In conversation with Adam Pope, CTO @ Storm.

By Nicholas Hemley | February 12, 2021

In conversation with Adam Pope @ Storm …

Transcript

Nic Hemley in conversation with Adam Pope, CTO, Storm Consultancy

So welcome to Bristech “In conversation with…” and today I’m joined by Adam Pope who is the co-founder and CTO of Storm consultancy based in Bath, so welcome, Adam.

Hi, Nic - thanks for having me.

No problem: so we’ll be chatting a little bit about your personal tech journey and also a bit about Storm and the tie-up between Storm and Bristech. But first of all, for those who don’t know you do want to just briefly give an introduction?

Yes, absolutely. So, as you say, I’m co founder and CTO of Storm, we’re based in Bath. And we design and build web apps and websites for scale-up, start-ups and innovative companies in the area. And alongside that, I sit as CTO for two of our clients who have grown beyond using Storm as an agency and are starting to build in-house teams. So I’m helping them hire a development team, set up processes and start to transfer knowledge out of the agency into them, but also provide a point of consistency for their founders. So yeah, they’re talking to the same team.

It must be quite nice when a project develops into a client and has a different client relationship in that way. Is that unusual?

We see it almost as inevitable and that we’ve done a good job if it does happen. Because it’s a sign that a company has succeeded, that we’re often brought in to build a first version or an MVP, and so for them to reach the point where that kind of transition is possible is really excellent.

So you are wearing many different hats really including those CTO roles for clients you mentioned there. Is it the variety that you enjoy? Or is it the fact that you get to work with lots of different people?

I think it adds a variety to my week, that’s for sure. We work with a lot of different people at Storm. But when you’re working with those companies that have been around for a few years, the codebase is more mature and the business is more mature. It throws up a whole new range of technical and business problems to work on and solve. And that’s really exciting certainly keeps me motivated. But it also presents a whole new range of technical challenges to solve.

And what is the end goal for your clients? Do you try and build a team around you to then extract Storm out? Or are you just building a relationship that is for the long term with the client as they start to build their own team out?

At the moment those relationships are very much ongoing, with me as a point of consistency. Ultimately, if they turned around one day and said, “we’re off on our own”, we’d be very happy with that, because that means they’ve really excelled. But the moment is very much a transition phase where they have in-house resources, I sit across both and then if they need to get something done in a hurry Storm is available to help out.

I see. So you can scale up the number of people working on a project or scale it down is - there’s an element of flexibility there in the way that you’re working.

Absolutely. So they may hire developers to work on the code, but they may not hire a designer or a copywriter and those other skills that we have in the agency that we can still provide value.

Okay. And did you meet your co-founder Dave at uni? How did you meet? And do your skills complement each other; you realised that actually bringing agency together would be a great idea?

Yeah, so we’ve got a really good origin story actually. We first met at playgroup age two, or at least, at least our mum’s tell us that’s what happened. We actually became friends at secondary school, we went to the same college, started building websites for fun and a little bit of pocket money in our spare time. Completely, unintentionally, both chose to come to Bath uni. So we decided to carry on the side-hustle to make some money. And then we graduated in 2009. I think it’s fair to say that both of our courses were kind of geared around getting you a job in an investment bank. And 2009 not a great year for investment banks. (Indeed). So basically went “ooo, what should we do?” Let’s carry on with this website lark - if it works, hey, if it doesn’t, well, we’ll call it a gap year and move on.

Sensible, very sensible.

And in terms of skills, I think it turns out we’re actually a really good complement to each other. We have really similar interests, but almost polar opposite personalities. He loves networking, meeting people, he’s a great salesman, good at contracts and all that kind of strategy and forecasting and stuff you need to be in business; this was not me. So I needed a business partner that could do all that kind of stuff and would relish all that kind of stuff.

I feel quite privileged that you’re doing this interview.

It’s not a common occurrence.

And on the tech side, I’m really detail focused, always trying to pick holes in things; work out why won’t work. And then he’s a starter and innovator, kind of an ideas guy just chucking stuff out there. And that works really well. Because when we’ve got clients in the room, we can bounce off of each other, come up with 10 ideas and pull nine of them apart, and find the one that’s gonna work pretty quickly.

So it’s a bit of a double act. Yeah. And you yourself, were quite a high achiever at uni, would you, would you describe yourself as such? And what are your motivation, your motivations?

I think you might have been digging around on LinkedIn, I need to get that off of there. Empirically, I suppose that is true. Yes. I’ve always had a spongy brain, I kind of soak up knowledge really quickly, can pick up new concepts quickly, which helps with kind of problem solving and getting into things quickly. And then I was always encouraged to work hard and sort of apply myself when I was growing up. And I think you put those two things together, and it seems to have been a pretty successful combination so far.

Hmm, and it sounds like you have been building quite a tight-knit team in a Storm. How have you found that tight-knit team working in a pandemic?

