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What I learned from being at one client for two years

I recently finished up at a client after spending a little over two years there, working as a lead developer building mortgage application tools for bankers. In general terms, that's not that long to stay at one workplace, but as consultants, we tend to move around a lot, so it's kind of a long time! It's twice as long as I'd spent anywhere else.

I know a lot of Thoughtworkers really enjoy moving around and experiencing different places, different industries, different work cultures, different tech, and more. That variety is certainly something that's kept me at Thoughtworks for so long. But there are advantages to sticking it out a little longer as well! I think we forget that sometimes, so I wanted to share some reflections as I prepare for my next client gig.

The people stuff

Building relationships and trust takes time. Thoughtworkers are good at bringing a team together quickly, delivering early results, and earning credibility. But there's something to be said for building long-term trust with your stakeholders. It amplifies our technical expertise because people pay attention when we make a recommendation. And it allows for tough but important conversations with the confidence that everyone is speaking in good faith and the relationship will be OK afterwards. For example, our product owner could push us to build the best possible product in a given timeframe, knowing that we would give open and honest feedback if we thought that the expectations were unrealistic. And we knew that our judgement would be trusted when we said that something wasn’t possible, even if it was disappointing to hear.

Also, it's just easier working with people you know well! While I always enjoy meeting new people, it's also really exhausting. It's been nice to not do those first few weeks of an engagement where ten strangers are all trying to get to know each other and find common ground.

The product stuff

One reason I stayed happy at this client for so long is that we had really clear business value in our work. It's great having purpose and meaning, even more so when you're able to see that value over a longer period.

On some projects, we race to build something as quickly as possible to (hopefully) get it into production, but then roll off before we get a chance to see its impact. By sticking around for two years, I got to see how our work made our users’ lives so much easier. We got into a nice rhythm of analysing where the pain points were, enhancing the product to address them, and then seeing results in production and reacting accordingly.

Some of the biggest highlights for me were seeing testimonials from our users praising how much better things were getting for them. Or looking at our analytics and getting a really clear picture of where users were falling out of the funnel, patching that hole, and then seeing the numbers go through the roof. That's super rewarding and not something I'd had a chance to do before.

The tech stuff

The obvious one here is getting to see how your tech decisions play out over a longer period. We kind of fly from place to place, espousing all sorts of opinions but never having to live with their impacts for very long. Sometimes that brings us into conflict with client folks who have a different lived experience than us or a different set of priorities and motivators.

It's interesting now looking back and seeing how early decisions had ripple effects years later. Some things really set us up for success, and some things I wish we'd done differently.

The other interesting lesson is the importance of long-term persistence. I've sometimes been guilty of giving up on someone if they didn't "get it" the first time I tried to explain a concept. But at this client, there are some ideas and practices we've been talking about the whole time we've been there, and only now are we seeing real behaviour change. When we spoke about the importance of not breaking your APIs 18-24 months ago, no one really cared. But with enough persistence, and enough first-hand examples where we could say, "See? If we did it differently, we wouldn't have that problem!", we're finally seeing some progress. And even still there's a long way to go!

It turns out culture and practices don't change overnight. Not even over six months. Incredible, right?!

I don't want to pretend like everything was rosy! Like any gig, there were ups and downs, and there were times that I wanted out. But I want consultants to know that longevity has its advantages, so if you do get a chance to stick it out somewhere a little longer, give it a go and see if you like it :)

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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