ustwo’s Cara Bermingham on what it means to be a delivery coach, teamwork and the importance of empathy
As a delivery coach at digital design agency ustwo, Cara Bermingham is responsible for keeping the collaborative cogs oiled and working. Her role is to teach teams how to solve problems effectively and reach their full potential, cultivating an understanding, creative culture. Spending her days leading exercises and working with multidisciplinary teams, we caught up to chat about the importance of empathy, making her way without a formal degree and honing the ‘dark art’ of learning to listen.
Delivery Coach, ustwo (2012–present)
Freelance Producer, Poke, Grand Union, Airlock (2009–2011)
Business Analyst and Consultant, Insurecom (2005–2009)
Various office and TV production jobs including Tiger Aspect (Late 90s and early 00s)
Film and TV Production, Arts International (1998)
How would you describe your job?
My job as a delivery coach is quite an uncommon one in the creative industry. It is focused around supporting our teams at ustwo to collaborate with each other and deliver amazing products for and with our clients. It’s very varied and is a mixture of Agile product development [a group of software development methods based on iterative and incremental development], team dynamics, project management and facilitation.
What does a typical working day look like?
We are based in our studio in Shoreditch but sometimes work on client sites too between 9am to 6pm. When I’m in London it’s a 30-minute journey from where I live in Tottenham. My morning ritual always includes a team stand-up to check in with everyone on how things are going and what the plan for the day is. Whatever comes out of that can shape my day sometimes. We have to be super-adaptable in the way we work together so no one day is ever the same. I think that can make some people nervous but I like the feeling of not knowing what might come out of each day.
My working day depends on what point in the project we’re at. At the beginning of a project my days will be taken up by planning and facilitating workshops and sessions with the team for them to get to know each other, agree on the goals for the project and how they will work together. This is the most involved and vital bit of team dynamics work as it sets the tone for how that team will work together throughout the life of the project. Running these team building sessions and product workshops is often quite intense and you can be on your feet for the full day.
“Collaboration is at the core of what I do, and it’s my job to make sure we’re doing it in a productive and healthy way.”
As the project goes on my normal day can vary, but is still based around facilitating working sessions and generally supporting the product teams with what they need to move forward. Also working closely with the clients and bringing them on the journey if they haven’t worked out our way before. I often coach product owners on the role they need to play and have regular one-to-ones with the team to make sure I’m aware of what’s going on for them on an individual level and if there’s anything I can do to support.
How collaborative is your role?
Collaboration is at the core of what I do, and it’s my job to make sure we’re doing it in a productive and healthy way. Most of the time I’m working with multidisciplinary teams with designers, developers, testers and product leads to collaborate with clients and each other, so I’m leading exercises to help do that. Inevitably there are times when communication in the team doesn’t work so well, such is the nature of people! I need to be aware of these issues when they come up and make sure they’re getting talked about and resolved quickly.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable part is watching people push their boundaries and try new things, even when things get messy or uncomfortable, you always get through it and you always grow from it. I love being able to help teams reflect on how much we learn when we work together to solve problems. It inspires me to do the same and push my comfort levels too.
The place you work can dictate the work-life balance and at ustwo we aren’t expected to stay late, quite the opposite, we value people’s personal time here. If you want to put the extra time in then, great but it shouldn’t be something rewarded or expected.
What skills are essential to your job?
Facilitation skills (both for planning and running workshops and smaller sessions), rolled up in that is the ability to listen and be aware of when you need to step in and help the group move on. This is a real dark art and something I am in awe of when I see it done well.
You also need a good toolkit of Agile development practices, such as different ways to plan, estimate and reflect as a team. Another key skill is empathy; you need to be able to empathise with your team members and also with the clients you’re delivering for. Just knowing the technical delivery bits isn’t enough; if the people you work with don’t feel listened to or empowered, the team won’t be reaching its full potential.
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I co-run a monthly Agile meetup called Agile on the Bench with Emily Webber. We’ve tried to make it something small and friendly, where people can learn more about cool ways to work with Agile and teams.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Whiteboards for scribbling ideas down with the team; Slack and Google Hangouts for remote meetings and general team communication; Post-its and Sharpies for basically every workshop we have; Trello for all kind of organising, particularly useful if your team aren’t all in the same location.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A DJ, film director, comedy writer. Basically nothing that involved computers! In all honesty computers didn’t really exist for me when I was growing up, outside of an hour a week IT lesson, which was pretty dull.
What influence has your background had on your work?
I didn’t have a conventional education or start in my career. I’ve always been the type to throw myself in and hope for the best. I think I’ve had to build my confidence through trying and failing and learning. It’s always been in the back of my mind that I don’t have a great degree like most other people I work with. Maybe it’s made me try extra hard to over compensate, I’m not sure. But I’d say to anyone worried about not having that, it’s really not a problem if you are willing to throw yourself in and work hard.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I didn’t go to university, and went to technical college instead. I then got Arts Council funding to do a film and TV course. This was great for meeting amazing people and pushing myself to work with others on all kinds of crazy projects, but was never going to get me far in the industry. The short answer is not useful at all, but it was fun doing it and I grew lots as a person.
“To anyone worried about not having a degree: it’s really not a problem if you are willing to throw yourself in and work hard.”
What were your first jobs?
I did many waitressing and shop work jobs as a teen, but the first media type job I got was as a runner at Tiger Aspect in Soho when I was 18. From media, I went into software development and from there into more design-led product development.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
I’d have to say it was a combination of the Arts Council funding and Barclays Bank Career development loan*. Without those I wouldn’t have been able to study at all or get out of the small town I grew up in, which means I wouldn’t have started the chain of events that got me here today.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Some people move into more pure coaching, either at a leadership level (executive coaching) or just with larger scale teams. There’s a big need for coaches to help organisations develop and transform into more digital and collaborative ways of working. Other options might be a director of delivery, or head of delivery at an agency or software company. That person is ultimately responsible for the people who do delivery and the way it happens.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a delivery coach?
I think you’d need to get a good grounding in delivering projects in an agile way, either as a project manager, or another role in the team.
*Barclays no longer offers this loan, but it is available through the Co-op.
This is part of an In the Studio With feature with ustwo.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography by Sophie Stafford