From the outside, 14 West Mount Vernon Place is the kind of beautiful, well-maintained, 19th-century building for which the Mount Vernon neighborhood is known. But that staid aesthetic is just skin deep.
Inside the building, innovative things are happening at one of Baltimore’s largest legacy media organizations.
The building houses the headquarters of the Agora companies, a collection of media companies that publish a variety of financial, health, travel and special interest books and newsletters. Started in 1978 as one company, the Agora companies have since grown, transforming into a global consortium relying on the innovations of in-house technology teams to power that expansion.
Most recently, the organization launched 14 West, a company focused on recruiting and administrative services, and on maintaining the culture that powers the rest of the Agora companies’ work.
Sixteen years ago, when 14 West Director of Personnel & Talent Elizabeth Massing started with Agora as an intern, the organization was comprised of one company of about 200 employees. Today, the collection of companies includes multiple entities and about 850 employees in Baltimore alone. It’s a lot of growth, but according to Massing, in some ways, the organization still feels like the same company she started with all those years ago.
“I’ve seen lots of changes and lots of growth,” she says. “But what’s exciting to me is that through all this change, we have maintained our culture. Leadership never lost sight of that.”
That culture is one that celebrates creative, solution-driven contributions from employees at every level. “The environment isn’t just, ‘Come here and do this.’ It’s, ‘Come in and help us figure out the solution,'” said Martin Lannon, president of Publishing Services, one of the Agora companies. “We give people the opportunity to come up with new ideas and push further.”
Lead Solutions Architect Cliff Casey has experienced this firsthand.
In the five years he’s been with Agora’s Publishing Services, he has had a hand in most of the company’s technology projects and has made his own way at the company, starting divisions and creating new programs.
Publishing Services’ technology initiatives fall into two categories, Casey explains. The company’s tech teams develop guided workflow tools that help Agora’s other companies make money from ecommerce. They also offer services to companies within the consortium that have their own in-house tech teams and want to use the organization’s large enterprise systems, but don’t need the workflow assistance.
Casey started as an engineer on the ecommerce system, which was, at the time, only partially developed internally. “At that time, we had a small in-house engineering team,” he recalls. “Over time, I got to know the application very well.” During Casey’s tenure, he helped the team of engineers dedicated to the system grow, bringing development and management in-house.
With that done, Casey was ready for the next challenge. “I wanted to not be stuck on one system,” he says. “I wanted to move into a role where I could explore more experimental technology.”
To that end, he started a team called “the Architecture Board” that informs design decisions across technologies.
“We have a strong influence when decisions are made regarding product direction — new databases, new design patterns that optimize us for performance, new ways to make the platform more flexible,” Casey said.
He’s also helping Publishing Services develop a career path for engineers and imparting his own knowledge along the way. “We have a path from out-of-college, entry-level developers up to products that are in many different [programming] languages,” he said.
But even with that path as a guide, there’s room for technologists to explore. “We look for people who are self-starters,” said Casey. “It’s not a very structured environment. You’re not going to get somebody telling you what to do every day. But it’s an opportunity to contribute to the organization in your own way.”
Experimenting with new approaches isn’t without risks, of course — and that is built into the Agora companies’ culture. “Accelerated failure” is embraced, says Lannon, the Publishing Services president. “We want to fail quickly so we can move on because eventually we will strike gold. We have to be nimble enough to do that.”
For the tech community, this means a lot of opportunity.
Introducing 14 West
“We hire more people on the tech side than we do writers,” said Myles Norin, CEO of 14 West and chairman of the Agora companies. “When you talk about a publishing company, everyone visualizes the printed word. But in the digital age, it takes a tremendous amount of technology to service your customers.”
The venture Norin helms, 14 West, plays a very particular role in the overall Agora company approach to doing business. 14 West handles recruiting and other human resources concerns for the rest of the Agora companies, allowing those companies to focus on their core businesses, instead of getting sidetracked with the details of administration.
Like the entire portfolio of Agora companies, 14 West also embraces a culture of creativity and innovation. “I never thought I’d see a personnel department that is creative-based,” said Massing, the HR director. “We’re able to try different approaches to things to see if they work. We get hands-on.”
That culture is palpable from the earliest stages of recruitment. “It’s not structured or corporate in approach,” Massing said. “We host networking events — meetups — really getting to know people so they can know the ins and outs of us and what we’re made of.”
The Agora companies are always on the lookout for technologists with a variety of specialties: software developers with experience in Java, .NET and Ruby, web developers and individuals who have technical backgrounds but want to apply their skills in client-facing positions like implementation specialists and support specialists.
Agora officials say they’ve been successful in hiring people they’ve met through Technical.ly Baltimore meetups and have plans over the next year or two to sponsor and host events of their own, including hackathons and beta-testing boot camps. They’ll be at our NET/WORK career fair Feb. 17 and are hiring for a number of positions.