In the Fairfax County business community, one might be hard pressed to come up with a better homegrown success story than that of Appian
and CEO Matt Calkins.
Calkins started the highly-respected software company in his apartment 20 years ago. Though expanding and moving more than a half-dozen times, Appian has always maintained its roots in Northern Virginia. The latest move comes next month when the company makes the move from Reston to new, more spacious headquarters at the Valo Park campus in Tysons.
The FCEDA recently spoke with Calkins about his company’s success in Fairfax County, its product, his commitment to customer satisfaction and the need to attract and retain talent that will be critical in sustaining Appian’s growth trajectory.
E-Bird Extra: What, exactly, does Appian do?
Matt Calkins: Appian is a low-code software company. Using Appian software, our clients can build their own applications. We make it easy to do that by drawing it like a picture or a flow chart instead of coding it, line by line. Building an application becomes like putting together a model out of Lego bricks. As a result, it’s a lot faster to build and it’s also more powerful. There are a lot of features we can give you for free if you entrust us to write the application to your specifications.
EE: Tell us about Appian’s roots in Northern Virginia and why Fairfax County is the place to be.
MC: We began in my apartment in the Gates of McLean 20 years ago and my second address was a townhouse that I bought so that we could have a basement big enough to hold a company … All of our headquarters have been in Northern Virginia. All of our code is written in Northern Virginia. All of our board members come from this region. All of our funding comes from this region. We’ve found all the resources that we’ve needed along our 20-year history to build a winning technology company. Northern Virginia has been a great home for the company. At this point we are nearly 1,100 employees worldwide, the majority of whom work right here. About two-thirds of Appian’s worldwide employees will be based at the new headquarters.
EE: So why make the move from Reston to Tysons and what will be the advantages of your new headquarters space?
MC: Fairfax county is the natural center of the Northern Virginia community. It’s well-connected. It’s very well-educated. It’s a productive and pleasant and high-expertise place to live and to work and we’ve found it to be an ideal home. Tysons has all of that including great education and great access…I’m really excited — I think we all are — about the new headquarters. I was particularly pleased to find a campus — a place that seemed like its own little world. It’s got trees, a walking path, a pond. It is a community despite being in the bustling center of Fairfax County. So we have the best of both worlds — a place of peace and self-definition and also access and centrality. It’s the first time that Appian has ever had its name on a building. We’ve got our own home space that we’re going to be able to define. There’ a cafeteria, there’s an auditorium, a lobby that we’re going to make use of and there’s a unified set of floors that will be connected by a central staircase to allow the company to be tighter-knit than it has been since it was small. We’re right next to major roads so that the access is excellent and the visibility very good.
EE: How does your new location play into attracting the top-notch talent necessary to meet your growth?
MC: I believe that Tysons Corner could be the best place in Northern Virginia for attracting and retaining talent because it’s so easy to get to. We’ll have the Silver and the Orange lines to gather people from D.C. and Arlington County. We have the beltway to gather people from Maryland and Alexandria. The access is superlative. That’s a major advantage. The amenities in Tysons are also terrific … so people can get things done before or after work.
EE: What do you make of the impact of the Silver Line?
MC: I think the Metro is going to be useful in allowing us to have employees that live downtown in Washington and commute without owning a car. We employ a lot of young people — millennials who choose not to be “typical” commuters — and the Metro makes it possible for them to easily make their way to our new headquarters. I also think the Silver Line is going to be useful for creating a kind of extended “edge city” along Route 267 (Dulles Toll Road), starting at Tysons and continuing toward Dulles. I think it actually will have a greater impact in terms of creating this new, connected line of people in apartment buildings and retail zones than it has in connecting that line of people to (D.C) or to Dulles Airport. In the end we may find that the Silver Line is more important for the stops along it than for where it could go in either direction.
||The lobby at Appian’s new Valo Park location. (Photo, Valo.net)
EE: How involved are you in Appian’s hiring process and what kind of people do you seek?
MC: I’m very personally invested in the kind of people that work at Appian. I’ve done most of the interviews for 20 years and I still do them today. We’re looking for talented people who love what they do and who excel in their hobbies in addition to just their work. (We seek people) who work well alongside each other, who are harmonious with their peers and with the institutions that surround them. It ends up being a great work place. Fortunately, I’ve found a lot of people like that who appreciate being in this area.
