Rob Harr: I Got Into This for the Humans
Ivan first saw Rob Harr doing the keynote speech "Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze" at the Manage Digital conference in spring 2019, where he said a lot of smart, compassionate, and empathetic things, things that you wish all leaders had in their toolbox. We finally got him to appear on our podcast, where he said even more awesome things. Enjoy!
Rob Harr, VP at Sparkbox.
- Processes are for people, not projects
- Designing human experiences at work
- Talent producer vs. talent consumer
- On leaving clients better than he found them
- Manage Digital
- Sparkbox Apprenticeships (and the curriculum is on GitHub)
- Diversity Days, November 13-14 at Sparkbox in Dayton, Ohio
- Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies, who runs Better Allies on Twitter
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everybody! You’re listening to the TEN7 podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I am your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Rob Harr, who is Vice President of Sparkbox, where he is responsible for the operations and financials of the company. With a background in software development, Rob is always ready to challenge the development process, and on any given day Rob meets with prospective clients, works with employees and continues to evolve the business of Sparkbox. Sparkbox is a web design and development studio in Dayton, Ohio that focuses on long-term partnerships with clients and creating a better web through education. Welcome Rob, it’s a great pleasure to have you on the podcast.
ROB HARR: Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thanks.
IVAN: Now, I saw your keynote at Manage Digital this year, and you talked a lot about people over project management. You had that "iron triangle" of scope, timeline and budget up on the screen. I really enjoyed listening to you speak that day. You touched on all the things I hope my own company is striving towards. But I wanted to hear a little bit about the genesis of that talk that you gave. It’s obviously something you’re passionate about.
ROB: That whole talk came about looking at all of the things that have become core to things I believe about projects in this industry, and how we work with the people, and that it’s really all about the people. I have this core belief that process and all of these constructs that we’ve come up with, they’re not for projects, they’re for people, because it’s the people that either mark the success or failure for our projects. It’s something I care a lot about. I think we have tons of people out there in this industry talking about how to create better checklists, or to do this, or make sure this gets done, but a lot of times those conversations leave out what I think is the most important element—the humans involved.
IVAN: When Lynn [Winter] asked you to do the talk, who came up with the title of the talk, "Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze"? Was that yours or hers? [laughing]
ROB: That was actually somebody I work with here at Sparkbox. Lynn said, "I want you to come talk. I love the things you talk about. Do whatever you want, just tell me what it is, and we’d love to have you." I was like, "This is great. So, let me work it out," and I started writing about the things I wanted to talk about, and I wrote up the abstract, and there’s someone internal here at Sparkbox named Emily who is our communications director and she is amazing. She had this idea of centering the whole talk around what she refers to and the team refers to around here as "Harrisms"—things that I say over and over and over again that when I say them to the team, they know what I’m talking about. And, "Juice Worth the Squeeze" is one of those things. So, we decided to take those Harrisms and sprinkle them throughout the talk, or I did. She came up with the actual title. She’s like, "This is the perfect one. This is what you need to call it."
IVAN: I love that title. What are other Harrisms?
ROB: People over process. Is the juice worth the squeeze? Punt to future self. Just things like that that reframe the conversation. Living the dream is obviously one.
IVAN: [laughing] Carl Smith likes that one.
ROB: Yeah. I’ve actually got that over my door. Someone bought a wood type of thing that says "Living the Dream." I’ve got a shirt that says that. Things that remind me and are simple ways to communicate like bigger, more complex ideas.
IVAN: This might be a Harrism as well, the thing that I remember you saying that I’ve implemented since Manage Digital, is "Can we postpone that decision? Do we have the information now? Can we put that decision off?" Is that a Harrism as well?
ROB: Yeah, totally. Waiting until the last responsible moment to make decisions.
IVAN: You know, I found that sort of liberating. It’s like, I don’t know if I should make the decision. What do we know? What do we don’t know? Asking the question and inevitably the answer becomes, Oh, yeah. We can totally postpone that decision.
