These ide­al­ists, tech­nol­o­gists, cre­atives, and activists are shap­ing the new world. And we got to be part of theirs.

The Developer Society is an employee-owned, not-for-profit digital agency based in Birmingham, UK.

Laura Paine was their first project manager, and one of our first apprentices. Before the program, Laura had never run a digital project and had never worked agency side, and she’s now a Director and Project Lead. This is their story:

Tell me a little about the Dev Society team. How big is it? Who does what? What’s it like to work there?

We’re a not-for-profit community development society, and have a fairly flat hierarchical structure. We make decisions using a teal process, which means that anyone at DEV can propose a change to anything, and by consulting with the people who will be affected by the change, we all have the power to make change. We work exclusively with other not-for-profits and NGOs; we don’t work with for-profit companies. Oxfam, Samaritans, Help Refugees, International Land Coalition and the Overseas Development Index are just a few of the organisations we’ve worked with over the past year. For us it’s not about how much money we can make on a project, it’s about the impact we can have by helping all these charities.

We’ve recently expanded quite a bit. We’re now at 16 full-time staff, made up of developers, designers, sales and project management. We’ve recently had an Admin Assistant join us from an organization called Down’s Syndrome Work Fit, which helps to get people with Down’s Syndrome into the workplace. He does about six hours a week with us. – Laura Paine

So how did you learn about the apprenticeship program? What drew you to it? What convinced you to sign up?

I knew nothing about it until I saw a job advert that said the Developer Society was looking for an apprentice. I knew that I wasn’t a Project Manager, I’ve never managed a project before but that seemed like a cool approach. And I’ve always worked for charities and the ad said they only work with not-for-profits so I was quite intrigued. I also felt like a lot of project management attributes really fit quite well with my personality and the way I like to work. So the fact that they were offering to train somebody up with a very nicely structured program sounded perfect to me. And within about six weeks of me starting at DEV, I started on the program with Rachel and we haven’t looked back. – LP

I’d seen some of the Louder Than Ten materials on Twitter and I really liked their voice and their approach. And I saw a lot of value in what they were offering in terms of how the apprenticeship was framed. We knew that our organizational structure was relatively unique compared to other agencies and I thought that there would be a huge benefit to helping train someone into a position rather than expecting them to come into the role fully formed. So we progressed in that manner and with that mindset as we brought Laura on and transitioned to a not-for-profit. – Stephen Hawkes

How would you describe the way your team works together and how has that changed since taking the apprenticeship program.

We’ve been through lots of changes that aren’t just on the project management side. For about a month after I started, we were a for-profit company and then we became a not-for-profit. And over the last 12 months now, we’ve completely transformed into this not-for-profit shape. Previously, it was very much run by Steve and Paul, the two directors. So decisions came down from them and it was quite a traditional, hierarchical agency. But since then, it’s become a cooperative. Decisions now get made across the team—which is very awesome. It’s very much a team-oriented place. You have to be able to work well with a team. We’re not a place where individuals just go off and do their own thing. Everyone comes together quite regularly to talk things through. And generally, our communication across the team is really, really good. We rely on Slack quite heavily for that because half of our team is remote most of the time. It’s quite a close-knit team in spite of the fact that we’re quite scattered across the country. – LP

In terms of the transition, two big things really shifted. One was the scale of the work that we do—going from quite a large number of small digital projects to a smaller number of large digital projects. This happened over the course of the apprenticeship. And part of the reason for wanting to have a dedicated Project Manager on the team was really just the amount of project management that was needed due to the scale of the work that we’re now doing. We’ve gone from an approach where everything was in the Director’s heads—the team would ask us all the questions and we would attempt to answer as best we could—to a place where there is an established process. That’s the other big thing that the apprenticeship really brought in. Things now flow according to a process we’ve set up rather than to the best feedback available from two very busy individuals. It’s a much better place to be in. – SH

Where else has the program specifically had an impact? What else about your business or how you manage projects has changed as a result of the apprenticeship program?

