My experience at FreeAgent

I’d hoped to write this entry within the first three months of starting at FreeAgent. It’s now coming up to five. I’d envisaged this being a pros and cons of beginning a new job, but it turned out being more one than the other.

Anyway, this is how I’ve found the first three five months.

A screenshot of the FreeAgent application

The product

Before getting on to the interesting bits (the standard of coffee, snack options, does it have a beer fridge and so on) it’s worth mentioning the underlying product and what it’s like from “a guy on the inside”. After all, this is what is effectively paying for my mortgage.

Somewhat naively, a month before my start date, I signed up to FreeAgent to get fully up to speed with what I would be working come October 2018. The middle of that month came and (maybe 20 odd days into my use of it) and I honestly thought I’d explored the majority of the application.

I was wrong. 

On reflection, I think it’s safe to liken FreeAgent to Photoshop in many regards. Sure, you know it’s a powerful piece of kit and there will be some users who know EVERYTHING about it. But you think the parts of the software that you’re using, are the same parts that others are using, and those parts equate to about 95% of the whole functionality.

However, snap back to the real world and it’s the total opposite. A few weeks in to the job, I found that I wasn’t even aware of 95+% of the features, let alone using them. For this reason, I’m not ashamed to say that for the majority of the three months was spent attempting to grasp the complexity of the various different areas that are involved with the product, the knock on effects of changes, the design systems in place and the way that different areas speak to another.

Even if I tried to explain the intricacy of what goes on behind the scenes (and I won’t because a) I don’t understand and b) I’d get fired) I’d not do the product justice. I’m just amazed that it doesn’t fall over and break on a regular basis. God knows how they’ve achieved that. It’s a testament to the technical guys and their knowledge I guess.

Thinking about it though, the FreeAgent application has got some crazy uptime stat of 99.9999999%. However, in the grand scheme of things, it’s so super important to target 100%. FreeAgent is the heart and soul of so many different companies, businesses and ultimately – lives. If it were flaky, people won’t be able to run their business and they’ll stop paying their fee to the company. And I’d not be in a job.

Now five months in, I’m starting to understand the various areas of the product and each communicates with the other. At the start, I was finding it difficult to propose a design solution to a problem because I didn’t fully understand the problem. I now feel that I can now communicate my ideas, as well as justify them in the wider scheme of the FreeAgent product.

The FreeAgent team celebrating their 12th birthday

The people

The previous paragraph about communicating my ideas to a team leads nicely into this one. There have been places I’ve worked where if you ask questions, you’re made to feel as if you lack any ounce of intelligence. You’re just “meant to know the answer”.

I’ve not had that problem here. Regardless of the complexity (or lack of) in your questions, someone will answer it (and politely too). Whether this be an engineer responding to a query that usually highlights my total lack of technical knowledge, an intern letting me know where I can find a new notepad or the HR team letting me know when and how I’ll get paid, no question appears to be “stupid”.

The company is growing. I therefore assume these questions are common. The person you just asked a question to is quite likely to have been asking the same one three, six or twelve months previously. In that regard everyone appears to remember how daunting a new job can be.

I was joining from an agency of 40 something people. FreeAgent (at the time of writing) has closer to 200. I wondered how it would be possible to get to know everyone, get your voice heard, have meaningful input on the direction of the product with that many opinions to consider. I needn’t have worried.

This is going to sound like a huge cliché, but every person that works here has been so welcoming and open to listening to what you have to say. Sure, they don’t always agree with my suggestions, but unlike other employers, they aren’t just saying something to appease their own ego. Their input to the conversation ultimately has constructive feedback at the end of it, rather than a mere “I don’t like it”.

I think this is thanks to the specialist skills, knowledge and expertise in each area of the company. The technical team are incredibly knowledgeable about their domain. My fellow designers are super clued up about best practices (and more usefully the worst ones). The support team offer their tailored guidance and help to bewildered customers. Rather than just hiring someone to fill a space, the process is pretty robust and as such, everyone that is here has the required skills (as well as personality) to fit into the organisation.

You get the sense that every person is working towards making the product better. As a result, everyone appears happy to come to work each day.  Consequently the product continues to improve.

The design team making a decision

The job

I’m planning on writing a separate entry about how I’ve found shifting from agency work to product, but while that’s still in the pipeline, I thought it would be worth mentioning how I’ve found the switch.

I’m not going to sugar coat this. The most noticeable change that I’m starting to get to grips with is the speed in getting work out. In my experience, agencies fire things out to meet a tight deadline. It doesn’t really matter if the end result is, or whether it’s even complete. The deadline (and getting paid) is what matters.

I understand that. It’s a different business model. Agencies are relying on the income from individual projects to allow them to operate successfully. In product though, you’re clearer of the income you’ll generate in the next 6-12 months thanks to subscriptions and such like. This allows for far greater forward planning, and in such, “buys” you time.

There’s also the consequences of “firing out an update”. By doing it quickly rather than properly, there is the likelihood of screwing someone’s livelihood over. No one wants this as ultimately, you’d piss people off and they’d stop paying their subscription fee. Due to this, the pace in FreeAgent is slower to what I expected.

I’m now starting to learn that this is no bad thing.

Being able to think about what you’re doing, the rationale for doing it, how you measure it, as well as ultimately, whether it’s even needed, enhances every piece of work that gets done.

There’s a rigorous testing procedure in place to ensure only solid code and design gets shipped into the product. It can sometimes being frustrating wanting to update something seemingly trivial, but actually, the processes that are in place allow for a greater, more consistent level of deployment to be achieved.

As well as the speed, the abilities of those around you is different. I touched on it in an earlier section, but gone are the days of people wanting to throw extra copy in, add a picture for the sake of it or “do something different” because it serves their own interests. Instead, I’m surrounded by fellow product designers, engineers and product managers who are using their informed, tailored expertise to provide useful feedback relating to the case in hand.

All of these points make the job far more satisfying that I’d initially expected. I feel like I’m learning new skills each day. Whether this be about the product as a whole or more specific like accessibility principles, code structure, design patterns, workflow methods, effective communication, best copy practices or how to implement a few millisecond differences in page load times, my overall knowledge of what’s not involved in a “design” role is expanding.

One of the areas of the FreeAgent office

The culture & environment

Culture is such an integral aspect of the company. From the moment you walk in to the office you notice the relaxed, friendly vibe around the place. Sure, this is clearly helped by the pool and ping pong tables but loads of places whack them in and call themselves “trendy” right? It’s the atmosphere around these tables that makes the difference.

After 5 months, the sofas and fancy chairs dotted around the office have become the norm. It’s so easy to forget that this doesn’t exist in other workplaces. Additions such as these make a difference to your day to day work. There’s also “the den”, which has the sole purpose of allowing you to go and yoga/pray/stretch/meditate/anything but work. Multiple breakout areas also provide an escape from your desk. If you do need to remain stationary, you’ve got a view of the castle as a fallback. All in all, it’s a pretty sweet little place to do your work.

n.b. If you do happen to be one of the very few people reading this and are interested in joining me, FreeAgent are currently hiring.

Freeagent employees listening to internal speaker

To conclude…

I’m the type of person that, if something irritates me, I’ll let you know – ask ScotRail. You might be thinking that I’ve only written this because I was asked to. I assure you that this is totally not the case. It was only fair to explain how enjoyable the experience has been at FreeAgent.

I envisaged there being some negatives when starting, but as of yet, I’ve not found any worth writing about.

Am I being paid by FreeAgent for writing this article? No.

Should I be? Absolutely. 😉 

Thanks for reading 🙂