Meet the tech CEO who creates war games as a hobby

Appian CEO believes hobbies hold the key to success at work

Matt Calkins, founder and CEO of low-code development platform, Appian, started the company aged 26 in 1999, but the thing he is really passionate about is his hobby, creating war games. “The two are more deeply connected than they get credit for,” he tells me when we meet at his PR agency’s offices near London’s Victoria.  

The process to build board games he explains, with marked enthusiasm, is you study a historic event to see what caused it and then “build the mechanism to understand it”. An economist would do the same thing, adds Calkins, who won Dartmouth’s award for top economics graduate in 1994 and founded a tech company with three other individuals who also didn’t have science degrees.

Calkins’ game on the Japanese civil war which covered seven weeks in October 1600 won several awards. While his latest looks at the aviation industry because “I wanted to do a game about business that felt like business” and the others out there out there don’t. “Having run a business it is much more about pure white knuckle fear,” he adds.

This intense dedication to his hobby has interesting parallels with his business. Firstly, it means Calkins places a lot of emphasis on the hobbies of his employees. And secondly the long-term underlying commitment (all in, each game takes about seven years to complete and publish) highlights the slow, steady progress of a company that began 18 years ago and just had its $75M IPO this May.

Back in the early years few people understood the need for ‘low code’ or BPM and although levels of awareness have risen, Calkins believes, they are still not where they should be. There has been a “nice upswing” since the IPO, he says, very keen to stress that the company didn’t need the money and only went public for the publicity. “We want the world to know about the low code market.”  

Interestingly, in terms of competitors, cloud darlings, such as Service Now and Salesforce, are often cited, yet as Calkins points out, these are “not competing directly”. For the kind of high-end, complex work that Appian pins its hat on – like automating the entire customer journey process for John Lewis – SaaS businesses wouldn’t even be in the running as unique software is needed.

The industry suffers from the “pall of homogenisation”, says Calkins. Many things are done in exactly the same way across numerous companies but “low code helps give brands some personality”. In future he believes things will need to change as customers will demand more individual treatment from companies.

In the 80s there was controversy about whether IT was money well spent, he explains. In the 90s that argument was put to rest when IT deployment became simple and intuitive enough not to be a burden. “You’ll see the same for unique software,” he says. “Low code… BPM…. [whatever you choose to call it] behind the buzzwords is an important idea that is worth 18 years of my life.”

One other outcome of the high-profile IPO has been an “uptick in hiring” says Calkins, who has prided himself on interviewing every single individual who joins Appian. With around 800 current staff, not surprisingly, time constraints now mean he can’t see absolutely everyone but he still interviews “most” North American personnel. The time slot has gone from “30 minutes to 10 minutes”, he says, but usually he knows within “10 seconds” whether they’ll be the right fit for the company.

“My philosophy of hiring is someone who is excellent at hobbies,” he says, adding the real clue to someone’s personality “is the way they say I”. He is not necessary looking for someone humble or someone confident, he explains, but from those self-reflective moments he can usually spot if they have a “healthy relationship or unhealthy relationship” with the world.

“The Appian culture is one of my greatest achievements,” he says. “I am looking for positive givers” not the negative takers.

This very naturally leads on to a discussion about bullying in IT and the technology industry. This is a bit of a pet subject for us as back in 2014 IDG Connect conducted some in-depth research into bullying in the IT workplace and, while the results were pretty inconclusive, it definitely suggested issues.

“The problems are not specific to technology,” says Calkins. “Abuse tends to follow power imbalances and most abusive behaviour depends on the lack of options. Technologists [on the other hand] are mobile, smart, modern and in demand. There is more of a power balance in a university than almost any tech company going.”

Problems at Uber and other industry leaders have, however, have made it popular to talk about tech as a problem industry. It is impossible to draw any hard and fast rules, of course, but Calkins suggests that “channelling your ambition can put you in place that lets you be abused”.

“The same thing probably happens on Wall Street,” he says. “Ambition makes you inured to poor treatment.” Maybe that’s where hobbies can come into their own then? They can provide a healthy outlet for bright, ambitious individuals, instead of resorting to Machiavellian office politics.

Creating board games “helps me unwind” concludes Calkins. Whatever I’m working on is always there in the “back of my mind”. There are only a finite number of game positions so you don’t need to be in front of a computer the whole time. “I can work on it when I’m commuting… or when I’m boarding an aeroplane.”