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How to preserve the right culture in a growing software development company

Richard Yates
Richard Yates.jpg

I’m Chief Operating Officer at Helastel, which makes me responsible for the delivery of all our software development work. That, in turn, boils down to managing people and processes, both of which are critically important to Helastel’s success.

It’s especially important in the context of Helastel’s continuing growth. As we’ve built up our reputation and client base, we’ve come up against the age-old problem that great people can’t be replicated; they are just too darned unique. You can hire more great people, but the only thing you can really replicate is process.

The good news is that we are managing that growth, and the changes that come with it, pretty well. But the risk we face is losing some of the specialness of being a small company as we transition to becoming a bigger, more grown-up one.

From the white heat of an early-stage business to the steady rhythm of a grown-up enterprise

Lots of software development companies are born, many grow, but few reach maturity. In those early days of small, startup life, you learn to survive on your instincts and feed off the excitement of new possibilities and the sustenance of late-night takeaways. You harbour a dream to one day hire a multidisciplinary team of people and produce genuinely world-class work. That’s the path Helastel has sought to tread.

Sooner or later, the challenge that all software development outfits face is being able to switch from a reactive stance to a proactive one. In nimble, startup mode there is little time for any business strategy (other than your clients’, of course). Like a swan that appears to float serenely on the surface, its legs are thrashing away like crazy underneath. You become used to pulling off the impossible; getting away with it. It’s utterly exhausting, but enjoyable at the same time.

That’s a glimpse back into the recent past of Helastel; no more than a few years ago when we relied more on the flair and brilliance of a few outstanding star players than we ever realised at the time. But key person dependencies are the enemy of scale and continuity. They both enable you, and limit you. That realisation compelled us to sit down and get really serious about what would happen if any of our great people suddenly got wiped off the face of the earth.

We’re used to lifting the lid on our clients’ businesses, but this would be the first time we’d done it for ourselves. This led to discovering some inefficient processes, wastage and overproduction. We felt we could learn from mistakes better and adapt to new situations faster.

Continual improvement across Helastel

Looking at it more positively, we found plenty of opportunities to improve across the business - and not just our software development meat and drink. Today we’re perfecting numerous working practices and organisational structures rather than starting from scratch. We are still a work in progress; perhaps we always should be.

One example is our approach to new business. Instead of turning our gaze onto each potential new opportunity that comes along, we’re picking winners strategically. We have a bid manager (Julian) who addresses tenders meticulously, and this in turn feeds back into the planning we do around technical accreditations. For example, which existing accreditations are most valuable to exploit, and which new ones we should attain next. It isn’t rocket science, just a set of robust processes that deliver measurable value. By contrast, an adolescent software development firm might not have the processes in place to avoid staying up until 4am finishing their tender response to be in 10 minutes before it’s due. Been there, got the T-shirt…

All new processes need to be as lean and effective as possible. But, at the same time as tuning up a few inefficiencies, we’ve spent time tuning into what makes us, well… Helastel. Core to this is our commitment to customers. We have always kept the same attitude to all our customers regardless of whether they are spending £400 or £4m. That aspect of our legacy is one that we are especially keen to preserve as we evolve.

Reflecting our customer culture back onto ourselves

In fact, so much positive energy goes into customers that we’re trying to work out how to get more of it to rub off on ourselves. The new mindset is to almost treat Helastel like a client in terms of how we commit to long term objectives and pull together as a team to buy into the ‘mission’. It’s what we do for every customer, after all.

Nurturing a culture and improving processes demands a lot from people, and we already ask an awful lot of our band of Helastelistas. It’s hard work here because we don’t cut any corners. That’s why we’re going deeper than simple job descriptions to redefine roles for everyone, making sure each individual’s objectives are in line with the company vision, and that personal ambition toward new targets is empowered and facilitated. Everyone should be able to access the support they need to overcome any obstacle.

The greatest goal of all is to make everyone happy; customers and colleagues alike. Such a simple goal will seem unrealistic to many organisations, but we’re used to overcoming the odds.

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Topics: Life at Helastel

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