MORRISVILLE, N.C. … In a time of layoffs and cutbacks, you might think a company offering outsourced software engineering services would be the safe haven for startups and small businesses around the Triangle.

Not so, says Tap Root Systems managing partner Blane Rockafellow.

“We’ve been able to weather some of the economic trends because we are blessed, I think,” Rockafellow says with a laugh, “and because of our conservative approach in hiring people and actively going to find customers.”

Despite a downturn in the economy, TapRoot, which was founded by current managing partners Rockafellow, Leo Ang, James Conley Greene III and Frank Smoak in October 2000, is profitable and has grown its staff from four to 15 since its start. All four founders are engineers who boast stints at companies like Cisco Systems and IBM and believed there was a need for embedded software development in the information technology industry.

“It’s something companies have to have or their products won’t work,” says Rockafellow.

Most technology companies have one or two employees on staff that develop embedded software platforms, but if those employees leave, companies face a void, he says. TapRoot provides an alternative: Companies hire a team of software engineers from the firm to develop their embedded systems. The TapRoot team specializes in operating systems, protocol stacks, embedded applications development and device driver development.

“As normal people see us, our competitors are placement agencies,” says Rockafellow. “But we’re not competing against those agencies because we have a knowledge base and they don’t. They’re just placing people and we’re not.”

More than temps
The difference between the TapRoot business model and that of a placement agency is that, when the company has questions, problems or needs changes to the software later on, they can come back to the same team at TapRoot to advise them further.

TapRoot points to the 20 to 30 percent fees charged by personnel placement firms to bring on a single contractor as one of the benefits to using its “ready-made” teams. According to its website, “While other companies struggle to find quality engineers that have to be molded into a team, TapRoot Systems already has them.”

The company is very selective about the software engineers it brings on board. “We have not hired anyone that hasn’t worked with someone already in the company or been referenced by a customer,” says Rockafellow.

In many cases, the engineers have already worked with their co-workers on team projects at previous jobs. So while engineers at other placement agencies are essentially independent contractors, the developers at TapRoot have a team of experts on which to draw from when completing a project.

“We provide expert software help and a knowledge base that customers can come back to without keeping us on staff,” he says.

More customers big than small
While the solution seems like a perfect fit for startups and small businesses, the average TapRoot customer is an established corporation. Bigger companies have found that, if they bring TapRoot in, they can cut their time-to-market and save money, he says.

“Bigger companies want to beat the other guys to market by hiring a team rather than taking the time to bring someone on staff,” he says. “We thought we would be great for start-ups, particularly with the lack of available engineers. Then the economy hit, and it hit start-up budgets pretty bad.”

TapRoot’s customers are located all around the world and come from the telecommunications, data communications and wireless industries.

The company has built its customer base on recommendations from customers, although it has just hired a public relations agency to begin a marketing push. Rockafellow admits the company has a hard time getting customers to talk about their successes for security reasons.

One company that has talked about its relationship with TapRoot is Symbian, a software licensing company owned by wireless industry leaders Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson, Psion and Panasonic that supplies an operating system for data-enabled mobile phones.

Unseen, but vital resource
Symbian has named TapRoot a platinum partner for supplying engineering consulting services for customization and porting of telephony systems, device drivers and communication-related test harnesses for Symbian operating systems. The team is currently developing core technology for the next Symbian OS release.

“TapRoot delivered what they said they would, when they said they would,” says Mark Heath, head of application technology at Symbian. “That’s why we used them to supply technology to Symbian OS.”

So, what about the TapRoot name?

“You can’t see the tap root on a tree, but without it the tree would fall over,” says Rockafellow. “When the product’s delivered, our name won’t be on it. You’ll never see what we’ve done, but embedded software isn’t a value-add. It’s infrastructure they need.”

TapRoot Systems website: