The Future Amidst Change: Connected, Collaborative and Creative

The last two years have been unsettling in multiple ways and—in view of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine—more changes could be around the corner. It seems we will need to reconsider daily routines, business practices and long-term expectations on a regular basis. What the future holds is a toss-up obviously, but long-term trends are becoming apparent. Which aspects of today’s workplace are likely to stay the same—or alternatively—change in the years ahead? Which skill sets are in demand and growing? Let’s consider the possibilities…

Remote Work Comes Out of the Shadows

As millions of employees across the globe hunkered down at home to work due to stay-at-home orders, the number of online collaboration tools exploded to meet the need. The platform Zoom was downloaded 450 million times in 2020. What was surprising was that after a period of adjustment, many employers made the pleasant discovery that with adequate preparation and the right set of conditions, online meetings could ACTUALLY work. Work could get done and—to everyone’s surprise—new levels of productivity could even be achieved. Online collaborative platforms will continue to grow, offer additional services, and become more specialized as work teams continue to convene online in the months and years to come.

Whether remote work is feasible or not depends on several factors, the main criterion being the character of work responsibilities. But remote work is undoubtedly in the future mix of acceptable arrangements. More and more employers are willing to judge employees on job performance, not whether they are physically at the office.

Tech Tools Chip Away at Routine Tasks

Technology continues to grow more sophisticated and offer an ever-broadening array of tools. However, contrary to what many have feared, instead of replacing employees, technology is more likely to take over a task—routine engineering calculations, for example—rather than the higher-level, nuanced analysis often required of professionals. Much like the time-efficient services of a highly skilled personal assistant, the best use of technology complements what we do. It is quick to learn and adapt to ways that works best for us. Even with all the strides that have been made so far with AI and machine learning, robots are still far from making complex decisions. Andrew MacAfee of MIT points out that “machines are demonstrating skills that they never had before.” This is true, but machines are still far from being human. Let’s keep it that way for a while.

Collaborate, Lead and Adapt—Skills that Are More Important Than Ever

As employees move to remote workstations, the emphasis on teamwork and “people” skills accelerates. In fact, excellent communication and interpersonal skills become non-negotiables in the years ahead. Collaboration between individuals, teams and departments is how the best companies work and will continue to work in years to come. Automation and remote workstations may increase within a company, but so too does the need for invaluable “people” skills.

The pandemic managed to shock us into reevaluating our routines. Above all, the adaptive talents of our employees are more important than ever. “Upskilling” is a very real and relevant talent. If the future is anything like the recent past, circumstances can change quickly, and job positions can change with them. The best employees are the ones that are quick to adapt—and lead if necessary—in a way Mike Walsh of MIT refers to as “cognitive flexibility.” The rapidity with which global economies were affected by the pandemic meant the most valuable employees were the ones that were creative, quick to act, and quick to develop or draw on skills essential for that unique moment.

In the future we will likely move away from fixed roles and learn to develop skill sets and mind sets and to think as groups, maximizing the combined resources of a team. As important as the individual spirit is, the team rules.

The Over-Designed Product and Other Lessons on Feature Creep

More than once when considering the purchase of a software product, I have set aside the feature-heavy package for a simpler version with a better price and better mix of key functionality. More often than not, the package I choose has the core features that sold me on the product in the first place. More often than not, the features added to later versions of the same software are neither necessary nor helpful to the overall user experience.

The result of a common market phenomenon known as “feature creep,” these extra features were added to enhance the product, but actually diminish its value by adding too much complexity and cost. Few consumers purchase the more elaborate product, at which point it starts a slow but sure trek from sale bin to discontinuation. What sets apart the doomed “bloated” products from those that enjoy a long and productive shelf life? How can a corporation avoid “featurism” by packing too much of a good thing into an otherwise solid product? Here are a few points on how to stack the deck in your product’s favor.

Data is King: The Indisputable Value of Market Research

The ultimate goal of market research is to uncover hidden, but invaluable truths about your target industry. In unlocking the secrets to your primary consumer (and potentially striking market “gold”) you discover needs, difficulties, typical workflow processes, and key goals. Make use of quantitative and qualitative market research techniques to get answers to foundational questions. Primary research uses focus groups, surveys and well-designed questionnaires; secondary research pulls from existing articles, reports and analyses. At the conclusion of a thorough process, a road map to deliver needed help to your target consumer should be clear.

Identify key problems you are trying to solve for this industry. Prioritize the challenges and issues that are of primary importance and those that are secondary. Your target customer’s problems are front and center in the product development process and the driver behind effective product design. Don’t lose sight of them.

