What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Ashley van der Tuin-Gottula, communication specialist at Devhouse Spindle, a fast-growing company comprised of software developers, engineers, designers, and marketeers who work on open source communication tools.
By Erin Goedhart-Stallings
I hear a hum of activity as I walk into Devhouse Spindle. The cool industrial-chic office looks straight out of Silicon Valley, though the row of sleek VanMoof bicycles by the door places it firmly in Groningen. Groups of young techies cluster around desks, or grab a quick coffee, under the watchful eye of Fred, the metre-tall Stormtrooper who is Spindle’s unofficial mascot. I am shown into a glass-walled conference room, where I meet a bright American woman, Ashley van der Tuin-Gottula, who explains the company’s philosophy.
‘We believe that communication should be available to everyone’, she begins. ‘It should be open, free and transparent. We strive to create products that make communication accessible. A lot of them are open source, which in the tech and development world means that anyone can look at the code that’s being made and maybe use it for themselves.’
‘Our main product is VoIPGRID: a Voice over Internet Protocol telephone platform for businesses. It’s a “white label” product: our resellers can sell it to their customers as if it were their own product, and every partner receives the platform with their own branding. That’s a big part of what we do. An app and web phone client are also part of VoIPGRID. Customers can use them in addition to or even instead of a traditional desk phone, giving them the freedom to talk wherever they want.’
Spindle is the brainchild of entrepreneur Mark Vletter. In 2006, he founded Voys, a company that develops cloud-based telephony products. In 2010, he developed the reseller model, which he called VoIPGRID. Voys is still successful and has an office in the same building as Spindle (as well as having offices in Belgium, South Africa, and Germany). In addition, Vletter saw opportunities for building more open source communication tools to bring people together. That led him to found Devhouse Spindle in 2014 as a place for developers and marketeers to work on those products.
‘Mark sees Groningen as the tech and start-up and scale-up city of the north’, van der Tuin-Gottula notes. ‘He really believes in bringing things here and having companies work up here together. We also do a lot of collaborations with schools like Hanze University of Applied Sciences. A lot of their students have done graduation projects here and many of our employees are former interns. We also collaborate with Girls Who Like to Code, a group of female coders in Groningen. In addition, we have worked with the IMC Weekend School, teaching children basic coding skills. We contribute to many educational initiatives.’
Spindle is also committed to being an international company. About 15% of their employees come from outside the Netherlands: the United States, Finland, Greece, Argentina, and France, to name a few. As such, their language of business is English. ‘All of our meetings, documentation, and internal online communication is in English. I also think people here are open to new working styles: every time we get an employee from another country, things change a little bit and our culture becomes a little richer.’
Of course, there are always bumps in the road. ‘I think the hardest thing for me to get used to was directness’, she recalls. ‘It took me a few months to realise that what sounded like criticism from my Dutch colleagues didn’t mean I was doing something wrong; it was just someone giving their opinion. And I could take the advice or leave it. As an American, it took me a while to get used to how people express themselves in the workplace here.’
‘One thing I really love about living in the Netherlands is the work-life balance: it’s completely culturally acceptable to work when you need to work but then put everything away and go home. It’s not that competitive; you just have to get everything done. That mentality is also part of how we work: we don’t have managers, so it’s your own responsibility to put as much priority and energy into a project as it needs.’
No managers? That’s part of Holacracy, the new-age decentralised management system that Spindle embraces, which was begun by American tech company Ternary Software in 2007. ‘We’re a self-steering organisation, so we don’t have managers. Instead, employees define their own job descriptions and take personal accountability and responsibility for their work. No one is looking over your shoulder and making sure you get your job done.’
At Spindle, accountabilities are connected to roles rather than people. She explains: ‘One of my roles is social influencer, so I do a lot of work with the Spindle Instagram account. Another role I created for myself is English adviser, since I was the first native English speaker hired here. Now I do a lot of the English copywriting and translating, which I enjoy. It takes a very specific type of person to work this way, but we’ve done well at finding them here in Groningen.’
Does that sound interesting to you? ‘We’re always on the lookout for skilled software developers on both the front-end and back-end sides. There are also non-development positions available from time to time.’
Spindle’s jobs will shortly also be appearing on the Make it in the North website, too.