And first of all, I have to say, a massive thanks to our team, because they really pulled together during this time. We are inherently an in-person agency, we like working together in an office, we like having our clients coming in. So this whole experience has been a radical change to the way we do business. And they’ve really, really pulled together, you know, obviously, there have been ups and downs, and people have been challenged at different times along the way. But I think from a client’s point of view, it’s always been business as normal. And and that’s a real testament to our team that they’ve they’ve made that possible, really pulled out of the bag,

So your clients would say that nothing materially has changed. it’s business as usual, from the point of view of your services.

Absolutely, I mean, we’re lucky we’re in an industry where working from home is possible and easy, the experience of working with us has had to change. We’d like getting people in a room, I think those kinds of sessions where you’re sat around chucking ideas out on a whiteboard are really valuable. And it’s not quite the same over Zoom. But it is possible it can be done. The world is just as different and strange for our clients as it is for us. So we try and make an effort to make some time on calls to have a little bit of social chat, because we might be the only person they’ve spoken to today that isn’t their spouse or children or whatever. So yeah. It’s it’s, it’s important to have a, you know, not just make everything about business just a little bit of time with people

So it’s recognising the sort of social context and the social side, even if you are, you know, primarily focused on the business interest.

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, just just taking that time to have a chat. And as everybody is realising you can’t be too distracted, if there’s an animal or a child doing something silly in the background, you just have to get on with it.

Someone’s got that cat filter stuck on….So we’re going to be hearing from Mark, Mark Smith, one of your devs, at the next meetup. And I was just wondering whether you’ve chatted to him about what he’s going to be presenting about and the title of the talk is a “Convention over Configuration”, presumably, that’s, that’s something that your team are chatting a lot about.

So yes, that is the convention over configuration, sort of slogan comes out of Ruby on Rails, which is the framework we use, it’s the kind of ethos that things should just work by default, you shouldn’t have to do a lot of effort to get things up and running. And we kind of take that forward as an agency and try to run most of our projects in a similar way, so that we can put people on and off of projects. And there is a convention to them so that our team is interchangeable, and our clients can get value out of us easily. So yeah, he’s going to be talking about some of the things we do to streamline our process and make it efficient and allow us to deliver really cool projects on what can sometimes be tight budgets for clients.

So expediency is one of the key things and it but also, as I understand it, familiarity that a developer can quite quickly come along and, and comprehend the codebase and and be productive quicker.

Absolutely. So there’s an element of time that you would spend at the beginning of every project, setting it up and we tried to streamline that so that we don’t have to spend too much of the client’s budget on just getting off the ground. And yeah, it is then about making it easy for people to come in and out of a project. So things are in the same place. They know where to go looking to find them.

Yeah, okay. And as an agency you focus on Ruby, Ruby and Rails. How did that come about? Was that your personal choice back in the day? Or is that just evolved?

That was very much an evolution. So we started the agency using ASP DotNet. And that was simply because I had done a summer job with somebody. And they were using that. And that was what I was using at the time so I carried on using it. But we quickly found that hiring people with that skill set was really, really difficult, because it tends to be quite enterprisey. So they were coming from very different cultures with very different expectations. And then we hired a chap called Paul, who was playing with Ruby on Rails and said, I think we should look at this in a bit more detail. And it just stuck really: as a framework, it just makes a lot of sense. It makes running an agency just really easy. Because it does that convention over configuration, everything has a place. And projects do tend to look very similar. So it just makes the swapping of developers very easy.

What’s your personal opinion of how hybrid solutions come in here. And by hybrid solution, what I’m thinking of is, say JamStack or having some kind of Static Site Generator

The way we solve that is we have a team that builds WordPress websites. And we often split a client’s project into a marketing site that’s built on WordPress, and then a Rails back end piece of - the app piece - and they often sit to set separate components in that way.

Okay, so you separate out the Marketing…

In the majority of cases, I mean, just for people that literally just need the homepage, then that’ll be a static HTML file in the Rails project. But if people start wanting blog and product descriptions and other kinds of bits and pieces that and they want it to be editable, then yeah, we tend to split it into two separate projects, one on WordPress one and one on Rails.

Okay, does Ruby lead to a sweet spot for you as an agency in terms of the types of clients that would be suitable for that approach?

Rails is an incredibly flexible framework. And we can do a huge range of things with it. It lends itself to database driven applications, you kind of normal SaaS products, you wouldn’t want to probably start writing games in it. If you were trying to rebuild Google Maps then yeah, you probably want to use a JavaScript framework or something a bit more (yeah) interactive. But so yeah, I guess there is a sweet spot, but it’s a very broad sweet spot that encompasses most b2b businesses and a lot of b2c stuff.

