Delivering award-winning projects through team culture and management with Jen Swain #S1E2
From increasing the number of blood donations to preparing people for global disasters and creating apps for dogs, Jen Swain’s work is all about using technology for good and to improve key issues in society.
As Head of Operations at the award-winning app development company and digital tech agency, 3 Sided Cube, we talk to Jen about projects, process and people management to deliver outstanding work and nurture long-term client relationships.
This episode of The 10th Degree covers:
Organisational Flow and Processes
How developing a work culture can enable success
Managing client expectations
Defining what your client’s customers want
Quoting projects to ensure profitability
Time management across a team
“Ultimately, technology does help us solve problems left, right and centre in society. I think having the ability to do that stuff at your fingertips is going to make people much more inclined to to make that effort and to understand the impact they can have as an individual.”
“We've actually just started to visualise it on a map of the world and we can see that we are sending out a million and a half alerts just to America at the moment, around hurricane season and things like that. So, it's really our ability to work at scale and to support those kinds of systems that meant that we're still able to do that.”
“Being an agency who supply technology to our clients, really the way that we make that technology happen is through our people. So for me, the primary concern is making sure our team is looked after and happy and able to do the job that they need to do and have the facilities they need to do that. We talk about flow and try to reduce what we call “gumption traps”; something that might take you away from what your task, let's say you need access to a system or we’ve run out of milk for your tea. So it's about that very basic level, making sure that everybody's got what they need in the office to be able to do their job and to not have any unneeded distractions.”
“Our approach to process at 3 Sided Cube is that it should be, what our Managing Director calls "The Goldilocks effect", so it should be not too much, not too little, just enough. The way that works in terms of projects is that we do have kind of a blueprint that we would give to our project managers and say, what we expect is x y z and often that encompasses a discover and define session, a sprint zero for setup and then however many sprint's are required for the project”
“The other bit that I think we do quite well as agree with them an MVP. So I guess 9 times out of 10, if you can get a client something quickly, that does the absolute basics of what they need, and then you can iterate on top of that, that's always a good win.”
“Unless we've got our apps in the hands of users, they're really not that meaningful at all. So making sure that we're delivering products that users love is the entire mantra of our creative team.”
“We do also try and get out and about and recently we went out literally into the field to go and see how people responded to particular features and flows that we developed. So there's one particular one that I can think of in a vets practice where couple of our design guys, and our UX guys actually went to a vets practice, and sat down with patients in the waiting room. Obviously, not patients, you know, I mean, pet owners!”
“We've had many clients who just come into the office and sit and work as though they're a member of the team, and they seem to love it. I think the fact that they do that speaks volumes about the fact that we've got a personality that we take on the road with us a bit as well.”
“The thing that our culture and our brand have in common is personality. And our culture is a bit different, from the point of view that, we're inclusive, we want to take care of our team, we want to have fun together, but we want to do great work and the personality bit is the "We're 3 Sided Cube and we stand out a bit actually, you might want have a conversation with us."
Anthony Story 00:01
I'm here today with Jen Swain. Jen is the Head of Operations at 3 Sided Cube. And you've developed solid foundations in education, local authorities, before switching into the world of agencies. From Project Management to Account Management into now running the whole operation. So 3 sided cube is a really interesting company, primarily you're focused on app development, you dedicate yourself to creating products for good, which have positive impact in the world. But in the real sense of the world, so it's not like positive impact in terms of helping people find lost keys, which, you know, can be very useful, but you're looking to try and save lives and make a real difference in an environmental impact, which is very cool. So why don't we start here? 3 sided cube is well known for having been presented to President Obama amongst other people for the work that you've done, so tell us a bit about 3 sided cube and what your vision for positive impact is about?
Jen Swain 01:00
Well, I think it's fair to say that the work that Duncan did in setting up the company 10 years ago now has just really gone from strength to strength. I think having that real clear vision at the beginning, is now really starting to pay dividends. Obviously, you know, climate change is a huge topic of conversation across the globe now. And the stuff that we're able to do with some of our clients, such as Global Forest Watch, is really an exciting opportunity for us to have a real global impact, and that's really what it's about. I think it started out as, you know, let's do some stuff that's really interesting and solve problems with technology and the opportunities that we had were for example, the Blood Donor App for American Red Cross, which was incredible, and that's what Duncan went to speak to his friend Barack about. We've just seen that if we can stay true to that mission, the success is really helping us to grow and to evolve as a business now.