Make an Execution Plan

Outline a scope of work to develop a product that solves a key challenge for your target group. The plan of work will be based on conclusions derived from market research and objectives to incorporate key functionality and core features. Set a timeline to achieve major milestones and don’t stray from these target dates. You are incorporating non-negotiable, “bread and butter” features into your product and that is the end game. If you still have too many features to work with at this point and need to narrow the field, determine which features are more valuable to your target user than others. The use of a Pareto analysis, in which you attempt to identify the minimum features (20%) that generate the majority (80%) of the value, can be useful here.

Consider the development of an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) at this stage as well.

If you Make it, Will they Buy?

The MVP is a bare-bones product with minimal up-front investment that indicates whether market research was nailed-or not. Targeted to a specific, well-researched group of consumers, the MVP could be the winning ticket—the long-awaited product that has been tailored to meet a specific need—or a real loser. The MVP gauges viable market interest and either establishes a receptive customer base or not. If it fails, anything more elaborate will fail too. The company will decide to go forward with the product as is, change it, or discontinue production altogether

Let Data Drive Design and Product Development

Let’s say the MVP is a success and the pressure is on to firmly establish market share. A common presumption is that more features result in a better product. Corporate development and design teams ramp up, ready to shift into high gear with “better” features and greater functionality—but this is where feature creep becomes a real risk. Make sure data-driven review processes are in place to analyze the risk and value of proposed new features.

Considerations should include user need, effects on user experience, and how a proposed feature adds or detracts from existing product design.

Keep budgets, corporate resources and timelines in mind. Continue to follow initial project goals and priorities. Early market research uncovered important truths about your customer base and data on user behavior should continue to drive design decisions. Consider analyses showing each of the product’s features with the percentage of users for each. Features with poor rates of use should be eliminated. These data and others will yield important information on product design moving forward.

The Value of a Simple Design

Failure to plan or follow a process for feature review and analysis can result in wasted corporate resources, missed deadlines, a product that no one wants, and irreversible financial losses. Thorough market research and planning and project objectives that keep the end user in mind at all times are essential to avoid feature creep. Don’t dismiss the value of a simple and user-friendly product that delivers a basic solution and does little more. Don’t dismiss a minimalist, yet effective, design strategy. Years from now, we will undoubtedly observe that the simple tools are the ones that outlast the complex.

Building Engineering Software

The Business of Building Engineering Software

Four Ways the Cloud Gives Us an Edge

We’ve come a long way as far as computer processing goes. Barely thirty years ago, enormous main-frame computers and other bulky physical hardware was the norm. Now each day new developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud analytics mean that corporations can operate at an entirely new level, realizing efficiencies that were just a pipedream several years ago.

Above all, emerging technologies can make running a business much easier. Developing world-class engineering software is hard. The question of how best to invest and grow is constantly front and center. Do we hire staff, invest in infrastructure, add to the product line? A business that wants to stay on top struggles to get it right. In the thick of all the decisions that need to be made, here’s one thing I’ve learned: The business that takes advantage of cloud computing is bound to come out ahead. Here are four reasons why software development and cloud technologies are a good fit.

1. Remote Work Doesn’t Slow Us Down

Code development requires programmers to work on their own—and in teams. Access to cloud-based coding platforms means that work done remotely is as efficient (if not more so) as work done physically in the office. Programmers can work autonomously but can also do paired virtual programming, sharing code when necessary to trouble-shoot problems. Code corrections can be deployed immediately to client desktops via a central server. Highly efficient teamwork is possible through programs like Microsoft Team, Visual Studio and others. The pandemic hit us hard and staff were forced to adjust to remote work, but thankfully the company’s “lifeblood”—our ability to develop state-of-the-art software code—didn’t suffer.

2. Our Programmers Take Advantage of Automation

Most professionals—and this includes software developers—have some aspect of their job that is repetitive and tedious. To be competitive, the process of developing code needs to be stream-lined and efficient. What does this mean? More time on content creation—less on editing. More and more cloud platforms offer a variety of code storage, review and analysis tools that eliminate the most mundane tasks associated with code development. To the extent coders are able to focus on the work that really counts, the better. In addition, cloud-based platforms give developers access to multiple coding languages, thus giving our developers yet another professional edge.

3. Our Engineering Clients Get a Leg Up with Data in the Cloud

Nearly all data relating to the physical environment is digitized. However, the enormous quantity of data this represents is impossible to physically store in one location, let alone one workstation. The success of world-class engineering software—and the professionals that use it—depends on access to data stored in the cloud. Our software is built around cloud-based data, some of which is pre-processed in our software applications. In addition, this data is accessible to both international and domestic customers via data servers located around the world. Our software computes and analyzes large data sets and has the capacity to scale this process up or down, per the client’s needs. Again, access to cloud capabilities sets a company apart from the competition.

