Paul Grenyer and Matt Wells are well known faces in the Norfolk tech scene and they’ve got good brand recognition for their company, Naked Element. But not so many people are clear on the finer details of what that company actually does. Beccy Johnston talks to Paul and Matt about developing made-to-measure enterprise apps, the benefits of automated testing and their naked passion for Agile.
If you are involved in tech in Norfolk, the chances are you’ve met Paul Grenyer. A founder member of Agile East Anglia, Sync Norwich and Norfolk Developers, Paul and his business partner Matt Wells are also the guys behind tech conference NorDevCon which returned for a second year in February and was bigger and better than ever. The pair formed software development house Naked Element in 2012 after working together at Aviva, but they have a shared history stretching back to 2010 when they worked together at local tech firm Validus.
You both had good contract jobs at Aviva, why did you risk going it alone?
Paul: Neither of us was really enjoying pushing paper around and we wanted to get back to the codeface and do what we do best – developing enterprise apps – so we formed our own company with another guy called Chris Wright but he left us when he got offered his dream job a few months later. It’s been a long, slow process building a customer base while also doing contract work as individuals to pay our bills, but we took on our first big contract from a contact I made at SyncNorwich who was looking for Titanium developers to rescue a troubled app development project that he’d outsourced to Poland.
Matt: I worked on the project for several months. The code that had been written by the guys in Poland wasn’t very good quality so I improved it and worked on their backend solution too.
Paul: And then in April, my contract at Aviva came to an end so I moved into the new “Whitespace” technology facility at St James Mill in Norwich.
Matt: The last six months have been the first time that we’ve both be working full time on Naked Element projects at the same time, so it feels as though we’re starting to get some momentum going.
Can you tell us about any of your recent projects?
Paul: I’ve been working on the Jobhop project for local entrepreneur Julie Bishop. It’s a social recruitment website – the idea is that “hoppers” (candidates) follow companies and companies follow hoppers and then when a company needs to fill a vacancy it already has a pool of people in its sights that it can approach. Meanwhile candidates can learn about companies and sell themselves in the best way. I’ve worked on phase 1 and their website is almost done. They’re now looking for new investment to do Phase 2 and we’re expecting to do some more work for them over the coming weeks.
Matt: I’m doing some more Titanium development for a local digital agency to produce an app for one of their clients (a multinational media company specialising in business and world affairs).
Paul: And we’ve just picked up another piece of work to develop an internal ordering system for a company who sell very large doors. It’s a web app that the sales team can use to select all the options for an individual project and which then automatically sends the order off to their suppliers.
So do you have a typical project or typical customer?
Paul: It’s predominantly cross-platform mobile apps and web apps.
Matt: We use tools that allow us to write one lot of code and create apps for Android, Apple and a mobile web solution. But we also do completely separate web apps for engaging with customers. It’s not brochure-ware. Fundamentally we’re software developers so if you just want a WordPress website, we’re not the guys to approach. We implement the gutsy bits behind ecommerce sites or ordering systems, stuff with backend functionality that implements a company’s business process or integrates with APIs from third parties like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Ebay or PayPal.
Paul: So far our clients have been start-ups and companies at the smaller-end of the SME market in East Anglia. And we’ve got all of our business so far through referrals or people that we’ve met through SyncNorwich or Norfolk Developers.
It’s funny you should mention groups like Agile East Anglia and SyncNorwich, you’re certainly pretty active in the tech community. Have you organised these groups in order to make contacts and generate work, or just for the love of tech and Agile?
Paul: It’s definitely because I’m passionate about these topics. In fact, SyncNorwich and Agile East Anglia both came along before Naked Element. I always say the reason why I do these things is 10% to give back to the community and 90% to stroke my ego! I enjoy setting things up that people come to and enjoy and then the numbers go up. But it has been a useful vehicle for meeting people and getting our name out there. I think we’re lucky now that everybody knows who Naked Element is, and everybody knows that we’re really good at what we do…it’s just that not a lot of people actually know what it is that we do! So we’re producing some brochures and improving our website to help people understand more readily.
I have to ask about where you got the name?
Matt: We went through a whole load of options. When there were three of us it was very easy to find a name that two of us liked but almost impossible to find one that all three of us agreed on!