The confidence that we all have in Laura, as a result of her taking the apprenticeship, has meant that we’ve been able to let go of a huge amount of control over the many different things that are going on. And it’s been great because we can now focus on other aspects of business development. A good example of this is one project that had gone from the first contact with a client through to delivery and sign-off and payment without me even knowing anything about it. It’s a really great thing to hear. I mean, as a founder, it sounds a little terrifying saying it out loud like that, but it was an amazing milestone that we’ve achieved. Important processes and decisions are no longer completely dependant on one or two people. – SH

Where have you seen the program affect the work you do? How has the program changed your approach in a way that you might not have expected?

I think the program—combined with having Rachel as a trainer—has massively helped with my own confidence in terms of being able to do this job. It would be one thing to read how to do this work from a textbook or something but to be able to actually talk if through with her and to work through things with the other apprentices was massively helpful. You could always ask questions—I could say things like: Well, the way you’ve outlined this doesn’t really work for our kind of agency, how could we amend it? And Rachel was super helpful in terms of making sure the things we were learning were fitted for how we worked on our teams rather than forcing Dev Society to work in a way that other companies might work. So being able to customize the learning for each of us with that additional level support has really helped our team and really helped my confidence. It has made sure that the process I’ve been trying to implement at Dev Society made sense for Dev Society. – LP

What is one struggle or challenge that you lose less sleep over as a result of taking the program and applying what you’ve learned? What’s one thing you no longer worry about or struggle with?

For me, I worry about things all the time. Because I was super new both to the position and the organization, I used to worry that I just didn’t know anything about anything. I would worry about not understanding the scopes of the projects as they came in and who I could talk to about that. I worried about whether I should or could interrupt people to ask questions and then I worried whether or not my questions were redundant or stupid. But that has changed massively over the last 6 to 8 months. I’m more confident and assured and that has helped me develop a really strong and close partnership with our Tech Director which has been a huge help in terms of scoping projects and helping me understand exactly what’s being asked for. It’s been massively helpful. I definitely used to be kept awake at night thinking ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ but not anymore. – LP

For me, there are a couple of things. One was knowing whether the team could scale with one person being the hub for everything. So that is something that required some growth in the team, and definitely, something that the apprenticeship has helped us to work through once we brought Laura on. The other was having a third party be a part of this kind of change process—a neutral party that could help us work through all the relationships and things that are in play. Working with Louder Than Ten meant I knew that Laura had a direct line of support through all of this. It means I haven’t been kept up at night worrying whether or not Laura has enough support to help guide us through this transition. – SH

By the numbers

More focus, more revenue, more value.

46% fewer projects running at one time

43% higher average client revenue

£70k in increased net sales since Laura joined

Dig­i­tal project man­age­ment is the cor­ner­stone of an agen­cies oper­a­tion, you’ll nev­er regret lev­el­ling-up this discipline.”

Stephen Hawkes

If I had a company and was thinking about this apprenticeship, what would you most want to tell me? What’s the one biggest selling point about this program?

I think I’d tell people to just trust the process. Trust that the program will get you the results it says it will if you allow the process into your work as the apprenticeship goes on. On the first week, not all of the areas will be covered, but by the end of the program, there will be a much deeper understanding of this work and you’ll be able to work together as a team to achieve the things you want to achieve. – SH

If you were on the fence about whether to join the apprenticeship or not, I’d say do it, obviously. I don’t think you’d find somebody else with as much information and knowledge and the resources that Rachel has. She obviously spends a lot of time building out the content and lessons and she has this knack for being able to pluck useful resources or blog posts out of the air when you come to her with any sort of question about project management. The program is also super useful and helpful in terms of people management and all sorts of things that wouldn’t necessarily be PM-related but are actually great tips for how to be at work, how to be a good human. That then helps an organization to grow because you share this knowledge and these tips throughout the team. You learn that it doesn’t all have to sit on one person’s shoulders but you nevertheless have that someone who is trained specifically in dealing with the exact situations of handling clients and handling projects and handling people working on teams. One person takes the program but it benefits the entire team. – LP

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