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Customer profile: Central Station

/ Case study
Central Station have produced incredible Silverstripe work for high-profile clients throughout NZ, and won plaudits along the way.
Seven members of Central Station's team.

Auckland digital agency Central Station have produced some of the best Silverstripe work we’ve seen, working for high-profile clients throughout the country. They were recently recognised alongside much bigger competition at the Campaign Asia Agency of the Year awards. We talked with Managing Director Josh Lock, Lead Developer Carey Liu, and Digital Project Manager Stephanie Robinson about the integration of design and back-end work, the flexibility of Silverstripe, the end of the Common Web Platform, Covid, and the future of digital business.

You were shortlisted in the New Zealand category of the Campaign Asia 2020 Agency of the Year awards. Congratulations! What did the judges see in Central Station that they didn’t see elsewhere?

Josh: The winners were DDB New Zealand and Special Group, and we came runner up to them. The awards looked at our performance at a financial level, growth within the company and the technology advancements that we’ve made, which have been huge. They also looked at our staffing, our people, and what our company culture is all about including staff training, development, and career paths.

Then they looked at individual clients and work that we have done. So, it's really the full spectrum — the company as a whole. It wasn't only about producing good-looking websites.

We probably would have gotten an even better result if we’d entered Independent Agency of the Year, but we want to be seen as a digital agency. We were competing against agencies like Special and DDB, and the judges were international, so they would have looked at our budgets compared to theirs and we would have looked like small fry. To come third was quite good.

Central Station projects often mix attractive, functional design with smart back-end development. How does your multi-talented team gel?

Carey: Everyone has a different background and different strong points.

Josh: Yes, everyone within the team is in a specific position for a specific reason. All of our team have digital capabilities, and understanding within multiple areas, but in reality it's more about collaboration and teamwork. We get things right through working together, and having certain points where we meet and discuss projects to keep the right people involved at the right time.

And we have one working area. Being a technology company, we should be able to work remotely because we’re brilliant on computers. But in reality we found through the Covid lockdowns that although we were exceptionally efficient, we're better as a team that can collaborate and work as a unit. This brings those design and back-end divisions together in the best possible way.

Carey, what’s the Central Station environment like for the development role that you have?

Carey: I'm a Lead Developer, and I came into Central Station’s larger team from a role that was purely development. The biggest change was that Central Station has in-house design, which is a big plus. It means endless possibilities where we can add value for the client. It moves us on from “Do we just satisfy the requirements?” to “Do we actually satisfy what the client is trying to do?”

We can come up with a full package from discovery all the way to deployment. And the solution is tailored: it’s what the client wants rather than us sticking to a spec sheet. That's one of the biggest changes that I felt coming into Central Station.

What lessons did you learn while integrating design and back-end services? Is there anything you’d do differently today?

Stephanie: Our processes have never been bad, but like anything they can always be improved. We've been looking at each stage of the project and asking what we should do so it runs smoother and better. There isn't one silver bullet, and it is a bit project-dependent and budget-dependent.

To integrate things better all the developers here are now full stack. So rather than segmenting the back-end and front-end between different devs, everyone can do both. They're responsible for a work stream, rather than being spread across various streams, which makes us more efficient. That works well.

And being in the room, like Josh was talking about. We all sit together so the collaboration is much quicker and easier than when you have remote teams.

We're constantly fine tuning and upgrading our processes, and documenting them, so that we can continuously improve. We don't just do this internally, but with the client as well.

Josh: We do retrospective meetings after every key project as well, to learn from them. So we're constantly fine tuning and upgrading our processes, and documenting them, so that we can continuously improve. We don't just do this internally, but with the client as well.

The clients that are showcased on your website are really varied, from Gibbston Valley winery in Central Otago to the New Zealand Blood Service. It’s hard to think of organisations that would be more different than those two. How do you go about serving such different clients equally well?

