Interview with Matt Zimmermann and Christian Wirth of Beast Code
Ledge sits down with Matt Zimmermann and Christian Wirth of Beast Code to talk about how Beast Code is transcending the traditional defense solution paradigm with a unique approach to naval technology.
Ledge: All right. Matt, Christian, great to have you guys on. Thanks for joining.
Matt: Yeah. Thanks for having us. Excited to be here.
Ledge: I understand it’s morning Happy Hour at your office, so this is going to be a fun episode.
Matt: Absolutely. Just after lunch, so it’s beer time.
Ledge: It’s about 30 in Florida.
If you don’t mind, maybe give a quick background story of yourself and your work and how you guys got to do what you’re doing.
Matt: Absolutely. My name is Matt Zimmerman. I’m the CEO and President of Beast Code. I started as a software engineer. Christian and I were two of the founders when we started Beast Code in 2014. Back then we were doing 100% of the engineering work and business development, and we still do a lot of that, but now we do a lot more with managing the company – the administration, the finances, contracts and all that.
Christian: Some of our core competencies, we do a lot of live simulations for the Department of Defense. We do really cool things with threat analysis. We can do flow diagrams. We can do 3D damage assessments on systems. So I can go in and blow different things up and come back to the government and say, hey, this is what’s wrong with your system.
That’s been a really, really cool system. It’s held us over for a really long time and impressed a lot of people. So we’re able to actually roll that initial damage scenario environment into a training environment. So now we can take the same 3D environment and actually put it in front of a sailor or an infantryman and actually show them how to use these different systems that they’re being assigned to. Instead of just saying, “Hey, good luck, have fun on the ship,” we can actually give you training before you actually get to the ship.
So, “How do I get to the bathroom?” Me as a nerd coming onto the ship for the first time, I was able to use our 3D simulation to find the nearest bathroom, to find coffee, to actually get around the ship and not be lost. Implications for people who are actually operating these multi-billion dollar platforms for the Department of Defense are really, really needed.
Matt: Not just training. We’ve been able to take that training application and then also use it for an operational app. Me as a sailor that is going through school is using this training product to learn how to do engineering, but then once I get to the ship I can go to a piece of machinery and use this global tablet solution, to click on it and get all the technical documentation and actually walk me through what it is that I need to do for that day.
Ledge: It sounds like a super logical thing that you’re doing, that I know maybe up until the last five years around your lifecycle of the business, it wasn’t possible. The compute needed to do it – and to make that particularly in a mobile and all that.
Where did this even come from? It seems like a very logical thing to do, and now you’re starting to see general use cases like walking through buildings or modeling, simulating different types of experiences. But, you were on the vanguard of that. Where did that even come from?
Matt: Yeah. You’d think you’re at home and say you’ve got a dishwasher and something’s busted, the first thing you’re going to do is go on Google and look at YouTube and figure out how you can fix it.
The Navy is just really starting to look at that, and the entire Department of Defense and say, why aren’t we doing business that way? Why aren’t our sailors able to pull out their mobile device and have some type of Google capability to say, how do I fix this, and have that information presented straight to them?
Christian: With our genesis, it was initially [00:03:42] wanted to do damage analysis. The government’s been running these same simulations on big blocks. For like a ship, they would flood fill the ship with 3m by 3m cubes, and that was the accuracy we were able to get at that point to do damage analysis.
If you think you were doing an ordinance explosion, it would intersect with cubes. You say, well, that’s not accurate at all because you got pipes that are a quarter of an inch thick, so how is this accurate? For us that was the next logical step, was how do we make the simulation more accurate? It was, hey, let’s get the actual production models for building these different platforms and let’s actually see what a real damage scenario would be versus this hypothetical perfect world simulation.
Ledge: Let me ask you. How do you model ordinance? It’s supposed to be a pretty robust, I want to say game or physics engine. How do you know what a certain thing is going to do based on where it hits? There’s a lot of math.
Christian: Tons of math. We’ve got a lot of math libraries on the backend. There’s a lot of stuff we do. There’s a lot of government mandated systems that you need to use when doing these types of scenarios, so there’s different simulations you have to use and different actual physics you have to integrate.
Matt: There’s been a lot of research done too. You can take a research paper on something like fire propagation where they’ve actually run fires onboard ships or in those types of environments, so you kind of know what the result should be. Take the math and the research that’s been done and integrate it into your own platform.
Ledge: How do you ever know you’re right? It’s not like anybody ever lobs a missile or something at a ship until that actually happens, right? Is it that good, that the predictive analysis has come along that we literally can model stuff like that?
