Building a developer team at your agency? Here are the titles you need.
Building and managing digital products requires a significant investment in people and planning. If that's daunting to you, consider partnering with a technical development agency that understands design and knows how to work closely with design partners.
Jeremy Jackson, Founder & CEO
If you work at a design-focused agency, you’ve probably been in this position at some point in your career. Though a seemingly simple project at first, now your client is piling on more and more complexity, and you finally realize what they’re asking for requires a unique technical solution. Out of necessity, you refer the hardest work out to development specialists. The product eventually gets built, it doesn’t match the design vision, and working with the technology firm wasn’t particularly smooth.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense,” many creative agencies have said, “to build our own development team? We hire three or four strong developers, and then, not only can we control quality and align the design and technology visions, we can increase revenue and broaden the services we offer.”
It sounds like good business sense, but we can tell you from more than a decade of experience designing, recruiting, and optimizing our own team and roles that it’s not that easy. You need much more than a crack team of coders to deliver a complex product and meet the objectives of the business over the long term.
Digital products require more than good code
Good developers are skilled at coding, but there’s way more to a digital product than source code. Sure, developers can implement features, but you need a strategic vision about the kind of customer experience (CX) it will provide, the specific features it needs, the 3-5 year plan, and the appropriate scope and budget … you get the picture. Plus, when you’re down in the weeds coding up buttons, forms, data connectors, and animations, it’s difficult to gain a 40,000-foot view. Delivering a complex digital product requires a mix of high-level thinking and detailed doing.
So, here’s the team you’ll actually need to build:
You’ll need people such as a director of technology or a CTO who knows how to frame and scope an engagement so it can make the client happy and be profitable. These tasks require a ton of experience and expertise.
Remember, you’re not simply deploying, integrating, and customizing off-the-shelf software. The client wants you to create something for them that can’t be found anywhere else, so you’ll be building much of this from scratch. To accurately forecast time and costs, you’ll need someone who can compare the tasks ahead to past projects and then discern which are similar enough to get an idea of what it will take to complete. That kind of experience doesn’t come cheap.
Technical Director / Solutions architect
This role requires someone who’s strategically minded and can work with a lot of ambiguity because while the goals may be clear, fulfilling them will not necessarily be clear at all. It’s the solutions architect’s job to find that path and define what needs to be built and in what sequence. If you put a problem that hasn’t been fully thought through in front of a team of developers, they will flounder.
But, of course, developing a new product doesn’t follow a straight line from beginning to end. Unexpected challenges will arise, and after having worked with minimally viable products (MVPs), the client may realize that they actually need feature X instead of feature Y. The solutions architect has to be able to navigate through the fog of development to forge a path the coders can follow.
Their job is to always have an acute understanding of what success looks like to the client. They also act as the liaison between the client and the design and development teams. Further, this person is in charge of metrics and KPIs, while advocating for quality integration and the completeness of the user experience.
Now that we have the scope, know what success will look like, and have a clear picture of what is being built, it’s time to bring in a project manager trained in agile methodology. Along with the strategic-minded roles, the project manager will create a timeline for implementation to set expectations. They record what is known, what is unknown, and what the risks are for the project and timeline. Additionally, they run the daily standups with the team, regularly check in with the client, keep track of status updates and facilitate planning meetings for each sprint.
Also, while everyone is knowledgeable about agile development and what the process looks like, the project manager applies the process uniformly across the business. Even though the problems addressed on each project are different, the processes should feel the same.
Finally, you’ll need developers, ideally two to three, who are dedicated full-time to one project, as well as a lead developer who directs the day-to-day coding.
So, now that we understand the roles you’ll need, here’s how their time would be allocated on a typical digital product development project:
Technical Directors / CTO: Spends most of the time upfront when scoping and pricing, but will likely spend 3-4 hours/week overseeing the project.
Solutions architect at 12-18 hours/week
Product designer/manager for 12- 18 hours/week
Project manager at 24 hours/week
A Lead developer and two to three Developers, all full time on a single project
Naturally, to justify hiring all of these individuals, you’ll need to have a critical mass of projects. If you’re not doing a minimum of three or four complex technical projects at one time, it’s going to be difficult to justify building a team. Additionally, the time commitment for each role is not static. For instance, a technical director and a solutions architect will both spend a great deal of time on a project early on but toward the middle and the end, will spend far less.
Beware of unicorns
Of course, you might say, there are (admittedly, very few) extremely talented people out there who have the experience and skills to “do it all.” Why not just hire a few of these “unicorns,” especially if you’re only seeing two or three complex technical projects each year?
I’ll grant these “unicorns” exist. They can code, scope, see the big picture and manage an agile process like a champ. The problem is they can’t do it all at once — there’s just too much cognitive dissonance. Keeping a project on track, communicating with the client, setting the strategic vision and coding up an e-commerce shopping cart are each unique tasks that require very different thinking processes. And yet, for the most part, they all need to be done in tandem. Task switching like this is too draining and confusing for one person to do well regularly.
Plus, relying on unicorns who do it all is a high-risk strategy. They’re already hard to find — what happens when your unicorn leaves the organization? How will you repair the damage to clients, who have come to rely exclusively on this individual rather than on the agency as a whole? And if you see more opportunity to take on additional business, how will you scale?
It’s much more stable, manageable and scalable to create predictable, defined roles so you can hire, grow and deploy them across your project work, at the right time and place.
If this sounds daunting to you, that’s because it is. Building and managing digital products requires a significant investment in people and planning. So, if your design agency has clients who need unique, complex software, consider partnering with a technical development agency that understands design and knows how to work closely with design partners. That’s who we are at Shift Lab. Get in touch!
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