The firm that starts work at 9.06am

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News

image copyrightiStock
image captionNot 9am or 9.05, but work at Pivotal starts at 9.06

There aren't many companies that insist staff start work every day at such an oddly specific time as Pivotal Software.

Employees at the US firm's 20 global offices all have to be at work and ready to go at exactly 9.06am.

At that precise time a cowbell is rung, or a gong is hit, and all workers gather for a brief stand-up meeting that lasts for between five and 10 minutes.

Then the firm's programmers hit their computers, with no other meetings or distractions for the rest of the day.

Pivotal's founder and chief executive Rob Mee says it is all about making the working day as efficient as possible.

"I realised that programmers, if left to their own devices, may roll in at 10am," he says. "And if they haven't eaten adequately they will be hungry by 11am, so they'll stop for food, which then makes the afternoon too long. It is not very efficient.

"So we thought, 'let's provide breakfast for everyone.' It gives them a reason to get here."

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So all employees get a free breakfast before work starts at 9.06am.

But why 9.06am? "We thought that if we made it 9am, developers psyching themselves up for the day would think, 'well if it is 9am I'll be late,'" says Mr Mee.

"So then we thought, 'why don't we make it 9.05am,' but that is too precise, as programmers don't like over-optimising, so we went with 9.06am. Then it became something fun."

Start on time, finish on time

And at the end of the day everyone has to leave the office at 6pm sharp because staff aren't allowed to work into the evening.

Mr Mee explains the reasoning: "Programmers don't programme well if they are too tired, so we don't want them working late into the night."

While Pivotal's approach to morning punctuality may seem endearingly nerdish, the business is in fact one of the most successful companies most people have never heard of.

Valued at $2.8bn (£2.4bn), its investors include computer groups Dell Technologies and Microsoft, conglomerate General Electric, and car giant Ford.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFord led a $253m investment in Pivotal in May this year

Pivotal's staff train the software teams of other companies - including other IT firms - to programme better.

So if a company wants its software developers to up their game, to help improve a product or service, it sends them to Pivotal for an immersive boot camp that typically lasts three months.

'Agile development'

And with Pivotal's assistance much in demand, its vast client list includes BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lockheed Martin, NBC, Bloomberg, Orange, eBay, South West Airlines, and Twitter.

Even Google called on Pivotal's help back in its infancy, and Mr Mee's business also helps intelligence agencies.

Pivotal's approach sees visiting workers pair up with its programmers, and then they write code together.

image copyrightPivotal
image captionProgrammers at Pivotal work in pairs

What Mr Mee says is central to Pivotal's work is teaching "agile software development". By this he means software that can quickly and easily be changed and adapted, and is constantly tested to ensure it works as well as possible.

"We aim to enable companies to respond more quickly to disruption or changing consumer needs," says Mr Mee.

'Eventually got good at it'

Despite being raised in California's Silicon Valley, Mr Mee was late to take an interest in the industry.

Not for him years of programming in his bedroom as a teenager. Instead, he only became focused on computers in his third year at university.

A student at the University of California, Berkeley who had switched from medicine to Japanese, he says that one day he saw a computer program written out for the first time.

image copyrightDamion I. Hamilton
image captionMr Mee had the chief executive position taken off him, only to get it back

"I said to myself, 'hey, that is a language,' and I really liked languages," says Mr Mee. "I looked at it and didn't really understand it, but said, 'this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.'

"So I started taking every computer class I could and binged on it. I practised all the time, and eventually got good at it."

After graduating Mr Mee did three months of research work in Japan for computer giant IBM, before returning to the US and setting himself up as an independent computer consultant.

Pivotal, then called Pivotal Labs, was launched in 1989, with the name suggested by his mother.

Mr Mee owned and led the business until 2012 when he accepted an undisclosed all-cash deal from computer storage business EMC.

He could have retired from the proceeds, but with EMC offering autonomy he stayed on as chief executive.

image copyrightPivotal
image captionThe company now has 20 offices around the world

Explaining why he sold up, Mr Mee says he has no regrets and that it was good to remove "a lot of those pressures you carry around with you", such as the fact his house was collateral for the lease on the office.

A year later a reorganisation at EMC saw Pivotal spun out and Mr Mee replaced as its boss, only for him to get the top job back again in 2015.

He says he was pleased to regain control - "it was quite an emotional moment actually" - but that he has no complaints about the two years he wasn't in charge.

John Rymer, an IT analyst at research group Forrester, told the BBC that Pivotal was a market leader and innovator in what it offers.

And in a report he co-wrote earlier this year, he said that the immersive training Pivotal offers is "effective at establishing new skills, practices and cultural norms".

Looking ahead, Mr Mee says he is proud to lead Pivotal, despite the rigours of the role. "You feel the responsibility, it is an intense job."

Follow The Boss series editor Will Smale on Twitter @WillSmale1

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