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ServInt's Christian Dawson talks family, friends, & work with i2Coalition

Fri, 27th September 2013, 14:29

ServInt is a true veteran of the hosting game- a company that can make the considerable boast of having survived the dot-com bubble and grown from the experience. With an already considerable amount of time spent on HostJury’s coveted top rated hosts list, we thought the public could do with an extended introduction to the company and its culture. And who better to give us a tour than ServInt COO, Christian Dawson.

What follows is a closer look at a hosting company with what seems to be a uniquely old-school philosophy, and some of the benefits that attitude has reaped over the years.

Q. First, could you tell us a bit about your history with ServInt? You joined the company in 1998, and weathered the dot-com bubble. Are there any particular insights this long relationship has offered?

Reed Caldwell, one of my best friends in college, started ServInt in 1995. We both attended the University of Richmond, until he surprised me and our mutual friends by telling us he was leaving to pursue his dream of starting a web hosting company for businesses. We all thought he was a little crazy, but the time was right as the commercial Internet was really starting to explode. Had he stayed in school he would have missed the boat.

I didn't join Reed until I graduated from the University of Richmond, but in most ways I've been here since the beginning.  Reed and I talked about ServInt a lot while he was in the process of getting started. I remember sitting around with him brainstorming names. I was one of the first people to go visit when he got the first office, and talked through the challenges of learning to serve his first customers and create an early reputation for ServInt.

By the time I graduated from UR, ServInt was growing fast, and I was full of ideas to contribute. In 1998 it seemed like Internet companies like ours could do no wrong. ServInt started branching off into all sorts of other areas like DSL and leased line services. By 2000 our staff had grown large and our marketing budget even larger. When the dot-com bubble burst, it hit us hard. Tech spending dried up everywhere, and we had geared up for growth that wasn't coming.

But when the burst happened, ServInt rose to the challenge. The pre-bubble ServInt lacked focus. While most companies died and went away, we decided to restructure and refocus all of our efforts on what we were best at - managed web hosting for small to medium sized enterprises. It was messy and hard and we lost friends and employees along the way, but we changed from a company that was trying to make money at a lot of things into one that was passionate about one thing. We committed to being really good at it, and zeroed in on that and that alone.

I never expected I'd stay at ServInt as long as I have, but I am SO proud of what ServInt has become that it has filled me with a passion that drives me to this day. At our heart, we are a company that helps give businesses the tools to succeed. I get to work with dreamers and entrepreneurs to help them scale their businesses and accomplish their goals. The Internet is amazing, and many of our customers are doing exciting things that are changing the world for the better. I have a real passion for empowering those people, and I try to instill that in everybody that works for ServInt.

Q. What were some of the changes you’ve made in ServInt’s culture as your role as increased in 2006 and 2009?

From very early on, Reed started using the phrase "The ServInt Family" when addressing our clients. In early messages to clients he would welcome them to The ServInt Family. I have spent a lot of time focusing on cultivating that family feeling for our clients and our employees. Reed grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan and I grew up outside of Buffalo, New York. These were 'rust belt' towns without much economic opportunity. The companies that once existed in those areas were places where people built careers. Career jobs don't exist very much in those areas, but we tried to build ServInt as a place to build a career on the Internet. Over the past few years I have solidified that by creating things like corporate picnics each year and giving out 'ten year' watches. I have worked to make us a very old-school new-tech company. I have found that by treating our employees like family we can encourage them to treat our clients like family too.

In 2006 I became the Vice President of Operations, directly managing the nontechnical operations of the company.  In 2009 I became our first COO, taking over the daily operations of the organization. There was one important difference between the two roles. Prior to 2009, ServInt's tech staff was run by senior tech staff. In 2009 we acknowledged that everybody in the company was in customer support, and that top oversight for technical staff couldn't be solely technical. In the same vein, I now work far more closely with our CTO Matthew Loschert to make sure that everybody in the company, even the nontechnical people, are in tune with our technology and has a grounding in what we do. Today, working with our tech guys is one of the most rewarding things my team and I do, and I think ServInt has improved dramatically as a result. Everybody should be in customer service and everybody should know and work with the product, and at ServInt we now preach that at every level.

Q. Your company is one of the top-five rated hosts according to the users of HostJury.com. Would you chalk this high customer satisfaction up to ServInt’s extensive experience in the realm of hosting, a specific corporate philosophy, or something else entirely?

There are companies out there that use every adjective in the book to explain their web hosting support. The one I use over and over again in talking to our employees is 'helpful'. We try to be the most helpful company out there.

Since I've been managing the staff, I have spent a good amount of time focusing on our corporate culture. I've embraced a concept in Japanese business culture called 'kaizen' which means 'continual learning'. We try to do a lot of staff training - sometimes it is hard to get to all the training we want to - but we try to be better trained than our competitors. More importantly, we do a lot of internal reviews of service tickets and incidents that occur and try as best we can to learn from our mistakes. Our goal is to have a culture where if somebody screws something up we share and all learn from it and do what we can to ensure it never happens again.  Because we've been doing that for years, fewer things go wrong at ServInt than they do elsewhere. That just comes from us dealing with problems systemically and solving major issues over time. Learning is never complete, but we've fixed a lot of the problems that younger companies are still bound to have.