Matt: Yeah. There is an element of chaos to it. Different things are going to react in real life than what they would in the simulation. But based on, you know, if it hits here with this type of weapon, we’d know enough about it to say, yeah, this is close enough. We’ve done enough of the analysis and enough of a dry run manually though these different iterations to know that, yeah, these are the right results.
Christian: The idea is to give a close enough estimate for a sailor who might be in this damage scenario. So we can simulate things like collisions.
Ledge: Which has come up in the news a lot, yeah.
Christian: That’s pretty hot in the news in the last few years. Exactly. So we can simulate things like that and give real world training of what would happen in the scenario so you’re prepared for these types of catastrophes. They might happen. Why not run a simulation and see, what would I do in this scenario.
Matt: From a training perspective, if I’m a sailor and I’m looking at a screen that’s giving me some indications about pressures and temperatures and network status throughout the ship, from a computing standpoint it just needs to be good enough to show that, yeah, the pressure is going down or temperatures are going up. These are the actual types of indicators that you’re going to see if this casualty was to happen in real life.
Ledge: So, yeah, you talked about – I read on the website – we started out with seven dudes and now we’re… You said you’re 70 people. Things scale up. The world changes over a relatively short period of time.
What have you learned there? That’s pretty rapid scale for an engineering company. Certainly there’s more or less than can happen, the hyperscale type of situation.
But you’re well past the two-pizza team now, so what have you learned along the way for people who happen to be successful and want to get there?
Matt: First, we’ve always been a five-pizza team, even when there is only a few of us. We eat a lot more than we should.
Ledge: Especially on a Happy Hour lunch day.
Matt: I guess my advice would be, always be forward thinking. A lot of people get complacent with, this is what my app does and these are our competencies. But we were forward thinking of, we built this analysis app that’s kind of niche, that we need a bigger market if we’re going to expand our team. How else would we use that?
So we got into the training realm, which then got us into the operational realm. But since some of the things we’ve been talking about, like augmented reality, and starting to take this platform, and put it into what we think the future is going to be. Being able to market that early so that we know that we have the right people, we’ve done the research, we have the expertise so that when that technology is ready our company will be ready as well.
Ledge: I know there has been a dramatic push in the last 10 years for government to get more agile and to change the way that the software is built and procured. Where something like this would have been a massive spec, and waterfall it for the next three years before you even turn it on. I guess that’s not the case anymore. You probably experienced that in real time. How do you manage projects of that scale and magnitude?
Christian: A lot of it comes back to, like you’re saying, the agile side of things. One of the key principles is trust. From a hiring perspective, from integrating new customers to new products, it’s all built on trust and that relationship you have with your customers, with your coworkers and everything.
When we started, we based ourselves [00:09:03]. We had seven dudes who had to talk to the world. Every single person in that [00:09:09] had to be strong, so bringing new people into that team was really hard. It’s hard for us to let go.
Matt’s like, “Okay, Christian, take care of all the coding stuff.” That was pretty hard for him. For me now to come in and introduce new teams, that’s a really, really hard thing to do. The biggest learning lesson for me has been that trust aspect.
When it comes to new customers and new projects, it’s the same thing. We’re able to show them these awesome capabilities and these awesome products we’ve built. We’re able to tell them, hey, it took us only three months to simulate this cool platform for you. They’re like, “Nah, I don’t believe you. Try it on this platform,” and we finish it in a month.
That builds that trust and that relationship with the customer that can say, okay, you are. You’re awesome. You can do what you say you can do.
Just building that relationship is a big way of moving forward with your customers.
Matt: The cool thing, we’re seeing the government actually adopt agile methodologies as well. We absolutely have projects that are totally waterfall, and we have to follow that type of customer and that type of workflow, but we do have customers that are agile. They understand sprints and ethics and how to structure that type of environment.
We’re, on a monthly basis, coming back and saying, okay, this is our progress so far, what do you think? They’ll bring subject matter experts to give us feedback on it and then we’ll refine the backlog with them. The things that we initially said in a statement of work are no longer the things that we’re working on because it evolved from the initial idea.
Christian: With that OTA process, the new government style of contracting, they’re immutable to things like innovation sprints. I can bring a customer to our office and say, “Hey, you want a beer? Let’s sit down and talk about what you want to do. We could whiteboard it, we could draw it out. Out of that we come up with the [ROM 00:10:55] that you’d have to do in the government room.
