When you think of the most innovative, disruptive tech company ever, what comes to mind? Obvious candidates would be Apple, Google, or Amazon. Or maybe you are thinking of nimble startups like Airbnb and Uber. Or perhaps back to where the tech revolution first began with companies like Bell Labs, Intel, Xerox, and 3Com.
All of those are worthy contenders. Their technology changed the behaviors of societies, created new economies, and added enormous intellectual wealth to this world. Even some of their management practices were novel with folks like Andy Grove and Steve Jobs being regarded as business luminaries.
If we go back to the very early days of tech however, back in the days of mainframes and punch cards, there is another company to consider. This company began on a dining room table back in 1962 with £6 of investment capital. The goal was to provide computer programming services to a growing number of corporate customers in need of the limited programming expertise available on the market.
Yes, it was an outsourcing firm which itself was not entirely novel, even for the 60’s. What was unique however was the organization operated remotely. With nothing more than a phone to collaborate, everyone worked from their homes. Over time, the company added job swapping, profit sharing, and co-ownership, giving one quarter of the company to employees.
The nature of the work was also cutting edge. Focused on the area of operational research work, many transit, scheduling, and logistics systems were built using their services. The black-box flight recorder for the Concorde was their work. And NATO adopted their software standards for management control protocols. They also managed to do all of this on a fixed-priced basis, something unheard of at the time.
There was also something else that was spectacular about this company. This tech unicorn (before unicorns were a thing) was founded by a woman and was 100% staffed by women. All of these women were either married or with their first child and had run out of available job options. Armed with nothing more than pencils and paper however, they programmed some of the most sophisticated systems in the world.
The United Kingdom back in the 60’s was still a very difficult era for women seeking fulfilling jobs. The glass ceiling did not just apply to work either as women could not even open a bank account without her husband. So for women coming out of school, there were few options until “Steve” Shirley hired them, pioneering women re-entering into workforce.
That company was Freelance Programmers (the name says it all). The company eventually started hiring men after 1975 when the laws changed to require equal opportunity. Over the years, the company grew in size, changed names a few times, eventually settling on Xansa, went public, and then was eventually bought by Sopra Steria in 2007.
Is Freelance Programmers truly the most groundbreaking tech company ever though? That depends on what you use as the metric. When you look purely at technology innovation, maybe not as much as other innovators. From the standpoint of business innovation and societal impact though, Dame Shirley’s company is a standout and a lesson in our present age on how we think about organizations and talent.
What have you seen recently as particularly innovative? What are companies that come to mind as “groundbreaking” from your perspective?
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