This May I found myself on a newly formed Engineering team: CoreUX, a group focused on defining and maintaining the experience of Hootsuite’s users and the front-end tools we use. Our team started out as 12 people working on multiple projects, and we’ve nearly doubled in size since. The team is a mix of old and new employees – some of us hardly knew each other. We needed to find a way to bond quickly and stay connected as a team.
Challenge: How do we Stay Connected?
As the only permanent management-type on this newly-formed team, I was looking to solve some of the problems we faced in our infancy:
- How do we quickly bond as a group?
- How do we get to know each other?
- How do we keep abreast of what the rest of the team is working on?
- How do we learn about the new tools and practices coming from other projects?
- How do we learn to maintain what we jointly own but may not yet have worked on?
Some of these challenges were solved by getting together after hours and drinking too much. Others required a different approach.
Solution: Show and Tell
The idea we came up with was to do demos to each other on a weekly basis, literally a show and tell for (mostly) grownup engineers. As an engineering organization practicing SCRUM we do demos already, to product owners at sprint-end and of completed/released work at our all-hands meetings, so the idea wasn’t entirely novel. Unlike the other demos, our team show and tell is much less formal, where team members can show or talk about work that might not yet be finished, or even started. We do our demos at the end of the day at the end of the week and we almost always have beer on hand, brought in by a different volunteer each week. The agenda for our demos is crowd-sourced, as in team members sign themselves up to share.
How Show and Tell Keeps us Connected
We’ve been doing our team demos weekly for five months running now and they’ve been great for us. It’s working and here’s why:
We Learn From Each Other
As engineers, we tend to get pretty heads-down stuck into what we’re working on. As such, it’s great to see what the other project groups are doing. New tools and new techniques are often shared, broadening the knowledge of the team at large. It’s particularly important for those currently working on maintenance projects to see how new features are supposed to work and to know who to go to for what.
Feedback: Giving and Receiving
Showing off your work to the group is a great way to get feedback on what you’re working on, especially when projects are just getting started. Leveraging the wisdom of the rest of the team leads to improved designs and to catching gotchas early.
Our demos give everyone a chance to hone their presentation skills in an informal setting on a regular basis. In engineering, the ability to relay complex technical information quickly and effectively is incredibly valuable. We don’t just write code, we design, teach, troubleshoot, present, document, and discuss (argue), endeavours that benefit from being able to get a point across.
We Have Fun
Our demos are fun. We respect the presenter, but also make jokes and keep the atmosphere light-hearted. Getting together every week like this has helped us get to know each other better and has given birth to many a conversation that might not have seen the light of day. The presence of beer doesn’t hurt; sharing a drink is one of the oldest, culturally ubiquitous social practices in the world.
Our demos give us a platform to celebrate our successes as a team. We clap and cheer together after every demo. We award the CoreUX Trophy to the team member most judged worthy. The winner is nominated by a teammate, and it’s almost always clear who went the extra mile that week. It’s not a competitive thing, but just one more way to celebrate a job well done.
No Staff Meetings
I don’t know of many people that get excited by staff meetings, but sometimes you need to get the team together to break some news. We sneak announcements of this kind into our demos so as not to add another meeting to our busy schedules.
Has it All Been Rosy?
Not exactly. We did add a weekly meeting for a large group of people, which does take time away from project work. Engineers don’t tend to look favourably upon meetings, but in this instance the benefits outweigh the time cost and the team have bought in. It took us a while to find the least disruptive time to hold our demos, so as not to interrupt the flow of the team. We’ve settled on late in the afternoon, towards the end of the week.
I believe so. One encouraging sign is that almost every other engineering team at Hootsuite has replicated the concept and have their versions of team demos. Good ideas spread quickly here 🙂 As with everything we do at Hootsuite, we’ll keep iterating on how we do our team demos to get the most out of them. We’ll keep doing them for as long as they keep working for us.
Will it Scale?
Not in it’s current form, as forty people in a room showing and discussing their latest work will prove impractical. However, as we grow (and we’re definitely still growing), we’ll inevitably continue to split into more teams. These teams will iterate on the concept, and have their own versions of team demos.
I’d love your feedback on the concept of team demos, specifically if you’ve tried them and what has and hasn’t worked for you.
About the Author: Chris Richardson is an Engineering Lead on the CoreUX team. He writes code on the Customer Happiness team, manages a group of engineers, and guides the agile development process for CoreUX. Follow him on Twitter at @carichardson.