ROB: It’s freeing.
IVAN: [laughing] It definitely is. Definitely. So, you said People over Process, and People over Projects. Do you have an onboarding process for new employees or new contractors that takes that into account?
ROB: Yeah. It does. I think we do. When we bring somebody in—I’ll talk in the case of a developer, but we do this with pretty much everybody—is we assign them a "dev buddy." Somebody that they can ask all of the questions that they’re afraid to ask anyone else. What that does is it removes the fear of, "Hey, why do we submit timecards this way?" Or, "What do we do here? How does this actually work?" I think that’s shown really well, but I think the other thing is we provide them a complete agenda for their entire first week when they’re here. I think that really, really helps so that they know what to expect, and when to expect it.
Every single new hire sits down with my business partner, the president of the company, and they walk through all of our company values together, so that it’s really clear that these things are important, they’re upfront and that you have understanding. You can ask those questions. I think that with all of those different steps, we try to think about all of the things we do as designing human experiences, because that’s what they are. And, helping people feel good about something goes a long way into building the transparency and trust that you need when you work with people. What humans really want is just to know what’s coming and to have those expectations met. There’s no better way in my opinion to build trust than to say, "This is what’s going to happen," and then making that a reality.
IVAN: Yeah. You follow through on your word. That’s a big deal. Now, you talked about how they sit down with your business partner, the president, I immediately thought of an office in Ohio, at your offices. Are you fully brick and mortar? Do you have any remote or distributed members of your team? What’s your whole philosophy on offices versus distributed work?
ROB: That’s a great question. We started out 10½ years ago being completely here in Dayton, Ohio, brick and mortar. We all sat in the same room together actually, as I’m sure a lot of us start. Over the years we’ve changed that. It got started when one of our employees came into my office and said, "Hey, I love my job, but I don’t want to live here anymore, and I don’t like that reality." And I said, "Well, you’ve been with us for a couple years, where do you want to go? Let’s try it." He came back about a week later and said, "I want to move to Milwaukee." After I got over the fact that he was leaving Dayton to go to Milwaukee, and that felt a little weird [laughing].
IVAN: [laughing] You’re not a Milwaukee fan, Rob? Come on.
ROB: I had never been before then. When I think of places I want to go, Milwaukee just doesn’t pop into my brain. Nothing wrong with Milwaukee. Milwaukee is fine. But I was thinking someplace warm or someplace with a beach, the mountains, a big city.
IVAN: The Bahamas. Right, right, right.
ROB: Like in a world of possibilities, that’s anywhere, Milwaukee seemed just like a strange choice to me at the time. I’ve been to see it and it’s lovely. So, all the Milwaukee fans out there listening, nothing against Milwaukee. I actually like it quite a bit.
So, what I told this individual is, "Okay. I’m willing to do this a long as you’re okay with it being a trial. Let’s experiment. Let’s prototype this. Let’s make sure it works for both of us. At this point in time, let’s give both of us the permission to say, 'Hey this isn’t working for us, can we try something different?’ Or, this isn’t working for us, we have to end it and be okay with that." We agreed to that, and he became our first remote employee, and that was about five or six years ago. Since then, we now are a team of about 45 people, we have two offices, one here in Dayton, Ohio, one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and we have about 10 full-time remote people sprinkled throughout the country.
IVAN: The demographic of the remote people—are they mostly developers, or do you have all kinds of different skillsets?
ROB: All kinds of different skillsets at this point—project managers, developers, designers. Our biz dev person actually isn’t even here in Ohio.
IVAN: When you put out a job description and you’re hiring someone, is remote an option? Is it required that you visit the office once a year or once a quarter? Or are you flexible about that kind of stuff?
ROB: When we post a job out there, we are open to remote. We require all new hires to be here in Dayton for their first week, just to meet everybody, to get faces. One of the things I think remote requires is still personal relationships, and you can’t replace the being-in-the-same-room-together part of it, at least at some regular intervals. So, that’s really important. And then as far as ongoing, we have two very intentional get togethers with the entire team a year, that last a couple days. One of them is a retreat, and one of them is in first quarter where we kind of kick off the year.
