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Working With You

04-16-18 Drew Clemens

Drew shares the unique challenges our enterprise customers face and how we add value in tackling them.

I’m a cookie guy. Give me a chocolate chip cookie over any other snack, and I’ll take it any day of the week. As my friends can attest, I’m also not very picky. Crispy cookies, soft cookies, store-bought or homemade, I’m pretty much happy with any of them. If it dunks, it plays.

I’m obviously masking my heartbreak in the absence of a cookie cake. Smurfs provide little consolation.

Being an integral part of my life, I’ve had a lot of time to think about these delicious, round morsels from heaven. My mom would make cookies for me, and life was good. When I was ready, my mom eventually made cookies with me—an entirely different experience. Side-by-side we worked together with shared responsibility, interest, and reward. Not only did we get to enjoy our sweet, shared victories, we had the benefit of newly shared knowledge, trust, and a collective experience that allowed us to tackle the next batch even more prepared.

With, Not For

Our team of Sparkbox webmakers has been carefully and intentionally brought together to work with you rather than for you. We have found that we—our customer team and our own team—all do our best work when it is done collaboratively.

Voting on goals at kickoff.
Our discovery engagements include a great deal of interaction with client teams, including on-site work sessions, which provide invaluable insight for project planning and estimation.

This “working with you” mindset is in fairly sharp contrast to a staff augmentation model. The expectation for staff aug is typically that the contractor is working for their customer, fitting into a team, going with the flow, and fairly easily added or removed from the team as needs change. Staff aug exists because—especially in an enterprise setting—adding full-time employees is really hard. Financially, legally, bureaucratically, it’s hard. Not to mention the time investment in interviewing and procuring the right talent.

But working for a customer goes against the grain of who we are, and it contrasts our belief that the best work comes from a collaborative relationship. In fact, our goal is to work ourselves out of the job, building up our customer’s teams as much as we build up our customer’s product. This is true for all of our projects, but it’s never on display more fully than our work with long-term, enterprise customers. Our experience has shown that teams in enterprise settings face unique challenges, and we’ve learned how to tackle many of those challenges with customers through our unique perspective. Here are a few examples.

...our goal is to work ourselves out of the job, building up our customer’s teams as much as we build up our customer’s product.

Silos and Ceilings

The larger the organization, the more siloed the teams. And, although organizational silos sometimes make sense fiscally and managerially, they don’t change the fact that the web is a multidisciplinary medium. Backend development, frontend development, design, marketing, content, and more are required from a web team. However, these groups rarely view themselves as a cohesive team because they are siloed by budgets, systems, goals, and leadership structures, which tend to create artificial ceilings for the work they could accomplish together.

We believe that valuable insight exists in each siloed group; however, that knowledge must be brought together to build more powerful solutions. In our experience, customer teams are usually open to working together to share their valuable tribal knowledge. These groups just need someone that speaks a common language to build a bridge and get communication flowing. As a multidisciplinary team, we’ve experienced a great deal of success as bridge builders.

Our discussions between siloed development and design teams within one customer organization have led to the identification of common needs between both teams, which, eventually, led to a collaborative build of a design system. This design system literally bridges the gap between the design direction of one team and the development requirements of another team—in a format that suits both of their needs. The project itself is useful, but the collaborative effort that has brought the teams together has arguably as much long-term value as the built artifact.

When we began our engagement with this particular client, we were expected to build only a certain set of features. Throughout that work, however, we regularly shared recommendations, which grew into strategic dialogue. If we were just working for our customer in this scenario, it’s likely that we never would have been directed to execute this product. Our proactive work with the customer—and the resulting mutual trust—opened the opportunity to uncover and address this need.

Tyranny of the Urgent

It is hard to get a view of the forest or the trees when your day is filled with existing commitments and fires needing extinguished. Especially in the enterprise setting, the urgent often wins out over the important.

While we are plugged into our customer’s work, we are a step removed from the greater organization. This has some real benefits. An outside perspective with less organizational clutter. We regularly take time away from the work we’ve been asked to do in order to research and plan for work our clients have not yet thought to ask. For some clients, we have regular, internal meetings each month to discuss higher level value propositions, which are opportunities to improve our clients’ product. Fresh thinking often comes from a point of view less inhibited by history, constraints, or politics so it’s not unusual for us to bring in Sparkboxers from outside the particular client project for an even more unique perspective in those conversations.

Especially in the enterprise setting, the urgent often wins out over the important.

On the subject of the urgent overshadowing the important, there is arguably nothing more important than cultivating and building up your people. A product is only as good as the people building and maintaining it. However, as I mentioned earlier, hiring full-time employees is really hard (another reason staff aug is so tempting). In the spirit of putting people first and serving our clients, we’ve helped them interview, hire, and train new employees, even when they become our eventual replacements. We take pride in building sustainable teams, even when they lead to us riding off into the sunset. This sort of partnership takes time to build, but it leads to deeper client partnerships and better products.

This is what it means to work with a client team. We aren’t just doers. We are thinkers, intentionally and regularly donning our consultant hats to proactively suggest valuable things for our clients to consider.

Leveling Up And Staying Current

We work with a lot of smart people. Our customers, both the leadership and internal teams, tend to be super smart and hard working. However, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, it’s still hard to stay current on web trends and technologies. And when a team isn’t current, the technology doesn’t stay current, and expensive technical debt grows over time. We have had countless conversations with folks in enterprise settings asking how we stay current and, often, how we can help them modernize their web properties or development workflow.

A driving factor contributing to our ability to stay on top of web technologies is that we are regularly being presented new problems as we work with our various customer teams. For some customers, the engagement is short and precise. For others, the engagement is extended and deep. Regardless of project size, every scope of work presents new and unique challenges to overcome. We’re web scouts moving from place to place, leaving things better than we found them. We’ve earned merit badges along the way—which we bring to the next project team.

Our apprenticeship program is an example of sharing what we’ve learned. Nate, a former apprentice, teaches three current apprentices in our Dayton office.

Our role as consultants allows us (requires us, really) to explore a lot of very different problem spaces. Our business is also set up to allow our team to really explore those problem spaces. Even when we aren’t actively working on a client problem, we intentionally set aside time in our schedule to tinker with new tools, read and write about new subjects, and teach what we’ve learned.

We host meetups. We speak at conferences. We create workshops. This intentional investment is critical to building a culture of continual learning, and a culture of learning is necessary to level up and stay current. We build this into our culture, and we’ve found that it is contagious as we work with our customers to build a similar culture.

Sustainable Value

It’s pretty tempting for an organization to bring in outside help to do work for them. It has the appearance of a tidy solution with clearly defined lines. However, the problems themselves almost never fit into clearly defined lines. Defining the problem is half the battle, and that requires a partnership that is far more intimate. It requires agency and client team alike in the trenches, working alongside one another.

We encourage studio teams as well as those hiring one to foster partnerships where you’re working with each other. The lines will definitely blur, and it may cause some organizational shift. However, you’ll generally get a batch of valuable, sustainable results, and you’ll end up looking like one smart cookie.

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A portrait of Vice President of Business Development, Katie Jennings.

Katie Jennings

Vice President of Business Development