Anthony Story 01:58
So what is the Blood Donor App? What does that do?
Jen Swain 02:01
It was the first app that allowed people to book appointments to donate blood online in the US. And I think what that meant is that it released a whole load of opportunity for the American Red Cross to increase donations. And, you know, just that, in itself is was an incredible success, really.
Anthony Story 02:20
So that's interesting. I suppose the system here is somebody rolls in town and there are some little posters around saying donate blood in the village hall or the local hospital or wherever it may be, or even inside a corporate company. So how do you try and let people know about that in a modern world? Is that sort of where the app starts to come into play?
Jen Swain 02:45
Yeah, I think so. Ultimately, technology does help us solve problems left, right and centre in society. And I think having the ability to do that stuff at your fingertips is going to make people much more inclined to to make that effort and to understand the impact they can have as an individual. The other thing that the app does is close the circle and tells them where their donation has gone. As an individual I actually donate blood here in the UK, and knowing that my donation has gone to save a life just increases my chance of donating again and again and again, and that's what we've really seen happening.
Anthony Story 03:21
So you're creating a feedback loop as well. So are you involved long term and supporting that and making sure that that happens? Or do you deliver something, give it to the client and walk away?
Jen Swain 03:33
Absolutely not. The idea is that we kind of become a bit of a partner in their business. And so we delivered that app, and we're still supporting it now, 8 to 10 years down the line. And the great thing about that is, that means that we've done a good job in supporting the app. So from that point of view, it gives us an opportunity to help the client evolve their strategy and look at how we can improve and keep on achieving their performance indicators.
Anthony Story 03:57
The other one I was really interested in is the Global Disaster Prepardness Centre? Tell us a little bit about that one?
Jen Swain 04:03
Well, basically, we have a suite of apps that go out across the globe, and they alert people to disasters. So natural disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, amongst others. And it helps them basically to prepare for those events happening and gives them an opportunity to keep them and their families safe from hopefully avoiding harm.
Anthony Story 04:26
And so how do people use the app? How do people join into what's been created?
Jen Swain 04:33
One of the key aspects of it is alerting. Our backend guys are amazing at keeping our servers able to run it that kind of scale and peak. If you imagine a good example is "Children in Need". They see a peak of traffic through their servers, let's say once a year on the evening, but for us, we might never know when something exactly is going to happen so it's about maintaining a robust infrastructure that can handle that kind of scale of alerting. So we've actually just started to visualise it on a map of the world and we can see that we are sending out a million and a half alerts just to America at the moment, around hurricane season and things like that. So, it's really our ability to work at scale and to support those kinds of systems that meant that we're still able to do that.
Anthony Story 05:24
So the app enables people who are in a precarious position to be able to notify the authorities about that? Is that the driver for it? Is it about trying to get help to people?
Jen Swain 05:34
A little bit, it's probably a bit more the other way around. So we're receiving the weather feed, and we're alerting people to stuff that is incoming into their area. And then also, we're trying to provide that kind of platform for where they should go and find support or what they can do to keep themselves safe in light of the incoming natural issue.
Anthony Story 05:54
Okay, but that's dealing with a lot of people, isn't it? Which brings me back into your role, so you're the Head of Operations, so ultimately, it's your responsibility to make sure that everything works and is delivered, I take it?
Jen Swain 06:09
I mean, that's no pressure on my shoulders! Yeah, a little bit. I guess, with what we try to do there is responsibility on me to make sure everything's working. But that said, we've got a fantastic production team, and Head of Production that work very much all across our apps and our platforms. I guess, my role in all that is making sure that stuff is there to be used, and it's functioning as it should be. So for example, I do do a bit of work with our backend team around the hosting side of things because keeping apps up and running, particularly in times where we're seeing a hurricane happening or something like that is a challenge occasionally. So, yeah, a little bit responsibility there, I suppose!
Anthony Story 06:50
Well, I think that there are a lot of people, especially early stage companies who just dream of having a Head of Operations and others who kind of wish they had one probably a little bit too late, and they've left it a bit too long going "oh my God, we need sort these problems out, we need a Jen in here to come and sort things out for us!" So in terms of what your day to day worries are, what's the main aspects of the job that you have to try and handle to make sure all of that works well?