The idea that nothing will ever go wrong on the Internet is ridiculous. Things break and people make mistakes - but at ServInt I think we have the most empathetic, helpful staff on the Internet. We care, and we have the training and passion to solve problems and help you grow. I'd trust a problem to a ServInt tech above all others, because I know a ServInt tech will treat my website like it's my business and my livelihood and do all he or she can to make sure it stays up and fast.

Q. What are some of ServInt’s long-term goals moving forward? Is the focus growing the firm vertically, or is ServInt branching out to cover new ground?

When ServInt first started, there weren't many people selling Dedicated Servers. Shared hosting WAS the hosting field. We started giving people the power of the Dedicated Server before it even had a name. Later, we were one of the first companies to use the power of virtualization to meet the needs of business users. We, in many ways, created the enterprise VPS. ServInt has more innovation in its near future - we are working on big things.

The Cloud is changing everything. AWS is just one example of a big infrastructure innovator that is turning the infrastructure component of hosting into more of a commodity. As big companies step in to duke it out, it's going to be hard for small businesses to compete on price. That being said, we can do things those larger commodity businesses cannot - the ability to make cool tech easy for businesses, and the ability to make the Cloud accessible. Most people don't have any idea where to start. We think there'll be a continually growing market for smart people solving hard problems and answering questions in the Cloud. Service has NEVER been as important as it is now, with things getting more, not less, complex by the day. But we aren't only focused on support. We also plan on doing it on cool, industry leading tech of our own. New services are coming, and they are going to be awesome!

Q. What would you consider your greatest accomplishment thus far?

I am most proud of the fact that we have stayed true to our goals for our customers. We have avoided splitting focus or shifting it to chase profits. ServInt could have sold out a hundred times over, but we love what we do and want to do more of it. This is our career and we are passionate about it. We are in it for the long haul, and tend to attract customers who are too.

Q.In the same vein, what has been your greatest challenge- both at ServInt, and perhaps more generally in your career?

At ServInt, it's been a learning curve to figure out how to scale efficiently. It's taken us years to get to a point where we can grow quickly and stay true to our culture and goals. I think we've got the formula down these days, but that battle has been hard fought.

My own greatest challenge has been trying to give my all to ServInt while simultaneously splitting my time between my incredible family (I'm a proud dad of 2 small kids) and the trade association I helped start last year, the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition.com). I love each one, and finding that work, life, volunteer balance can be hard.

Q. From reading your blog, we’ve noticed you have a sincere interest in the protection of individual privacy in the face of the growing US surveillance apparatus. Could you tell us about your history and goals in this pursuit?

The Internet is in its infancy and already it has changed the world for the better in countless ways. It needs to be protected so it can survive and thrive. Companies like ServInt build the nuts and bolts of the Internet, and most people don't even know that companies like us exist.

A couple years ago I was dealing with a customer who had his domain seized by the US federal government without due process, and it made me angry. PIPA and SOPA came along and those made me angrier still. it seemed like most government officials and offices didn't really understand the Internet, and were trying to 'fix problems' on the backs of companies like ServInt and its customers.

I thought a lot about who was out there defending the ServInts of the world and its customers. The answer was, really nobody. The Internet is built by about 35,000 companies, the majority of them businesses like ServInt and far smaller companies who are integral to driving innovation and providing the tools to keep changing the world. I helped build i2Coalition to give companies like ours a voice when it comes to how legislators and regulators deal with the Internet. Our goal is to make sure that our industry survives and thrives. Consumer protections are key to this. At the very least we need government transparency so that we truly understand what is going on. We'll keep fighting for that through i2Coalition, and others should join and do so too.

Q. Following from this, what is the role of hosting services like ServInt in this ongoing debate? Has ServInt come under fire for its moral stance on government surveillance, or its relationship to organizations like Wikileaks?

ServInt doesn't spend a lot of time preaching about what's right and what's wrong. We want to teach people and let them decide. That includes legislators, where our goal is to educate first. It is not OK for legislators to attempt to regulate the Internet without understanding how it works.

We go onto Capitol Hill regularly through i2Coalition and talk with legislators about things like the privacy and security of the Internet, but we also help provide some basic education - Internet 101 of sorts.

I don't think what ServInt believes in is all that controversial. We aren't anti-law enforcement at all, but we believe in due process. We believe in the fourth amendment and we believe that our customers deserve it. Last year we opened up a branch in Amsterdam. These days I've had a lot of customers - good customers doing good work - tell me they feel safer there. That makes me sad, but I understand. Nonetheless, my work with i2Coalition actually gives me hope for the future. I think we can use the power of our collective voice to make a difference here. We did with PIPA and SOPA, and we can again.

 

About ServInt

ServInt is a pioneering provider of high-reliability web hosting for business customers worldwide. Founded in Northern Virginia in 1995, ServInt was one of the first web hosting companies to offer a managed, dedicated server solution, and one of the original innovators in server virtualization — the cornerstone of VPS and Cloud hosting technology today. From its world-class data centers, ServInt now provides its scalable suite of VPS, dedicated and self-managed hosting options to thousands of customers in more than 60 countries.

ServInt uses multiple "Green" methodologies to serve clearly defined sustainability goals, including reducing waste, boosting energy efficiency and offsetting our carbon footprint.