4. The Cloud Eliminates Computer Hardware. Need We Say More?

Prior to the cloud, software companies were swamped with the costs of buying and maintaining physical hardware—and the software to run it. Since our operations moved to the cloud, we have few expenses associated with hardware maintenance. Server space is increasingly important, but we can easily contract for more. Did we mention data security? Our cloud provider offers security and back-up services. Another perk relates to company records. Here again a company can thrive: Administrative issues are handled seamlessly via cloud-based book-keeping software.

We have seen that at specific times throughout history, an invention or new process can catapult world commerce into a new era of efficacy and performance. The Industrial Revolution’s introduction of mechanized processes is a case in point. Manufacturing was never the same once mechanized processes took over; business protocols were irreversibly altered. Within the field of software development and computing, we could argue that the cloud is having a similar effect. Those that embrace it will realize numerous cost efficiencies and will be poised to surge ahead. The cloud, like the dawn of the assembly line some years ago, offers a competitive advantage to the companies that embrace it.

We are Humbled—and Cautiously Grateful in 2021

As the year 2021 comes to a close, we have an opportunity to take stock of where Highlands (and the world) was New Year’s eve and where we are today, some 11 months later.

Highlands—and Slowly the World—Is Getting Through It

We have no need to define “it” as it is abundantly clear that the global phenomenon that affected all and spared few was the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of our staff here at Highlands—and their friends and families—were seriously affected by the devastating pandemic. Our hearts go out to those who suffered or—worse yet—lost loved ones.

Nothing quite like it in recent history, employees at Highlands were forced to find new ways to work. The good news so far is that we have managed to stay busy and keep our business moving steadily forward. We figured out ways for our people to be safe and productive in remote offices. It became clear that with the right set of tools—and the right state of mind—we could achieve goals even when physically removed from Highlands’ corporate hub in Noida, India.

In fact, in spite of the pandemic’s global upheaval, we succeeded in releasing a new engineering software product that is certain to have a positive impact around the world. We are just one company, but Highlands is keen to make a difference.

Several vaccines were developed in record time and became available in many parts of the world, well within a year of the initial outbreak—a remarkable feat. World-wide distribution of the vaccine, however, is not what it should be; many poorer populations remain unvaccinated as the citizens of wealthier countries debate the value of booster shots. Without a doubt, the inequities of global vaccine availability need to be remedied.

Awareness of Climate Change and a Call to Action

With each severe weather event that devastates an unprepared community, more people become aware of the crisis that is our changing climate. The disasters that we now frequently witness the world over are unmistakably the product of a warming planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 climate report was a wake-up call; some 500+ pages of scientific proof of imminent and irreversible climate conditions means more countries—particularly the ones that can afford it—must step up, make tough decisions and sacrifice.

Consider some key findings: There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than there has been in over two million years. Consider that specific weather events—heat waves, rain events, and other severe weather—will become more extreme and catastrophic with each incremental rise in temperature. Consider that due to past emissions, the Arctic ice pack will continue to melt into the future; this is now an irreversible phenomenon that will affect us, our coastal communities, and our way of life well into the future.

Technologies are being developed that offer hope, but on-going investment in carbon-neutral infrastructure is no longer negotiable.

World leaders convene in Scotland in November to discuss the climate crisis. We can no longer remain passive as world citizens. Let’s hope our world leaders don’t either.

World Suffering is Widespread

The number of relief agencies working in the poorest countries of the world has never been higher, but the need for humanitarian assistance has also never been higher. The fact remains that there are tremendous numbers of children and families that are displaced from their countries, living in misery with poor water quality, substandard food reserves and inadequate medical care.

As we take stock of our good luck, let’s not forget that many live desperate lives. Poverty is everywhere…It is across the street, in the next neighborhood, across the border. What can we do—even on a small scale—that improves the quality of life for someone—someone we may not even know?

The Spirit that Keeps Us Moving Forward

In spite of the ups and downs of the past two years, Highlands is lucky. Many companies just didn’t make it. These are the companies that lost customers and revenue and ultimately went bust during the pandemic.

So many businesses are in desperate shape, but our team at Highlands is faring well. We are fortunate to be in a position to create products we can be proud of and that do the world good.

We should always look for ways to share what we know and to help where we can. We help our Highlands teammates, of course, but more importantly, we strive to help the local and global communities of which we are a part.

What’s on the Horizon in Cloud Technology

Cloud technologies are evolving rapidly to meet an ever-expanding demand from corporations to provide cost and organizational efficiencies. What are the areas of growth in 2022 and beyond?

Artificial intelligence capabilities are expected to be integrated more and more into SaaS platforms to produce highly tailored and optimized applications. Multiple examples of these exist already in the form of chatbots, user-specific behavior analyses and other “smart” applications.

