Christoph Steindl is seen as a role model by his employees at Catalysts and most recently also by everyone at Cloudflight. He is a very good technician, but he also has a great deal of skill in organizational processes. He admits mistakes. He seeks and finds people who are good or better than he. He builds trust in the people and gives them more and more autonomy. On 18th of October 2019 he won the Entrepreneur Of The Year Award by Ernst & Young and will represent Austria in Monte Carlo in June 2020 at the World Entrepreneur of the Year Award ceremony.
Christoph has been the Co-Founder and CEO of Catalysts for 14 years – he and Christian Federspiel have founded the company in 2005.
CS: We – with my co-founder Christian Federspiel – have built up an extremely strong second management level in recent years, which is already in the front row and is driving forward and further developing Catalysts and Cloudflight. Catalysts has been part of the Cloudflight Group since June 2019, a visionary IT services company well on its way to becoming a leader in the European digitization market.
“I would have had to stand on stage with Christian Federspiel, but it was only clear at the end (as with the Oscar awarding) whether I am called up on stage or not. In Monte Carlo – at the world finale – I would like to have in any case, that Christian stands on the stage next to me.”
Although Christoph had hoped to get the award, he could not really expect to be the best entrepreneur from all of Austria and fulfill all the jury’s criteria. It felt unreal to him.
CS: I felt a positive tingling sensation – like when you start to believe after a tough test that you could actually make it. When the moderator announced that the winner comes from Linz, I thought, “well, maybe it’s really me.” When I heard that the winner has to do with software, I started to move, so I could easily get up when my name and picture were revealed on the stage. I got up, took small steps on the red carpet: the closer I came to the stage, the more I realized that I would soon own the prize. I felt like dancing and added a few faster steps. On the stage, I was dazed. I didn’t really understand what the moderator was asking me, I babbled a little bit. I thought she asked me about how I came here, so I started to thank a few people without whom I wouldn’t have gotten on stage: my parents, my wife, and Toni as representative of my leadership team.
CAT: What did your family say when they realized that you had become the Entrepreneur Of The Year?
CS: I didn’t really tell them a lot before since I’m blessed with success in my life. I typically don’t tell about a potential award before I’m 1000% sure that I have it in my possession. And in the case of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year, it just felt way too dangerous to expect to win it: I hadn’t known anyone who had won that award, although I know a lot of successful companies and founders.
CAT: Before you co-founded Catalysts you were an employee at IBM. Had you ever thought that one day you would have a bigger career as an entrepreneur than at the huge and famous IT-company?
CS: During my years at IBM, it became clear that I wouldn’t reach retirement age there. Before I quit my job, I envisioned my self-employed career as a successful one, so I actually enjoyed handing in my resignation. However, what followed was depressing: although I had a lot of good business contacts, nobody contracted with me. I had nearly no revenue at all for the first 9 months. That was sobering. And never on Earth I did imagine the entrepreneurial success that we nevertheless realized now.
CAT: But to work in a corporation also had positive vibes, I assume. What are the most important and nicest memories for you from those times?
CS: I really loved the diversity of my job: as IT Architect I was technically responsible for the success of a project. As Method Exponent I helped teams to choose the right approach, to understand the worldwide delivery approach, “The IBM Global Services Method,” well enough in order to decide which roles to staff, which work products to create and deliver, which tasks to skip – all in order to balance agility with discipline. I also worked as IBM internal teacher of several classes (e.g. “Practical Use Case Modeling” or “Architectural Thinking” in the DACH region) as well as a Member of the Technical Experts-team in the DACH region: the 100 best technical experts met twice a year to exchange their knowledge and to network. It felt like a huge (more than 300,000 people) family of extremely knowledgeable people that were well prepared to answer any questions and to offer help at any time. That’s what I missed most after quitting my job: sitting alone in the smallest room of our rented apartment, “my new office,” with no one to turn to if I had a question and being fully responsible for everything.
CAT: After 5 years at IBM, you decided to start your own business. When you quit, did you leave IBM or did you leave to found Catalysts?
