2021 Agenda

Steve Thomas
Steve Thomas · 31st Dec 2020

2021 Agenda


#1. Values

I've often thought of "values" in a business context as some wanky, self-aggrandising, in your face type nonsense that emanate from HR departments as a means of making employees feel like they are on the A Team, whilst simultaneously scorned by those in the trenches.

Over the course of 2020, I did a number of sessions with a Performance Psychologist with the aim of:

  • Understanding more about human nature
  • Identifying and rectifying situations where I become the bottleneck in business progression
  • Understanding what I need to do to build a business that is not overly reliant on me

I learned a heap of insightful stuff, and one thing that captured my attention in particular was how values are supposed to be used - to inform the direction we should take during crossroad moments.

When implemented correctly, values can also form the foundation for the development of processes and culture over the long term, which doesn't sound too wanky at all.

With this in mind, the whole team will be undertaking a workshop sometime in early 2021 to decide the foundational values that underpin our culture and decision-making in the years ahead.

#2. Games

In 2020 we had the opportunity to kickstart development of a browser-based game which was completely unlike anything we'd ever tackled before.

The development process resembled what a bona-fide game or movie studio would be doing; including concept art, storyboarding, design, character rigging, audio engineering etc.

Everyone loved the change-up from traditional web app development, and we were all surprised how capable (and perhaps under-appreciated) a modern browser-delivered game can be.

2021 will see ongoing development of our game project (which is classified for now), and we'd love to start on a second hybrid web app / game project in the new year.

#3. A whole-of-project tool

In 2020 we did a whole lot of work all the way through our pipeline, from initial enquiry to requirement-gathering to cycle management and reporting.

We identified the need for a Client Dashboard 12 months ago, and built capability in our Coding Labs HQ app to integrate some of the data we'll need in our eventual Client Dashboard.

The Client Dashboard is certainly going to form an important part of how we collaborate with stakeholders going forward, but it does very little to inform direction for the road ahead.

The missing piece is the roadmap; the 10,000 foot-view; the visualisation of a project vision and strategy that we can refer back to it when we are unsure where to go next (or overwhelmed with options).

Whilst we have tried capturing something like a "roadmap" in various formats over the years (like this post that you are reading right now *cough*), none of the strategies have really stuck.

What we know from experience is that long-term planning for app development is unreliable even for well-established businesses.

When it comes to new projects, most are based on such greenfield ideas that fundamental aspects of the new business need some serious time and attention - because invariably those aspects have big ramifications for the app direction.

This (poorly paraphrased) Basecamp-inspired logic is timeless:

  • All complex projects can inherit only 2 of these 3 attributes: fixed scope, fixed timeline, fixed budget. We advocate for fixed timeline, fixed budget, flexible scope.
  • Don't bother with long backlogs and long term planning. Long backlogs never get completed and constrain our vision looking ahead. Long term plans are guesses because we can never fully predict a project direction at the onset (nor should we try).
  • Importance bubbles, so keep an eye out for things that come up again and again to inform where future effort should be spent. In other words: don't be a perfectionist and don't pretend like there is a pot of gold waiting when every conceivable task is ticked off (because you'll find or create 100 others in the meantime).

Our task is to pinpoint the happy place where we can consistently hit the golden trifecta: on-time, on-budget and on-vision.

As I was playing the excellent Ghost of Tsushima on PS4 last night, it struck me that the challenge is building something like the in-game map. A broad stroke outline, containing a series of objectives that are initially shrouded in a fog-of-war and are revealed as progress is made. You can zoom in or out, but are always working towards a deliberate, tightly scoped objective.

2020 Recap

Steve Thomas
Steve Thomas · 31st Dec 2020

2020 Recap

Around NYE each year, I write down a loose agenda for the upcoming year at Coding Labs and in this recap post I rate our performance as an agency, as well as journaling any other highlights or lowlights.

Related Posts

2020 was of course the year of COVID-19, and at Coding Labs we were definitely impacted by that as well, though as a business we did a lot better than many others and most importantly, everyone in our circle is healthy.

But before I delve too deeply on business and the widely panned year that was 2020, a bright note - on the 20th Feb 2020 my wife and I welcomed our second boy, Oscar, into the world.

Max's new partner in crime

Max's new partner in crime

Open Source

At Coding Labs we released the following open-source packages:

We also got a PR accepted into laravel/framework 🎉 as well as handful of other smaller contributions to various other open-source projects.

Releasing four packages was a big internal win for us, as we start to ramp up our strategy to write and contribute to open-source software - even if we are the only ones who use it!


We ended up +1 in our team size, adding Vickie (January) and Jonathan (April) to the mix, bringing with them incredible artistic and problem solving capabilities.