Jen Swain 07:21
That's a very good question. The thing with being in operations is that you have about 16 different hats. So my worry five minutes ago will be different to my worry in five minutes time. And I think the key thing for us is that, you know, being an agency who supply technology to our clients, really the way that we make that technology happen is through our people. So for me, the primary concern is making sure our team is looked after and happy and able to do the job that they need to do and have the facilities they need to do that. And we talked about something internally called flow. So myself and the other guys who work in Ops, we try and reduce what we call gumption traps. So you know, something that might take you away from what you need to be on task for and doing for five minutes, let's say you need access to a system, stuff like that we try and make sure that everything flows as seamlessly as possible. So that the guys who are doing the real core work of what we do as an agency can really get their heads down and concentrate on that stuff, try and take away all of the things that they might be concerned about.
Anthony Story 08:27
So those kind of paint a picture what you're trying to achieve, I guess the real nitty gritty is going to how do you go about trying to do that? So for anybody who's listening to this, those are the big questions that people are trying to deal with. "I can see what the big picture is. I want to have a nice free flow. I want everything to work. I want everything to be on time." So let's start with specifics, tell me a bit about a gumption trap. What is a gumption trap? And how do you manage one?
Jen Swain 08:55
Okay, I'm gonna give you the first example that sprung to mind. Let's say you are a developer, you've gone to the kitchen to make a cup of tea to go and have a bit of a think about a problem you're trying to solve, you stepped away from your machine and you are midway making your cup of tea and you realise there's no milk left. Okay, the most basic example of a gumption trap is no milk. So all of a sudden that developer his train of thought is stopped from what he's doing and he's thinking, "oh, there's no milk, so I can't make my tea" and he's stopped problem solving right then. So it's about that very basic level, making sure that everybody's got what they need in the office to be able to do their job and to not have any unneeded distractions.
Anthony Story 09:36
So you're trying to preempt the things which are going to interrupt that flow and thinking, "Okay, in order for my team to work as effectively as possible, what are the pressure points which might come in, which are going to prevent that from happening?"
Jen Swain 09:53
Exactly that, and the really, really interesting, challenging and sometimes frustrating thing about trying to do that job is that only ever 70% of the time are you going to be able to proactively fix those things, there's always going to be a reactive element to Ops, because it's just dealing with stuff as it comes in. And you can't forsee every single problem that might occur. But I think what we do is have certain set processes that we follow, that help us react to that demand before it happens and then we've got that capacity in the team to be able to deal with the incoming stuff when it does arise.
Anthony Story 10:30
So let's start with the pre planning before, and then we maybe do the firefighting a bit later. So with the pre planning, you come from a project management background so presumably, you've done quite alot of thinking. How much of your role has been spent trying to make sure that there is a process that people can follow in a way which tries to prevent those things from happening in the first place and those problems creeping in?
Jen Swain 10:56
That's a good question. I think a lot of it happens at our induction and on-boarding, at the very start of somebody joining us. The idea is that we basically bring them in and get them set up on every single system that they might need access to. We do a really, really fun thing where the new starter gets to speed date the entire team, we have an app for that, surprisingly being an app company. And it's a really nice way for them to get embedded in the team. So they know everybody, they know who they need to talk to you about anything from milk in the fridge to how do they get a replacement machine or how do they unlock access to this particular app or server. And then, really, it's about explaining how it works at 3 Sided Cube, and by that, I mean, it's not all about processes, but it's about just knowing how the culture works, how you go about getting stuff done, and how we work as a team. I think that's really the key to it all, to be honest. We could plan as much as we like and we do do an element of that, in terms of looking at the year and the events, and the kind of resources we might need, and the budget we're going to need, etc. but ultimately, as long as people know what to do and who to go to, that seems to be working.
Anthony Story 12:15
So in terms of developing any given project, you're going to have some back end developers, some front end developers, some designers and some content creators, maybe a bit of UX thrown in there as well. How do they work together? Do you have a a set method? For example, a sort of take off the shelf, right here is project 101, or this is how we deliver a project at 3 Sided Cube? And is there a content management system that you use or a CRM system or a system that you follow and that's been implemented?