Other than that, we do give a lot of latitude to our remote employees to come in frequently if they want, but different people are at different places in their lives. And flexibility is absolutely core to one of the benefits and who we are as a company. Going back a little bit to your question about office culture...I never wanted to build a place where I required people to do things—anything. I wanted to build an office—and offices now—that attract people—more like magnets, that people want to be in because there’s good energy, they want to be around people, but still give people the flexibility to be wherever they want. Most of our employees here in Dayton and in Pittsburgh that have a physical office near them, they still work from home two or three days a week.
IVAN: That’s definitely a benefit. Let’s talk about this apprenticeships website that you have that is a subdomain of your main site. It looks like you have cohorts, and they’re all versioned, and I would love to know more about what the program is at Sparkbox.
ROB: We started that, I think, eight years ago now. It came out of a need we had here in Dayton. We needed to be able to have qualified people. We just couldn’t hire qualified people who were ready to start the jobs. I think this led me down a path of thinking that there’s a gap between traditional, even four-year college programs, and being a well-qualified beginner ready to be a professional engineer.
So, I tried to solve that problem the way that anyone would, I guess. I was like, Oh, I can write a curriculum. I can go to my local college and teach this class. When I approached the local college they were like, "Yeah, we’re not really interested. You don’t have a master’s degree. You’re not qualified." And I got kind of frustrated, but upon thinking about it, once I was back in the office, I had this moment and was like, Well, why do I need the college to do this? I’m going to join the same slow system that produced what it is today? So, I decided that we could run our own apprenticeship. I took that same curriculum and repurposed it for internal use, and I actually went back to that same college and stood outside of senior classes and recruited people, and finally got three brave souls to say, "Yes, we’ll come do this." It’s a paid apprenticeship.
IVAN: How long does it last?
ROB: Six months. January through the end of June they come and hang out with us. We pay them. They don’t work on client projects. The entire goal is to turn people into really well-qualified beginners.
IVAN: Are they typically students in their junior or senior year, or do you have freshmen? What kind of happens after the apprenticeship?
ROB: It started out, the three that we originally got, all had some kind of formal education. Since then, over the years, we’ve had everything from people who are looking for a career change, to people with a two-year art degree, to a four-year computer science degree—they’re all over the map. What we’re really looking for is people who just want to get into the industry and are hungry and want to do good work.
IVAN: And do you end up hiring any of them?
ROB: About half.
IVAN: Wow, what a wonderful way to onboard a new human into the industry—give them a chance of being an apprentice and then if it works out, they might even have a job there.
ROB: Yeah. And, the other half we’ve been able to place and find jobs for. I think everybody but one, who have been through our apprenticeship program, has left with a job in hand.
IVAN: Well, we should talk, [laughing] because if you’re not hiring, we might be. Do you have a list that I can join? Should I talk to you after the show, Rob? [laughing]
ROB: We could totally talk, and I’m happy to. Some of the people we are able to hire, they are really good. There’s just business needs and requirements and staffing teams and all that, but it’s been amazing, so amazing, that we’ve been able to add a second apprenticeship. The one we’ve been running for about eight years, and we have another one that we call The Front End Design Apprenticeship we run over the summer, that’s a four-month program. That one’s a little different because it takes somebody with a traditional design education and then teaches them how to turn those designs into code.
IVAN: Wow. And, have you open sourced any of the material that you'd use in the apprenticeships, or is that currently internal at Sparkbox?
ROB: It’s been open source since day one.
IVAN: Where would someone go to see those?
ROB: If you go to the apprentices.seesparkbox.com, there’s a link on there to GitHub. At this point the curriculum has far surpassed what I originally put together. It’s way better. The apprentices themselves actively maintain it with resources and what needs a change, and things that they found that were valuable, and the entire team is very involved with that. One of the things that we say a lot is, "It takes an entire village to raise an apprentice." And, we require all of our people to have at least a half hour on their calendar every week where they can do pairing.