We can tell you, this is exactly what we’re going to build, this is exactly how much it’s going to cost, and this is when you can expect to see it. That’s super, super useful and helpful for people in this environment who are used to getting deliverables at a yearly or biannually basis. We’re delivering new builds on a biweekly basis. It’s just unheard of to a lot of our customers.
Matt: Now the customer is getting exactly what they want. They’re able to get feedback. They’re finding they’re getting things faster, cheaper, and it works.
Ledge: The audience can’t see so I’m going to describe here. We’re on video and my dudes here, they look like a couple of [hacker 00:11:36] dudes. We got beards, we got hats backwards, hoodies, a couple of beers at lunch time.
It strikes me that, particularly you set out to be government contractors with a name like Beast Code. What a culture clash! There have got to be some good stories there dealing with government procurement and military applications. The clash of the cultures there, I got to hear some stories.
Christian: It’s definitely the shock and awe approach, right. We’re a bunch of these kids walking around in hoodies and Marvel shoes. Matt goes and he can brief Congress or the Senate on our product, and he’s wearing a hoodie and Marvel shoes. Everyone’s like, who’s this kid in DC talking about software who’s changing the game?
It’s disruptive. We can come in, Matt can demo our product and they’re just in awe of him. They’re saying, no one within a 10 mile radius is wearing a hoodie, and here you are representing the actual industry and people who are doing this and you’re delivering on your product.
It’s a whole different experience for people. We get nothing but praise from our customers on our appearance, our professionalism – even though we’re wearing hoodies and have long beards or whatever. They love it. All of our customers say, “I love that you wear T-shirts and you don’t have these multimillion dollar buildings where you’re showing off your wealth and how much money you’ve made off the government.”
We’re small. We want to get the capabilities to the warfighter that they need. That’s our main focus. We’re not focused on wearing suits and ties every day.
Matt: It’s not just going out to their sites or going to Congress wearing a hoodie, we’ve had large meeting where we’ve brought the government to Beast Code. They see the open environment, people talking together. Again, nobody here is wearing a suit. Everyone has beards and is drinking beer, but they’re all polite.
They see all the [teamwork 00:13:31] that’s going on. The government is able to talk to people and have a real conversation. Nobody’s scared to say anything. A government customer can walk by and see something on a computer screen and say, “Oh, man, that looks really cool,” and that programmer is going show them what they’re working on and be able to talk about it.
Government loves coming up to Beast Code.
Christian: It’s really good for the government customers as well, because they can come in and see a different way of doing contracting and a different way of getting deliverables. They don’t have to accept this one-year-long waterfall methodology. They can see there’s companies out here doing this.
We’re not an exception to the rule. There’s tons of companies that are all in the consumer market or the commercial market that do similar things to what we do. They can have that as well. I think they’re actually coming around to it. The more exposure they get to that, the better.
Matt: One of the other things is leaving all of our architectures and our code open. A lot of our industry competition, everything is proprietary and they’re not going to give that to the government.
The government knows that everything that they get from Beast Code, they have full rights to it. They can copy and paste it onto another computer. If they want to go with another vendor to have them make modifications to it, they have all the source code and they can do that.
They’re very surprised that we’re willing to do it, but that’s just one way that we stay competitive and cutting edge.
Ledge: Absolutely. If I could paraphrase, you really leaned into the authenticity and the culture that you wanted to bring. Did you ever have a sense that that was a danger zone? At the beginning, were you less sure in that? Or were you like, yeah, we’re just going to go balls out and be crazy?
Matt: Absolutely. I mean we started we were definitely a little bit more conservative. We’re seven dudes. We’re going out to a customer site where we’re going to talk to a captain or an admiral and give some type of demonstration, and it’s intimidating.
But as we’ve grown, we’ve found out that they’re okay with it. They really care about the technology and the product that you’re bringing and ensuring that the warfighter has that in their hands and it’s working and helping them. They’re less concerned about, are you wearing your suit today. The hoodie’s okay.
Christian: We’re definitely a lot more memorable in that regard because we’re not [00:15:48] different contractors.
When we first started, I would suit up every day because I wanted to look professional and I thought that’s what the environment was. Then Matt’s like, “You know what? I’m going to try it. I’m going to wear my Beast Code shirt. I’m going to wear my Beast Code hoodie.” They loved it.
We had an admiral come back and they’re searching through the government program offices saying, “Hey, where’s that kid from Florida with the hoodie? I want him on this project.” Then his guys came down like, “Who was it? Who was it?” They found him. Then, here we are on multiple different venues doing projects for these people.
It helps that our product is awesome and our culture is all the way behind it, but yeah, absolutely, it was scary coming in initially.
Matt: Yeah. But different [00:16:32].
