Scott Woods has jumped out of planes and hung from cliffs more than 7,500 feet high. Moreover, he’s done so willingly.
Africa, Australia, South America — his travelogue spans across the earth, while his work stretches across the clouds facilitated by the eponymous cables. Woods, a software developer, founded West Arête in State College in 2005, five years after he graduated from Penn State. He’s infused his personal experiences into the company he’s created; West Arête takes on projects that have some positive social outcome. Some of its applications have had legislative or social effects at the local, state and national levels.
“I wanted to be able to work the same kind of experience into my work life as well,” he said.
West Arête was recently certified as a B Corporation, or a for-profit company that meets stringent third-party standards for social and environmental responsibility. The company offers each of its nine employees a paid, one-month sabbatical every year, is bike friendly and is a member of 1 Percent for the Planet.
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Woods credits his parents for his prodigious sense of adventure. His sons are keeping the tradition going. Anders, 6, and Marten, 2, accompany Woods and his wife, Ieva, on trips out West.
Woods first met Ieva in a physics class. He saw a ripcord handle (used for skydiving) on her backpack and the rest was history.
Ever since, exploring runs in the family.
Q: What were some of the inspirations behind thinking progressively about work?
A: I went to school for computer science and music composition. I was done with classes in 1997, but I didn’t technically graduate until 2000. After that I worked for the university with an outstanding group. It was the center started by Eric Barron when he was faculty here. Man, what phenomenal leadership and what a phenomenal group to work with — that was where I really got to see for the first time what a really deeply motivated group or team looked like.
After that time, my wife and I, we quit our jobs so we could spend the next several years rock climbing full time. We spent five years traveling all around the world going on huge adventures, climbing big walls, doing ultra marathons. When you’re doing something like that, it’s purely intrinsically motivated. You’re doing things because you really want to climb these big walls or go on these big adventures. And the teamwork you get from that is unbelievable. People are like family when you go through experiences with them like that. So it set a really high bar in my head for the type of working relationships that I wanted us to have.
Q: Where did you go rock climbing?
A: We spent time in South America, New Zealand, Australia, Africa and we spent a ton of time in the United States. For us, the quintessential climb was the big walls in Yosemite. Some of the biggest adventures we had were climbing the Muir Wall on El Capitan. For the most part, it was just Ieva and me.
Q: It’s been written that love is akin to jumping out of an airplane. You actually met your wife that way. Explain.
A: I met her in physics class and I was like “How do I meet this girl? What do I talk to her about?” And I’d been really into climbing and I went up to her and there was this piece of metal on the back of her backpack, like this bracket — I didn’t know what it was — and I was like “I can go ask her about that; that can be my conversation icebreaker.” I went and asked her about it and she was like “Oh, that’s a ripcord handle. I lead skydiving trips out in a drop zone in Ohio on the weekends.”
She was like “Do you want to go skydiving?” and I thought “This is pretty much the best case scenario.” So she got me into skydiving and I got her into climbing and that was kind of the start of our adventures. Several months after that we took a leave of absence to go climbing in Australia and New Zealand for a little while. We came back from that and had an awesome time and that’s when I knew that this was the girl for me.
Q: You seem to have this great sense of adventure. What fomented that spark for exploring?
A: My parents are pretty adventurous. They would pull us out of school to go on two- or three-month-long road trips around the United States and just go to all the different national parks. And my dad also took an assignment in France when I was in high school, so I spent two years of high school over in the south of France, going to French public school. Getting tossed into the deep end, I learned the language and culture very fast.
Q: Can you describe your parents and how your upbringing molded your outlook?
A: My mom handles benefits and taxes for West Arête. Her degree is in business from RIT. She spent a good chunk of her working years raising me and my sister and now she’s been at West Arête for several years, so all the way from the very beginning doing the finances, bookkeeping and even stitching together our W-2s at the end of the year on a sewing machine. There’s a great picture somewhere of my mom with her sewing glasses and sewing machine, putting the perforations in the West Arête W-2s. That was a great example of the can-do attitude of “we can find a better way of doing this.” When the W-2s come out at the end of each year, I’m like “ah, just like mom used to make.”
My dad’s name is Craig Woods. He worked at IBM for his entire career and he got me into programming when I was a little kid. We always had computers in the house and I learned programming back in the 1980s. His degree was in physics, and he was brilliant with math and computers, so that’s always been a good influence. Eventually he got into rock climbing, too, so we’ve been able to go on some neat climbs together. We’re hoping to make a trip out to Yosemite.
Q: Coming to West Arête, what motivates you when choosing projects?
A: Given the choice between a project that is just kind of innocuous and one that does a lot of good in the world, we want to do the one that does a lot of good in the world. For our work, we think where are you going to put your effort into in terms of how your earn your revenue. We want this effort that’s going into software development and computing and where the next generation of software goes into things that are ultimately going to solve some of the world’s problems and do some good in the world. There are a lot of applications that could be built that move the world sideways or move the world backwards. There’s too many good things to work on — we should be making an effort at seeing whatever opportunities there are to do some good.
Q: What are some examples?
A: One of the coolest examples of projects that have a greater impact is the living wage calculator. It basically takes data from the census, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, all different places, and it calculates what it would really cost a real family to actually live in a given area in the country and earn a living wage. Like what do you really need to get by in State College or Altoona or San Francisco, and it calculates what that is and what difference is between that and what a given industry actually pays in that area. It helped influence the minimum wage conversation and legislation in a couple of different states and several big corporations ended up giving employees, especially the lowest-paid employees, raises based on the living wage calculator.
Q: In terms of work culture, you’ve implemented some forward-thinking principles such as the one-month sabbatical. What are the results you’ve seen from those changes?
A: The interesting thing was (the sabbaticals) didn’t hurt profit in the least, and we didn’t have to raise prices, and it didn’t hurt profitability. If anything, everything kind of got a notch better, which I’m still kind of amazed at how well it worked. I admit it’s sometimes hard to manage, but it’s totally worth it. I think it’s the dedication the team feels when you know that somebody else is going on sabbatical, but you get to go soon, too, everybody really chips in. Rather than there being an unhealthy, competitive thing in terms of making sure your co-workers are doing enough, it turns into a supportive thing of how can I help, so you can go on sabbatical and I know I can go on sabbatical, too. People come back, and they have all this experience from West Arête, and they also have this completely fresh perspective. And they can come back and speak the truth about things that we were totally blind to.
Q: Any surprises when you get back?
A: (laughs) So every time I come back from sabbatical, there’s always some part of my job that everybody has figured out. They’re like “We figured this out on our own. We can handle this now.”
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy