We recently caught up with Matt Eris (pictured left), CIO for Worktribe – they design simple, powerful software for higher education research and curriculum management.
Many UK universities have transformed their administration thanks to Worktribe, including the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, and Nottingham Trent University (NTU). In fact, universities who supported their Research Excellence Framework (REF) submissions using Worktribe’s software have moved up five points on average in the 2022 REF rankings!
Hi Matt, tell us a bit about how Worktribe got started, and how it’s grown…
My business partner, Tom Price, and I, started the company 20 years ago. We’re programmers who enjoy building software and we started the business to facilitate that. Before starting out, we studied a joint honours degree in Nottingham together in computer science with artificial intelligence and psychology – long before AI was cool!
After completing our degrees, we set up the business here in the city and were for a long time a bespoke software house, building any type of software that our clients needed. Examples include digital asset management software we built for marketing clients and, weirdly, a system for the cut-up artist “Cassetteboy” to search subtitles and create Edit Decision Lists based on words they needed.
For a long time, we consciously tried to keep the business small, however, we’ve seen some steady growth in recent years. The shift really came when we began developing Higher Education software. Instead of creating everything bespoke, we now have a strict line of products that we sell to universities, including NTU, and we’re looking to grow that line further over the next few years.
We’re a stable successful company at this point, however, it still feels very entrepreneurial because the two of us actually do the programming bit. We’ve recruited some great people and now have a team of 30, including developers, testers, support, project managers, client liaison, sales and marketing.
The most important thing for Tom and I is we continue to do the thing we love, which is the creative part of designing and building products. I do a lot of system administration – I really like monitoring and tuning systems and checking that they’re performing well. Whereas Tom loves the product design side and so he focuses on what products we’re going to build next and how we’ll build them. We wear many hats – you kind of have to – and I don’t think we’d have it any other way. I think it’s the reason why Worktribe is successful and why people like working for us as well – we want our team’s jobs to be as fun as ours are.
What made you pivot to creating software for Higher Education providers?
It all started when we did a job for Lincoln University. They put out a tender for a research management system and a curriculum management system and we responded to it. We built their systems, which went well, and then we saw Open University asking for the same thing, and so we did that job, and then we saw another one for Edinburgh and that’s when we thought, ‘shall we just sell these from now on instead of building bespoke software every time?’ it became clear to us there was definitely a market for this.
We’ve heard horror stories about projects that have cost organisations £millions that never get delivered. We are very reasonably priced and always deliver! So, I think that’s how we’ve got where we are, by not being expensive, but actually, the crucial thing is we make sure projects go live on time and on budget, which in enterprise software is sadly not always the case.
What would you say brought you to Antenna?
Pre-pandemic we shared an office in Nottingham with Gooii, until the premises were sold by the council. Gooii moved into Antenna, whilst we didn’t rush to get another office straight away. After hearing how Gooii had settled into Antenna we decided it was time to join them – in fact we’re just across the corridor. We haven’t gone back to how things were pre-pandemic though – we’re not working five days a week here – instead we’re alternating who’s here and when, sometimes there’s all of us here and sometimes there’s just one of us, and it’s working really well.
We’ve got another office in Bristol where Tom is based, which is a co-working space like Antenna where staff can come in on different days.
What were your first impressions of Antenna before moving in?
The atmosphere here really suits us, even though we’re an established company we still feel like a start-up. It’s because we keep changing all the time – we see software as a creative activity and we’re constantly doing something new.
We consciously and deliberately keep things non-corporate because it makes it more fun. We’re serious about what we do (don’t get me wrong) and we’ve got some amazing talented people that work for us. Part of it is, they and we really like an informal atmosphere that’s not too hierarchical. So, Antenna suits us – it’s very welcoming because we’re a creative software company. Software is like Lego to us and we like building things out of it.
Are you enjoying your experience as tenants?
It’s just ridiculous how nice it is at Antenna, I mean the food here for a start, it’s got no business being this nice. If I didn’t work here, I’d choose to come here for lunch. It’s also great to have all of the amenities – beyond furnishing our office, everything else is taken care of. The network is rock solid and the wireless here is absolutely spot on.
There’s three of us always based in Nottingham, including Daniel Officer (pictured right) who does DevOps, and Craig Sweeting who’s our Head of Support and QA. Because we work for universities, we’ve got about five or six people primarily home working and always have been since before COVID. This includes one guy in Edinburgh, some people down in London, and a few others all over the shop. Some of those come and work here sometimes, other times they’ll work in the Bristol office. We’ve very much embraced the new post-COVID world – we’ve realised we don’t have to recruit in any particular location any more, it’s just nice if someone can come into an office like this and be there for some of the time.
We joined as members first for a couple of months, working in the co-working space, before we became tenants. I still enjoy the co-working space and mix it up between that and the office.
We’re fortunate to be opposite Gooii, so we’re constantly knowledge sharing. They’ve got developers who’ve done things that we haven’t and we’ve got lots of experience with systems administration and so now and again we swap skills. That’s the benefit of being based here – sharing a workspace with people you aren’t working with in the same structure – it’s like having colleagues without any of the work politics! That’s one of the things I like about co-working spaces, you meet lots of cool, interesting people because of the constant turnaround of people using the spaces. Sometimes you end up actually working with them.
Being based at Antenna means you are in close proximity to NTU and Confetti Media Group’s creative, commercial businesses. How are you benefitting from being part of this network?
We’ve been working with NTU since 2018 and we also have a relationship with the University of Nottingham, and so being based here is really handy. It’s interesting having Confetti and its network around us – I think it’s good to integrate education institutions into the city’s culture, rather than there being a hard separation between student life and city life.
Confetti and Metronome are really interesting to me as I’m a music technologist, synth collector and I know my way around a studio pretty well. I’ve also got a computer science background and so electronic music’s been something I’ve always done on the side. I’m also interested in competitive gaming and Confetti X too – I was a QuakeWorld player in the late 90s – I think you can get into any game if you see people good enough playing it. I’m going to have to attend one of Confetti’s esports events soon!
Do you have any new projects recently released or on the horizon?
We do two releases a year – January and July. We’re working on our July release now – but I can’t really say what will be in it as we haven’t told our clients all about it yet. We think they’ll be pleased – we don’t like staying still!
What future plans are there for Worktribe?
In terms of future ideas, we’d like to try and provide a social benefit – we see that as one of the big benefits of staying non-corporate and privately owned. We can choose to do things because they’re worthwhile, not just chasing the money. We’ll see what the future holds!
If people want to get in touch, are you happy for them to reach out?
We’re always up for sharing a bit of knowledge – if anyone needs some Linux advice or support with systems administration, we’re on the second floor in S23.
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