Cloud security is a hot topic among corporate executives as high-profile cases of data breach continue to make headlines and the threat becomes increasingly mainstream. According to one source, cybercrime increased last year by a whopping 650%. For this reason, the kind of data security offered by a cloud provider is a primary selection criterion. Some corporations elect to distribute data storage over several different cloud platforms to minimize risk, but fool proof strategies do not yet exist. Even with additional safety measures in place, private and public entities alike are still at risk when it comes to data security infrastructure. This is an area that is ripe for innovation and growth.

Minimizing risk of data breach is not the only reason for a private or public entity to rely on multiple clouds. Corporations often have multiple clouds—as opposed to just a few—to address specific needs. In fact, it is quite common for an organization to have several public clouds and multiple private cloud systems as well in a hybrid cloud situation, each with unique purposes, capabilities and requirements.

Areas of growth in the context of multi-cloud formats include enhancing an organization’s ability to work seamlessly between cloud platforms and to expand the capabilities of each. This may mean that providers of public cloud services develop additional capabilities to appeal to a greater cross-section of discerning customers.

Corporations increasingly look for operational flexibility, a high degree of data oversight, and top-notch organizational capabilities as well. Data fabrics are increasingly used as a means of identifying and linking separate data storage locations in order to provide an overarching organizational theme. With the use of application programming interfaces, cloud fabrics identify core functional commonalities among distinct siloes of data and give corporations the ability to access similar data managed by separate cloud providers.

Containerization is yet another aspect of innovative and specialized data management that is gaining ground. This concept offers corporations a way to organize an application and its supporting files and associated components into a unique “container” or “library” of related items. This gives the application versatility and the ability to run seamlessly in different computing environments. Thus, the use of containers is of particular interest to entities that seek to capitalize on a hybrid cloud operational strategy. Each container is relatively small in size and thus multiple units can be run on one server, again providing multiple efficiencies to the corporation that chooses to use them.

With multiple clouds at play, corporations want to be able to compare performance and monitor analytics across all cloud platforms. For this reason, cloud automation is an emerging trend and an area primed for growth. Via a dashboard or similar window into operations, an organization can compare for performance, security risks and other analytics. With similar, if not identical, infrastructure across all platforms, an entity can capitalize on machine learning to draw key conclusions, improving oversight and overall efficiency as it considers how the business operates as a whole.

In response to dominance by a few centralized data processing giants, edge computing is the answer to data stored on a central server that is vulnerable to factors like bandwidth, latency and security. Edge computing seeks to minimize the secondary effects of overburdened and centralized clouds with the construction of regional data centers, which gives companies access to the reliability of data stored on a local server.

An industry-specific cloud is designed to address the needs of a particular industry like finance or healthcare. These are companies that are often subject to a host of additional industry-specific regulations. Healthcare is the type of industry that can also benefit from additional automation in particularly sensitive areas like patient data management.

Cloud-based platforms were conceived in part due to the inability of desktops and physical servers to manage large volumes of data. Desktop applications were then reconfigured for cloud-based platforms. Cloud native applications, however, refers to applications that are not simply platforms redesigned for the cloud, but applications that were cloud native or developed originally for the cloud, which means they may offer an edge in terms of agility within the cloud and overall functionality.

We anticipate tremendous growth in cloud computing. From issues of cloud security to data fabrics and cloud automation, business, government and private individuals are primed for even greater levels of performance. Opportunities in the cloud are only just beginning.

Lessons from TED: How do We Really Thrive at Work?

The TED (“Technology, Entertainment and Design”) non-profit gives voice to some of the most brilliant people on Earth who are willing to distill their life experiences and research into succinct (< 20 minute) talks. Accessible to anyone with an interest and an internet connection, TED talks can draw millions of viewers. From prize-winning scientists, to CEOS, to Pope Francis, Bono, and prodigy school kids, each one has something unique to share. I’ve wandered into a TED talk on more than a few occasions and found myself thoroughly mesmerized.

TED delivers concentrated nuggets of information or opinion (and often both) on very specific topics; it is up to you to draw your own conclusions about the larger themes. I recently listened to several different talks on related topics—everything from what makes a person happy to tips from a Human Resources pro—at which point I had an AHA! moment.

Although speaking on different topics, several speakers arrived at very similar conclusions. Here is my attempt to bring it all together in a TED-inspired summary of workplace wisdom:

TED Talk #1: What do We Need at Home?

Robert Waldinger is Director of one of the longest running psychological studies in the world. Based at Harvard University, the study has tracked the lives of hundreds of men from two very different socioeconomic groups since 1938. One of the study groups consists of Harvard students; the other group consists of men from the working-class neighborhoods of Boston. The researchers tracked the subjects over the course of their lives, gathered a variety of data, from medical to employment records to personal questionnaires about home life, and made some interesting conclusions.

