How I boost my consultancy business raising new developers

02 March 2021
8 min read

Last year, I started my own consulting business. I have expertise and experience to offer for my clients who are willing to enhance their design and development operations and, in particular, kick-off or boost their design systems. For many months, I was working alone. And then I began to think: how can I scale? Usually, new entrepreneurs work day and night without any holiday, get clients to occupy 16 hours of their time every day, gain credibility, and partner with spin-off projects. I immensely enjoy what I am doing, and dedicating all my time to it would be only a pleasure, but as a mother of a 1-year-old, I do not have this luxurious opportunity.

That made me think: is there anything unique I can offer that not only helps clients but also develops my business? Are there any skills and experience that could be turned into competitive advantage? And yes, there are! Besides technical and design achievements in my past career, I understand how to raise the people in our professional field. At my previous jobs, I used to be a team leader for up to 18 people, often guiding them through their professional development. Of course, as a new entrepreneur, I could not hire that many, but I still can use the gained knowledge and experience to work with people and for people.

Searching for helping hands

Half a year ago, I posted on Twitter that I need helping hands, mostly for my side projects. The initial idea was to release some of my time while my fellow developer helps me with coding challenges that belong to myself, not to the client projects. I interviewed ten developers who positioned themselves as juniors or middle-level developers. My special pride in the process is that there were no annoying coding questions and time-consuming trial tasks. I only spoke with each candidate for about half an hour. During those talks, I introduced myself, described my business and the potential projects, learned about the people. We discussed possible collaboration and compensation. The most important factor for me was a personal match. I was not worried about a possible lack of knowledge and experience: the end goal was to teach and guide. I must say that all the candidates I had in that round would very well fit the role. I would even qualify many of them as far more than juniors. Because of that, I based my decision on how much I could help my future-to-be employee and partner. It was in the middle of a pandemic, and I figured out that my responsibility is to make a path to the IT market for the people whose previous industries suffered the most. Thus, half a year ago, I started to work with Irina Illustrova, (aka Ira), and it went far beyond the initial plan.

Our projects

I arranged the working schedule so that my business goals and Ira’s professional development goals aligned. Namely, the projects she was getting into work enhanced her knowledge of technologies gradually. As an extremely talented, hard-working, and enthusiastic, she did not need hour-to-hour guidance, but I defined the general focus that helped her in a short time to learn everything required for a future successful frontend engineer career.

Our very first project was redesigning and refactoring my website https://varya.me/. It was not just technical work! The challenge included elements of product design, content management, user experience aspects, and workflows. We had co-creation workshop sessions where we applied the design methods to figure out the work's scope. From the technical perspective, the knowledge boost included hands-on experience with GatsbyJS, styled-components, and Storybook. In reasonable time, my website was entirely re-made: enchanted in SEO aspect, automated where it was possible, code-cleaned but backward compatible with its previous version. During this project, we discovered the time-saving working model that still ensures regular alignment and knowledge progress.

In the next project, we managed to go further and at the same time re-use the gained knowledge. It was a side project by myself and Nikita Sherbakov. Unfortunately, I cannot share the project name and description until we release it. But tech-wise, for Ira, it was deeper learning and practicing of Gatsby, including its advanced features. Similar to re-making my website, this project required writing a library of React components, but some of them were far more complex. Besides, some parts of the project were implemented with NextJs and utilized GitHubActions. During this work, Ira and Nikita e-met, and we managed to work together in a small team. On the way towards client projects, a growing developer also needs to collaborate with others and try different workflows for such collaboration. That is as important as technical skills, if not more.

In the following gig, we stayed the course with gradual technological enhancement and considered the community impact. As a frequent conference speaker, I missed a tool that enables me to write my slides with Markdown and empower them with React components (aka MDX). Generally, I use Shower for my slides. So, as the presentation engine part was already covered, we focused on the markdown transformation. It was another chance to code with NextJs and provide advanced customizations to its default setup. In that project, we anchored the concept of automation: in particular, with the help of GitHub Actions, the tool now has continuous releases. Notable that it is an open-source project with which we could practice community management and bits of technical marketing. You can explore the code on GitHub https://github.com/varya/shower-mdx or visit the project demo page https://varya.me/shower-mdx/

By today, ourlast technically completed project is a landing page of Nikita’s and mine upcoming workshop “Hands-on with design systems”. At the moment, Ira and I continue working on the handout website with the exercises for the workshop participants, but the landing page has already been released. Even though it is maybe the simplest among our typical projects, it enabled Ira to consolidate the NextJs knowledge and train on Tailwind. Thanks to continuous releases with GitHub Actions, quick fixes to the website texts are zero pain. Besides, we have an A/B test analyzed with GoogleAnalytics — something that will be very much reusable for larger businesses as well.

Tandem model

Now, half a year after our start, I believe that training on my own projects is over. It is time to move on!

However, I am very much encouraged by the progress we made in such a short time. The current plan is to continue the training but on the client projects. Thinking of that, I came to a "tandem model” for our clients. The idea is that the client gets a middle-level engineer full-time and an experienced leader for, say, two days a week. Guided with the leader, the middle-level engineer uses their time the most effectively. My experience as a leader guarantees that together, we can overcome all the challenges. At the same time, the average rate is lower. This way, the client gets the expected quality of work but for a competitive price. In Ira’s case, I trained her myself, so we have a history of working together, I know how to lead her, I see what she can do entirely on her own and what she still needs guidance with. This knowledge very much helps to plan the work and later meet that plan.

timeline

We managed to deliver this proposition to one of the clients, and they appreciated the dramatic (cannot say how much but impressive) cost savings ensured by this model. At the same time, having a “real” project for Ira contributes to her speedy growth. My gut feeling, that by the end of this year she may gain a title of senior frontend engineer! I do not share here the tandem model details, but I have sales materials that explain it in numbers. If interested, just contact me for it.

What for?

The journey described above is not only a successful business story on how a solo consultant can grow to a team and at the same time propose value to their clients. Along the way, I had a chance to reflect on the social impact I make. The consultancy business is often represented as an opposition to product companies. Many say that as a consultant, you work for soulless companies rather than bring value to the people. But I believe that with the activity described above I discovered the opportunity to be useful. There are a lot of self-study people in IT (including myself) but I realise that not everyone has an opportunity to dedicate enough unpaid time for it. Men, people without kids and those who are financially supported by parents or partners win this race. My personal impact is that I can pay salaries for the less privileged while they are polishing their technical and product skills. Everyone wins: I have my projects done, my clients get helping hands whose work I approve and ensure the quality, a nearly senior developer comes to market. Together, as a whole humankind, we experience less inequality.

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You can hire me to set up, manage, develop, and champion your design system. I can align the design and development processes in your organisation for a larger business impact.

© Varya Stepanova 2021