Ledge: That’s funny. You know, I think it’s easy to look back and not notice the trailblazing nature of where did the fear set us off? Taking that chance.
Frankly, I see that in a lot of industries. Finance struggles with that, and healthcare. You’ve got to dress a certain way, and act a certain way. Higher ed. All these things. It doesn’t surprise me that the differentiation of culture makes a huge difference.
Now, obviously you need to produce and you need to come up with a badass product, but it gives you the opportunity to brand in a way that people, probably in your industry with your customer class, have done a very poor job branding. Have not established even the name and all those things.
I can imagine it would be easy to just be like some acronym of a name that sounds very government contractor-ey, and would fit into any low-rise in Northern Virginia. You’ve kind of gone the other way. I think that’s fun.
Talk about the hiring process. You do need people that fit in there a lot, and you need, I imagine, a very high level of technical acumen. The specifications and techniques and all the things that you’re doing.
How does all that factor in? What does the hiring process look like?
Christian: I would say, first and foremost it’s passion for the industry. We’re definitely looking for aptitude, we’re looking for experience, we’re looking for what’s driven this person in the past. But we’re looking for a culture fit, and we’re looking for people passionate about developing code. We’re looking for people who are interested in solving really hard problems.
Matt: If you’re passionate about it, then our senior level guys can teach you how to do it. If you really, really want to know.
I think because Christian and I were both very passionate about programming, we got really good at it because we were working after hours on our own projects and trying out different things and new technologies. That’s how we grew. So if we can find someone that has that same type of passion, we know that three to six months from now they’re going to be a great developer.
We do also have the whole testing process where we’ll bring in our senior level guys and they’ll ask a whole bunch of questions. We have a standardized list of those. Get them up on the whiteboard and see how they’re going to react under pressure. Test some of the basic knowledge principles of programming or whatever type of position that we’re testing for.
Christian: We have a really cool process called the Jack Scott Method. It’s two of our developers who are senior…
Matt: Jack and Scott.
Christian: They’re at each other’s throats always in a really funny, Dwight and Jim relationship. It’s awesome. They walk in to say, “Screw you, Scott!,” “Screw you, Jack!” It’s perfect.
When we go into the actual interview process it’s kind of good cop/bad cop, but they’re very interested in testing people. How they deal with stress. How they deal with new problems.
It’s just a really, really cool way to see a person’s personality. How well would they fit in this culture? We joke around all the time, we drink beer, but we solve hard problems. That’s what we’re doing. We’re building awesome products.
So being able to expose them to these different problems and these different processes that we already do in the agile process is awesome.
Like you were saying, it’s hard to find people who are qualified and dedicated to do this, but we’re not looking for a piece of paper to say, yep, you graduated with this degree and you have this specific certificate. We’re looking for passion.
Matt: There’s definitely a really big difference between a good programmer and a great programmer. There’s a lot of people that know how to program. They’ve gone to school and got the degrees and they understand the principles. So being able to actually have that out-of-the-box thinking is what really makes a great programmer.
It’s difficult to find those individuals and bring them on the team.
Ledge: I’ve heard you say several times the sailor and… How did you describe the war? What what it?
Christian: The infantrymen?
Ledge: There’s a very high level of user empathy there with high stakes. I wonder where that came from and how that got developed.
You hear about customer empathy and customer experience and all that stuff, but I sense in the way that you talk about it that you have a kind of a visceral connection to that end performer whose life you’re making very different, and better.
Where does that come from?
Matt: We’re both military brats. In the area that we’re in at [00:21:20] Beach we have a lot of military bases, so a lot of our employees do have a military background.
We have a lot of subject matter experts on staff that are retired military. Part of our onboarding, we call it Beast Academy, we’ll actually walk them through what is the company, what do we care about, do all the administrative stuff. Then we’ll actually have those retired military guys come in and talk about their time when they were in the military and if they’d had a product like this how it would have made a difference in their lives.
So people understand as they’re developing that they’re not just building a product, they’re actually changing someone’s life. It’s the difference between life and death sometimes because these people are actually driving a weapons system and they’re going to be in those types of environments where they’re going to have to make quick decisions. Our products are going to help them make those decisions.
Christian: It’s also really [big 00:22:06] to expose our developers and our product owners and everyone in the chain to our customers. So, any time I go out and do a customer visit I’m bringing Dev along with me because I want them to experience what I experience. Every time I demo to someone and they say, “Whoa. Hold on. Can it do this?” Just seeing that passion behind the customer and seeing the surprise in our product versus what they’re used to is huge.
