Interview with John McMillan, CIO and vice president of research and development, Wise Solutions

Compare John McMillan's struggles to your own: getting employees, keeping them current, and working effectively with software manufacturers. In McMillan's case, that means keeping the lines of communication open with Microsoft.

Mentors can come into your life when you least expect it. John McMillan learned about business during the summers he spent with his aunt and uncle, who were dedicated entrepreneurs with a variety of businesses. In 1992, McMillan and a partner started Wise Solutions, a software development business, and the business has been growing rapidly.
John McMillan is cofounder of Wise Solutions, in Canton, MI. McMillan has more than 20 years of software development experience. Prior to founding Wise, he was senior vice president of research development with the market research firm, M.O.R.-PACE. McMillan has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in electrical and computer engineering from Oakland University.
TR: How big is Wise Solutions?
McMillan: We’re growing. We have about 50 employees right now. We grow about 40 to 50 percent a year. Revenues were $7 million in 1999.

TR: What software do you make?
McMillan: We make developer tools; specifically we write installation products primarily for Windows-based operating systems or handheld devices.

TR: What was your career path to CIO?
McMillan: I started out at Oakland University, where I ran their computer systems for years. I then went to work as a programmer at a market research company, and worked my way up to senior vice president and head of research and development.

TR: Did you have any mentors along the way?
McMillan: Yes. My uncle and aunt. Growing up I spent summers living with them in Florida. They were entrepreneurs in the classic sense. They set up companies, and every year I went down there they had a different company they were running. Unfortunately, more often than not they ran into problems. But it taught me determination. I also got rid of any fear I might have had of failure. They never took it that way. They taught me the basics of finding the market, focusing on it, not worrying about setbacks, just making your customers happy. Don’t worry about anything else. Fortunately, they now own a multimillion-dollar helicopter repair company, and they’re doing great. They were not technology mentors, but they taught me that you really can build a group of people and have them work together efficiently and solve a problem for customers.

TR: Do you have a degree in computer science?
McMillan: I have a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Oakland University in Michigan. Basically, I had been programming since high school, and I was looking for more rigorous training. Even though my degree is in electrical engineering, it’s heavily skewed towards computers. I learned quite a bit more than just how to program them. I learned how to build them from scratch and I can actually design the chips inside if anyone needed that, but actually there’s more need for software development than chip design.

TR: Now, as owner of a software development company, what is your job?
McMillan: My partner and I started this company in ’92, and when you start out as an owner you start small, and as you get bigger you have a lot of different titles. For years, my title was just “the other guy.” Since then my partner Brien Witkowski is president, and he’s more the business side of the partnership and the non-technical, organizational side of the business. I’ve taken on the technology role. I do quite a few different things. Since we’re a technology-based company, there are folks working for me who worry about what’s the next big thing. We also manage our existing products, down to development, documentation, and our Web site—the day-to-day control of not just the software we sell, but also the flow of information within the company. We use a system called Clientele, your standard CRM-based application.

TR: Have you had any trouble finding and retaining employees?
McMillan: Have you ever had anyone say no to that? But to be honest, we’ve been very fortunate. Our retention rate is very high. We work very hard to make this company a good environment for our employees. We had a pool tournament. We bring in Santa Claus once a year and buy individual presents for our employees’ kids and have Santa give them out to them. We offer much more than standard options and salary to make sure our employees are as happy as possible. So although we have trouble finding employees, we don’t have too much trouble keeping them.

TR: What has been your biggest people challenge?
McMillan: Keeping people current. The market changes so quickly. You can hire people in, and they’ll be so focused on the problems of today—the technology we need to use to get products out—that [it’s difficult] getting them to split their time between what’s profitable today and making sure we’re leveraged [for the future]. We’re big believers in retaining employees and making sure we use them for long term. It’s been a balancing act for us.

TR: What about technology challenges?
McMillan: Since we sell developer’s tools, primarily for the Windows market and for handhelds under Windows CE, our biggest technology challenge probably would be working effectively with Microsoft. We have folks down there, permanent full-time staff in Redmond, who make sure we’re working as effectively as possible with Microsoft. For example, they’re beta testing the next version of Windows 98, Millennium. Obviously, we need to work with them to make sure our software works perfectly with it. In addition, Windows 2000 is just getting ready to ship. We’ve had versions of that for quite a few years, as it turns out. We have to do that because we want to make sure we leverage any new technology that comes out, for our customers.

TR: That is a challenge.
McMillan: It is, especially since Microsoft can change directions. Sometimes, they start developing technology and then give up. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just something that needs to be matched. In addition to that, we have the standard challenges of keeping pace with new technology. Three years ago, who was talking about ASP? Five years ago, who was talking about the Internet? Everyone in this market knows that you have to be open to new changes. It’s easy to discount technologies early on until they’re at such a point you’ve already missed the boat.

TR: Do you work at managing your time?
McMillan: The larger the company gets, the more you have to be sure to manage your time efficiently and make sure your employees’ time is managed efficiently, so you’re not being unproductive. Our primary business is unit-based; we sell units of shrink-wrapped software. But we have a growing consulting business. That’s where we really focus our attention on doing electronic monitoring. The people need to be billable. It’s a small percentage of our business today, but it’s growing.

TR: What do you project for the future of software. Will anything change?
McMillan: A number of changes are already taking place. Software is being distributed across a larger number of platforms. For example, handheld devices are being used as well as Internet devices to access software via the Internet. Over time, more and more intelligent devices will be running distributed software and transferring information via ad-hoc networks.

TR: How will ASPs affect the industry?
McMillan: One of the biggest challenges for ASPs is not technical but determining which business/charge model is best to use. I think that the effect of ASPs may not be that dramatic, as it will be difficult for a company to offload all of its applications onto ASPs in the near term.

TR: How will ASPs affect your company?
McMillan: Our company will be working with ASPs to help them manage the applications on the servers themselves—upgrading to newer versions of applications, replicating applications across servers, etc.
Wise Solutions, Inc. is a software vendor located in Canton, MI. Wise Solutions develops installation software, including Wise for Windows Installer, InstallMaster, and InstallBuilder, to provide network managers with installation-on-demand. The company also provides customized programming. Wise Solutions was started in 1992, and since then Wise has millions of installations worldwide.
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