IVAN: What a wonderful thing to have. How has that worked out?
ROB: It’s been awesome. It’s led me to this fundamental belief that we can choose to be either a talent producer or talent consumer in this industry. And for a small studio like us, being a talent producer really was the only choice. And I think it has long-lasting effects on just your team, because I also believe that we can learn something from everyone, and we have something to teach everyone. Which means that more senior people will get smarter by teaching, and they learn something from our apprentices. We’ve been doing them long enough where at a retreat last year, I think 25% of our company is former apprentices.
IVAN: That’s wonderful.
ROB: It’s pretty neat.
IVAN: So, we had Carl Smith on the show a few episodes ago, and we got to talking about what was coming up next for the Bureau. And he mentioned Diversity Days, and he was saying that it was going to be at Sparkbox. And we talked a little about that, and I think they were still trying to figure out the curriculum at the time. Tell me more about Diversity Days at Sparkbox. What is it? I think it’s coming up in November here. What should the audience know about it?
ROB: I'm really, really excited about this. This is a great chance for what I think both the Bureau and Sparkbox to be at the center of a really, really important conversation.
So, one of the things that we wanted to make sure that we had is somebody who is qualified to speak about these topics. So, the first day, the workshop day, we’re bringing in a speaker, Karen Catlin, who runs the Better Allies Twitter account and who has written a book called Better Allies, is coming in to share about building inclusive environments and how to do that well. I think that is going to set a great foundation for a group of people that will attend the event.
The second day we’re doing a leadership forum, where we’re trying to get a bunch of the people who run studios, who build teams or maybe even work in-house, that are responsible for hiring and culture things, and building those teams to get together and talk about what things we can apply from day one back at our organizations, to help make a difference in this industry.
IVAN: It sounds like a very much needed conference and set of sessions. Do you know offhand what the dates are? We’ll publish that on the transcript as well if you don’t.
ROB: It is November 13 and 14.
IVAN: And that’ll be at Sparkbox in Ohio?
ROB: In Dayton, Ohio. Anybody who wants to come see us, please, please come see us. Even if you don’t come for Digital Diversity Days, stop by. We have plenty of office space, lots of internet, come hang out with us. We love visitors.
IVAN: I love the friendly disposition you have, and how inviting you are, and it doesn’t just extend to clients and partners and current team members. It also extends to Sparkbox alums. When you gave your keynote at Manage Digital, I was really impressed with how you talked about the wider Sparkbox community, not just the people that are working there right now, but people who have worked and humans that have been with you in the past. What’s your philosophy around that and how do you get those people together, if you do?
ROB: I got into this for the humans, and I believe that we have to treat them well. I think that your former employees are the ones that actually control your reputation. I want to make sure everybody leaves well, and things end well for people. I think so much of how people view a relationship—and that’s really what employment is—it's defined by how it ends. A perfectly good, even successful relationship, if it ends poorly, can feel horrible and can color the whole thing, and that’s not at all what I want to do. I think that what we look for is for people who, during at least a season, because there’s seasons for all things, where our seasons line up and we can kick a bunch of butt together on projects, and that season will probably end, and that’s okay.
And I think that’s really healthy to think about life that way that, "Hey, our goals lined up and we did a bunch of great work together, and now our goals don’t and we’re going to go our own ways." That doesn’t remove that person or alum from our story. It doesn’t take us out of their story. There’s a lot of good stuff that happened. And why not respect that by throwing a party on the way out?
I think the other part that is so fundamental is, I can’t talk about caring for humans the way that I do and believe what I believe and then only live that when it benefits me, when they’re employees. I think that’s fundamental. If you really care about the people, then it has to transcend when it makes sense, when it’s convenient. I invite people to come in and talk to me about what they want to do next, and I’ve written letters of recommendation to help people find new jobs when they’re current employees.
