Thursday, September 24, 2009

Five Minutes with Keith Erickson

I can't even recall the first time I met Keith Erickson. He is a quiet force who doesn't draw attention to himself. Yet somehow he's drawn together a team of extraordinarily smart people, wizards of programming and technical understanding. Erickson is president of Saturn Systems, a Duluth firm with a growing influence. Four centuries ago they might have been burned at the stake because of the magic they can perform, though today it's with code rather than incantations.

Erickson arrived in Duluth at age five and evidently stayed for the duration, picking up a Bachelor of Computer Engineering at UMD in 1987. After bagging his Masters of Science, Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Iowa in '89 he returned to Duluth and began his career.

He's not only a really fine man, he's also a Dylan fan, so he get's high marks from my corner of the world. I asked if he'd let me pick his brains for a few minutes related to entrepreneurialism and technology today.

EN: When did you first become interested in computers, programming and technology? Who or what were your influences?
KE: I was always interested in electronics and technology, as far back as Junior High. The first time I considered programming was in about 1982 when a friend loaned me a Timex Sinclair computer to experiment with. My first real experience with computer programming and device control was through my experiences with the Computer Engineering program at UMD (1984 - 1987).

EN: Not everyone has an entrepreneurial mindset. What were the drivers that led you to take this kind of risk and start your own tech business?
KE: After living in Southern California for two years following graduate school, my wife and I decided to return to Duluth in 1990 to raise our young family. I was fortunate to have worked for a small defense contractor in Santa Barbara that was amenable to allowing me to contract with them, for a time, after I moved back to Duluth. This was definitely a risky move as my initial contract was only worth $7500 and there were very few technology jobs in Duluth in the early 1990s to seek if the contracting gig didn’t work out. However, with the support of my wife, our families, and colleagues in Santa Barbara, I was able to make it work, gradually increasing the scope of the business over the next several years. This was well before routine Internet communication was standardized, and the arrangement required significant travel.

EN: How many employees do you have?
KE: 28; 21 in Duluth and 7 in Charleston, SC. Also 3 full-time contractors.

EN: What is the key to attracting smart, talented people?
KE: Provide a positive, ethical business culture, do not micromanage your employees, respect their expertise and abilities and demand respect in return, pay competitive wages, offer interesting and challenging work, be willing to delegate responsibility. Above all, have the confidence to surround yourself with people smarter than you.

EN: How has the current economic meltdown affected your business?
KE: Surprisingly, it has actually had a positive effect on our business. Our focus on rural outsourcing and technical excellence has allowed us to position ourselves as a lower cost alternative to metro area consulting firms. At the same time, it has allowed us to communicate a message a technical excellence and customer service not available from foreign outsourcing firms. Finally, the current economic situation has provided us with a strong pool of high caliber job seekers. Two years ago, it was very difficult to find qualified personnel; today, the situation is reversed. So to summarize, the current economic meltdown has helped us obtain new customers due to our marketing efforts; at the same time, we are better able to service these new clients because of readily available technical talent. As a result, we have been experiencing growth during this time of national economic difficulties.

EN: Saturn Systems is a software and engineering technology firm in Duluth MN on the cusp of the trend toward rural outsourcing. What does “rural outsourcing” mean and why is it popular?
KE: "Rural outsourcing" describes a contracting arrangement whereby companies outsource certain work (in our case, IT and software engineering) to small contracting firms located outside of major US metropolitan areas. Saturn Systems is one of the leading rural firms in the country. We have actually been performing this service for our entire existence - it is only recently, however, that it has been given a name. We also refer to this business model as "Offshore to the North shore" (our regional tag line) and "Outsource to America" (our national tag line, trademarked in MN).

I wouldn't say rural outsourcing is 'popular'; only because it is still very much small scale. Most rural outsourcing firms are smaller than Saturn. A rural outsourcing firm needs to be able to attract professionals that want to live in the area, and the rural location needs to provide top qualify educational opportunities. While Duluth definitely fits the bill, most other ‘rural’ locations throughout the country do not.

EN: Do you have a personal life philosophy?
KE: It varies, depending on which Dylan song I'm listening to at the time.

EN: Favorite book of the past year?
KE: "Playing for Pizza" by John Grisham.

EN: That's pretty funny. I enjoyed it, too, and wrote about it here.

To all: If interested in more information about Saturn Systems here's where to find it.
Thanks, Keith, for your time and willingness to share. It's all good.

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