CS: I worked from 2000 to 2005 at IBM’s client project business. The pressure was high, because the execution of software projects just took longer than planned and thus became more expensive. In the 5 years I have experienced that in the projects in which I also worked — 5 people had a burnout and 2 colleagues committed suicide. When I started my own business, it was clear to me: I want to have an environment where I do not burn out, but can continue to develop myself. It has occurred to me that in chemistry there are substances called catalysts that allow or accelerate a reaction (at lower activation energy). As a consultant, I also wanted to enable change and help my clients make the improvements faster. But most of all, like a catalyst, I wanted to emerge “unused” from these reactions. Since then, I’ve managed to build exactly the kind of environment where software projects are handled “on time and on budget” (which alone is difficult). Catalysts achieves this with the highest levels of customer and employee satisfaction. In order to preserve this environment and to make it even better, I have written a thin book “The Catalysts Way” with 10 chapters, which can also be read online: https://www.catalysts.cc/category/ the-catalysts-way /). An essential aspect is that we (founders and team members) want to be able to sleep peacefully.
CAT: The Coding Contest (CCC) is a successful series of events at Catalysts – besides that, it is also an important part of our recruiting and marketing activities. Catalysts has won the Digitalos award for the CCC and received a trophy in the category digital transformation recently. If you were now a young developer would you attend this event? What is the biggest value of attending for the participants in your opinion?
CS: I would have loved to participate. You know, I attended a regular school (neusprachliches Gymnasium) with 8 years of English, 6 years of Latin, 4 years of French, 1 year of Russian, 4 years of Informatics. I just couldn’t tell whether I would ever be good enough in computer science to earn my living from it. With the School CCC it’s now easy for youngsters to answer exactly that question: after 2 hours of coding, you can objectively compare yourselves to other pupils. After 4 hours you know exactly how well you do compared to other pupils, students, and practitioners. Since the beginning we have been trying to attract the best people ashore. With the Catalysts Coding Contest we have created a platform to reach the talents of tomorrow since 2007.
CAT: At Catalysts we are working in distributed teams. What is your experience in your business life regarding remote work and multi-cultural teams?
CS: When I still worked at IBM, I had to use “global resources” in all my projects. I didn’t like the diminutive term, since it actually meant colleagues in India. We tried to collaborate via the internet. Phones and headsets are hard to get in offices in India, so it was mostly text messaging and some Skype calls. I learnt the hard way what a heated job market can mean: a typical employee at IBM India stayed for a few months, then switched to another company. The consequence for me was that I had to do a lot of technical coaching and instruction and I had to explain the business side again and again. That was very tiring and cumbersome. I know how to do better and wrote blog articles about “Distributed Agile,” how to run agile projects in a distributed setting. That got me known within IBM. I even got voted by the IBM internal community “Agile@IBM” into the core team, 4 guys gathering knowledge and sharing their experience. When I finally quit my job and founded Catalysts, I knew how hard it was to collaborate over a distance. Still, our very first software developers were employed in Nepal, not in Austria. We posted a job ad in April 2007 in Kathmandu (capital of Nepal), found 5 software developers, hired them and started to develop the software for the very first coding contest with them. After 2-3 months, the CatCoder (the contest server) was ready for prime time. We continued with the Nepali team and are still happy about our courage to start distributed. By now, Catalysts has 16 offices in 6 countries (AT, DE, RO, NP, UG, NL), with new countries every 1-2 years and new offices every couple of months. We are not only used to working in a distributed setting, we are really good at it and our team members like it. We have developed a couple of practices and a few custom solutions to make that all work. It is more fun to work in a multi-cultural team.
CAT: People mention very often that they are proud of the culture at Catalysts. What makes Catalysts special: how did this culture develop?
CS: When I built trust in the people I also gave them more and more autonomy, and thereby worked to become superfluous themselves. As a result, I could create space to deal with new challenges. I have also taught this thinking and approach to the “successors” in the company (Team Leader, Segment Leader, Location Leader, Managing Director, etc.). For Catalysts it’s perfectly normal to go on paternity leave. Every young father goes on parental leave, even if he is a team leader or division manager. However, it is also clear to him that he must seek, find and train his successor in advance. As a result, everyone gains a lot of personal freedom and looseness (everyone knows that it will continue if they go on vacation or become ill). From a company point of view it says: Failures can be compensated, because the successors are in the starting blocks.
CAT: What does the Entrepreneur of the Year want from the crew he works with in the future?
CS: We’ve re-invented ourselves every 2 years. To keep up that practice, do a SWOT analysis regularly, strengthen your strengths, find ways around your weaknesses, excel at your value proposition and have fun.