Dave Armstrong is the COO/CFO of Indaba Group, a full-service web design, development, and marketing agency in Denver Colorado. We recently had a chance to sit down with Armstrong and chat about Indaba, lessons he’s learned along the way, and why his company keeps hiring Galvanize graduates.
What is your role at Indaba?
I’m the COO or CFO, depending on the day, depending on the time, or what week of the month. Indaba is in heavy growth mode, but past startup. We’ve gone through the startup phases. We’ve gone from what I call chaos to rhythm. So my role as the COO is I get things from zero to one.
What does Indaba do?
We look out for our clients first of all. We have a mantra of: “If it was our money, what would we do?” and we start there. So there are times that clients will come to us with ideas for e-commerce, massive corporate websites, there’s a lot of B2B stuff going on. What we try to do is we play a consultative role with a business hat on. What does the revenues look like? Where do they come from? What are your costs? Where do those come from? We look at their P&L and then apply technology to that.
So we build e-commerce. We’re really good at taking data grenades, just total messes from legacy systems and CSV files and automated FTP scrapings, all this crazy stuff that people have going on and we’re really good at making sense of that.
How would the everyday person recognize Indaba’s work?
We’re pretty quiet. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to function off of referrals. So if someone looked at one of our sites, they would see that the details are done. There are a thousand simple details that are obvious and normal for people to do but most of the time, something gets missed. So we kind of check and double-check.
How did you survive from chaos into a rhythm?
Without a doubt, culture. I know there are so many blog posts on culture this, culture that, so I don’t want to just be generic and just say culture, but we start off with a willingness to gather together and have a discussion. Indaba is the South African word for meaningful gathering with purpose. So we start there, and get to a point where we’re all okay with what we call version one. Version one means it works and it’s okay, but no one is going for perfection.
So the way that we got from chaos to rhythm is by having an openness to get things to version one, and adapt from there. It’s kind of like Agile methodology. The stage beyond that is moving from rhythm to precision, and that’s much harder.
What are the biggest hurdles there?
There are two big ones. First, you have to be careful not to corporatize it. That’s the hardest thing… how do you have job descriptions without making them corporate. What we’ve done is the job description is written and adapted by the person that’s doing the job. So it’s always fluid, instead of someone dictating that this is the job description, and every month that job description is reviewed.
We call it “the big five.” Everyone has five priorities, and your number one item is essentially your job description. If everybody just did their number one item, you would have a good company. Then when you’re done doing your number one item, and your number one item is in good shape, only then can you move to number two. So it eliminates distraction, and is also pretty motivating.
Where does the term “big five” come from?
It comes from Ryan, our CEO. He’s from South Africa, and a big five hunter is someone in South Africa who hunts on foot with no support, and they hunt the five most dangerous animals. So it’s an important thing. You better keep your priorities straight.
You mentioned two hurdles. What’s the second?
The second thing, going from rhythm to precision, is the pace. So, certain individuals are ready to get there and certain individuals are not. There’s an image that I use—and this is my history, I brought this to Indaba—there’s an image of Wile E. Coyote. He’s off the cliff and he’s looking over at the camera. He’s not falling in, he’s just off the cliff. He’s looking over at the camera, and he has this “oh shit” look on his face.
As an entrepreneur, once you are off the cliff, no amount of money, no amount of hard work, no amount of creativity will get you back to the cliff. So therefore, you better run at a pace that is fast but cautious. When we go from chaos to rhythm, we’re moving pretty fast. Version .5, version 1, version 2—we’re moving pretty fast. Once we recognize we’re in a rhythm, we try to move to precision, which means really drive revenue and reduce costs while at the same time keeping everything else stable. Morale is good, clients are happy, you’ve got a pace. Because if you hit the “oh shit” moment, you’re done. You have to restart. I’ve personally spent hundreds of thousands of dollars learning that lesson.
What did you learn?