Jen Swain 12:48
Yeah, I guess it has to an extent, and it's not totally prescriptive. Our approach to process at 3 Sided Cube is that it should be, what our Managing Director calls "The Goldilocks effect", so it should be not too much, not too little, just enough. The way that works in terms of projects is that we do have kind of a blueprint that we would give to our project managers and say, what we expect is x y z and often that encompasses a discover and define session, a sprint zero for setup and then however many sprint's are required for the project and obviously, some testing, some QA, UAT. So I guess, the bigger chunks of how we deliver projects, yeah, we prescribed that but ultimately, we try and put enough trust in our team to let them deliver it in the best way possible for that client.
Anthony Story 13:41
Okay, so it's not heavily regulated. Is that about allowing the team to have the flexibility to think creatively in terms of what they're doing? Do you find that too much process starts to stifle if you try and make people follow too many rules, then that's actually going to hamper the ability to deliver what you want?
Jen Swain 14:00
I think so. I've been at 3 Sided Cube now coming up for a couple of years, and since I've been there, there's been processes that have been in place and have been perhaps a little bit too prescriptive, and we've loosened the reins. And there's been other parts of what we deliver, that perhaps haven't had the rails around them and we've had to introduce that basic process so that people have the comfort of knowing, "okay, I could do this, I shouldn't do that." And it just helps to frame what they're doing, but it's exactly what you said, it's about giving people the creative opportunity to problem solve in a situation that they're in without being stifled.
Anthony Story 14:37
Okay, so I'm aware that talking about process could come across as being a slightly dry subject. So I thought it would be quite interesting just to throw something else at you. So I've come up with a little quiz that I think we should go with. It's a brand new thing. It's called "Who do you fire?!" So I'm gonna start with a famous example of where software goes wrong, just to have your take on it. So we've got the infamous NHS IT system, which was abandoned by the government in 2011, after racking up a somewhat staggering cost of 11 billion pounds. The project launched in 2002, was beset by changing specifications, technical challenges, and disputes with suppliers, which left it years behind schedule and over budget. So the question for you, who do you fire? Is it ministers? Is it weak management by civil servants? Or is it the contractors unable to deliver?
Jen Swain 16:08
Well, you asked me this a very difficult time because I'm not the biggest fan of government right now. So my natural answer would be the ministers, I'm afraid.
Anthony Story 16:16
Okay, ministers have been fired! Okay, well, we're having an election, so who knows, maybe they will be. So anyway, but more importantly, that example underlines a big challenge that many companies face. So when clients start demanding more than they've originally planned for, what often gets called scope creep or mission creep. How does a business go about trying to manage this?
Jen Swain 16:45
It's again, a very interesting question. I think something that we've been really really good at is, first of all, setting and managing expectations up front and having really close working relationships with our client. Ultimately, that that buys you absolute dividends in terms of the flexibility that you get from the client when you have a great relationship with them. And the understanding of when something isn't going to be squeezed into whatever the deadline is. But equally, the other bit that I think we do quite well as agree with them an MVP. So I guess 9 times out of 10, if you can get a client something quickly, that does the absolute basics of what they need, and then you can iterate on top of that, that's always a good win. And perhaps that's something that that project could have could have benefited from.
Anthony Story 17:35
Well, that's a really good idea. So actually you adopt quite a startup approach, really, in terms of the project that you're doing, rather than, I suppose the traditional way, is that you try and think of everything in advance, put it all in some massive, great big spec, get the client to sign that spec off. And then when the clients start seeing things they go "ooo can we have a bit of this in and a bit of that?" Is it a much more of a slimline spec of going back to the client saying, "is this what you mean?". Is that what your MVP does?
Jen Swain 18:04
Well, it kind of depends on what the outcome of that initial upfront discover and define session sets out. So we do some really, really interesting things with the internal team and the client, we get them to do some sketching, something called crazy eights, which is originally a Google concept I believe, I guess it just helps us narrow down on what the real problem is that they're trying to solve with the app. And then from there, we can be really specific about what the minimum viable product needs to be. And then, the idea is that hopefully, they love working with us, and they get that delivered on time, on budget, and then we go into a 1.1.
Anthony Story 18:38
So what is crazy eights?