Okay, and so Storm was sponsoring Bristech this year - woohoo! - I was wondering what the primary motivation is from your point of view of doing this and the possible alignment or not possible alignment between Bristech and Storm in terms of some of the values that you or ethos that you hold.

So obviously Bristol has a huge tech community. And it’s not one we’ve really ventured into 11 years in business. And we’ve done a lot with Bath with BathCamp, BathSpark and Bath Digital Festival. And we just feel like it’s the time to get out there. Let Bristol know who we are, find out who’s around in Bristol and make some connections, both with businesses that may have interesting projects for us to work on. But also we’re always on the lookout for great talent. So just a chance to meet some more devs that live over that way.

So there’s a profile angle to it. There’s introducing yourself to the tech community in Bristol, who might not know so much about Storm currently. (Absolutely, yes). And potential clients in and around the Bristol area.

Bath is full of innovative people coming up with great ideas, but we’re sure there are people in Bristol with just as good an idea so yeah, we’re just interested to find out who is around what ideas they’ve got, and hopefully partner with some people.

Okay, cool. Because I guess the DNA for Bristech is really around in knowledge sharing, especially in technical knowledge sharing. And I’m just wondering how that aligns with the Storm ethos.

So yeah, our ethos is very much about sharing knowledge. We’ve had 11 years in business in that time, we’ve talked to dozens, hundreds of startups and businesses that have had successes and failures. And we’ve absorbed that knowledge. So very much part of our offer when we’re talking to clients is almost a business consultancy, of working out what’s good, what’s bad, and we love sharing that with people. So we’re certainly very interested in giving back to the community some of that, doing talks as we are arround some of the insights we’ve learned over the years, but also taking advantage of the opportunity to come and hear what other people have got to say and get inspiration from that as well.

And do you think that one of your angles here is around the marriage of the technical and the business disruption?

Absolutely. So lots of people come to us having spotted an opportunity for change. Sometimes that’s an internal process change. But quite often, it’s a market disruption. And we love applying technology to bring about that change, really, one of my quotes we roll out in meetings quite often is in people’s personal lives, they’ve got all this great tech around like iPhones, Sonar, Alexa, it’s really simple UI to powerful tools that just work. And then in people’s business lives, they put up with really clunky software, Excel spreadsheets and stuff that just doesn’t work. And there must be so many opportunities to do better out there. And it just needs people on the inside of the industries to stand up and say, “why don’t we do better?” Because you know, lots of this is just hidden, people just put up with it on their, in their day to day

And how for example, if an entrepreneur or someone with an idea came to you, and said, “Look, I really love to do this idea”. But maybe more naive on the tech and business front. Yeah, what would happen?

So our first port of call is a workshop with them. So that can be a four - six hour session over some lunch. Ideally, it used to be anyway, now we would cut that down a little bit over Zoom otherwise, that might be a bit intense. Really unpack all of their ideas, try and really understand what the problem they think they’ve identified is they will no doubt started to imagine solutions to that problem and, and try and work out where they’re going with that, pick holes in that bounce off of them try and come up with other ways forwards things that may ultimately lead to a better solution. And off the back of that we can give them a sense of how expensive this idea is. Because often people have got no idea whether they’re talking about something that’s really quite simple or something that’s months and months and months of work. So then they have a sense of whether they can fund it themselves, whether they need to go looking for funding. And then once we know how much budget is available, we can nail down what of their vision is achievable in a first version, what absolutely has to be there to prove a concept to try and get to something that people will ultimately pay for it. And then once we’ve got that we can go through the standard process of wireframing, designing, building, all that kind of stuff.

Yeah, but first of all, you’re trying to sort of eke out what the idea what the essence of the idea is.

Absolutely. And we and I think they give me exactly what is the essence of the idea? What’s the, what’s the core feature that really has to be in whatever we build, to prove this idea, rather than people get very excited and add lots of bells, bells and whistles around the outside, but its paring that back so that they can get to that the essence of the idea and deliver that initially.

And so I guess in the jargon that’s the MVP, Minimum Viable Product, do you think there’s a BMVP, the Brutal MVP, which is just that core essence?

I think you have to be careful: it can’t be too minimalist, there has to be a coherence to the idea. And it has to still deliver value. It can’t be too cut back if you there is value sometimes in producing a prototype of something which is intentionally, just the bit in the middle, which they can maybe use for testing with some people. But if you’re putting something out into a market, it needs to be packaged into something that a human is going to find enjoyable to use, and, and intuitive to use. It can’t be too brutal.

Okay, yeah. Not so brutal that you’re throwing something away, which would prove the concept. So one super leading question for me is, you know, you that some of the best Bristech talks that I’ve seen are those that give the witness a witness to a passion. I’m just wondering, would this topic of the marriage of technology and disruption be your topic to give witness on or what is your topic: if I forced you to give a talk what would you do it on?