Carey: It all starts with understanding the client's requirements, and actually understanding their business. For example, we went down to the winery in Otago, and for NZ Blood we had a tour around the laboratories. That’s to understand what they're trying to do with the product, and also understand the business rules. Every business is different. Yes, we have a very wide range of organisations but if we understand them, we can get to the best solution possible.

Josh: If they can't document their requirements then we, as business analysts, go in and scope the job to a level where it can be handed back to our design and dev team. Or we even give it to another web development company as a fully specced project.

There are examples on the other side. We'll go into meetings where they want an ecommerce website and we soon work out that they can’t facilitate it at their end, with their internal infrastructure or processes. So some jobs come to an immediate end.

When you first see clients it sounds like you're not thinking about digital solutions. Instead you’re stepping back just to get to know how they operate.

Stephanie: To build a website you have to understand what the business is trying to achieve. At NZ Blood they want to get donors through the door. At Gibbston Valley they want to sell bottles of wine, and get people to book events and book their venues. So it’s understanding what their business objectives are first, and then translating that online.

The online part comes after strategic understanding of the business. That makes it quite interesting for everyone here because, in an indirect way, we become part of their business. To execute we need to understand the business and the strategy just as well as the people who work within the business.

Even though your clients are such a varied group, on the technical side you’re all-in on Silverstripe, which is a CMS that we have a lot of time for as well. What is it about Silverstripe that you like so much? What lets you build such a variety of different things?

Carey: We find Silverstripe attractive because it's ultimately a very flexible framework. It’s not just a CMS — it's things like the ORM [object-relational mapping] as well. Nowadays it's actually different modules put together so we can use parts of it, or we can use it as a whole. Developers have the ultimate flexibility to shape it into anything that the business needs. We haven't found a case where we can't solve an issue or produce a solution due to what Silverstripe offers at a technical level.

Personally I'm probably biased, because it's the first framework that I got deeply involved with, but I do like the community around Silverstripe. They’re local and passionate about moving the technology forward.

In terms of assembling a team how does being a Silverstripe agency affect your ability to find the right people?

Josh: We do find it hard to employ senior-level Silverstripe developers. We find it’s better to bring people through the ranks and train them under our senior developers.

Stephanie: So long as they know PHP well as a programming language, we can train people to use Silverstripe.

I'm probably biased, but I do like the community around Silverstripe. They’re local and passionate about moving the technology forward.

Carey: Technology is moving really quickly. We've moved from a traditional server-client structure into headless and having an API basically provide all the data. The industry has moved around with this as well. It started off with back-end and front-end devs doing their own thing. The irony is that when we started moving into headless, one of the driving forces was to separate front-end and back-end. The back-end would write data and the front-end would not need to worry about any of the logic, just consume the data.

But nowadays, more and more people are becoming full stack. And it's actually easier to become a full stack developer because we’re using a lot of the libraries that are already out there. To move with technology is not so much about this language or that language. Can you adapt to the new methods of building headless sites in u.js or React? It’s more like building a web app rather than a traditional website. If someone is able to demonstrate the ability to adapt to these things, then they’re a good candidate.

Josh: At a commercial level, clients also may shortlist an agency based on us being a Silverstripe developer. Our preference would be that they'd come to us as a brand, Central Station, but particularly in the early years they came to us as a Silverstipe developer. It was a good business tool, or marketing tool.

In Silverstripe news, active support is about to end for the common web platform (CWP). What are the biggest changes that your CWP clients will experience as they move off that platform?

Josh: Any client deserves options, and a choice on where to go. I think the fact that clients won't feel like they’re committed to one provider will make it feel more competitive. That’s good for the product and for the client.

What do you think people will miss, or not, about CWP?

Stephanie: The security that’s built into it.

Josh: CWP’s philosophy is a bit different to the traditional hosting. We find that, with SiteHost, developers have the freedom of directly accessing the terminal — things like SSHing in and debugging. CWP is very gated, so we don't actually have great access to terminals.