Paul: We bounced around a lot of ideas that were “element this” and “element that”. Originally we were thinking about producing an online product where you could produce your web app through another web app without doing any coding – the idea being that the app was “naked” and you clothed it when you used the tool to add functionality, so that’s partly where the “naked” part of our name came from.
You both have plenty of expertise in developing enterprise apps, but your website mentions a whole range of other services, everything from design to SEO. Do you outsource those services?
Matt: Yes, we’ve got a range of trusted partners we can bring in to provide specialist services when required. The idea is to use other development resources too as we take on more business but for the two of use to remain the quality gate.
Paul: Our unique selling point is the quality of the work that we produce and the automated testing techniques we use, the experience we’ve got and the fact that we care about that quality. That’s what makes us better than the competition.
Why is automated testing so important to your approach?
Paul: Lots of people don’t bother with automated testing but the analogy I use is this: If you’re in a dark room and nailing down a floor, you’re hammering away at one end of a plank but because it’s dark you can’t see that the other end of the plank is coming up. In the software world, you are changing functionality in one area of the application and you don’t realise you’re changing or breaking something else. If you have an automated test wrapped around that “something else” and you run that test after each change, you’ll know straight away if you’ve broken something and you can fix it promptly. Without automated testing you may not realise it’s broken till much later in the development process, even until the app is deployed. Or worse, you know it’s broken by you’ve no idea why. We also use static analysis tools that pick up common bugs.
Obviously you’re big fans of Agile, but do you have a struggle convincing start-ups and SMEs of the benefits of this approach?
Paul: It varies. Often they like the idea and think it’s a good way of working, but then they ask for a fixed price! The client I’m working with at the moment is happy to work in a completely Agile way and we bill them per iteration, but the client Matt’s currently working for is taking a hybrid approach – we agreed a fixed price but he’s still working in an Agile way and we’re dropping code every couple of weeks.
Matt: We try to explain the benefits of Agile and encourage people to use it, but we also understand that we have to be flexible. My current client is an agency which has a fixed price with their end client, so it would be difficult for them to have an open-ended deal with us.
You moved into Whitespace in May – how is it working for you?
Paul: It is good value for money and it’s working well for us so far. There’s nothing forcing you to collaborate, but it’s happening naturally. We’ve had some referrals from people here and it’s great having the Rainbird guys here because they’re at the same sort of technical level and have been quite helpful.
What’s the next big thing for Naked Element?
Paul: We’re always looking for new clients and to work on larger projects at the sharp end of business. We’re still doing all the local tech groups and we’re doing a lot more networking now to try to get our names out to the non-tech people too.
Matt: I think that we could do much more with bigger enterprise companies but it’s very hard to get into those companies.
Paul: We organise NorDevCon under the Norfolk Developers brand. It was a phenomenal success this year with 263 attendees.
What would you say is the one thing that could make the biggest difference towards improving the fortunes of the tech community in this region?
Paul: That’s really easy – getting everyone pulling in the same direction. When I returned to Norwich in 2011, there was a big tech community but none of them knew each other. With Agile East Anglia and SyncNorwich everyone’s starting to get to know each other and work together more but it’s still a bit disparate. People are still trying to start up new networking groups for the tech community without looking at what’s already there. The key is just to get everyone to move in the same direction. The TechCity status that we were recently awarded is also going to be really useful.
And there are still companies that aren’t engaging in the community. We’re trying to reach out to more of them, but there are some that just aren’t interested.
We hear a lot about the shortage of good developers in Norfolk. Do you see this as a problem?
Paul: We haven’t had to recruit yet and we’ve both got a network of good contractors that we can call upon, but it’ll definitely be an issue if we want to expand beyond that network. If you’re a .Net or PHP developer in Norwich at the moment you can command a good rate because there’s a huge shortage of those particular skills. But many employers aren’t prepared to pay the going rate for good people so it’s difficult for qualified developers to move here from outside. Local MP Chloe Smith was here at Whitespace a few weeks ago and I’m working with her on a scheme to try to hold on to the graduates that are already here and engage with graduates from other local universities as well as the really good self-taught coders who’ve never been to university and find ways of keeping them here. Smaller companies in Norfolk traditionally want people who can hit the ground running so they’re nervous about graduates. So we need to find ways to change those attitudes and provide training to close that gap.