Jen Swain 18:40
Crazy eights is an idea where you get an A4 piece of paper, you fold it into two, two, and then two again, so folded out, you've got eight squares, and then you take an initial concept, and then you keep iterating in the sketches, so you get 60 seconds, I think on each square, and you have to draw something and then iterate to make the next square the next iteration on, if you see what I mean. So you do that eight times and then once you've gotten to your end result, then you do another more detailed sketching session, and that's your concept at the end.
Anthony Story 19:15
And is that something that you do? Or the client does? Or do you do that with the client?
Jen Swain 19:18
We've done it with the client as well, yeah, it's quite an intense session. If you're not somebody who's comfortable with doodling, then you sort of feel like, "I'm not sure I want to share this to anybody else". but it's actually really good fun and it does get you thinking really creatively about whatever the issue is that we're talking about.
Anthony Story 19:36
And in terms of what you're developing, are you trying to create a look of what a front end might look like, and then iterating that, or is it more that you're just trying to define what the problem is and then think what problems may carry on from that original problem?
Jen Swain 19:49
It could be either, there's no rules around the crazy eights really. You could start with an apple and end up with a horse and cart carrying the apples. It's just about how you develop that concept over eight different sketches.
Anthony Story 20:06
Right. Okay. Interesting. Are there any other tools that you have in your back pocket to pull out to help those brainstorming meetings?
Jen Swain 20:14
Not off the top of my head. I'm sure the production guys would probably tap me on the shoulder and go "what about this one?" but I can't think of any right now.
Anthony Story 20:21
Well, in that case, then that's probably a really good spot to come back into question number two, in the "Who do you fire!?" competition. So this one is going to be about brand implementation. So we're back in 2002. This time it's PwC, the accounting firm. So the auditing industry was reeling from the Enron scandal, accounting firms started spinning off their consultancy arms to try and create some independence between the main sale of the job and the kind of more speculative angle of what they were doing. So PwC wanted to do this. They worked with branding consultants Wolff Olins who were the global leaders in terms of this, to lead on a renaming project. It's quite a big enterprise they dedicated 75 million pounds towards doing a renaming project. I'm sure there's lots of other scope around it, but it was a big task. But it finally came, there was the big launch, the big unveiling, and they came up with the name "Monday". So they named PwC Consulting branch after the worst day of the week. And they came up with a somewhat equally baffling slogan of "sharpen your pencil, iron your crispy white shirt, set the alarm clock, relish the challenge, listen, be fulfilled, make an impact, take a risk." I mean, it sounds like more of a shopping list and slogan really doesn't it! So the CEO of PwC's consulting arm described the new tag as "real world, concise, recognisable, global, and the right fit for a company that works hard to deliver results". Monday's main website as to compound the problems, they'd signed up with Monday.com, they didn't register the.co.uk address, and that was left on an open platform so people could come up with all manner of spoof websites to go around with that. Anyway, five weeks later, the business was bought by IBM, who almost immediately dropped the new name. But the question I've got to ask you is "Who do you fire?" Is it the brand agency? Is it the PwC board? Or is it the research agency?
Jen Swain 22:37
Again, really interesting question. I'm still back at the "iron your crispy white shirt." Is it all men at Monday?
Anthony Story 22:45
Well times have hopefully moved a little bit since 2002.
Jen Swain 22:50
I would hope so. I guess the researchers.
Anthony Story 22:55
Yeah, research is a really interesting point, isn't it? It's probably one of the most overlooked things because a lot of young companies are created by people who've got very clear, strong ideas. They come from a technology background, they come from a creative background. But ultimately, new companies are set up because people want to do things their own way. And when you've got that singularity, it can often produce great results. But does it actually fit what the people want, as opposed to what you think that people want? So what sort of role does research play with you guys?
Jen Swain 23:25
It's actually really, really important to us. Unless we've got our apps in the hands of users, they're really not that meaningful at all. So making sure that we're delivering products that users love is the entire mantra of our creative team. And when I say creative, that embraces the UX side of the development process, as well. So getting out there, doing gorilla user testing, making sure that our apps and our prototypes are getting in front of people who can actually relate to the stuff that we're talking to them about is super important. And it's something that is becoming more part of the conversation that we're expecting to have with clients and internally, and it's yeah, it's definitely a benefit to what our end product is.