That’s all good stuff. Sometimes people grow. Well, all the times we hope people grow. That should be a common thing that we want out of people. Our alums are part of our story. I still talk to them. If I end up in a city where there’s a Sparkbox alumni and I haven’t seen that person in a while, doing dinner or taking them out, or just saying "thank you" is totally commonplace.
IVAN: Why do you call your company a "studio?" It’s a subtle distinction from being an agency or a firm or a dev shop. I think it’s worth explaining and exploring.
ROB: I hate the word "agency."
IVAN: Yeah, I do too. [laughing]
ROB: It makes me think of Don Draper, with the brown liquor sitting in his office, smoking, and the whole power dynamic that comes with that. I think the word "agency" has been overloaded a lot and doesn’t make clients think of partnership they have. It thinks like, "Hey, we’re going to throw some work over the wall and it’s going to come back and you’re going to be our agency of record." It’s everywhere. I like the word "studio" because I think it speaks better to the creative problem-solving work that we want to do in partnership with our clients, and it invokes the right feeling of that.
IVAN: I like it too. One of the positions you have in your organization is called Director of Humans. What’s that about? How did that come to be?
ROB: That was a role that I had identified that we needed several years ago. Actually, I’m looking at it right now—I have it framed on my desk. I’ve got a list from about five years ago, of all the positions internally that I wrote down that I thought we would need as we grew, and one of them was Director of Humans. Part of that job is definitely an HR function, but I think when we talk about human resources, the other word that really bothers me is "resources." I hate it.
IVAN: Resources, yeah.
ROB: The reason being is because resources is a manufacturing word of something we use up and then discard.
IVAN: And that’s expendable, right? It goes away, right?
ROB: Right. And that’s no way to talk about humans.
IVAN: Absolutely not and agreed.
ROB: So, once I decided that HR was out, because of that word "resources"—can’t stand it!—we had to come up with something different, a position that we could have that partnered with our employees to help make sure they were getting the care and feeding direction they needed, and a place to go where they could have all those things fulfilled for them with that. And Director of Humans, because we have a director of level at our company, made a lot of sense at the time.
IVAN: I love it. That’s awesome. Before we wrap up, I really would like to find out about the origin story of Sparkbox. What was Rob Harr doing just before Sparkbox, and how did Sparkbox come in to be?
ROB: I’ll try to keep it brief.
IVAN: Oh, don’t. Give me the real deal. No brief. We’re good.
ROB: So, I started my career as a software engineer, in the early 2000s. Worked professionally in a lot of big enterprises for years, loved my job. Oh, did I love doing architecture. I fell in love with the people side of software problems really, really, early and got to do that and loved it. Eventually I was moved into more of a consulting role, worked for the largest reseller of banking software in the world as a consultant. Travelled about 70% of the time for almost two years, and that’s what I was doing right before the company got started.
My business partner, Ben, who I love dearly, is somebody who was running a small studio called Design District at the time. And Ben kind of came into my life from my dad. My dad works in the industry, he’s a software engineer. Ben’s first job out of college—Ben’s a couple years old than I am—was working for my dad. So, when Ben was looking to find someone to work with on the software side of this new business, he called my dad. And my dad called me and said, "Hey, are you interested in this?" And then told Ben, "I’m too old to do any of that stuff anymore, but my son, do you remember Rob?"
So, we had breakfast at 6 a.m. one morning, and we started working together. I’ve said this many times, but professionally I’m more of a back end developer, Ben’s more of a front end developer, but professionally he completed me. I’ve never had more fun working with somebody.
IVAN: Aw, that’s awesome.
ROB: And we have so many similarities and we’re good friends. We’ve been doing this for 10½ years together now. We think differently, but have a set of common beliefs about all this stuff. I am definitely a "how" person. I’m a number two. He is the visionary, he is the CEO role, he is the idealist among us, and he’s very inspirational. I’m a little bit more tactical with all this stuff like, Hey, how we going to figure this out? That’s how I ended up in the operations and the finances and kind of running the day-to-day part of this business.