EE: What resonates with the folks who ultimately choose to work at Appian?
MC: This is a great place to work in technology. But it’s easier to recruit people who have a connection. Generally, when people don’t want to come here it’s because they’re drawn by the lights of Silicon Valley or the West Coast. We’re recruiting some of the top technologists from some of the top schools in the country. Some are going west regardless of what they see here. We look for people who have a natural connection to this region, who may be a little biased in favor of Northern Virginia. Maybe they came from here or studied at T.J. (Thomas Jefferson High School) or went to a Virginia, D.C. or Maryland college. But they love this region. When we find somebody who is excellent (at what they do) and has a little bit of hometown connection, then we have a terrific chance to recruit them.
EE: What do you tell prospective hires about Fairfax County and the D.C. area?
MC: Washington is an exciting place. It’s, of course, the capital of the United States and important decisions are made here. But it’s also exciting because of all the art and the culture that comes here. We get terrific performances and shows but only have to split it with a couple million people, unlike other cultural centers like New York and L.A. and Chicago, which get tremendous events but have 10 million people to contend for (access) to them…I think accessibility is a very strong selling point. I work right here, next to Dulles Airport, and I live next to Reagan Airport, so they’re never more than about 15 minutes from where I am.
|Matt Calkins (right) with Poju Zabludowicz, chairman of the Valo Park’s owner, the Tamares Group, during last year’s lease announcement. (Photo, FCEDA)
EE: What separates Appian from the competition?
MC: There isn’t another company going that can create applications — the ones created on the Appian platform — as quickly. Appian is differentiated by the speed with which a powerful application can be created. Just last year we announced a new program to highlight this called the Appian Guarantee, with which we guarantee that a new application from a new customer will go live in eight weeks and at reasonable money — about $150,000 in professional services. We do that to emphasize that working with Appian is a quick and gratifying process. You’re done with your application rapidly and it’s making a difference. I don’t believe there’s a more accessible technology today to create powerful business applications.
EE: What else makes Appian innovative?
MC: Appian is innovative in every way that I can make it. And by innovative I just mean non-derivative. Sometimes innovation can go the wrong way. Sometimes we’re thinking of a new and novel thing. It isn’t (necessarily) an improvement, but it is, at least, original. Everything we do around here — every process that I can be involved in — is at least done originally. The way we interview, for example, or the values that guide the company, or the way we’re going to make use of our new office space — all of these are innovative and, I hope, will be distinctive from what other companies would have done.
EE: When Appian went public in 2017, how did that change things?
MC: Appian did a public offering in 2017 and it was very successful — the top-performing software IPO that year. It helped us get a higher profile than we had. That was the primary reason that we did it, actually — to elevate the profile of Appian as the leader of this new, low-code industry and the low-code concept itself. We were also successful in avoiding the downsides that often accompany an IPO, specifically the distractions that sometimes come with a feeling that the company now works for Wall Street.
||Matt Calkins doesn’t just enjoy playing board games. In his spare time, he designs them. (Photo, washingtonpost.com)
EE: Are you a risk-taker?
MC: I have to take risks. It’s part of the job. However, I’m very careful about them. I only like risks that are well-tilted toward my advantage. I don’t enjoy gambling. I’ve never enjoyed that. Risk by itself is not a positive thing for me but it is a necessary thing in the course of building an institution.
EE: How do you like to spen your time when you’re not at your desk?
MC: I love to have good conversations and I like to find good new restaurants. I also love traveling which I continue to do….When I’m not working there’s lot hobbies I like to pursue. I enjoy hiking and being in the outdoors. Every summer I take an adventure trip and the last two summers that’s meant hiking across the Alps. I like to kayak. When I’m at home I like to play board games and also design them. I like studying history and I read — a lot.
EE: What effect do you think that Amazon coming to Northern Virginia will have on your company?
MC: Amazon’s choice to come to Northern Virginia is a nice vindication of what many of us here already knew: Northern Virginia is a great place to do business. I welcome them. I think it will enhance the nation’s spotlight on this as a great region for technology and maybe they’ll be a good partner of ours for collaboration or economic development.