It would require quite a lot of forcing the longest. But if it’s something I’m really passionate about, I think I will actually steer clear of technology, which is a really strange thing for a technologist to say but I actually have my passion away from technology is around cooking and around gardening, and particularly growing fruit and vegetables. I think I would probably do most justice to a talk on the joy that gives me the mental health benefits of spending that time in nature. And the sort of mindful repetitive tasks you go through in both of those activities, I find a huge amount of my problem solving and ideas come when I’m just sitting idly chopping an onion or pricking out some seedlings, all that kind of stuff, it’s just time away from the screen in a completely different context. Gives the brain time to percolate ideas, especially when you’ve had a really intense four/five hour meeting trying to unpack a client’s ideas, you need to get yourself into a completely different zone to just just let the brain process those things. And see, I think that would be that would be my topic.

But sounds like a great topic to me, because the mental health during a pandemic, and even after the pandemic is going to be of absolute critical importance to teams; people feeling isolated people feeling out of touch. And it feels to me that you’ve got a perfect antidote there, perhaps to the, yeah.

In some respects. And I think everybody’s been struggling a little bit more in winter, because it’s harder to go outside and do those things.

I remember we had one person who gave a presentation in Bristol, and they said, and they made the distinction that everybody has mental health just like everybody has physical health. But I guess it has been fairly stigmatised. And we don’t we haven’t talked about it enough, perhaps?

Absolutely. I think everybody has their up days and down days. And we all need to find peace and balance. And it’s very easy to get caught up with work, get stressed, and get burnt out. Yeah, I’m a big believer in a work life balance and trying to keep the pressure down at work. And we try and one of the things we set about when we started Storm was to build a company that we wanted to work for. And if we weren’t the owners would we want to work here. And try and live that every day and look after the team as best we can to make sure that people have that time away from the screen that they aren’t thinking about work 247, they have the opportunity to take holiday and relax and not not expect people to work on the weekend.

It’s very much a cultural point that I think you’re making there, around the culture of business. Obviously, that is created by the actions of individuals and culture is something that emerges. But it sounds like you’ve got a really good handle on the type of culture that you’re trying to foster at Storm. Would you say that that culture becomes a competitive advantage, as well as it being good for people?

I think you want the best people doing their best work. And we’re believers that you do your best work when you are rested. And you’re motivated. And you’ve got that time to, to think about problems. So if you are stressed and rushed, and overworked, then you’re not going to produce your best work. And things are going to take longer than you expect. Or even in our line of work, you’re going to write bad code, that’s hard to maintain and full of bugs. So yeah the culture is super-important to us and is at the very core of who Storm are. We’ve been lucky enough to be awarded Best Place to Work in a couple of different awards over the years. And yeah, that is very intentional. That’s not accidental.

Yeah, no, that sounds that sounds great. And and presumably, you’re still on the lookout for Ruby Devs. So if people want to maybe explore what this culture is, could you maybe just give a little bit of flavour about what would make a good next addition to your team.

So you know, we’re always on the lookout for Ruby developers, not very easy to come by. So we’re always very happy to hear from people working in similar technology stacks: PHP, Python and Node. We have trained and transitioned a few people in the past. So that’s not not new territory to us. So we are not…

Someone doesn’t have to have Ruby knowledge per se, in order to join a team?

No, it’s a very forgiving, friendly language to learn. So as long as you’re a competent developer, it’s really not very difficult to pick up. So we’re very happy to talk to people from all kinds of backgrounds that may be interested in working for Storm and working on some really interesting projects. I think in terms of the types of people we hire, we’re looking for enthusiastic people. We’re looking For quick thinkers, good problem solvers, the kinds of people who can sit in the meetings we’ve discussed, batting ideas backwards and forwards - really understanding a client’s idea quickly. And then, you know, asking hard questions, challenging their ideas, working towards better solutions is a large part of our business. And the reason people like to work with us is, is that early process and not being a culture of “you’ve asked for this, yes, we’ll do that”. But really trying to add value and make the ideas better than when they walked into the room.

Yeah.

Passionate passion for problem solving. good communicator.

Okay, that’s cool. And so if people want to find out a little bit more, where should they? Where should they go?

Our website is stormconsultancy.co.uk there’s some information on the job available moment on the blog. And we’re on Twitter @StormUK.

So I think we’ve just about run out of our time. But that’s been really interesting to chat to you. If people want to join the meetup, which is happening on the first Thursday in March and listen to Mark talk about “convention over configuration”, then please do look us up - Bristech - on meetup.com. And presumably, Adam, will you be coming along to that event?

I am indeed Yes. Yes. I think I’m involved in a Q&A at the end of it as well.

Amazing why it’s gonna be a really, really good event and looking forward to that. And you know, presumably, there’ll be quite a few Ruby devs on there that we will be talking about some of the broader themes arising so really looking forward to it.

Thank you very much for having me.

February 2021