January 3, 2018

Technology Leadership with Firstborn and Stink Studios

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SoDA is thrilled to welcome PJ Ahlberg and Eric Decker as faculty leaders for the Technology Track at the 2018 SoDA Academy. PJ is the Executive Director of Technology at Stink Studios in New York and Eric is the VP of Technology at Firstborn in New York.

I recently spoke with Eric and PJ about the evolution of technology leaders within the agency environment and what excites (and horrifies) them about the latest wave of emerging tech. 

Of all the disciplines in the digital agency world, technology seems to be changing the most dramatically. How do you manage to keep a broad enough and deep enough technology skillset on your team… one that enables you to credibly tackle a wide range of project types?


That's a great question and definitely true. This industry is changing for everyone, but the technology team always gets hit hardest. To your point, when we moved from Flash to HTML, development approaches had to change… it was a sink or swim environment. And, yes, other disciplines are impacted but not as fundamentally. In 2018, whether you’re designing your comps in Photoshop or Sketch, the end user doesn't know or care. But if you're deploying your web tools in Flash, users will be impacted.

Our industry changes every day so finding and focusing on people that want to learn is important. A big part of it is allowing and encouraging exploration and experimentation. I delegate a lot of tech choices to my team. I challenge them to come up with solutions and learn how to support or verify them.

Firstborn started doing VR work years ago because we had a couple of devs here who had gone out and backed the Oculus DK1. They were playing around with the technology and it spawned an idea that we pitched to Mountain Dew. The client loved the concept and we had to go figure out how to do it. We didn't find VR developers or someone that knew how to use the Oculus. The technology – and thus work – was changing, so our developers changed with it.

By giving power to your team, you're allowing them to explore what they believe is not just latest and greatest, but potentially new trends, things that interest them, things that might lead to the future of the overall agency.  


How about you PJ? What have you seen in terms of growing your team's skillset to confront what I imagine is a wide range of technology choices that you confront on any given project.


Part of the challenge is finding people who see new tech as an opportunity, instead of an encumbrance. We look for soft skills that can scale with whatever is going on – communication, project management, proactivity and the confidence to question existing procedure are all much harder to teach than a new technique or technology. You can't just hire a specialist in one thing because the nature of this business is constant change.

The biggest challenge I see is keeping talented people interested. It used to be that you would get your certification. You would go get your .NET certification ten times over and that's what you would do. We don't specialize in any one technology at Stink Studios, so for us it’s about flexible talent… combating turnover in a way that keeps it fun and interesting for every individual on the team. I look for people that are great at what they are currently doing but still very broad and curious in terms of their interests.


How do you think the role of technology leaders within an agency environment has changed over the past five years? The technology itself is changing so rapidly. The market is also shifting and many agencies have evolved from doing lightweight, one-off marketing campaign projects to designing and developing digital products and digital customer experiences that are deeply integrated into the enterprise. 


Ten years ago, a technology leader was a killer Flash developer who made something 100% from scratch with zero purpose. It was a beautiful thing that worked and beckoned the creative director to say, "Hey, check this out." And we’d all say, "Holy shit. Let's make a website out of this."

Today, it’s obviously much more diverse than that. My role as a tech leader, first and foremost, is a dedication to my team – giving them what they need to be successful and fostering an environment that allows us to do really great work more and more efficiently. The other part of my role spans the company. A good technical leader should be working as much with the production, strategy, new business, and creative teams as they are with their own technology teams. Even though the work we’re doing today has more longevity… is less a flash in the pan… a technology leader still needs to help create that “holy shit, cool” moment for the whole team when you see the opportunity to do something really amazing for your client. 


I was thinking about this last night and as much as I want to say how much has changed in five years, I don’t think the role itself has fundamentally changed – it’s the things that we’re making that are different. There’s a ton more for a Tech Lead to know today versus 10 years ago... mobile, VR/AR, IoT, more JavaScript frameworks, numerous content management platforms and more.  But overall the role of a technology leader remains the same.

To PJ's point, we're not really doing campaign work anymore. Much of our focus at Firstborn is on digital products and enterprise-level websites. How we're actually making things… what tools and platforms we’re using has definitely evolved. Mobile has exploded in the last 10 years. There’s been a resurgence in Agile as a way to organize teams and tackle the work. Those things have changed, but in terms of the fundamental role of a tech leader, I don’t see it as drastically different. Bridging technology, business and creative is still really critical. Being able to ask questions and find solutions to problems is still a big part of it. And, of course, being the advocate for your team and removing barriers so they can get their shit done – PJ hit on that point well. We were doing those things five years ago and I suspect we’ll be still doing them five years from now.