Anthony Story 24:09
Do you get a chance to go out and meet your clients customers? Do you do research groups? What sort of stuff do you do in terms of trying to get it on point as much as you can?
Jen Swain 24:21
Well, at the beginning of the process, when we're going for new work, we do develop a set of personas. So that we have, I guess, if you like, a yardstick to go back to and say "this is the user that we're developing this stuff for." And that's based four or five different types of user base moulded into one. So that helps us from the point of view that our users might be halfway across the world that gives us that thing to be able to go back to and say actually, no, we need to consider "Persona A" or whatever the name is of that persona. But yeah, we do also try and get out and about and recently we went out literally into the field to go and see how people responded to particular features and flows that we developed. So there's one particular one that I can think of in a vets practice where couple of our design guys, and our UX guys actually went to a vets practice, and sat down with patients in the waiting room. Obviously, not patients, you know, I mean, pet owners!
Anthony Story 25:25
You mastered the talking dog.
Jen Swain 25:26
Exactly. I got the dog to press the button and all sorts! But you know, it's that stuff that really adds the value to what we can do. Because it means that we can just take that feedback and work it into whatever the next kind of iteration of that feature might be.
Anthony Story 25:43
So that kind of feeds back with the PwC example that you can have great flow, you can have great processes, but that can't always guarantee that there's gonna be a great product at the end of that. If you can get something on time and within budget, that's great, but it's tough trying to ensure that the product is creatively strong as well, so that's one of the key things you do. Is there anything else that you do in terms of trying to help ensure that's delivered?
Jen Swain 26:10
The creativity bit?
Anthony Story 26:10
Yeah, in terms of having a really strong product at the end of it as well. I think quite often with process, people think about the timing and the budget and making sure that there's good efficiencies built into it. But sometimes when you do that, you can overlook the product that gets produced at the end.
Jen Swain 26:28
Yeah, absolutely. As I said, there's a couple of key principles that we think about. One is that our creative team always look back at that measure, and that mantra of "do users love it?". And the one mantra that we have across our whole production team is quality. So, they're certainly forefront of the mind in terms of the things that we'd be thinking about as we're going through the development of the design processes. But the other side of it is that we actually provide quite a creative space to work in and I think that in itself allows people to really inspire each other across the teams and across the project management teams into the development. And because we work in quite collaborative creative space, I think that really helps with that as well.
Anthony Story 27:13
Let's jump ahead to that, because that's something which I think I've come across from what I've seen from 3 Sided Cube before is you've got quite a good focus on team and culture especially. Is that a really important part of that and how do you start creating a culture?
Jen Swain 27:30
Yeah, very, very important to us. It's one of the things that attracts people in the first place and also helps for our retention. In terms of how you create it, I think, Duncan's done a great job from the very, very beginning, when it was just him and a few other designers and developers. He started something called Friday lunch, and we're still doing that at a size of 30 plus now, which is this bit more of a challenge. But, you know, it's that opportunity for the teams to come together and really kind of relate to each other as human beings, that is such a part of what we do.
Anthony Story 28:10
What is Friday lunch? How does that work?
Jen Swain 28:11
Well, we're quite lucky in that we've got a massive, great big bench table in our kitchen. So every Friday, we order in lunch for the whole team, everybody sits together, we chat about numerous topics. And, it becomes less about work and more about the relationships that you have with your colleagues as friends really. And that I think is really key because it means that you've got more skin in the game than just "This is my job and I have to work with this person." It becomes "oh actually, what did you do on weekend or what happened last night?" and it's those kind of human conversations that really, I think set us apart in terms of having worked at local authorities and other places, it makes it a much more welcoming, friendly, supportive environment to be in and I think that's kind of the future of the workplace really.
Anthony Story 29:00
Do you think that culture is something which is carried across to the client relationships? Is culture something which your clients are aware of as well?
Jen Swain 29:06
I would say so yeah, we've had many clients who just come into the office and sit and work as though they're a member of the team, and they seem to love it. I think the fact that they do that speaks volumes about the fact that we've got a personality that we take on the road with us a bit as well.
Anthony Story 29:22
Okay, would you say there's a difference between culture and brand? Or does that start to become very much the same sort of thing in your experience?