So, I was actually hired by Ben at a small company called Forge that was design, branding, web, marketing, basically if you gave us money we would do it. I ended up being the first employee of that company, and there were four other business partners. We ran that way for about two years, and just could not really make a dent, because when you do all of those services, nobody sees you as a specialist in any of them. And it just did not sell outside of the Dayton area.
At that point we decided to niche down, and Ben and I took and created Sparkbox out of that, and that part of the business absolutely took off. Once we started just doing web software projects, that side of the business just continued to grow and grow and grow, and turned into a team of 45 people today, soon to be probably 50. We’re looking to hire a couple. If you’re looking for a job, seesparkbox.com.
IVAN: [laughter] Small plug. It's all good.
ROB: That kind of turned into one thing led to another. I am so thankful for all of the wonderful opportunity that Sparkbox has allowed for me. We started this all with the idea that we wanted to take care of our families, and we’ve extended that to wanting to take care of all of the families of all of the people that work with us. That’s really, really important to me, and it’s really important to Ben. I couldn’t do this without him, and I think there’s a mutual codependence. It’s really healthy between the two of us. At this point we’re kind of doing life together.
IVAN: What would you say is the specialization, the niche that Sparkbox has that is maybe your competitive advantage over other studios and agencies?
ROB: I think it's two fold. One, when we talk about web software, we hire and work with a bunch of people that have come out of a computer science background, and actual software specialization that allows us to work on really complicated systems of big enterprise. While not always doing back end services, we can work with those teams and they like us, and we understand the security implications and how to build complicated things and web products and apps.
The second thing is something that came out of the apprenticeship stuff and all of these other pieces is, we build teams, both internally and for our clients. And, it’s not uncommon for us to write job descriptions, and help our clients hire teams and mentor those teams, and to replace what Sparkbox is doing for them and make them self-sufficient.
IVAN: I love that idea of empowering your clients.
ROB: We have to. We can’t say the word "partnership" if we’re not trying to leave them better off than we found them. And I think that goes back to the agency idea, agency versus studio. An agency, at least in my experience, an agency's main job is to stay an agency, to stay the agency of record. A partner is looking out for what’s best for that client to help them get to where they need to be, even if that’s sunsetting it. We have a long history of sunsetting with projects and clients that don’t need us anymore. We help them hire and build a team and say, "Hey, good luck, and we’re here if you need us, but we think you’re off in a good direction."
IVAN: That’s the note of a real partner, where you’re mindful of what the client’s needs are, instead of remaining the agency of record.
IVAN: One final question. We talked about where Rob was before Sparkbox and the origin story behind it. I know you went to Wright State University in Ohio, did you grow up in Ohio? Is that where you’re from, or do you have another story of where Ohio was a destination because of a girl or something like that?
ROB: No, I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, because my Dad got out of the Army and Tennessee was the only state, I believe, east of the Mississippi where you could collect both unemployment and the G.I. Bill at the same time. So, he ended up in Tennessee where he met my mom.
I was born in Nashville, but he was still at college finishing up computer science at Austin Peay University. So that probably makes me one of the first second-generation software engineers. Then we moved a lot as a little kid, as he started his career. From Nashville to Indiana to Michigan, where my brother was born, and then eventually to Dayton, Ohio in the mid-eighties. So, I definitely grew up in Ohio, but we moved a little bit when I was a little kid.
IVAN: Well it’s been a great pleasure speaking with you today, Rob. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.
ROB: Yeah. Thanks. It’s been absolute fun. An absolute blast. Thank you.
IVAN: Rob Harr is co-founder and Vice President at Sparkbox, and you can find them online at seesparkbox.com. You can find Rob online at robharr.com.That's Harr with two Rs. He’s also @robertharr on Twitter.
You’ve been listening to the TEN7 podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.