Nearly all subjects declared early in their lives that they had two goals in life: 1) to become wealthy; and 2) to become famous. The study tried to predict which men would live on into their 80s. Ultimately, the researchers learned that those that had happier, healthier and longer lives were those that had supportive, close relationships in their lives. In fact, the best predictor of living a healthy life into your 80s and 90s was depended on this one variable.

Even with the physical pain of illness later in life, the presence of a supportive relationship meant that the research subject was still largely content and happy. The absence of a supportive relationship, on the other hand, made physical pain more acute. In short, wealth and fame did not ultimately predict happiness in older age, but sustaining, fulfilling relationships did. Loneliness and the absence of a supportive relationship led to more physical pain and in many cases, a shorter life.
(See Robert Waldinger, “What Makes a Good Life?: Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness.”)

TED Talk #2: What do We Need at Work?

It turns out that the requirements for creating a satisfying workplace are not that much different from creating a satisfying and happy home life. Several well-known technology firms pack the workplace with loads of perks such as pet-friendly offices, on-site bistros and celebrity guest speakers. But TED speakers point out that these arguably desirable perks are still secondary to supportive work environments. Over and over again, TED speakers claim that employees need to feel respected, valued and heard in order to feel happy at work. Employees are likely to “disengage” from workplaces where this crucial support does not exist.
(See Michael C. Bush, “This is What Makes Employees Happy at Work.”)

TED Talk #3: What Else do We Need at Work?

Former Human Relations professional and TED speaker, Patty McCord, claims that a supportive workplace is one that fosters a culture of openness and transparency. Don’t treat employees like children, she says. Be open about corporate policies and goals. When employees at all corporate levels feel welcome to learn about (and contribute to) the working machinery and vision of a corporation, their sense of loyalty and interest in contributing to the company’s success increase.
(See Patty McCord, ”8 Lessons on Building a Company People Enjoy Working For.”)

TED Talk #4: How do You Invite Communication at Work?

To create an engaged workforce, you need to unblock communication and invite people to speak up. In this way you create a psychologically safe workspace where people feel valued and heard. Managers need to ask questions and be prepared to respond with action if necessary. Nothing breeds cynicism as much as action without words. If managers and employees don’t agree, above all don’t let the situation decline. At least try to find common ground, which means that it may not be ideal for one party, but it is at least acceptable to most. If common ground is beyond reach, managers should agree to not give up and keep working on a solution. Chris White, Former Director of the Center for Positive Psychology, concludes with a final recommendation that speaks to a higher standard of cooperation and communication within a company: “Aim higher. We are more than the sum of our CVs!”
(See Chris White, “3 Ways to Create a Work Culture that Bring Out the Best in Employees.”)

TED Talk #5: Happy Employees = Gains in Productivity

Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc., argues that knowing something about a person’s external environment only gives him a 10% chance of predicting his or her happiness levels. He claims that 90% of a person’s happiness is derived from how that individual perceives the world. We are programmed to think that the world’s definition of success through wealth and fame leads to happiness. (Remember the study described in the beginning of this article?) This thinking leads to flawed work processes and unproductive goals. Shawn argues that by finding the positive in the present moment: through supportive relationships, acts of kindness and gratitude, you can in effect rewire your brain to see the positivity of the present moment. This attitude has been shown to lead to greater levels of productivity at work and at home.
(See Shawn Achor, “The Happy Secret to Better Work.”)

A New (Environmental) World Order?

The Rubble Left Behind

During former United States President Trump’s first and only term, with militant and uncompromising discipline, quick work was made of immeasurable environmental laws and policies. In most cases, little debate or weighing of merits accompanied these initiatives. More often than not, it was “off to the chopping block” for one rule after another. From weakened carbon emission standards for the car industry to minimal environmental review for big, sweeping projects, the oil and gas industry was consulted early and often as the administration’s fossil fuel-centric agenda took shape. Progressive environmental leaders around the world watched in horror as pro-conservation policies were steadily peeled back. The warpath was well-defined and action was swift. Anyone tracking the speed with which the U.S. reversed long-entrenched environmental policies (both domestic and international) couldn’t help but be impressed.

Respected international agreements—notably the Paris Climate Accord—suffered as Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Treaty. Refusing to attend climate discussions held at the 2018 and 2019 G7 meetings, Trump scorned scientific findings and refused to recognize or take action to curb sizable US contributions to world carbon emissions.

Higher Goals

By contrast, throughout his campaign, President Biden made no secret of his intention to champion the environment and elevate the issue of climate change to a national and world priority—if not an international emergency. Biden pledged to mobilize all players to reduce carbon emissions, making this singular goal the primary axis around which the U.S. economy would rotate, create jobs and grow in years to come. All this is detailed in the “Building a Better Future” report. Whether and to what degree elected representatives will support Biden’s plan is still unclear, but the President is ambitious. What he is unable to do initially on a large scale with agreement from both houses of Congress he may tackle on a smaller scale via executive order and shrewd choice of leadership for key cabinet positions. As leader of one of the largest economies in the world, Biden’s action on climate issues can create momentum for change on a global scale. The scene is set, but will the show go on and will the curtain rise…? Here’s where the details count.