Carey: It's really easy to deploy stuff, from a developer point of view. You click a button and it deploys and it handles load balancing and all that in the background. But if something goes wrong, it's really hard to figure out what happened without that direct access. So for us, what's important is actually the support behind the platform — getting someone to look at it, or having the capability of looking into it ourselves.

From a client perspective, it's probably best that they don't feel the change, or get something better. Like Josh said, it's our duty to provide options for our clients and give the pros and cons of each, and then find the right solution.

When you lay out those pros and cons are there particular things that you encourage all your clients to look at?

Carey: The top of the list for me will be support. If we can get a quick response on something that’s causing downtime, that dramatically reduces downtime.

Monitoring as well. We do have stuff running, but sometimes we rely on the hosting provider for monitoring outside of work hours. That’s quite essential, the ability to mitigate attacks like DDoS. It’s something that clients are worried about, especially after recent attacks. Clients are very cautious about what actions we can take, and what procedures and processes are in place in case of an attack.

Your Silverstripe sites sit on a few different hosting platforms. What do you get out of SiteHost and our Cloud Containers that you don’t find elsewhere? What sorts of projects fit Cloud Containers best?

Carey: What we like about SiteHost is having full control of Cloud Containers and direct access to code. Ultimately we have more control over what we have on SiteHost compared to other hosting providers, and that's what we like.

You guys actually listen to feedback, too. I remember having you guys come in and talk about what improvements we’d like. At the time we talked about how CWP had live monitoring of disc space and memory usage, and pretty soon afterwards SiteHost had that as well. So we see that you are always trying to improve. Next we’d like to install packages without creating a custom image, which comes with a migration.

Stephanie: I like dealing with SiteHost because you’re responsive when we create a ticket or call you. Even if it can't be resolved immediately, at least we get an acknowledgement.

Carey: Some others feel a little understaffed, because response times aren’t great on support tickets. You're much more responsive.

Josh: To me as a business owner, we’ve built our company on people as much as technology. SiteHost people turn up and meet us, so we know your faces and names. There are people behind the company, and it feels like it's a relationship and a partnership.

Since Covid clients have mostly been reactive and getting up to speed, but now we're seeing a move into being more proactive and forward planning.

Now that Covid-19 has accelerated a number of digital trends like ecommerce and remote working, are your clients keener to experiment with newer ideas?

Stephanie: If their budgets allow it. Covid has capped a lot of businesses’ cash, which means that money needs to be spent on essential work or lower risk work, rather than experimentation.

Companies are more open to working with us online. Clients outside of Auckland will work with us without meeting in person which saves a huge amount of travel time.

Carey: For a lot of companies the only way of survival is going digital. If they don't go digital, they’ll die. It definitely feels like everyone's at least thinking about digital now. For example, a lot of our clients want the option of click-and-collect, which they didn’t before Covid. It seems to be a new standard that if you have ecommerce you must have click-and-collect.

Josh: I don’t think it’s experimentation so much as getting up to speed and treating digital as the number one shop front or tool. It’s so critical in today's environment. That said, a lot of our clients have done clever little individual things here and there.

Since Covid clients have mostly been reactive and getting up to speed, but now we're seeing a move into being more proactive and forward planning. They’re thinking about what their website should be able to do in the future. It’s planning and future-proofing, after what has been a reactional last year or so. Growth now will come from proactive work.

As companies start to look ahead to a more digital future, why should they work with Central Station?

Stephanie: Central Station has some of the best Silverstripe developers in the country. We have an excellent design team with incredible experience, and we’re still a small team. We operate in a lean way without the massive overheads that you might have in a bigger agency. So you gain access to large agency level talent. But without the cost of that.

Josh: Everyone's senior, there are no juniors, so there's no wastage. And we humanise the product we’re producing. We’re people-focused and we build relationships with our clients, rather than just pumping out code.

Thank you all so much for your time. We can’t wait to see what you create with Silverstripe next.