Chattanooga Software Center in St Elmo is owned and operated by The Field Family, serving 22 industries across North America
by Dave Flessner
The EDGE Magazine Chattanooga Times Free Press
April 30th, 2020
Susan, Sarah and Mary Field literally grew up in the business they now run.
As three of the five children of software company founders Alan and Pauline Field, the three have been doing tasks in their family's business since before they were teenagers. Most of the Field children were writing computer code by the time they were 14 years old as part of their home school curriculum.
"It was like an apprenticeship environment, rather than a school environment," says Susan Field, 25, who is taking over as systems administrator and business software engineer at the Chattanooga Software Center along with her two younger sisters who are business software developers.
"It was a lot more learning by doing and experience, rather than just book learning and filling out reports. It's challenging and rewarding helping a lot of people to automate systems. I'm ahead of everyone my age, so I like the way it turned out."
In a field dominated by males in a high work turnover and fast-changing environment, the Fields have grown a family-owned, multi-generational business with four daughters and a son, all of whom were home-schooled at the family home just above their 2,700-square-foot St. Elmo Avenue storefront.
The girls were taught programming by their parents and older brother Bryan, who has since left the business.
Alan Field, the 61-year-old self-taught entrepreneur who started the company more than two decades ago as SurfN Development Corp. and SurfNChat, now calls himself "coach" for his daughters who have worked to take over the business.
"They have worked way below their salary level for years to build something worthwhile and they are giving most of their salary to build a family headquarters to build a future place for next generations," Alan Field says. "It's a very non-self serving approach that I think is far different than what we see in Silicon Valley and the tech industry in general."
The business has evolved into a provider of a cloud-based software platform for bookkeeping, payroll, taxes and other uses for small- to medium-sized businesses.
The company has developed its own business software, known as Pineapple Code, which developers brag has a one-of-a-kind contact management system that provides an at-a-glance overview of any client, vendor and contact record. The code allows clients to customize access rules for specific users to see certain records or types.
Happy Feet International, a Ringgold, Georgia-based vinyl floorcovering importer begun eight years ago by former Shaw Industries manager Casey Johnson, has been working with the Chattanooga Software Center since one of Johnson's sons met Bryan and Susan at a wedding five years ago and were immediately impressed with their software knowledge.
"At the time, we were frustrated with how inflexible QuickBooks was and Bryan and Susan customized a program for us with the Pineapple Code that was just amazing" Johnson says. "We like to support local businesses and they have been fantastic for us in the software and service they have provided at a great price."
Even though Susan was only 19 when Happy Feet first started using the Chattanooga Software Center, Johnson says he was quickly impressed by the knowledge and design of the cloud-based services Happy Feet received.
That message has spread across clients that the Chattanooga Software Center serves in 22 industries to businesses in both the United States and Canada.
James Barras, owner of Professional Heating & Air in Hammond, Louisiana, has used Chattanooga Software Center to help grow his business since he first heard about the Fields six years ago from another contractor who bragged about their services.
"We've gotten proposals from other software companies through the years, but Chattanooga Software is a comprehensive software that does our dispatching, accounting, payroll and pretty much everything else we need, and I don't know of any other software that can do all that," Barras says. "When we have found other needs, they have always been able to customize something for us."
Like Chattanooga Software Center, about 80% of the clients it serves are multi-generational small- to medium-sized businesses.
"My belief is that business is built on relationships and better business is built on long-term relationships," Alan Field says.
The Pineapple Code the Fields wrote was developed for both office needs and work in the field, handling bookkeeping, payroll, email and other software needs. Chattanooga Software Center uses Unix multi-user computer operating systems, which are in a self-contained software system and far less vulnerable to viruses than most Microsoft services.
While Quickbooks handles accounting and Microsoft Outlook deals with email, Pineapple software handles both and is more scalable than other systems, Susan Field says.
The Pineapple name, a sign of hospitality and sacrifice (since each pineapple sacrifices itself for the next generation), reflects the values of the company.
"We're trying to set up future generations," Alan Field says. "This center is a place where real people do real things to give people the results they want."
The Chattanooga Software Center has achieved enough success that it doesn't even do much cold-calling or major marketing campaigns for new business, although the owners are eager to continue to grow the company.
"We have way too much business coming to us right now as referral business to spend a lot of time marketing," Susan Field says.
To accommodate the growth of the company and provide extra cybersecurity, the Fields purchased 160 acres on Old State Road in Dade County six years ago where they are building a 9000-square-foot 'family headquarters' in poured concrete structures for a back-up data center, a living facility and a family shop that will eventually include a winery, wood shop, and sewing center.
As part of their home schooling, the Field children have done carpentry, sewing, woodworking, gardening and most of the construction work in the business, and the family continues to do such work at their rural site.
"In home schooling, we always wanted to do something hands-on and meaningful, rather than just memorize a book or memorize a task," Alan Field says. "I think you learn best by doing and I think our results have shown that to be true. The software business may constantly be changing, but we are trying to build for the long term."
With its stone and wood finishing, the company's office looks more like a bank or an insurance office than most of today's high-tech design work environments. Alan Field says that is by design.
"We want to show a solid foundation, something you can trust like an old bank, rather than the virtual world of cloud computing," he says. "When you dug a well in the old days, that would be used for your children and your grandchildren, rather than a get-quick-rich idea."