Interview with GeekHive’s Tech Director Kevin Varley
January 10, 2017
I thought it was high time that I sat down and interviewed our Director of Technology Kevin Varley. Universally liked and respected by GeekHive’s employees and client partners, Kevin is someone you want on your team. Read on to find out what he had to say about his career, the way GeekHive approaches projects and his advice for new Developers.
Why did you get into the technology industry?
I played with computers a lot as a kid. My dad was a programmer and IT manager who made sure we always had a computer in the house. He worked for Con Edison and his company had a program to get computers for their employee’s families. My 3rd-grade teacher had a TI-99 and my dad bought the same model for our family. I remember pretty vividly watching my sister Jeanne programming BASIC and LOGO on it. We got a Mac Plus in 1986, most of my time on that was spent in MacDraw and Dark Castle. Man, I wish I had kept it! I wasn’t really ever that interested in programming though when I was younger.
For me, a computer on its own was obviously intriguing but the web was what really drew me into technology and led me to get a better idea of how things worked under the hood. (Thanks, Tim!) It really started for me with an internship when I was in college at the SUNY Buffalo development office. I was an English major with a minor in French and was supposed to be writing and editing copy, one of the tasks being an internal email newsletter. I suggested they look into making it a website and my boss basically said, “OK. Do it.” During this project, I started falling in love with web development. I got really interested in the technologies behind the web and thought it was an amazing way to share information and knowledge.
I was lucky enough to land a job at CNNfn as a developer right after graduation. As a web systems operator, it was my job to make sure the site was up and running and that was how my professional career as a developer started.
How long have you worked at GeekHive?
Eight and a half years.
Why did you choose GeekHive?
I was actually recruited by David Campbell. The position was more in alignment with what I wanted to be doing. I liked the team and that they took the development process seriously and I wanted to get back to a smaller company that really cared about how they were developing software.
What do you attribute both your own longevity and that you see of so many people who work for GeekHive?
I think that comes down to feeling like you are a part of a family, but that sounds really corny. For me, I feel like I have so much blood, sweat, and tears here. I’ve been here through the ups and downs. Overall, I think people feel like they can have an impact and help the company succeed. It comes down to feeling like you’re working with a bunch of people who give a shit and want the company to do well.
What did you do before this?
Immediately before coming to GeekHive, I was at DVTel, a company that did physical access and video security systems. The development work was some python web app development and C# desktop app development. Before that, I worked as a developer on a variety of platforms for Dow Jones Local Media Group, Infoworld Magazine, and a few startups in San Francisco after my time at CNNfn.
Did you start out as a developer at GeekHive?
Yes. With my previous experience in ASP.NET development, I came on as a back-end developer. From there, I did a couple of projects as a developer, then moved to a tech lead on a project for Microsoft where we worked on building a custom CMS on a very early iteration of the Azure platform. I was a tech lead for several years, then moved into the Technical Director role in 2012.
I’ve noticed that people that move up the ranks here are diligent and hardworking but also are very good communicators in addition to being solid technologists. I think having the ability to work well with clients and communicate effectively by understanding what the client is trying to achieve and what their business goals are is extremely important. Requirements gathering is where I’ve seen projects go wrong because of that part of the project not being handled effectively, so having those translation skills is key.
I think having the ability to work well with clients and communicate effectively by understanding what the client is trying to achieve and what their business goals are is extremely important.
What do you like most about your job?
The biggest thing for me is the people I work with. We have an awesome team, a group of smart, hardworking people that care about the work they do.
Another thing I’ve always liked is the nature of contract, or project-based software development, that we do. We work on so many projects and interact with so many different stakeholders and personalities. With the ever-changing landscape of technology, we’re challenged to solve different problems effectively.
I also really enjoy that even though it’s not the primary focus of my role, I still get to work on production issues, problem solve, and troubleshoot with individual developers. I have a lot of fun doing that.
What are your favorite types of projects to work on?
I have always enjoyed the custom application builds and the more complicated CMS integrations we do. CardioSmart was one of my all-time favorites. It had interesting problems, great team members like Phil Azzi and Dave Cardine and a great mission.
