Sales: $2.8 billion (2006 est.)
NAIC: 541512 Computer Systems Design Services
ThoughtWorks Inc. is a leading technology services firm, offering software development and system integration services to clients throughout the world. Although the company is known for its work in the equipment finance and insurance sectors, ThoughtWorks also serves customers in the retail, energy, manufacturing, and financial services industries. Headquartered in Chicago, the firm has offices in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, China, and India. According to CEO Trevor Mather, the company's global scope and capabilities allow it to meet the needs of organizations large and small while offering personalized service.
FORMATIVE YEARS: 1990–99
ThoughtWorks was founded by Roy Singham, a former social activist with a strong interest in technology. According to an interview with Dave Lundy in the October 23, 2003, Chicago Sun-Times, Singham is a self-described " world-class mongrel." Born in Connecticut, he spent his youth traveling the world with his parents, living everywhere from England to Jamaica. Singham's father, a political scientist from the West Indies, was a professor whose work required the family to live on various college campuses.
After attending public school in England, Singham began attending night school at the University of the West Indies at age 15. He entered the University of Michigan in 1970, at age 16, but dropped out two years later to become a factory worker and participate in the civil rights movement. Several years later Singham relocated to Chicago, where he became an electronic apprentice at the South Works steel plant. After finishing his college education, he helped to establish a computer magazine distribution company in Chicago that was sold to Ingram midway through the 1980s. Singham eventually pursued a career in the leasing industry as an independent consultant.
According to his Chicago Sun-Times interview with Dave Lundy, the catalyst that led to the formation of ThoughtWorks came while Singham was attending a conference in 1989. "I heard Dee Hock, the founder of VISA talking about the 21st century as the century of 'thoughtware,'" he explained. "That really struck a chord with me," he continued, "because since I was 9 years old, I had imagined having a chip in my brain where I could electronically communicate with the rest of the world. I decided right then that I wanted to create a company that would thrive in the 21st century."
"I recruited a few people, and we built a company called Singham Business Services for two or three years doing consulting and leasing," he continued. "Then in 1990, I came up with the name ThoughtWorks. We created the company as a kind of yin/yang dialectic between intellect and work—with highly gifted people who also had Midwestern values and could work together."
The fledgling enterprise recruited some of its first technical staff by posting bulletin board notices at the University of Chicago. ThoughtWorks soon grew from an initial staff of 8 people to 30 consultants at the time of its official incorporation in 1993. With Singham serving as CEO, by 1999 the company was providing services to Fortune 1000 clients and had been named one the nation's fastest-growing private companies for two straight years, based on Inc. magazine's Inc. 500 ranking.
In 1999 Scott H. Rupple, an executive from Diamond Technology Partners Inc., was hired to fill the newly created role of chief operating officer. He joined the company at a time of rapid growth, in the wake of new office openings in Nashville, Tennessee; Toronto, Canada; and Brisbane, Australia.
EXPLOSIVE GROWTH: 2000–07
The new millennium saw ThoughtWorks' employee base swell to 200. That year, the company secured $28 million in equity funding. By this time its clients included the likes of Caterpillar Financial Services Corp., Dana Commercial Credit Corp., Gap Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., and Transamerica Leasing Inc.
By the early 2000s ThoughtWorks was employing the so-called Agile approach to software development, which set it apart from other development firms. "Agile is a cultural shift in the way software gets done," noted Singham in the aforementioned Dave Lundy interview. He explained, "Traditionally on a big project, you write lots of detailed requirements and a huge number of pages of pictures of how the software might be. Agile throws that process on its head by saying it's OK to write software at an earlier stage. So you take the hard things that usually happen at the end of software, you advance them to the beginning and you change the relationship between business and IT."
Several difficult circumstances presented themselves at ThoughtWorks in 2001. In addition contending with the economic fallout that followed the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, which led to widespread information technology (IT) spending cutbacks in the corporate sector, the company admitted to using illegal copies of software from Microsoft and IBM. Rather than face litigation, ThoughtWorks agreed to pay a $480,000 settlement.
Despite these setbacks, progress continued as the firm successfully completed major projects for its clients, including a lease management system named Traq-IT for Dana Commercial Credit. Late that year, Inc. magazine named ThoughtWorks to its list of the fastest-growing private companies for the fourth consecutive time. In fact, from 1998 to 2001 it was one of only 14 companies to receive the honor four times in a row.
Growth continued throughout the early part of the decade. In 2003 ThoughtWorks' revenues reached $50 million on the strength of 425 employees. At this time operations began expanding into India. The following year, Trevor Mather, director of international operations, was named president and chief operating officer. Singham, who remained CEO, turned his attention to the company's geographic expansion.
ThoughtWorks received a boost in 2004 when an independent study conducted by the research firm Forrester found that its Agile development approach was able to reduce complex IT project costs by as much as 57 percent, as compared to other development approaches. That same year, the research firm Gartner boosted ThoughtWorks' credibility when it included the company on its Cool Vendors in IT Management, Sourcing, and IT Services list.
In 2004 ThoughtWorks announced that its revenues were expected to reach $75 million, on the heels of four consecutive years of 60 percent revenue growth. That year, the company's employee base rose to approximately 500, including the addition of about 100 new consultants in the United Kingdom, where major clients included the likes of Dixon Stores Group. In the midst of growth in India, Sujitha Karnad, an IT professional with nearly 20 years of experience, was hired to oversee its growing operations in that country.