Redesigned Spaces for Work and Life

Real change in carbon emissions can’t be done without real change on the ground, which means shaking up the way goods and services are produced and delivered around the world, people move and live, and cities develop and function on a day-to-day basis. The incoming administration understands this, which is why the “Building Better” plan underscores the importance of infrastructure. The physical structures that make up our living spaces—the roads and bridges, urban areas and systems that make it all work—would be redesigned using modern technologies and sustainable design concepts:

  • Buildings retrofitted for resilience to floods and rising water,
  • The transportation industry remade to accommodate electric cars and trucks,
  • Clean alternative fuels.

Roads, highways, and bridges—many in poor and deteriorating condition—would need to be rebuilt to embody innovation, strength and sustainable transportation design and construction in urban and rural spaces alike.

Now science acts as Manager in Chief, cracking the whip in a massive redesign of modern life and culture. China’s economy is already at the center of the world’s solar photovoltaics industry and well-positioned to meet rising world demand for new technologies. Several countries in Europe are already on course to reduce carbon emissions. Norway makes strides to be carbon-neutral by 2030. More than 100 countries around the world aim to have zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is clear from watching environmental disasters unfold across the globe—flooding in India to historic forest fires in the US, to record-breaking storms in the Atlantic and Pacific—that a swift international “reset” is needed. Will this new vision help drive other world economies towards change?

A New Mission for Engineers and Engineering Tools

As much as we want this new world environmental order to kick-in, propelled by clean energy and spitting out clean jobs right and left, many elements need to fall into place to make it happen. With luck, all the working parts—visionary leadership across the globe, political will and international cooperation, and robust funding—will line up as they need to do.

The private sector’s role will be significant if—NO, WHEN—this new world agenda kicks into high gear. Highlands, for one, accepts the challenge. Building resilient infrastructure across the globe will be a non-negotiable mandate of 21st century modern life. Engineering tools need to be flexible, tough, ready to analyze complex (and changing) scenarios, and deliver accurate results. Here’s to new directions for global economies. We as an Indian software company that makes engineering tools for the world’s engineers welcomes the chance to build and modernize world infrastructure. Highlands will deliver, as we always have, when the call to action comes.

Points of Light at the Heart of a Pandemic

Most would agree that the year 2020 has tested us as businesses, communities and as individuals in ways that few could have foreseen. Natural disaster, political turmoil and disease have always been a part of life, but the pandemic has delivered a real blow to the global community. There is no doubt about it: We will be struggling to regain some level of normalcy for months to come. Covid-19 has spared few countries; only nine months since the first cases of infection surfaced and already more than 1,000,000 people, world-wide, have succumbed. Economies have come to a virtual halt. People have lost work and income and suddenly find themselves in desperate situations. The lucky ones are able to work from home. What conclusions can we make about where we are now? The bleakness of the current situation colors our outlook and the difficulties are certainly easy to see, but is there anything positive to consider in all of this?

First, let’s think about the loss…

Loss of Partners, Friends and Family Members

Without a doubt, the passing of family, coworkers and others within our communities is the most tragic aspect of the pandemic. This virus has created death on a massive scale, the likes of which we are more likely to see during times of war. We lose people yearly to illness and many hundreds of thousands die from heart disease every year, but the numbers lost to Covid-19 exceed these numbers, even though we are well short of the 12-month mark.

Daily Life with Covid-19 Comes with Risk, The Magnitude of which is often Unknown

We have made significant strides as a civilization in the last 100 years. We know what is needed to sustain life and to protect human health. Science and technology have developed medicines and vaccines to treat countless medical conditions and to protect against more than a few horrific diseases. We know how to purify water, forecast extreme storm systems, and build the bridges, buildings and other infrastructure that support our modern way of life. But Covid-19 has forced a “reset” on what we thought we knew. It has shaken confidence in our ability to handle a global health crisis. We know now, without a doubt, that we are still vulnerable. Although the scientific community has made inroads, what we don’t know still dwarfs what we do. Navigating daily life in the last nine months has been an exercise in moving through uncharted territory. If I enter a public space, what will be my level of exposure? If I contract the virus, will my case be life-threatening or mild? These are the questions that haunt us—unanswered—from one day to the next.

Basic Social Interactions…Upended

The pandemic has forced us apart physically and we keep our distance—even, in some cases, from members of our own families. To avoid the spread of the virus we check all impulse to communicate via friendly physical gestures. Forget about the fist-bump or the friendly handshake. I can’t share tomatoes without taking precautionary steps to disinfect and sterilize my hands. It’s harder to communicate; I can’t read body language over Zoom. In person communication means I need to get better at reading other physical cues, like eyes for examples, which has never been a particular strength of mine.