Jen Swain 29:34
I think it comes down to that word "personality." Because the thing that our culture and our brand have in common is personality. And our culture is a bit different, from the point of view that, we're inclusive, we want to take care of our team, we want to have fun together, but we want to do great work and the personality bit is the "We're 3 Sided Cube and we stand out a bit actually, you might want have a conversation with us."
Anthony Story 29:56
Okay, and you've worked with a lot of not for profit companies, presumably. Do you feel that they're different from the typical corporate sector? Do you think there's more willingness to buy into that? Does that work for them?
Jen Swain 30:11
I think it does. Yeah. I actually went up to a meeting with one of our clients, during a pitch process in the last couple of months, and they themselves are a non for profit, but they have that running through their blood as well, and I think more and more not for profit organisations are trying to embrace unusual, different, interesting ways of working and I think agencies do that really well and hence, the connection works quite well.
Anthony Story 30:41
Yeah. So you've come from a background which started working with academic institutions and then into local authority before getting into the agency world. So how does that work? Do you feel that that gave you a very good grasp of more prosiac process or did you actually come from those going, "oh my god, there's not nearly enough organisation in them, we need to sort of get away, so I can put something more into a creative space?"
Jen Swain 31:09
The first one, I think. I came out of university and was lucky enough to go into a great marketing team where there was a lot of processes as you'd expect at a university. And again, the same with the local authority experience. I was working with a consultant, who came from an engineering background and was very, very process driven, taught me everything I needed to know about project management - almost too much. And actually, I moved into the agency space because it was really where my heart was. Creative problem solving isn't something you get to do very much when you're working at local government level. So yeah, working at agencies is just, I think, a fantastic opportunity. And what it has allowed me to do is take my experience and understanding what lots of process can do, and then hopefully finding the right level of that, to suit the teams that I've worked in.
Anthony Story 32:03
So one thing that we've mentioned, but we haven't really looked at in detail is finance. So obviously, all of this has got to be underpinned. So there are there are probably a few aspects of Finance, one is the profitability of what happens, two is the efficiency side of things, and three is just making sure that you stick to a budget. Do you have a particular focus on any one of those things? Is there something that you feel is most important to your particular role? And how do you go about trying to respect the financial proberty, let's say for want of a better description, in terms of what's going on inside the agency?
Jen Swain 32:36
Finance is very much a part of my role. The key thing for me, in fact, is all three is- I can't get away from any three of those things, not that I'd want to. But setting budgets is super important. Understanding where we're spending our money and what we're spending it on, but making sure that the work is being done efficiently, in order that we can make the profit is the magic triangle, right? So keeping a really close eye on that stuff is something that we do at management team level. But we try and give the right level of autonomy with the right level of control to make sure that, at the end of the day, it's all managed well.
Anthony Story 33:18
I suppose the trick up front is to make sure that you've got the budget right? In terms of what you've quoted, and you can deliver that. What steps do you take to make sure that you are going to be profitable at the end of the project?
Jen Swain 33:31
Well we're very collaborative in the process of estimating projects. So we involve the team and we make sure we're getting their input into actually how much time it's going to take to deliver the requirements. So from that point of view, the guys are really, really exceptionally good at being accurate. We also add in project management time and testing time. Ultimately, it's about making sure that we've got the right time to deliver the project and then ultimately what we want to do is for that client to come back to us and say, actually, we'd like you to support this app, we want you to host it for us. So yeah, there's there's numerous ways of making sure that we're going to be profitable.
Anthony Story 34:09
Do you think there's one particular area where people are really bad about estimating how much time they're going to be spending on something?
Jen Swain 34:15
Yeah, it's when there's ambiguity. If you say to a developer, "I would quite like this thing over here to sort of do this." How can you possibly expect them to give you accurate estimates? So I think it's about having a team, not just the development team, but our project managers and designers who are technically savvy and can understand the limitations of what the code can do. And I think that really helps, because we have that across the team now.
Anthony Story 34:42
Yeah. I think that quite often people underestimate how much time it takes for them to come in, make a cup of tea, turn on the computer and think, "okay, I can get this done in an hour" but that hour doesnt sit in isolation around the day. So trying to make sure that you have really thought more widely about that. Is that something that you're strong at at 3 Sided Cube is that something that you've had to try and develop to make sure that people are realistic about what their time is?