Whether we're building a new custom system for a client, fixing a project that's tied up in knots, or helping to make a software development organization more productive, ThoughtWorks delivers.
International expansion continued to be a major theme at ThoughtWorks as the company headed into the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. In 2005 the company announced the opening of its first Chinese office. Located in the city of Xi'an, in Shaanzi Province, the new development center was sited in close proximity to three technical universities, as well as some of China's leading software parks. In the May 23, 2005, issue of Canadian Corporate News, Roy Singham explained that the new location put ThoughtWorks in a good position to serve China's domestic software market, which was poised for explosive growth in the coming years.
In addition to growing geographically, ThoughtWorks also was successful at expanding its customer base during the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. By 2005 it had added a number of leading corporations to its client roster, including DaimlerChrysler, Progressive Insurance, and DestiNY USA. That year, the company's workforce swelled to roughly 700 people.
With growth came a number of leadership changes. In August, Markku Koppinen, who was then global vice-president of operations, was named chief operating officer. In addition, new managing directors were named to oversee operations in several major geographic regions, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Several key developments occurred at ThoughtWorks in 2006. One was the development of Quick-Start, a new approach the company developed for initiating IT projects, which helped clients to determine what their needs were prior to the development phase.
"Poor communication consistently underlies the failure of IT projects—particularly around the creation of valid business cases and the gathering of requirements," ThoughtWorks senior consultant Luke Barrett explained in an April 12, 2006, M2 Presswire release, continuing, "This lack of communication is often symptomatic of a long running disconnect between the business (those that pay for the project), the end-users (those that actually use the output) and IT (those that work to create the output). Without a shared understanding of at least the high-level requirements it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine what a solution might look like or what benefits it might return for what cost."
Barrett noted that the QuickStart process is "focused on communication and collaboration, together with a desire to expend effort only where it demonstrates a return." He explained that QuickStart is an initial analysis tool, "a two to four week exercise that positions us properly to begin development. If something is not going to work we'll tell them and suggest possible changes or even scrapping the project altogether."
Another important development in 2006 was the opening of ThoughtWorks Studios, a cornerstone of the company's strategy to build and distribute its own commercial software products. This effort bore fruit in 2007, when ThoughtWorks Studios released Mingle, its first product. A project management application, Mingle was engineered in JRuby, an open-source version of the Ruby programming language. A service and support application named CruiseControl Enterprise came next, followed by RubyWorks, which offered tools and resources software developers could use to make the implementation of Ruby-based programs more effective.
Things were going extremely well for ThoughtWorks by 2006. Halfway through the year, the company announced that it had experienced record financial performance in May and June, bringing in more than $10 million in revenue each month and putting the company on target for a $110 million year. Over a period of 12 months, ThoughtWorks' employee base grew another 20 percent, reaching the 800 mark. These positive developments were attributed to an expanding customer base, with approximately 30 new clients coming on board during the first six months of the year alone. Capitalizing on this positive momentum, new offices were opened in Toronto, Canada, and Beijing, China. Additional plans were made to open locations in Hong Kong and Pune, India, by the year's end.
- Roy Singham starts ThoughtWorks with an initial staff of eight employees.
- The company is incorporated.
- ThoughtWorks is named one of the nation's fastest-growing private companies, based on Inc. magazine's "Inc. 500" ranking.
- ThoughtWorks Studios is established as part of the company's strategy to build and distribute commercial software products.
- President Trevor Mather is named CEO, succeeding Roy Singham who remains executive chairman.
In 2007 ThoughtWorks made a number of significant leadership changes in order to position itself for future success. In March, president Trevor Mather was named CEO. He succeeded Roy Singham, who remained involved with the company full-time in the capacity of executive chairman. At this time, Singham was concentrating on the development of emerging technologies. That same month the company promoted its vice-president of global innovation, Dr. Rebecca Parsons, to the position of chief technology officer.
In July ThoughtWorks had reason to celebrate when, for the third straight year, the National Association of Business Resources named it as one of the 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. Before receiving the recognition, the company was evaluated in several key areas, including communication, community initiatives, compensation and benefits, diversity and multiculturalism, employee engagement and commitment, employee education and development, recognition and retention, recruitment and selection, and worklife balance.
With a strong leadership team, a growing and satisfied employee base, and solid financial performance, ThoughtWorks appeared to be positioned for further growth as the company headed into the last half of the first decade of the 2000s.
Paul R. Greenland
Accenture Ltd.; Electronic Data Systems Corporation; IBM Global Services.
Lundy, Dave, "Ex-Activist Backs Revolution in Software," Chicago Sun-Times, October 23, 2003.
"Mingle from ThoughtWorks Studios to Be the First Commercial Software in JRuby," Business Wire, May 8, 2007.
Simpson, Glenn R., "ThoughtWorks Made Illegal Use of Other's Software," Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2001.
"ThoughtWorks, Global IT Services Firm, Names Trevor Mather CEO," M2 Presswire, March 1, 2007.
"ThoughtWorks Launches QuickStart to Cut IT Project Waste at Planning Stage," M2 Presswire, April 12, 2006.
"ThoughtWorks Opens First Development Center in China," Canadian Corporate News, May 23, 2005.