February 28, 2014 (work)
20th Anniversary Interview

The Sapient marketing team published the following interview on our website.

Celebrating 20 Years at Sapient: Cobus Theunissen

by JASON SCHOCH on Feb 27, 2014 • 10:13 am

Sapient is known in the industry as a game-changer, largely because of the caliber of our people and the expertise they bring to the table.  The 20 Year Milestone Anniversary series captures the stories of some of our longest tenured people. It chronicles their journeys at Sapient in driving the industry forward and enabling human potential. Read on to learn about Cobus Theunissen, Vice President, Global Delivery in Sapient Global Markets.

Did you start at Sapient right out of college?

Essentially, yes.  I started lecturing at my Alma Mater’s Engineering school and was planning a career in academia when I decided to do a little traveling and visited a buddy of mine in Boston who had just started at Sapient.   He ended up tricking me into an interview.  He said, “Why don’t you come with me today to check out where I work?”  The next thing I knew I was sitting in an interview room with Layne Ainsworth.

Had you even heard of Sapient at the time?

Not at all.  There were probably around 40 employees and probably about 5 clients, so there was no reason someone from South Africa would know about Sapient in those days.  Now, when I travel back to South Africa to visit family and talk about what we do, many people there know of us.

Your degree is in electronic engineering, is that correct?

That’s right.  I have a masters in engineering.  I enjoyed the math and physics of high frequency electronics and radar, but not enough to dedicate the rest of my life to the field.

What was your first impression when you went in for the interview?

What was interesting for me was Sapient’s entirely unique atmosphere.  Obviously I couldn’t compare it to other companies at the time because it was my first interview, but there was a buzz of teamwork and commitment that was evident throughout the whole office… a sleeping bag under someone’s desk, three people huddled around a monitor debugging something…  It was clear everyone was working together as a team to see the work through and they all seemed to be having fun doing it.  That sense of camaraderie was very enticing.

Was the interview process rigorous?

Apparently not, since they offered me a job!  I met three people back-to-back with an exercise in the middle, not unlike today’s interviews.  Everyone was dressed casually since it was the day of the summer picnic.  They probed me on my interests, motivations, and skills.  Luckily they didn’t focus too much on the coding part.  They were very interested in testing my problem solving skills.  It took about three hours.

I didn’t accept the job offer, mainly because I wasn’t looking for a career change at the time.  About six to eight months later I made up my mind that it actually was a career I’d like to pursue.  I contacted my friend, who had Jerry Greenberg (one of the co-founders) call me in South Africa, and I had to negotiate my salary.  Let’s just say it was a very one-sided ‘negotiation.’ I asked for a number, Jerry countered with a very different number, and I said yes.  I didn’t have the guts to go two rounds with him.

What was it that got you to change your mind?

Quite honestly, I was getting sick and tired of marking term papers and realized what the next ten years would look like.  I saw the number of tenured professors ahead of me and realized that none of them were going to retire any time soon.

So you took the job.  What was the role that you were hired on for?

I was hired as a developer tasked to port the Sapient Oracle database framework to work with ODBC databases.  The day I joined I had to start coding bright and early on a Monday morning.  But quite honestly, at that point I didn’t even understand what a database was, never mind understand what ‘preparing a SQL statement’ was.  It was clear that many people had their fingers in the code, with comments from developers all over the codebase, including Stuart Moore – the other co-founder!  It was daunting having to work in the same codebase as these iconic figures.

Were they pretty forgiving at the time or did you have to ramp up quickly overnight?

My architect was great.  He took the time to teach me the basics, often on Saturday mornings since it was less hectic and we could come into work in casual clothes.

I remember my second or third week when I still hadn’t had a chance to buy proper clothes. (We were wearing only white shirts and dark dress slacks at the time.)  I asked my Project Manager if I could have a few hours the following Monday to do some shopping. She said, “Sure, you can take some time off on Monday.  Just don’t bother coming back!”  She was joking, of course.

How has your role changed over the past 20 years?

About 75% of my career has been aligned to Energy.  My first few projects were for a utility company in New Jersey.  Alan Herrick (our CEO) was actually my first client!

In the late 90s, I worked on some consumer focused projects (Virgin Megastore, Assertahome, Homebase), but came back to energy when working in Europe for Essent, where Chip Register (Global Markets Managing Director) was my client.

I started out as a techie coding in PowerBuilder and C++, but had many opportunities to be a note-taker, facilitator, analyst, architect and so on.  I loved being an architect, working with a team to conceptualize, design, build, debug, and support something of value to our clients.  I still get to play that role today, at a grander scale.  So in that dimension, I think my role hasn’t changed much, but it certainly grew.

Over the last few years, I have also been able to play the project delivery lead (PDL) role, which did add a few more dimensions to my role, requiring me to think much more strategically about Sapient as a whole, who we are, and driving a much larger team to operate to the best of our abilities.

Looking back is there one project or experience that really stands out in your mind?

It’s funny, everyone asks me that question, but it’s not one that’s easy to answer.  There are so many angles to projects.  Some projects stretch your technical and knowledge areas, and others stretch your personality, leadership, and inter-personal skills.

But if I had to choose one that I feel shaped me the most, it would be a project we did in Cincinnati ten years ago.  What makes this one special for me is the fact that we started as a pretty green team. Over the course of three years we were able to grow our technical skills and business knowledge significantly, as well as become much smarter as consultants and leaders.  Most of the team from that account is still with us today, and they have become the backbone of our energy capability here in North America, and some in India.  I feel we all graduated on that project.

Reflecting on your 20 year career with Sapient, what advice would you give to the students looking to move out into the world?

That’s a great question.  There was one moment that comes to mind when Stuart, had a meeting with us as a company.  We were growing pretty fast at the time, and he wanted to remind us of why we were all there.   He explained that in today’s world, the vehicle for change is through companies.

There are admittedly still individuals who manage to change the world, but most of the changes are being driven through the visions and momentum of companies.  So my advice would be to choose a company, or a group of people with a vision that resonates with you.  That is how you will achieve the greatest impact and enable your potential.

Great advice.  Do you feel Sapient has carried on that vision? 

Today, that vision is even stronger than when I joined.  When I first encountered Sapient, we were 40 people sitting together in an old furniture factory that smelled like chocolate chip cookies.  Our vision at the time was a bit grand and felt like, “a Big Hairy Audacious Goal” – a great vision, but somewhat out of reach.  If you look at Sapient today, we’ve come so far and our vision today is so much more real and achievable than it ever was.  We’re at the forefront of defining industry standards and working with major clients that really drive the world economies.  It’s been 25 years in the making, and it feels like there is no stopping us now!