In September, my employer Tier 3 rented a house in St. George, Utah so that the Engineering team could cohabitate and collaborate. The house could accommodate 25 people, and we had anywhere from 8-12 folks there on a given week. This was the first time we’ve done this, and the concept seems to be gaining momentum in the industry.
I joined our rockstar team in Utah for one of the three weeks, and learned a few things that may help others who are planning these sorts of exercises.
- Location matters. Why were we in a giant house located in Utah? I actually have no idea. Ask my boss. Our team is almost entirely based on Bellevue, WA. But this location actually served a few purposes. First, the huge house made it possible for us all to live and work in the same place. Doing this at a hotel or set of bungalows wouldn’t have had the same effect. Second, being far away from home forced us to hang out! If we were an hour south of Bellevue (or closer to me in Los Angeles), it would have been to easy for people to duck out. Instead, for better or worse, we spent almost all of our time together as a team. Finally, I found this particular location to be visually inspirational. We were in beautiful part of the country in a house with a fantastic view. This encouraged the team to work outside, go hiking, play basketball, and simply enjoy the surroundings.
- Casual collaboration is awesome. I’m a huge believer in the fact that we learn SO MUCH more during casual conversation than in formal meetings. In fact, I just read a great book on that topic. The nature of the Hack House trip – and even the physical layout of the house – made it so easy to quickly talk through a plethora of topics. I saw the developers quickly pair and solve problems. I was able to spontaneously brainstorm with our Creative Director on some amazing new ideas for our software. I know that “distributed teams” is the new hotness, but absolutely nothing beats having a team together to work through a challenge.
- Have a theme for the effort. At Tier 3, we update our cloud software once a month. Our Agile team focused this particular sprint on one major feature area. This focus ensured that the majority of people in the Hack House were working towards the same objective. When we left the Hack House last Friday, we knew we had made significant progress towards it. I think the common theme contributed to the easy collaboration since nearly every conversation was relevant to everyone in the house.
- Get to know people. This was honestly one of the primary reasons I went to the Hack House. I work with a ridiculously talented team. Despite being a fraction of the size of the largest cloud computing providers, Tier 3 has the “platform lead” according to Gartner’s IaaS Magic Quadrant (read it free here). Why? Great software and a usability-centric experience. While I’ve worked with this team for over a year, I only knew most of them in a professional setting. Being a remote employee, I don’t get to sit in on many of the goofy office conversations, or randomly grab people for lunch breaks. So, I used some time at the Hack House to simply get to know these brilliant developers and designers. These situations create the perfect environment to learn more about what makes people tick, and thus create an even better working relationship.
- Make sure someone can cook. Tier 3 stocked the kitchen every day which was great. Fortunately, a lot of people knew what to DO with a stocked kitchen. If we had just gone out to eat for every meal, that would have wasted time and split us up into groups. Instead, it was fun to have joint meals cooked by different team members.
- Get involved in activities. Even though we were all living together, it’s still possible for someone to disappear in an eight-bedroom house! I didn’t see any of that on this trip. Instead, it seemed like everyone WANTED to hang out. We watched Monday Night Football, ate together, played The Resistance (poorly, in my case), and went hiking. These non-work activities were a cool way to wind down from work. What was fantastic though, is that this started at the top. Our VP of Engineering was there for the whole duration, and he set the tone for the work-hard-play-hard mentality. Want to go shoot hoops for a half hour at 2pm? Go for it, no one will give you a weird look. Up for a hike that will get you back by lunch time? Have fun! Everyone worked hard, but we also embraced the spirit of Hack House.
- Valuable to mix teams. Our Engineering team consists primarily of developers, but my team (Product Management), Design, and QA also roll up underneath it. All teams were invited to the Hack House and mixing it up was really useful. This let us have well-rounded discussions about feature priority, design considerations, development trade-offs, and even testing strategy. In the next Hack House, I’d love us to also invite the Operations team.
- Invest in bandwidth! Yeah, we maxed out the network at this house. 8-12 people, constantly online. I had a GoToMeeting session and somehow kicked everyone off the network! Before choosing a house, consider network options and whether you should bring your own 4G connectivity!
All in all, a very fun week and productive effort. I’ve seen other companies do weekend hack-a-thons for team building purposes, but an extended period of collaboration was invaluable. If you want to join us at the next Hack House, we’re still looking for one or two more great developers to join the team.