Joe Conway likes to play the long game with both his employees and clients. By establishing trust and collaboration from day one, the CEO of app development agency stable|kernel develops long-lasting relationships with a greater product and overall results. He directs his company to prioritize mentorship and culture through a “Year of Values” initiative to encourage the team to adopt the company’s four values (Integrity, Learn and Share, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and Stay Hungry) and contribute back into the company.
“I always like to say we like to develop our developers. We like to create value. In doing so, when we signal to people that we’re investing in them, they’re willing to invest back in us,” says Conway.
Here, Conway shares more about keeping his team creative, the importance of developing an HR system early on, and their server-side open-source framework as a way to contribute to the developer community.
How have you grown your team since you moved to your office space in Old Fourth Ward?
We’ve really been deliberate about the types of people in the roles that we’re hiring. A lot of that is development skill. We need to have good developers, but there’s also communication. The caring and positivity and all the things that really go into having someone say, “Listen. There’s this thing that’s new that no one’s done before, or maybe they’ve done it in a different way, and we need to get there.” It takes a lot of grit and determination to do that, and it takes a lot of support from the team.
At the same time, we’re investing in the infrastructure of our company. We invest early in human resources. We have a bigger marketing team than most companies of our size, especially for the type of industry that we’re in. Just putting those pieces into place allows them to grow more sustainably. Because in a software development company, it can be challenging. There are a lot of ups and downs. Being able to have a support system and have an infrastructure that allows people to feel comfortable in their jobs so that they can really grow and expand. That’s been really paramount to our success.
Startup founders often don’t find it necessary to have an HR system in place at the beginning. Why is it important for a company to establish that?
People need to feel comfortable in their workplace. At the end of the day, we go to work to take care of our family. Having those things in place, from communication systems to healthcare, allows people to focus on their jobs. It also allows them to feel comfortable about coming into work and being able to live their lives. They care so much about each other as human beings and individuals, so having the actual policies and the people in place to back that up as opposed to just saying it, I think it’s really important.
You guys put a lot of weight into connecting customers with great design. What factors go into your meetings and building that relationship?
We like to get involved early in that process. What we focus on is from the very beginning, we like to learn about the businesses that we’re working with and we try to find ways that actually help them deliver value in some way — whether that’s making some profits and turning them more efficient. We don’t make apps just to make apps. We don’t develop software just for that sake of having it. We focus on how to make some things better. If you can’t find way to make something better, that’s a losing proposition.
We’re never going to walk away from something. I think there’s always something to be done. Sometimes they say they don’t have the budget for a new addition. The Fox Theatre, for example. The first thing that we tackled for them was something that generated them more revenue. In doing that, they can finance further improvement to this application to hit this grand vision that they want to hit over the next couple years. We’re talking about a multi-year process. It’s about dialogue. And it’s about respect. That respect core value extends past our company. It extends to our clients. We get that last ten percent out of something that someone else has created and make it better.
It’s almost like you’re playing the long game, both with your employees and with your clients. How do you encourage creativity among your employees?
That’s a good question because of a lot of different factors. Number one is about being able to identify the right people for the right positions. We recently hired a new project manager and she’s just so fantastic and keeps people focused. Finding someone like that is so great because it really does add a spark to the day. We’re hiring a lot of people who are both leaders and who are also able to work together collaboratively.
Then of course, hitting home on those core values so often, especially the respect and integrity one, it lets people keep an open mind to things. It can be really challenging sometimes when you’re doing the implementing something as this is the time you have to have the bigger picture in your head. It’s strenuous for everyone. Having the right people to help you and having a support system within the company to do that is really beneficial.
What about your developers — how do keep challenging them?
I’m a developer. I’m still a developer. That’s still my first job. Being a developer-focus in a developer-lead company, I intrinsically understand how developers grow and how they want to grow and what challenges them and what interests them.
We always have bench time with the consulting company. We’re not always a hundred percent utilized —that’s too stressful. With that bench time, we reinvest it back into the company by developing software libraries and tools that we use for current and ongoing and upcoming projects. What this does is, we’re able to get tested, well working, well designed code developed by our more senior engineering staff into the hands of our more junior engineering staff. Our junior engineering staff gets much more efficient and much more productive, and they’re able to do things with less error cause we’ve already tested it. Our senior staff is better able to be challenged. It’s very hard. Once you’ve built 10 apps, you’ve built them all. Being able to build these libraries allows them to extract a lot of the things that they’ve learned into something that someone else can use. It’s very very rewarding for a developer to be able to do that. We’re hitting both ends of the spectrum. Being able to improve our development staff in that way.
The junior developers will be senior developers one day. We want them to be here, too. That allows people to learn more quickly and to be more productive.
What’s next for stable|kernel?
Company-wide, we had our year of values and now we’re on to our year of communication. Reinforcing how we communicate with people and what leads to a successful project and workplace. I’m really excited about that one. Some of our projects, I can’t talk about all of them, but the ones that we have coming up I’m really excited about.
Our open source server-side framework, Aqueduct. We’re investing a lot in that. It’s gaining really good traction. This is something that other developers outside of our company can use. It’s a great showcase of our ability and skill, but it has so much value to us. It’s very similar to how a mobile developer might think because it’s inspired by mobile developers. Having that ability to have that framework out there and contribute to the software development community at large is also an important thing to us.