The Cynosure project was my favorite recent project. We got to really dig into using Drupal as an application framework, handled some interesting integrations and again had fantastic teammates like Drew Nackers and Michael McDermott. I like projects that illuminate business challenges for us as well as help a client, where we both learn and benefit from it.
What type of people do you like working with? Both internally and externally.
Nice people, haha.
Internally: Smart, hardworking, gets shit done, pragmatic. There are always constraints on projects where you have to sacrifice architectural purity for working code. Honesty is important. Forthrightness. That’s big for me.
Externally: The most important quality is someone who is engaged. In general, our projects go the best when we have at least one stakeholder who is really engaged in the project and is participating closely in the development process, engaged in UAT, and in some cases daily standups, and overall just has a high level of engagement in the project all around. Also, where they respect what we are experts in, and where we do the same for them. We know that they know their business best and honor that and hope they do the same for us.
What is our strategy and assessment process when a new project begins?
To begin with, we focus on trying to understand what problems our clients are trying to solve and where any existing pain points might be. It’s more important to understand that before we start talking about technology, tools, and platforms. When we have a better understanding of the Why, then we can move on to the How.
When we have a better understanding of the Why, then we can move on to the How.
From there, we try to help clients zero in on what their highest priority items are and help them figure out how to get the most bang for their buck so that we both set out with realistic expectations for the project. We try to be honest about this upfront to develop trust.
When might a client need open source vs. enterprise platforms?
A big factor that plays into this is the client’s existing investment. If their development staff is well versed in PHP or Node or if they already have licensing in place, that will obviously play a role. Beyond that, it’s really about choosing the right tool for the job. It’s critical to dig into details of the project – what is it? What problem are they trying to solve? What business goals are driving the project? Once we have these answers we can help them make a better determination of which platform will work best for what they are trying to accomplish.
What are some of the things you focus on specifically in your role?
- I work closely with our PMO on resource allocation and monitoring overall project health.
- I collaborate with HR and Developers for hiring and staffing.
- I play a role in technical oversight in our projects.
- I directly manage a lot of the development staff and help out with any development challenges or personnel issues.
- I collaborate with Jay Oliver, our CTO, on technology strategy and how to operationalize and staff accordingly.
- On occasion I write some code. I wish I could do more of it, but it’s a challenge of this role, trying to stay in touch and engaged with the actual technology while managing my primary responsibilities.
In terms of initiatives I’m involved with right now, I’m also working on creating career development tracks with our CTO. These tracks will put a more solid career development path in place for our developers. We’re looking to restructure our team so that we can retain smart people who don’t want to go the management route and would rather stay deeply focused on development. Jay has always felt strongly that GeekHive should be a place where you don’t have to become a manager to advance your career.
Is creating that type of space part of what you think sets GeekHive apart from other technology partners out there?
I do. There are a lot of agencies that just churn and burn…or maybe burn and churn? Retention is important to us. We don’t want to burn people out, we want to be a place where people can grow into different roles and in order to do that for developers we need to have options, like the career tracks I mentioned above.
Our clients also benefit from this philosophy because they get our long-standing teams filled with people who know this industry and work inside out.
What do you think your management style is?
One of the big things I try to avoid is micromanagement. Within certain limits, you need to allow people to succeed or fail on their own. If your employees need to be micromanaged, you are not hiring the right people.
3 fun facts about you?
2 – I studied in Paris for 5 months during my undergrad studies. My studies focused on being a dirtbag student traveler.
3 – I both love and hate the NY Rangers. Go Rangers! But they’ll probably screw it up. See?
Do you have any advice for new developers?
Expose yourself to as many platforms, tools, and languages as you can. An important component of my career path was learning about things that weren’t necessarily applicable to my day to day job. I think of amazing developers like Justin who are so passionate, are always trying new tools, and want to say that constantly learning about tools, techniques, and approaches outside of your everyday job is very important to your success.
What makes you a geek?
Biggest pet peeve?
People taking pictures of me…SHANNON. And the recent trend in agency-speak to employ words traditionally used as verbs as nouns (“Q: What is the ask? A: The size of the marketing spend.”
If you weren’t a developer, what would you be doing?
Journalist. No, fly fishing guide.
Biggest accomplishment outside of work?
Being a parent. I know that’s probably a boring answer, but it’s really hard and wonderful.
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