Red Badger’s founder and CEO Cain Ullah speaks to LBB’s Adam Bennett in association with Adobe, about tech’s relationship with social good, learning to code as a child, and the importance of joy in the workplace
Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the Digital Craft content channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry.
In this conversation we talk with Cain Ullah, founder and CEO of Red Badger. Cain’s experience puts him at the forefront of technology’s ever-evolving relationship with the concept of social good. Here, he reflects on the difference between social good and what we describe as ‘purpose’, the importance of joy in the workplace, and how humanity has kept him inspired throughout lockdown.
LBB> First things first, can you explain how you identify the clear link between technology and social good?
Cain Ullah> Technology is an enabler to achieve a particular outcome, and social good is a type of outcome. The dependency on good technology choices and approaches to achieve social good initiatives is increasing more and more. Not every social good initiative is dependent on good tech, but these days most are. So the short answer is that technology is an enabler to achieving social good outcomes.
LBB> And in that sense, do you see the trends of ‘digital transformation’ and ‘purpose’ as moving hand-in-hand?
Cain> It depends what the purpose you’re looking to achieve is. Digital transformation is ongoing in most organisations as digital is an ever more important part of modern business models. Naturally organisations are trying to improve their digital capability to support their business model going forward. This is where the transformation is occurring. Purpose is an organisation's fundamental reason for being. It is at the core of a business and may belong in a constitution or similar. The business model hangs off of the purpose of the business. Digital transformation has a part to play in enabling many aspects of an organisation's purpose, but not all aspects. For example: an organisation might have values that are attached to its purpose such as respect. You don't need digital transformation to treat people with respect.
LBB> When we talk about ‘purpose’ and ‘social good’, are we talking about the same thing? If not, how do you define the difference?
Cain> Purpose is a company's fundamental reason for being. Social good is a company's role in positively impacting society. Social good is increasingly prominent in organisations' fundamental reason for being. But not every company cares about social good. Some companies focus purely on increasing earnings per share for a shareholder. The trend is that more and more organisations are moving in the direction of social good becoming a part of their purpose and this will only continue to grow.
LBB> And when it comes to companies motivating their staff (and even staff retention), what role does purpose, or a drive towards social good, play?
Cain> I think this is fundamental, especially with millennial and centennial talent. There are two things here. The first of which is a company's purpose and then there is an individual's purpose as applied to motivation. A company's purpose having a social good or environmental aspect to it certainly contributes to attracting and retaining employees. Red Badger is a digital consultancy, so in our field our employees tend not to feel lucky to have a job because they have lots of choice. They can choose where they work and they are picky. More and more of them care about a company contributing positively to society and the environment, so having a drive toward social good embedded into your purpose is definitely helpful.
Purpose as applied to an individual's motivation is slightly different. We could describe purpose in this context as 'working in the service of something that is bigger than ourselves'. Employees want to know that what they are doing each day is contributing to a higher purpose of the company or even bigger, to society. So having a clear articulation of what your company's purpose is and for an employee to know how they can contribute to that purpose is motivating in itself and thus improves retention.
LBB> How would you describe your purpose at Red Badger?
Cain> Red Badger's purpose is about joy. It is how we can provide our employees with meaning at work. How they can master their skills, do valuable work, and where possible do valuable work in the service of positively impacting society and the environment. We feel that to combine mastery of skills, valuable work, and impact work is a type of self actualisation. Where as an employee, you get to bring the whole human to work. We often talk about our purpose being joy, quality, and growth in that order. But if we focus on joy first. Our employees end up doing higher quality work for our clients and the growth of the company and the individuals in it becomes simply a by-product of doing the right thing for our employees.
LBB> Has the pandemic affected your work and the demand for it? And have you been surprised by its impact in any way?
Cain> The pandemic has been challenging, but we also feel very lucky to be in the digital industry. We have been able to switch to home working seamlessly with very little disruption, so the service to our clients hasn't dropped at all. We have, however, had to adapt. Government policy was changing daily at one point so the company policy was having to change just as quickly. We had to be very good with communication to keep all employees up-to-date on a daily basis. We have had to pay special attention to employee engagement and wellbeing to make sure they are adapting to the new ways of working, and are keeping safe and healthy.
The demand for our work has dropped in some areas, but new opportunities have arisen in others. All-in-all, Red Badger hasn't been negatively impacted from a revenue and profit perspective but we are not complacent. We continue to be paranoid optimists. There's lots of opportunities arising from the pandemic but we have to also keep an eye on the risks and make sure we are resilient, adaptable, and set up to ride the potential bumps in the economy that may or may not come in the very near future.
LBB> And, perhaps in a more abstract way, what effect has the pandemic had on consumer expectations?
Cain> This is an interesting question. I feel like it hasn't taken that long for behaviour to have changed dramatically in people. People are less likely to travel on public transport, to eat out in restaurants and to feel comfortable gathering in groups, even when the restrictions were lifted. However, their demand for things hasn't abated but has moved online.
As a result the companies that have accelerated digital innovation, the quality of their e-commerce stores, and product innovation have thrived. Some companies such as Lego and Dr Martens have reported record online sales. Restaurants that have been innovative in rolling out new delivery capabilities once their kitchens reopened have done very well and continued to supply consumers with their food, just at home. So consumer demand is driving rapid acceleration of digital transformation as more and more consumers move online.
LBB> From a personal perspective, at what point did you realise that a career in digital consulting was right for you?
Cain> I was interested in computers and the inner workings of them from a very young age. My Uncle gave me an old IBM compatible 286 that I used to take apart, break all the time and try coding on. I then did a Computer Science degree where I learned to code. But it was during my degree that I realised that I was more interested in creative problem solving on business problems rather than via programming. So my first job out of University was in Business Consulting on the Product Management side of things for a software company, and then I moved into Agile Project Management in 2005. That is where I learned my trade which I applied to Red Badger when I founded that in 2010. My focus since 2010 has been as an entrepreneur and CEO where creative problem solving has been applied to building a sustainable business, developing a culture, empowering and motivating employees, company strategy, and all of that fun stuff.
LBB> Finally, we’re at something of a bleak moment in the industry and around the world due to the events of the year so far. But what is currently exciting and inspiring you day-to-day?
Cain> Despite everything, there have been real moments of delight for me in 2020 so far. I have a one-year-old son so being at home and spending more time with him and my wife has been a beautiful silver lining. I have loved the community spirit of our neighbours. When people have been self-isolating, we have been making lunch and dinner for each other, doing the shopping for each other, and other wonderful things. The clap for the NHS movement on Thursday afternoons filled me with joy. And the spirit of all of the Red Badger employees to look after each other has been tear-inducing at times. It has been so wonderful to witness.
Ultimately when we look back at a pretty torrid time in history, I think there is a real human story of people coming together and helping each other in times of difficulty. I am so much closer to people that I hadn't really met before. So the amazing actions of humans every day have been a constant source of inspiration for me.