The association for the people and businesses of Sheffield's digital industries.

talent 23, a year of talent and skills

a year of talent and skills

Founder focus: Chris Roberts

The founder and CEO of Nimble speaks about scaling, obsessing over company culture and joining SCC.

Chris Roberts founded Nimble in 2016 with a vision to create a boutique Agile consultancy that could improve the way organisations and tech teams across the UK work. When we last caught up with Chris in June 2020, Nimble had a loyal network of 40 contractors, 10 employees and had just expanded into Leeds and Manchester. Three years on and a lot has changed. Nimble now boasts 150 permanent employees across four offices; the company opened a new base in Bristol as well as upgrading its spaces in Leeds, Manchester and Nimble’s main HQ in Sheffield. Following the recent announcement that Nimble has become a part of global technology services and solutions firm SCC, we thought now was the perfect time to catch up with Chris again!

It’s been a busy three years for Nimble… how do you feel when you reflect on everything?

Quite emotional really, and very proud. If you’d asked me six months ago, “Where next?”, I might have said Newcastle or Edinburgh, but given our recent news – it could be anywhere in the world now. 

Strangely though, because of all the things we’ve been doing, I’ve not actually had much reflection time – so doing something like this is a bit like going down memory lane!

What’s driven you to push on, what’s the personal driving force to make all this happen?

I didn’t know we’d get here when I set the business up. I had an idea of creating a boutique agile consultancy, which was more like an agency back then. It was fast paced, it was fun and we were doing well.

I suppose the overarching thing is that I’m really competitive, which stems from playing so many sports from about four years old! So, from having fun and feeling like we’d achieved something with Nimble, the competitor in me wanted to set a new challenge. I always have this intrigue of wondering ‘how far can we take this?’. 

To my absolute amazement, as we’ve scaled, Nimble still has that family vibe – that transparency, trust, collaboration, knowledge sharing, giving everyone a voice and being completely ego-less.

How have you approached recruitment and retention in order to keep that family vibe?

We obsess about culture as much as we obsess about delivery. It’s really important. When we hire, we culturally vet before we technically vet because someone with an ego is not someone we’d want to work with – it would only take one bad apple to ruin a team.

We talk about ‘three pillars’ a lot and one of these is ‘Best for Nimblers’ – so this is about recognising that everything starts with our people. We offer a career framework and the chance to progress and develop, and actively encourage cross-skilling for people considering a change in their career.

We focus on leadership rather than management and getting smart people in, then removing the barriers for them – that’s a big thing here. If we employ someone we trust them and empower them to do really well.

Crucially, the company is always changing and there may be side effects to this so we have to listen to our people, be responsive and be empathetic.

“We obsess about culture as much as we obsess about delivery. It’s really important.”

Have there been times when you’ve felt overwhelmed and perhaps questioned whether this was the right thing to do?

I’ve never not believed that we’re doing the right thing. If I’ve found it overwhelming at a particular time, it tells me that my head is in the weeds and I need to zoom out to see the bigger picture. That’s when I start sketching and observing where I’m spending my time. The team around me has been great; I’m a big believer in doing three or four things really well, rather than doing lots of things at 40%, and that’s where the team comes in.

In terms of managing these feelings, I can think of two weekends when I’ve worked. Keeping the  weekend free from work has been an important thing for me. I know a lot of other CEOs and founders, and I think this has been a differentiator for me – you need the balance and the time away.

I’m a big ‘morning person’ as well – being in the office at 6:30 or 7am before the noise starts – that motivates and drives me to get stuff done, get the equivalent of half a day done before the working day starts

At what point in your career did you realise these things about yourself?

Probably my early thirties. A lot of this comes from agile working, so you hear agile teams talking about retrospectives or running a retro – we did this in 2008 at Technophobia and there was a follow-on concept around personal retrospectives. So, through the agile movement I started to think about it and this was when I was about 30. It’s just hooking into the right type of thinking. You’re just reflecting on how things have gone; what do I need to stop doing that’s not serving me? What shall I start doing? What’s going well and we should dial up to like x1000?

This is how I came to the realisation about weekends; I am good at pushing myself hard during the week, knowing that I can have this mental break at the weekends, to gather myself, regroup and go again.

What hasn’t changed at Nimble?

The values of our people: being transparent, being authentic, being collaborative, being egoless. My role has changed but my work ethic hasn’t; early starts and getting things done with a clear head – but I am clear with staff that I don’t expect this of anyone else, I’m not trying to set a standard for when people should be in.