But there is a silver lining to all of this, and it starts with what we have learned about ourselves.

We are Asked to Test our Resourcefulness and our Willingness to Sacrifice

Let’s not neglect the positives of this situation, because they are there, hiding in the midst of this crisis. As we reexamine how we go about our daily lives, our world view is bound to change. Forced to alter our daily habits and to forego social outings and other perks we want, many of us have reconsidered our place in the world. Maybe we’ve thought about the vulnerability of people in poorer communities or the front-line workers, or how lucky we are relative to the situation of so many others who have less resources to protect themselves. In some cases, we’ve accepted the risk and elected to help the weaker members of our communities to simply survive.

We have had to alter our expectations, make adjustments and make more than a few sacrifices over the last nine months. This kind of self-reflection and self-denial can only be good for personal growth and for our evolution as a tightly interconnected world community.

We Charter New Ground with Our Company

Not only have we been forced to be more thoughtful and resourceful as individuals, but as a company as well. Within a matter of days, and before the city of Noida officially went into lockdown, Highlands elected to move all employees out of the office. Staff rallied, organized, and set up all employees at home with computers, desks, chairs, printers and everything else needed to make work happen at a distance. Aside from a few minor delays, the well-oiled machinery that is Highlands at the Graphix Tower in Noida’s Sector 62 shifted into high gear, albeit remotely. Programmers collaborated and scrummed at a distance; sales representatives contacted clients and HR still looked after the interests of our highly valued employees. We made it work.

Yes, we as individuals and as a business are resilient. In the midst of a pandemic, we’ve managed to find a few “points of light.”

We Thank Our Lucky Stars in 2020

In a year that was hit, broadside, by Covid-19 and that witnessed the loss of over 1,000,000 people (and counting) to the virus world-wide, do we really have anything to be thankful for? I would argue that although the end of this challenging situation is not yet in sight and massive human suffering continues, we do have reason to be thankful. Let me explain why.

Resolve of Global Community to Work Together on Solutions

On one level, we heard our share of polarizing words, accusations and friction, all of which seems to go hand in hand with an international crisis of this scale. But along with all of this political posturing, particularly from certain parts of the globe, we also experienced real leadership. Effective and life-saving efforts came from unexpected as well as expected places. Real leadership was focused, uncompromising and unequivocally based on and driven by data, statistics and fact. Local leaders advocated for commitment, service and personal sacrifice. Under the best of circumstances, a quick response resulted in a swift decline in case numbers. New York City, for example, was the world’s Covid-19 epicenter for weeks in early 2020 but managed to bring deaths/day down from a peak of 952 at the beginning of May down to 2/day by the end of September. This drastic shift in the city’s trajectory was nothing short of remarkable.

At clinics and hospitals around the world, hundreds of thousands of medical practitioners rallied to treat those afflicted with Covid-19, not knowing if they were to be the next victims. Most had families and dependents at home. According to Amnesty International, over the last nine months over 10,000 health workers lost their lives taking care of patients with Covid-19. These selfless individuals remain and continue to be an inspiration to us all.

Numerous teams across the globe launched accelerated vaccine research initiatives. Political boundaries become secondary as scientists and medical practitioners shared information and discoveries relative to potential treatments and cures. Many countries and professionals rose to the occasion to collaborate and avoid reverting to a vaccine “arms race”.

A Dedicated and Committed Team that Continues to Rally and Push Forward

Closer to home, the work ethic and drive of the individuals that make up the team at Highlands continues to impress me. When it became apparent that the world was on the brink of a crisis, yet Noida was not yet shutting down, everyone at Highlands shifted gears in the blink of an eye. Within a matter of days, workstations and necessary equipment were moved from corporate headquarters to home offices. Giving new meaning to agile teamwork, Highlands employees are safe at home and working remotely.

Employees Game to Learn and Grow

The key word is humility. We approach everything we do here at Highlands with some level of humbleness. Here at Highlands we have recruited the best in class and the best in profession, but this doesn’t mean we think we know it all. No matter status, education, or years of experience, we know we are all still students of life and work. Crises are, if nothing else, an opportunity for growth. We strive to learn from our mistakes and move forward, capitalizing on any insights we’ve gained through our mistakes to make this living, breathing system—which is Highlands—maintain its edge.

Not only is humility necessary to move a team forward but change and evolution are necessary as well. Each day at Highlands is different because the needs of our clients—the engineers and the global communities they serve and the problems they need help with—are different, from one day to the next. At the core, we are dealing with natural systems and natural systems are fundamentally dynamic in character. Engineers need to have tools to grapple with change, unpredictability and flux, and we want to continue to make the tools that facilitate reliable analysis.