Jen Swain 35:14
So we do a couple of things that I think are fairly different. One is that we don't let people record timesheets, so we don't track their time, other than we track days and half days. So basically, we have a big schedule board in the office, which is made of Lego. And that is how we book our time for our production team and we actually only book them for six hours a day. So what that means is that we've allowed in there some contingency time if you like, and also, meetings that might need to happen can be built into that day without disrupting their solid development or design time.
Anthony Story 35:52
So how does the Lego work?
Jen Swain 35:54
It's really, really cool. You should come and have a look at it, it's brilliant. Basically, we have buckets of different coloured Lego, all corresponding to a key of our projects, and the project managers get a budget of kind of Lego blocks, and they book the individuals onto the projects, physically on a board, which you might think that sounds a bit interesting, how does that work?
Anthony Story 36:15
That sounds so cool.
Jen Swain 36:17
It's very cool. It promotes discussion. It makes you really mindful of the time that you're using and booking. And essentially it becomes that kind of centrepiece of the office and it's a real almost Art Gallery. We have the whole team stood around the schedule board every Thursday talking about what's coming up in the following week. And you'll often see about three or four project managers all stood around the board, furrowed brows, going, "can I have that hour or do you need that?" As I said, it just helps us all come together on timing and scheduling. Whereas, if you have it in front of you on a monitor or on a screen you can make changes a bit too easily.
Anthony Story 37:13
So a little known secret about you, Jen is you're actually a bass player as well.
Jen Swain 37:17
Yes, I am.
Anthony Story 37:19
And a bit of a singer.
Jen Swain 37:21
Anthony Story 37:23
But playing the bass is all about rhythm, it's about control. Do you feel there's a correlation in terms of good project management and good operational management?
Jen Swain 37:35
I guess so. Yes. Keeping everything in check in on time and to the metronome. Absolutely!
Anthony Story 37:40
Okay, and then you come from Suffolk, so how did you end up in Bournemouth?
Jen Swain 37:49
I came to university, at the very young age of 19. And coming from a coastal town to another coastal town I've always loved being by the sea and Bournemouth is just such a fantastic place to live and I've not looked back since.
Anthony Story 38:05
I was thinking that Bournemouth is blessed with a number of great things that begin with B. So there's Bournemouth Football Club, there's the beach, Christian Bale, and even Benny Hill. So, I was just interested, is there a particular feature of Bournemouth that that keeps you here?
Jen Swain 38:24
It would have to be the beach for sure. Yeah, for sure. I couldn't move away now, I don't think. I think just the vibe in Bournemouth being quite young, being quite kind of multicultural as well and the influences that we're seeing now with music and art and trying to kind of build that as something that Bournemouth is known for, such as the Arts By The Sea festival. I think they're all really positive things and I think it's going to go from strength to strength.
Anthony Story 38:50
That's really interesting because most people wouldn't associate Bournemouth with "young"! So you find that actually Bournemouth is changing and it's becoming a very different from the stereotype it's had from the 70s let's say?
Jen Swain 39:06
Yeah, absolutely. When I was working at Bournemouth uni I used to go out and travel around the country and basically market the university to prospective students. This is going back to about 8-10 years now, but the one thing they all used to say to me was are there a lot of old people in Bournemouth? Retiredville? Well, no, absolutely not. There's two unis. There's colleges. It's really vibrant, great nightlife. I don't know if it's still true, but the stat I used to quote them is that there's more nightclubs per square mile in Bournemouth than there is in London.
Anthony Story 39:42
That's a good selling point. In terms of the sector that we work in do you think that there's enough vibrancy and innovation happening here to make it an attractive place to be?
Jen Swain 40:01
I think so, there's numerous agencies from, freelancers, startups, to more established mature agencies in Bournemouth to make getting into that industry, a really exciting proposition. The fact that we've been known as a digital hub is again, really positive. I think we need to keep shouting about that. But yeah, I think there's loads of opportunities in Bournemouth that make it a really exciting place to be.
Anthony Story 40:29
Jen it has been really good to talk to you. Thank you so much. It's been a really interesting conversations. I think there's some great tips. I've got to do something about the Lego and definitely see how that works. Thank you so much for your time.
Jen Swain 40:40