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Jeffrey Elkner

NOVA Web Development: A Look Ahead to 2021


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NOVA Web Development at 1½ (and 8½)

NOVA Web Development, LLC was "born" in its current incarnation on August 1, 2019, since on that date we filed with the state of Virginia as an LLC, Entity S8435929. As we prepare for the year 2021, I want to take a look back at where we've been, take stock of where we are now, and think about where we need to go in the coming period of our development.

From Whence We Came

NOVA Web Development was originally formed as a stock corporation on June 28, 2012, Entity 07530967. I've long been telling the story that it was attending the 2012 Allied Media Conference in Detroit that inspired me to start NOVA Web Development with Kevin Cole, and my oft visited notes from the conference had cemented that idea in my mind, but revisiting our history in preparing this post and finding our certificate of incorporation with a date one day before the start of the conference is helping nudge my memory (Note: I'm getting old, and my mind is going, please forgive me ;-).

I now recall that during the school year prior to the Allied Media Conference I had been working with a teacher colleague, Dr. Andrew Garling, to set up a small business for my students to be able to get their first work experience. I had been part of an initiative by my local school system to develop a Student Enterprise program, and found that the contradiction between the need for agile flexibility in entrepreneurship and the need of the school system bureaucracy to protect itself above all else from liability assured the failure of the program. Full of hubris, I wondered if freed from the fetters of the school system I could do better myself. That's what motivated me to go to Detroit with Kevin. NOVA Web Development was already in the works. (Note: Dr. Garling, who in addition to having experience setting up a business in Virginia through his private practice as a family physician, was one of the founders of Earth Day).

For its first 5 years NOVA Web Development suffered greatly from a lack of clarity in its mission. I wanted it to both serve the needs of my students for a first work experience, as well as to align with my socialist vision of work place democracy, and even to be a tool for working toward that vision. Kevin originally wanted to use it as a means to continue consulting with his former employer of 38 years, Gallaudet University, after retiring around the same time we started the business.

These years were not without their successes. Indeed, it met Kevin's consulting needs fairly well, and the first students who participated in it all benefited from the experience. Christopher Hedrick in particular used the experience to start a successful career as a full stack web developer. That said, it was a failure as a business. I continued to poor tens of thousands of dollars into it, and the revenue it generated was minimal.

Transitioning to a "Real" Business

By 2017 I realized that what I was doing with NOVA Web Development was not sustainable, and that I needed to either figure out how to turn it into a "real" business, meaning one that generates more revenue than it costs to maintain it, or to summon the strength to walk away from it. This second option is probably harder than you think, since it would mean both admitting a big personal failure and abandoning a project into which I had poured so much effort and resources (see escalation of commitment).

Douglas Cerna joined our co-op at this time after he and Tom Hoffman pulled the plug on the business they had started together to provide support for SchoolTool. We now had an experienced, highly skilled lead developer, and could contemplate a business plan around developing a large scale software development project.

The project we had in mind was something we were calling LibreOrganize, and would be a platform for helping unions and other progressive organizations engage with their members and coordinate their activities. I have briefly described the history of LibreOrganize in Should LibreOrganize Be Called an OMS?, and won't take time to do it again here, but what is important to mention is that while Douglas argued that we should focus all our energy around LibreOrganize, I argued that we couldn't afford to do that, and that we instead had to try to "walk on two legs" and take on paying Django development gigs wherever we could find them while developing LibreOrganize as time and resources permitted while keeping the business viable.

Our disagreement was one that stemmed from our different vantage points - Douglas looking at the development needs of a large software project from a developer's point of view, and me from the point of view of an only moderately well paid high school teacher who was funding the effort. This contradiction continues to be at the center NOVA Web Development's challenge today, and getting it "right" will in large part determine our success or failure going forward.

I ultimately couldn't afford to keep Douglas with the co-op. When he left, I thought that NOVA Web Development would not continue much longer, but a few fortuitous breaks and the benefit of the hard earned experience of the previous 7 years combined to breath new life into our struggling little co-op.

Where We Are Now

This is the first update / reflection I have had the chance to write since What I Did with My Summer Vacation in August, 2019. We have come a long way since then. We now have 6 worker owners in our co-op:

Kevin Cole and Jeff Elkner (aka "The Old Goats")
Kevin and Jeff are now settling into their roles as promoters, guides, mentors, and volunteers with the co-op. They neither need nor expect any earnings from the business (with Jeff only dreaming of the day when he can stop putting so much money into it), and the value they get from their involvement with it is both the joy they share in helping young folks learn, and the opportunity to "help build the world they want to live in", to restate one of our co-op's principles of unity.
Natalia Cerna
Nana has become the heart and soul of NOVA Web Development. If we are still here 5 years from now, it will be mostly because of her effort. A graphic designer who dreams of spending much more time practicing her craft, she is now sales manager, project manager, and lead motivator of our co-op. More than any of our other members, she has embraced cooperativism and engaged in continual professional development around what it means to be a worker cooperative, including participating in the Platform Coops NOW! course through The New School and Mondragon University. She is willing to do what needs to be done to continue breathing life into our co-op.
Stefan-Ionut Tarabuta
Stefan is the main "fortuitous break" to which I referred above that has kept our little co-op alive for the past year and a half. A very talented and highly skilled young back-end developer, we are well aware we could not afford someone with his skill set. It's just because he likes us, and because he is only in his first year in college and does not need to live off revenue from our co-op at this stage in his life, that we are lucky enough to have him. He is the main developer behind our current versions of LibreOrganize, Business Tracker, and The Blog (on which this post is hosted).
Louis Elkner-Alfaro
Louie is the new kid on the block as a developer, but he did a previous stint with us a few years back in the role that Nana currently fulfills as project manager and sales person. When his Bachelor's degree in Sociology had him stocking shelves in a grocery store he expressed interest in retraining as a software developer and his father (yours truly again) offered him a paid half time internship with NOVA Web Development starting last Summer and ending December 31st, 2020. During the past six months he has worked tirelessly with zOnny has his mentor to learn the skills he would need to contribute to our co-op beginning with the start of 2021. He is smart, dedicated, and hard working, and while 6 months certainly was not enough time to become a full-stack web developer, he is willing to keep learning on the job, and can also be a valuable help to Nana in handling business tasks.
German Tejada
German is the 22 year old cousin of Natalia, who has a skill set as a front-end web developer together with some experience in system administration and Django. He just joined us as an official candidate member, though he has been part of our community for years. "Maestro German", as I have taken to calling him, is currently learning Django development while teaching it to two students, one of whom lives near him in Santa Ana, El Salvador, that the other who lives in Columbia, South America. German worked closely together with former member Edzon Quinteros, which was a huge help in moving us toward our agile goal of shared ownership of our code.

The operating agreement of our co-op has a section titled Interns that begins with the following sentence:

NOVA Web Development was originally founded in 2012 at least in part with the goal of developing a pathway for non-traditional students - immigrant students and students of color, women, and low-income students - to make their way into the IT industry.

This section reflects co-founder Jeff Elkner's work as a full time IT teacher at the Arlington Career Center, which now offers a full dual-enrolled Associates Degree in Computer Science program, and which together with co-founder Kevin Cole's 38 years as a staff programmer at Gallaudet University puts education in the very DNA of NOVA Web Development. It also provides us with a tremendous potential strength as we move forward.

We currently have one contributing intern as defined by our operating agreement:

Adrian Buchholz
Adrian is a high school senior (and college sophomore) who this June will be among the first group of students to graduate from high school and Northern Virginia Community College at the same time. Despite being an intern, Adrian has become a core part of our back-end development team, working closely with Stefan-Ionut on LibreOrganize and Business Tracker. He is doing senior Capstone Experience with us this year, and we are tremendously fortunate to have him. If NOVA Web Development establishes itself as a viable business this year, the opportunity to continue working with bright, talented, and creative students like Adrian will be a source of continual energy for us.

Where We Need to Go Now

To establish ourselves as a viable business, we need to be able to earn a minimum monthly revenue of between 7 and 10 thousand dollars. Anything short of that and the three co-op members who need to earn their living from our business, Natalia, German, and Louie, won't be able to make it, forcing them to look for earnings elsewhere and seriously harming our ability to offer a valuable business service. Stefan is a full time college student who plans to pay his way through college with earnings NOVA Web Development as well, but he has more built-in flexibility on when he gets paid than the other three do.

To get to this revenue goal we need only do one thing, find enough paying work to generate it. Ours is a labor intensive, not a capital intensive business. The only real up-front costs we had were the training and skills development of our members. We paid for that mostly with the sweat of our member's own efforts to study on their own and with each other. We now have to locate enough need for our hard earned skills to generate the earnings we need to continue operating as a business. That is our first priority as we look toward 2021. If we achieve that goal, we will be able to move on to bigger, more exciting and ambitious things, such as our dream of playing a significant role in the current upsurge in cooperativism and in the movement for workplace democracy. If we fail to achieve it, we will need to close shop and abandon the dream of NOVA Web Development.

Toward both our immediate and more ambitious goals we have taken the following actions, which need to be built upon in the coming year. During the past year we:

We have also, through the truly amazing skills of our lead developer, Stefan-Ionut, created two Django applications of our own which we will feature in our skills portfolio:

During the first four months of 2021, we will be developing LibreOrganize in the service of the collective bargaining campaign in which Arington Education Association will be engaged leading up to the May 1st date on which Virginia HB 582 takes effect, granting local jurisdictions in Virginia the authority to engage in collective bargaining with their employees.