Adventures in Agile Team Rooms
At Nulogy, a congregation of desks within our open concept office is the status quo for our software development teams (a.k.a. Task Forces). A task-force retrospective identified the need for a quiet workspace to improve productivity while working on a long running project, requiring a fundamental backend change. We were granted one of our coveted meeting rooms for use as a dedicated team room. With the project complete, we wanted to share the benefits and drawbacks of our experience.
So began our adventures in own dimension in the Nulogy time/space continuum. When the door was closed, the signal to noise ratio was ideal for pairing. It also allowed for ad-hoc collaboration. Overheard conversations could evolve into full blown meetings, and we never had to worry about disrupting other teams. As an unintended benefit, the close proximity helped break down boundaries and fostered a feeling of trust.
Despite achieving the sole goal of this experiment, there were obvious drawbacks. Internally, team members felt isolated from the other dev teams. Externally, our windowless room made us unapproachable—especially to newer Nulogites. Mid-project, we tried to address this with a sticky note on the door to welcome people in, but the subconscious message projected by a closed door remained.
The Walls are Alive with Information
Upon moving into our new headquarters, the potential of all the blank wall space was not immediately apparent. We started slowly, creating our Agile standard issue Kanban board and using the extra whiteboard space for ad-hoc design discussions. Over time, we realized it was an indispensable canvas! The walls slowly got filled up with retrospective actions items, tracking progress and backlog items, and other experiments that came out of retrospectives.
Our surroundings transformed into our Task Force’s “Heads Up Display”, tracking metrics and useful project information. This display became the centerpiece of our daily stand-up meetings. Our walls documented:
- The Number of Hotfixes and Days Since Last Hotfix: After a particular bad deploy, we added these Hotfix metrics to hold ourselves accountable. Achieving a new ‘high score’ in one of the metrics (for example, number of iterations completed with no resulting hotfixes) served as motivation and reason to celebrate.
- Team Commitment: Towards the end of the project, we found that tickets were slipping to the next iterations. This led to development of the team commitment included on our wall as an ongoing reminder to our team.
- Code Branches Meet Kanban: Testing of tickets from one iteration would spill over into the next; it became difficult to identify which tickets were on the Dev branch and which were on Release. We split the “Doing,” “Testing,” and “Done” lanes to include separate Dev and Release sub-lanes. Our Kanban board doubled in size, but the team was aligned and we made sure higher priority release work was being finished first.
- Mr. Airbrake: Given the nature of our work, we noticed that there an increase in Airbrake.io errors being thrown on all the monitored environments. We started a Mr. Airbrake rotation—one developer was responsible for triaging errors and identifying which we were responsible for. We dedicated wall-space to track the developer rotation using Post-it Note caricatures drawn by our fellow teammate and Nulogy CTO, Jason Yuen.
It Worked, Until it Didn’t
The team room, aligned the team when we needed it most. We may have wished for a higher whiteboard-to-wall ratio and a window or glass wall to help break down barriers, but ultimately the room was just too small.
As the team grew, additional desks and chairs made their way into the room. It became less versatile for meetings and retrospectives, and eventually grew to be cramped and claustrophobic. No one wanted to give it up, but people began working outside the room with increasing frequency. We were increasingly not physically in the room, even when available for collaboration. Finally, we decided to move out.
After reflecting on our experience, we decided the necessity for a dedicated team room is project specific. If the need presented itself, we would be willing to try it again, provided we could negotiate a larger space. Fow now, getting settled in the open spaces and working on a new project, we begin our next experiment: can we replicate the visual advantages of our team room in the open concept space? We are trying to re-create the “Heads Up Display” effect, improve whiteboard accessibility and document team learnings in the same way that we did in our team room, with fewer walls to work with. We will see if this hypothesis proves correct.