If that doesn’t drive passion in a developer, I don’t know what will.
So, every exposure we can, we bring devs out, we bring product owners out, and they’re going to experience, like you said, that empathy. They’re going to gain that by seeing exactly what change we’re making in these people’s lives.
Matt: Especially if we can actually get them out to a ship so they can start shadowing the engineers on that ship or the different types of jobs they’re doing. They can see firsthand what is it they have to do on the day-to-day. Then developers are going, oh, man, we can automate that. We could do this and this and this. We could put this in the app and we can make it that much better.
Ledge: Yeah. Very cool. All right. I’m going to shift gears. I’ve got the lightening round here, so I hope you guys are ready to be creative. This is very important.
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Matt: Personally, I’m Star Trek. Christian?
Christian: I’ve got to be a Star Wars guy.
Matt: We’re yin and yang.
Ledge: That’s right. It’s a good partnership. What are you reading right now?
Christian: I’m reading ‘The Awakened Ape’, which is not at all in the industry at all. It’s more about people interaction and personalities, and how people come to think the way they do think.
Matt: Nice. I’m not reading any books right now but we are revising a lot of our administrative policies. So I’ve been reading those at night.
Christian: Just some light reading on a [00:23:48]
Ledge: I think Christian wins. Yeah. I don’t get to give points every time.
What can’t you live without?
Matt: You want to guess mine and I’ll guess yours?
Christian: Oh! You go first.
Matt: All right. Christian’s will be sushi.
Christian: Oh, man. Okay, yeah. You got me there. Oh, man, I don’t even know where to start.
Ledge: This is like a dating seminar. This is awesome.
Christian: I don’t know that I can say yours on camera. No comment. I think sushi’s a very really good one for me.
Matt: I think mine would be coffee.
Christian: Coffee. I was going to say tea. You’ve been drinking tea a lot recently.
Ledge: Caffeine. Right. What’s the last thing you Googled for work?
Christian: We’ve been doing a lot of pivoting into the web environment. We’ve been going from a really C++ OpenGL stack over to let’s put this all on the web.
I’ve been looking up different types of service side rendering, different ways of increasing… We have terabyte-large sets of data that we need to process and visualize, so we’re looking into different ways of doing that right now. I think the last thing I’ve Googled was service-side rendering.
Matt: Mine’s a little more boring. We’re working on a new server infrastructure here, so I’ve been looking at different VM solutions and trying to compare which ones that are industry standards to go with.
Christian: Man of many hats.
Ledge: I knew you wore the engineering still.
Christian: I try and keep them active. That’s my job, is keep him out of the engineering side, but man.
Matt: I have a lot of secret projects he doesn’t even know about.
Ledge: All right. I love that you talked about Jim and Dwight, because that’s my last and final question.
There’s this classic episode of The Office where Jim is messing with Dwight, and he’s sending him faxes from future Dwight.
Ledge: The coffee is poisoned… right.
I like to ask everybody. Imagine that I gave you one sheet of paper, just one, and a Sharpie – one of those thick ones. I want you to send a fax back to yourself 10 years ago. What do you write on the paper?
Christian: This is going to sound really corny, but I would write Matt Zimmerman. Super cute and super corny.
Matt: Wow. This is now a dating app.
Christian: This is a dating app. So, in our past life, we met as both interns. I’m going to college at this point and Matt asked me, hey, do you want to jump off and start this company?
I’m an intern, I’m in college, and I’m like, holy shit do I do this? Yeah. Absolutely. Let’s do it.
So I drop out of college, we start this company and now here we are. We own a business. Five years later we’re booming. This is an awesome experience.
Matt: Yeah. Living the dream.
Christian: Definitely, figuring this stuff out was the path to be on. I shouldn’t have started. That was really corny. Your turn.
Matt: How do I even top that, really? Anything I say now…
Christian: Yeah. You’re just a jerk either way so.
Ledge: Something CEO like.
Matt: [00:27:07] I didn’t know you felt that way. I don’t know. Maybe never sleep. It’s part of our tagline that software never sleeps. Maybe, ‘don’t be afraid, just go for it’ type deal. Something like that.
Christian: Just do it.
Matt: Yeah. Just do it.
Ledge: Sniping interns? Yeah.
Christian: The Intern.
Ledge: Fantastic. Well, guys, this is a lot of fun. Love what you’re doing. It’s good. Thanks for sharing the insights and all that. Love hearing about Beast Code. We’ll keep our eyes on you.
Matt: Thank you for having us. This was awesome.
Christian: Thanks, man. It was nice meeting you. Thank you.