, while Drupal does have a frontend, if you wanted to go to a React frontend, great, go ahead and do that in a decoupled way.
It’s that ability to make the best choice regardless of channel, use case, or infrastructure, that makes Drupal just such a utility player without sacrificing performance or security.
Also, from an implementation and a cost perspective, Drupal is unmatched - rarely is there a software product that just ticks the boxes all along the decision-making matrix when you’re trying to compare it.
The only aspect where we have to work a little harder on Drupal is that it doesn’t have the sales team that Adobe or other commercial products do. Nevertheless, when the technical merits are so incredibly strong, and the flexibility to perform on the marketing side is also so strong, Drupal remains very compelling.
What I appreciate about the way Drupal does open source is its nice balance between innovation and stability. It is such an interesting project because it’s not “move fast and break things”, so you have that control, that reliability - you can trust that if you write something in Drupal, you’re going to get many years of use out of it.
But you also know that the community is continuing to innovate and to integrate new things, you can continue to innovate and to integrate new things, it feels like it’s a very future-proof choice.
6. What do you see is the biggest challenge in the industry right now? Why is that and what can be done to overcome it?
Well, there’s a high degree of uncertainty right now with the current situation. Everyone’s trying to figure out, are we headed into a global slowdown? Are we headed into a global recession, and if so, how bad will it be?
I think that the globalization of all of our work has been a boon for so many years for all of us, whether it’s our companies or our open-source projects, that we’re all very much more interconnected than we used to be.
We’re certainly watching very closely what happens as all these technology conferences are canceled or postponed or moved online. Those are incredibly important events for a lot of us to do, including from the marketing perspective. So I think that that’s going to be a major shift, I think there’s going to be a lot of disruption this year - a lot of uncertainty, a lot of disruption.
So, that’s the number one biggest challenge I see this year, really navigating this disruption, trying to supplement online what we might’ve done in person.
Fortunately, Palantir has been remote since 2015 when we moved everything up into the cloud and gave everyone the option to always work remotely if they wanted to. Our team has always been large and distributed, and we’re very used to working in an online way, so that’s not a big challenge for us.
But we still do a lot of things face to face, so if over the next few months we’re not able to meet face to face with clients, for pitches or at in-person events, how might we supplement that in other ways, how might we use online channels in ways that we haven’t yet?
I think that’s a big opportunity for all of us to think about, because I know that those in-person events, those IRL events, were very energizing, particularly in and around open source, and also for marketing and new business purposes, for new clients and new potential clients.
We’ve been doing a lot of investment over the last few years in remote facilitation and how to make sure people are actually engaged, really investing in training for our team, so again I feel very well prepared in that way.
I mean, no one is prepared for this, this is not something I expected, but we’ve been really investing in our own transformation. We’ve worked in agile for many many years, as you would expect, but we’ve really been investing in becoming more agile organizationally.
There’s a system called the Core Protocols which is a way of working together that I have found in my own work and in our work here at Palantir translates really well to remote environments.
It’s just a suite of protocols that were documented to promote high performance among teams, so as our team adopted those protocols, reinforcing them has been very helpful for us, and we’ve been seeing those trickle over into our clients and have been sharing them with them. This is something that’s been really helpful.
There are a lot of things I’m watching as well. I was just reading recently that as the United States universities are starting to shut down and move their courses online, a lot of them have contracts with Zoom, so Zoom has issued a warning that we should all expect performance degradation, that they cannot handle the load if there are massive simultaneous meetings.
I think that’s going to be an interesting stress test in some of our cloud-based infrastructure, and also just our community infrastructure. My team is used to working from home, but what happens when your neighborhood which used to have a smattering of people working from home at the same time, and all are trying to be on video calls because the best practice is clearly to be on video call?
If you’ve ever tried to be on a conference call from home, they’re terrible, but a video call with your camera on is very different, it’s a different bandwidth load, so if we’re all trying to drink the milkshake from the same straw, there’s just a limited amount of what we can do.
7. Where do you see your agency in the next three years? What is the big lofty goal you are pursuing?
There’s been such a tremendous response to not just what we do but how we do it. Right now, we’re the whole package; when you work with us, you get exposed to our agile ways of working and that’s an integrated part of the experience of working with us as consultants.
We don’t offer agile consulting as a product unto itself, nor do we really provide consulting in and around how to structure your organization to be agile. And that’s something we’ve invested a lot in ourselves, in our professional and growth opportunities and all of that.
So, I would not be surprised if we expand the consultancy beyond the digital to include some more organizational consulting as an offshoot of the work that we’ve done for ourselves and the services that are really being resonant with our clients.
But, that remains to be seen. The organizations that we’ve worked with do so much good in the world that any way we can help them meet their mission, we’re going to want to do that.