We farewelled Stephen E after 11 months of employment.

Now for a review of the 2020 agenda items

#1. Bootcamp as a service

Our vision for Bootcamp is an e-learning platform that teaches and assesses coding ability. It is built for anyone who has some background knowledge of app development (High School / TAFE / Uni graduates, self-taught individuals), and wants to bridge the gap between academic and commercial knowledge.

In 2020, we ran one official Bootcamp for 3 Griffith University students, who teamed up to build an IMDB-style app in Laravel and Tailwind.

Towards the end of the year, our summer intern @austincarpeter worked through the curriculum, noting the confusing bits, and taking our toolset for a spin by building a prototype e-learning app.

#2. Component-based service delivery

The goal heading in to 2020 was to standardise our pitching process, and document some common feature requests that we could drop in to proposals.

Throughout the year, this morphed into a need for an "estimator app", which in turn morphed into a full-blown client dashboard (which was already on our wish list).

We did some work around the edges on this but ultimately found that it crosses over significantly with pricing, so we'd rather roll this in with our estimator app idea.

#3. Streamlining client experience

Something we can do in 2020 is continue streamlining our service delivery so that we are providing a consistent baseline of support to all clients as a foundation for their unique requirements.

We did quite a lot of work refining the steps from an initial enquiry through to early discussions, proposals, onboarding and post-launch support.

Our Client Dashboard idea moved closer to reality as we integrated Coding Labs HQ app with Basecamp, creating the necessary data-sharing and graphing that will feature in the eventual client dashboard.

While the self-service aspect is certainly appealing, we are still keenly aware that app development takes a long time, is expensive and complex, and clients can experience stress at any stage of the project.

To this end, we have done more work around providing weekly summaries, and a maximum of 1-month between face-to-face or video updates.

#4. Ship two mobile apps

The first Coding Labs created mobile app hit the App Store in January, and we also discovered the process around shipping an update.

We started work on a second mobile app mid-year, however the project was ultimately abandoned due to factors outside our control.

#5. Reduce clutter

Overall I think we improved on decluttering:

  1. cleanup and clean out all stale to-do lists
  2. Don't add to-dos for things that can be done right away
  3. don't add to-dos for things we are probably never going to do
  4. require better to-do notes, comments and PR descriptions from everyone

The threshold for creating to-dos has increased, and we are doing a much better job of communicating contextually directly on to-do items. Our monstrous backlogs have been trimmed, and higher-level objectives have moved to dedicated Pitch documents.

We still have a bit of a blind spot around how best to capture medium to long-term requirements, which are generally very low fidelity, and mixed in with the project vision. My inclination is that long-term requirements should rarely or never change, and are documented in very broad stroke as either a vision statement or a 10,000 foot view.


I score each goal either a zero, half or full point based on the level of success.

#1. Bootcamp as a service ( 0.5 )

#2. Component-based service delivery ( 0.5 )

#3. Streamlined client experience ( 0.5 )

#4. Ship two mobile apps ( 0.5 )

#5. Reduce clutter ( 1 )

Overall: 66% strike rate

What Didn’t Work

  • COVID-19 understandably put a big dampener on business confidence, and likely led to some promising opportunities not reaching the sign-off stage. A black swan event like COVID-19 highlights our vulnerability to a wider economic downturn. Fortunately IT services remained in high-demand, but we need to double down on diversifying our revenue sources.
  • There are still a palpable gaps between client expectations and reality at times, which leads to morale-sapping tension and interruptions to our wider schedule. We need to keep improving our processes on estimating, setting expectations, planning, and articulating our philosophy and internal processes when building complex software.
  • In cases where the client is requesting a clear alteration to the Pitch that we are working on (typically resulting in increased overall scope), we were caught out a few times by not having a clear process on how we handle such events. While we understand the business driver of maximising value and aim to underpromise and overdeliver, we also need a clearer policy that protects our time and attention (not to mention our bottom line).

What Worked

  • For the first time in our history, we were able to commit significant time and budget internally, running in-house projects in parallel with regular client projects. This resulted in a tonne of improvement in our internal systems and tooling.
  • We got a lot of enquiries, and got the opportunity to have plenty of conversations and further refine our brand and process.
  • Our agency continues to attract and recruit talented individuals, allowing us to add new capabilities and increase output significantly.
  • We got a taste of building games for the browser, and we loved it! I've often said in conversation that if I wasn't in web development, i'd be in game development, and there is a real possibility that those disciplines will converge for us in the coming years.


A big thanks to my team: Jerrell, Vickie and Jonathan. Thanks also to our clients old and new, and our families and friends who contributed and supported our little agency in 2020.

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