Well, I learned pace. It’s critical. Every company that fails, you could almost look at it and say they got their pace wrong. They’re outpacing themselves, and they get to the “oh shit” moment. People call it pivoting, but really what pivoting is is you screwed up really bad. Sometimes you can proactively pivot, but that means you screwed up and you have to change.
The second thing is that design must come first. Whatever it is, you have to get the design right before you start anything. Design has to be baked into your business model. So it’s the design of the culture. The design of how you’re going to charge. It’s spending the time up front to start correctly, and then when it’s wrong, to adapt. It’s a little cliché, but the reason there are 26 letters is because plan A never works.
What drew you to Galvanize?
I’m a Galvanize fan. I’ve lived a lot of places in the country. I’ve been a part of a lot of incubators, a lot of investment groups. I own an investment group that helps entrepreneurs fund. And I think that Galvanize is doing something unique. Especially in the web development program. I’ve been to hiring events at the end of the program several times, and every single time I’m blown away by the people.
Something really special is happening in that finding students, filtering through them, enabling them to come in the program, and facilitating those who can’t pay the full ride, however it may be. The output is unbelievable. I’ve never met a code school student that looked like that. That’s why I’m here.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give to a budding programmer?
Row the boat. This is part of Indaba. We have a couple of principles that we use—we call it the Indaba way. “Row the boat” is always be willing to support each other whether or not you agree with it. In a rowboat, the optimal thing to do is to row, right? You want everybody to row. But if people are coordinated in the rowing, you’re steering together.
So sometimes people sit quietly, because they’re tired, they’re pressured. You sit quietly for a period of time. You’re supported by your peers. And then you pick up your oar and you start rowing again. That’s okay, right? Well, the other thing that you can do is you can jump out, quit. That’s not preferable. You can whack people with the oar. And we know those people. That’s why we laugh about it. But from a developer perspective, you need to enjoy the company that’s a good fit for you and you need to know to row the boat, make a contribution. Make a contribution, even when it’s hard.
What’s one tactical part of rowing the boat as a developer?
Asking for help. Like, if you’re tired and you need some help, and maybe it’s not just physically tired. Maybe you’ve come against a road block and your brain can’t process it—like, coder block. Ask for help. It’s okay. And sometimes in our culture, it’s not okay to ask for help, but if you’re with the right group of people that are trying to move in the right direction rowing the boat, whatever, ask for help. It’s okay. It’s actually not even okay. It’s preferable. It’s better to ask for help sooner than get frustrated, spin your wheels, and potentially miss something. It’s okay to raise your hand. It’s okay, that’s great.
Is Indaba a Galvanize member?
We’re not. We keep meaning to become members, but it hasn’t worked out yet. So we just hire people from here. We invite every single student from every class to come visit Indaba on their own time. They can come sit with developers for the day. They can talk to any one of us, we will make the time. I want to be able to open the door to what’s possible, and to show Galvanize students what’s possible in a development job that doesn’t treat it as a commodity—that doesn’t respect that it’s hard. The coding part’s hard enough. The critical thinking is really the challenge. We find that Galvanize students have that, and they know how to collaborate. That really doesn’t exist so much.
What advice do you have for graduates?
When you go to get hired, you should find a company that is collaborative and has camaraderie and things like that. Anybody that’s hiring you for your skills, meaning your coding skills, I would say hesitate, because that’s not the value that you bring. The value that you bring is in the collaboration to hard problems.
If there are easy problems, somebody else can do that. If you’re a Galvanize grad, you’re designed for hard problems. So yeah, I would say that’s it. Find a company that values the camaraderie and the collaboration that you learn during those six months, and then code after that.
We’re very careful in the way we hire. We’ve got this multi-stage hiring process and it’s fun. But we haven’t lost a single developer in more than two years. We pay well, but that’s not why people are there. I know there isn’t a single person that couldn’t walk out the door and get hired the same day somewhere else. I know. And that’s why when people go to find jobs in this industry, they need to pick the company. They need to make sure the company doesn’t treat them like a commodity that can be found other places, because it can’t.