What’s challenged you most as a leader?

Letting go. I knew the logic, but figuring out what things to let go of has been challenging. For a while, I was doing client facing roles myself because I love the industry and I love the work, but I had to let go more of this and the delivery of the projects.

Having a leadership team who I can trust has been really key to this. As we’ve grown, I’ve figured out where to place myself and get a team around me who are accountable and understand their responsibilities. I’m still a sounding board, but they are trusted and smart people who relish the responsibility and the opportunity to put their own stamp on our growth.

You’ve recently announced that SCC is taking a major investment in Nimble, making you part of the SCC Group. What can you tell us about this deal?

This is a really good two-way fit for us and SCC. There’s been interest in the company for years now – I’ve spoken to at least 25 companies in the past two to three years but Nimble is very precious and close to my heart, and these companies haven’t been the right fit. With SCC, it felt right from minute one of meeting them, and then things moved quickly over the last two months.

They’re a friendly, family business with a great legacy. I met Sir Peter Rigby who started the business in 1975, and it’s incredible how they’ve grown to the size that they are, whilst maintaining their culture. We felt a real alignment with this and their values, which I’d never expect from a company their size – but I was really pleasantly surprised.

They’re friendly and not overly corporate, which is a really big deal to us. The litmus test for me in my own head had to be that I could genuinely look my people in the eye when we did this deal – that meant a lot to me, and that’s what I was able to do here.

SCC don’t currently have the capabilities that we have, such as user-centred design or full stack engineering, but they’ve got big ambitions in these areas. Likewise, we don’t have 400 blue chip clients like they have – they have incredible relationships across the globe and you can see how we can tap into that, providing interesting, more diverse projects and even locations for our people.

You mentioned that you’ve previously struggled with ‘letting go’. Are those feelings exacerbated at the moment? How are you dealing with that?

It comes down to my interest in the next chapter, which is why I’m now looking more at strategic growth of the company.

It’s early days and there’s lots of exploring to do, but that’s what makes it interesting. There’s another growth chapter ahead and I’ve got work to do in figuring out how we get there, working very closely with Christine Olmstead – Chief Strategy Officer – who’s joining our board from SCC.

Plus, I’ll be sitting on an operational board for SCC which is a really interesting opportunity for me. I’m honoured that, for a company of that size, I’ll have a presence and the chance to contribute.

Nimble delivered a all-hands announcement about joining SCC, giving people time and space to process the news.

How do you lead your team through this process?

That’s something we really planned and obsessed about. We tried to empathise with our team on hearing this news for the first time – so we could react and support them well.

We did an all-hands announcement and gave our people time and space to process the news. Then we gave them a chance to meet the key people at SCC, who they’ll be working with and to hear from their leaders. We did a big Q&A for our Nimblers and those from SCC who are joining us and published FAQs online, plus in-person sessions at all four sites, so people could come in and speak to us, in a group forum or 1-2-1. We’ve also shared a lot of content from SCC in bitesize digestible chunks, including how they communicated the news to their people as well.

It was principally about giving lots of accessible opportunities in different formats to allow people to get information and ask questions, in the format of their choice.

There’s no threat to anyone’s jobs or careers at Nimble – on the contrary, hopefully this has reduced anxiety and worry about job security in a difficult market. There’s a real Venn diagram of where our people can add value to a big list of blue chip companies, so this deal brings more opportunity than anything.

What advice can you give to other independent tech companies wanting to scale?

Be really clear on your services, understand what’s important to you and what you value. And consider your culture, will this manifest and grow in a healthy way in a growing company?

Nobody really talks about this on LinkedIn, but you need a hell of a lot of mental discipline. I have 50 ideas a second – if I had let myself, I’d have started four or five other companies whilst doing this in the last few years! But I believed in our cause and the goals we had set, and had the mental discipline to stay focussed, not be distracted

Also, I can’t speak highly enough of the input we’ve had from Mike Bates, our non-executive director. Speaking to somebody who has trodden the same path, has the scars and the learnings and – he won’t mind me saying – more wisdom and more headspace, being semi-retired.

So, when you’re really zoomed in and you’re in the weeds, it’s getting that advice on where you’re going next. Mike pushed us to consider our different positions and the hats we were wearing, and ultimately, he pushed us to ‘dream big’.

You can read more about Nimble joining SCC here and you can visit Nimble’s website to find out more about the company.