After finishing university in Leeds, Josh Nesbitt began working as a freelance programmer. In order to land larger contracts with major companies, he set up Stac, a technology consultancy firm. Here he tells us how he got started, and how Leeds has evolved to become a great city for tech.
Tell us about your business.
Day-to-day I run Stac, which started about six years ago. At first it was just building websites, stuff like that, but slowly we’ve got more into a niche consultancy angle. We work with companies like Sky and the NHS, and offer technical consultancy about how to build large-scale applications, or run coding workshops.
Do you still program, day-to- day, or do you stick to consultancy now?
It depends on the client. In Sky’s case, a lot of it is helping co-ordinate development and planning on internal projects. There are a lot of teams in Sky building different things, and we’re trying to consolidate and get more collaboration.
However, we’ve also built a learning platform for the NHS. So it goes from the very heavy, technical programming side, to more of the human side of it where we deal with the politics of programming. I love programming – and I seem to be alright at it – but I like dealing with people and working with them as well. I’m not the kind of developer who likes to sit in a dark room on my own.
The good thing about the Sky project at the moment is that there’s a lot of understanding requirements and figuring out how the bigger things need to be solved. It’s a lot different to just churning out code.
I think the variety I get with clients is why I’m still so interested in programming despite having spend so many years doing it.
What inspired you to start up Stac?
I’ve been freelancing for about 11 years now, and it was going really well so my friend and I wanted to formalise it. At the time in Leeds, a lot of people wouldn’t take you seriously if you were a freelancer going for big jobs, so we needed an outfit to sit behind.
That was particularly true for the NHS. I don’t think we would have got the contracts we got if we were freelancers. So we tried to present ourselves as a bigger agency than we were, which is quite common. We ended up going down the consultancy route to provide a more niche service. As Leeds was evolving, I wanted to elevate myself above the competition. I felt there was a niche to be filled and an opportunity both to make more money and work on more creative projects. It let me do more interesting things, that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was just a solitary freelancer.
Why does tech interest you / How did you get into tech in general?
I got a desktop computer when I was younger, and just got into it. I was never into other hobbies as a child, so I was playing around with computers a lot on an old Commodore. I got into the command line stuff and that really interested me. I heard about early phonejacking and freaking, and I was just playing around with technology.
Then I got into web, which seemed like a natural evolution of software and where things were going. It’s quite reassuring to be able to make a website and see it working, and it all went from there, really.
I started working at a place at university, doing cold calling marketing, and upstairs they had a tech department. One day I just went up and had a chat with them, asked if they could give me a job and they gave me one. They taught me quite a lot, and I just got more gigs from there.
Doing my degree at Leeds Metropolitan – or Leeds Beckett, as it’s now called – was good, but more because it helped me realise what I didn’t need. I did a business computing course but I’d learnt so much on the job that I was going to my lecturers and telling them that we needed to be looking at certain topics.
They either didn’t know what I was talking about or said they couldn’t change it, and their suggestions were all really old sort of stuff. The curriculum just couldn’t keep up with tech.
What does Leeds have to offer, as a city, to tech businesses?
I’m really excited for Leeds at the moment. I’ve been here for ten years now, and when I first came here it was a very different city. It’s been a really interesting evolution; when I first came here there was no real Ruby – which is my specialism in programming – scene, demand or support. I was having to take clients in Manchester or London.
Leeds wasn’t really aware of emerging technologies either. Now it really feels like we’ve got our finger on the pulse a bit more. Places like Sky are bringing tech to Leeds, also William Hill and the NHS to some extent. They’re doing interesting stuff with newer technologies.
I think Leeds now can offer jobs that are more current and more up-to- date, which is what I’m most excited about right now. I think it’s done a good job as a city getting up to speed with technology.
Manchester is always bragging about being the tech city, and it had a few wonder years with BBC’s Media City. But I feel like now it’s Leeds’ time to show that we can be a tech city too. I think for once we’ve got something on par with London and Manchester in terms of job offerings, which we didn’t have before. It’s really exciting. As a technology consultant, it’s good to see that people leaving university will have opportunities that I didn’t have at that time in my life.
What do you see happening in the future of Leeds’ tech industry?
I think there will be more community events and more collaboration around the city, with not as many technology silos. I know loads of great agencies that are doing amazing stuff with tech, and we need to see more of this being publicised and talked about.
I think there will be more openness, through things like Hey! that I believe can be a vehicle for it. Just basically having more people doing cool stuff in the same room. I think we’ll create a culture of people having more fluidity around their working days and coworking spaces popping up. I think more of that kind of stuff is what Leeds needs.
We’ve got some great agencies and some great companies hiring, but I’d like to see more of the freelancer and remote working scene evolve. Manchester has a great culture for that. There are loads of coffee bars where there are just so many laptops everywhere, with everyone working together.
It’s that kind of environment where really cool things happen, where collaborations and even companies start. Meeting like-minded people can be amazing. It’s important to surround yourself with people who can inspire you and drive you on to do great work.
What advice would you give for people looking to start up a business in this sector?
Get a coworking space. Or at least try to get an internship at an agency, there are plenty of companies you could easily get an internship at. Surround yourself with developers who care, and try to learn about what the industry’s doing.
When you leave uni, quite often you only know theories and not how to put them in practice. So learn how to deploy websites, make them scale that kind of stuff. Get an internship, or even just find someone who will sit down with you for an hour and teach you what to learn and tell you what’s current.
Favourite Yorkshire eatery/bar?
Big fan of Ox Club in Headrow House, it really feels like they’re putting a unique spin on local produce. Zuccos in Meanwood is great too.
What tech do you use?
On my Mac, I use a few: Asana, Trello, Slack, Airmail, Fantastical, Sublime Text, Terminal and Sketch.
Top 3 films?
Not a huge film fan in the sense of I don’t watch a lot, but I’d say: Sexy Beast, American Psycho and The Dark Knight.
What do you drive?
An Audi A5 (3.0 quattro)
Perfect Sunday Breakfast?
Tough one, as I love food! Probably avocado on sourdough with a poached egg. Maybe add a bit of nduja to spice things up!