Customers that Push Us to Do More

Could you design a car without the driver in mind? Could a playground be fun and surprising without plugging into the imagination of a kid? Highlands customers are not on the payroll, but in view of how they drive and shape our products, they very well could be. They are as much a part of the development team as any of our programmers. The practical knowledge and insights they offer into how to make our engineering software functional and relevant for today’s engineering problems are invaluable. We treasure these customers for their drive, interest and contributions towards making our solutions for the world’s engineers the best they can possibly be.

Parting Thoughts on the Year 2020

This has been anything but a typical year, but even a year of challenges can offer surprising opportunities. Here’s to putting a positive spin on otherwise difficult circumstances. Here’s to counting our blessings and giving thanks when it’s hard to see what is still good in the spaces and in the lives of the people around us. Here’s to looking ahead with hope and optimism.

Customer and Employee Centered

The Customer is in the Room…and other News from Highlands

Sometimes, to know what a company IS NOT is as telling as to know what a company IS. So, in this post, you will learn what you will NOT find at Highlands, as well as some things that you most certainly will. Let’s hit on some key points to shed light on our company’s culture, work processes and other telling indicators. In the spirit of full disclosure, let’s drill into the working machinery of Highlands.

NOT a corporation that snubs the customer

Say “hello” to the customer. She (or he) is at the scrum meeting. Well, not literally. If you want to visualize the customer looming over the conference table or hovering, phantom-like, during a scrum meeting, go ahead. It is not far from reality. But you will be hard pressed to find a software company that is more eager to please the customer. Soliciting—and acting on—customer feedback is as important as any other task that Highlands does. In fact, while most companies are satisfied to keep only minimum records of existing customers—contact name, billing address—that would never do for Highlands. We got the sale, yes, but our commitment to our customers doesn’t end there. We want to be sure that our software continues to deliver and perform well after the deal goes through.

Our team gathers customer feedback constantly. How is this done? Customer Support Representatives call customers every 2 to 3 months to check-in and get updates on how the software is performing. We want to know what is working, what isn’t, and what we need to change. In the process of fielding inbound calls, tech support engineers gather information as well. If we don’t understand a client’s issue, we use any technology available, from video recorded calls to client demos, to truly understand what a client needs and wants from the software. Now and then, the Engineering Director gets on the phone to make a “discovery call” and uncover precisely what a customer is looking for in our software. How many companies do you know of that do this? (We call this “software features on demand”). Information from our clients is meticulously documented and factored into the process of product development, as we will discuss in the paragraphs below.

NO stagnation here: Employees Evolve… as does the Company

Human Resources is probably one of the most important departments in our shop. Why is this so? Because equal in importance to our customers—if not more so—are the people that work at Highlands. These are the folks behind the core machinery at Highlands. Without them, we would not produce anything of value. So, we invest as much in our employees as we do in our product. We hope that employees take advantage of the many training and advancement opportunities that Highlands offers to grow and evolve.

But here’s something you may not recognize: A company needs to evolve and grow with its employees. If you consider Highlands your work “home”, you will want the team at Highlands, and the processes and systems that make it all come together, to work, evolve and grow stronger too. Ideas to make the community and the systems stronger at Highlands are always welcome.

Not a Coding “Mill”

How much code did you write today? This is NOT a question you will hear from any of us. Management cares about developers. We are not in the business of extracting blood and sweat. We expect hard work and our performance standards are high, but above all, we are fair. We will work with you, not against you. You are one of us—remember?

We believe in the magic and power of teams. You won’t be asked to learn the job on your own or figure out problems in isolation. We pair you up with another programmer to help you become familiar with our processes. A culture of teamwork and partnership forms the backbone of work at Highlands. We are a tight group that is interdependent, supportive of one another, and motivated to produce the best product possible under the best working conditions possible.

No Stuffed Shirts Here: Software Development as quick to Adapt as the Company itself

How good would we be as developers of leading-edge engineering software if we couldn’t change course quickly and respond to client needs? We wouldn’t last long. So not only are we quick to address the people side of things—the team and workplace issues, but we are agile and fluid when it comes to our product too. In fact, evolutionary ideals shape everything we do at Highlands. We take an iterative tack with respect to software design. If in the process of shaping our MVP (minimum viable product) we realize we are off track on core features, we don’t waste time. On a daily basis, the Highlands routine goes something like this: scrum meeting, write code in pairs or teams (ask questions), assess progress and check goals (ask questions), work, repeat tomorrow (and ask more questions).

Final question: Is the Highlands team a bunch of arrogant know-it-alls who can’t stand to be corrected or told that they are wrong?! No. We know change and growth is good. We also like to think we are a humble bunch of folks who just want to make good—actually really good—engineering software and to have some fun doing it. We hope you’ll consider joining us.