Dev Shop? Really?
I get excited about thinking in systems. I find myself frequently hunting for patterns, order and logic. But…I’ve never written code professionally. For those of you who know the company I founded and run, that might be surprising. After all, Firefield is a “dev shop”, isn’t it? But Adam’s not a developer?
The first time I heard that label, my internal reaction was visceral: “ Dev shop? What? No. Sure we design apps and write code. But that’s only a fraction of our value.” Then I took a breath and dug up some facts. 95% of last year’s revenue was categorized as “software development”. The lion’s share of our expenses went to software engineers. We typically competed for business against traditional dev shops. Gulp. It seems I was the one with an identity crisis.
I launched my first venture in college. Doing so had its pros and cons. On the plus side, I was surrounded by smart, ambitious people with time on their hands and no need for a cash-paying job. On the flip side, the gap between what I thought I knew and what I actually knew was enormous – the largest it’s been in my nearly 40 years. To my amazement, I never made the cover of Wired and our little tech project wrapped itself with a sputter just in time for graduation.
With dashed hopes and a student loan repayment schedule that made my brain hurt, I got in line with hundreds of job-seeking classmates. We all had the same demands for our careers: Be deeply fulfilled every day. Work to make the world a better place. Collaborate with an inspired and diverse team. Naturally, we all became investment bankers.
My internal wiring made me pretty good at evaluating risk, dismantling complicated financial instruments, and boiling vast amounts of data down to clear, actionable recommendations. That meant that I enjoyed the challenge of the work and the rewards of a job well done. It didn’t, unfortunately, lead me to ever truly like the essence of what I was doing. Regardless, the student debt was getting paid off and I didn’t have any brilliant alternatives, so I stuck around.
“Sticking around” is a pretty subjective phrase. For me, it meant moving to a hedge fund and staying there for the remainder of my 20’s. While I gained a lot of experience and collaborated with some outstanding people, my general unease was still building. Apparently, all I needed to make a change was a tiny little push… in the form of a world-economy-crippling financial meltdown.
Back to Tech
Over the next few years, I left finance, assembled a small technology team, and began building startup number two. Most of that venture’s background is fodder for a different post, but one detail matters here: that work led to Firefield. In March of 2012, I repurposed our team and mission so we could help companies without technology teams bring software products to life.
We had made the flip from product company to service company and threw everything into our new model. It was exciting and effective. We were contributing a wide range of service and advice to companies ranging from raw startups to established enterprises. On a Monday we might go to an investor pitch with a client. On a Tuesday we could be talking strategy during a C-level team meeting. By the end of that same week, we would often be designing product, building prototypes or releasing a production application update. We had become catalysts for our partners in various different ways.
As interesting as those early days were, a problem was building. Our approach didn’t scale. We were doing too many different things on too many different projects. It was hard to find commonality across our work. It was challenging to plan, staff, and grow in a material or predictable way. Although not obvious at the moment, those pressures were gradually transforming us.
Our engagements were getting longer and we were being asked to perform more product “maintenance” and less “creation”. Given our growth, I was becoming less and less available to provide strategic insights to new or existing clients. The proportion of our work that was software design or development was creeping steadily higher. By 2015 any reasonable onlooker should have called Firefield a pure dev shop… because that’s exactly what we had become.
I’ve spent the last year thinking hard about why this even matters. Who cares how we’re labeled? We produce great outcomes. Clients are happy. The team takes pride in its work. Well, there are two key reasons – one practical and one more philosophical.
First the practical. It’s not particularly differentiating to say you’re a dev shop. No offense to our peer group, but we’re not in short supply or hugely original in how we describe ourselves. That leaves us increasingly hustling for an ever-diminishing slice of the pie. This doesn’t translate to a very compelling business model. Not surprisingly, Firefield has been witnessing these effects firsthand for years.
And now the philosophical. Firefield’s “why” is to help companies create lasting breakthroughs. For most companies the “killer app” only gets you part of the way there. What happens before, after, around and through an application’s design or development hugely impacts its effect. In my opinion, the more “dev shop” we became, the more we lost sight of this core principle.
Firefield is here to help companies make, execute and profit from outstanding software decisions. That mission isn’t better or worse than that of a traditional dev shop, but it’s certainly different. We could recommend to one client that they build nothing at all. The path for another business may be to use an existing tool. A third company might be urged to create their solution exclusively within their existing team. Since a dev shop wouldn’t remain in business if it made recommendations like these very often, we needed to reinvent our model.
Over the past few months we have defined the scenarios where we can deliver breakthroughs, and more importantly, the ones where we can’t. We have narrowly highlighted the type of companies we can help, and just as critically, those we cannot. We have standardized an execution framework that will be an optimal fit for many situations, but not all. Simply put, we’ve embraced who we are by acknowledging who we aren’t.
For those who know me, it’s no mystery that I can be passionate and high energy. So when I say that I’ve never been more energized and excited about Firefield, that’s saying something. I realize the specifics of our reboot are still pretty vague. Stay tuned. This is just the beginning.
If you would like to talk about about what’s next for Firefield, shoot me a message. I would love to chat.