What I did in 2013

I believe that in general humans are beasts driven by achievements.

The drive starts with our internal biocomputers controlling our behaviors by injecting small doses of hormones, one of which is dopamine. This one plays crucial role in the internal reward-motivated behaviors, ie. we are doping ourselves as a reward when we do something beneficial. It is highly addictive (a phenomena perfected by gaming industry, underlying huge success of either simple, repeatable games like Angry Birds, as well as major titles like World of Warcraft).

2013 was a good year for me, meaning that I managed to keep the level of my dopamine above average for most of it. Now, in an attempt to get high reflecting on past successes :D, I would like to sum up some key achievements and finish with some takeaways.

Fireworks

This is the second post in a miniseries wrapping up 2013 for me. Previously I reflected on the top things I learnt in 2013.

Disclaimer – at any time in this post if I write I did something it never means that I did it alone and by myself. In fact this post should be rather titled What projects I played some small role in. I believe no significant endeavor nowadays is possible without cooperation, and even if it is, definitely (for me) doing things alone is less fun. Therefore, huge thank you is due to all those who did those things together with me.

Top 3 things I did in 2013

Agile Warsaw & AgileByExample

Probably the most spectacular event in 2013 was joining AgileByExample team in organizing ABE Light in March and then ABE13 in October. The idea formed in the beginning of the year when I was invited to speak at the Agile Saturday conference in Tallinn (thanks to Heldin for the invitation :D). It was the 8th edition of Agile Saturday (impressive), attracted, I guess, 200-300 participants (impressive) and was free (impressive). Also, the keynote speakers included Mary&Tom Poppendieck as well as several people I hadn’t heard of, though from notable companies (eg. Skype, Microsoft, Maersk). Anyway, I came back with a thought that if in Tallinn, a 400k city, it is possible to do such an event, it’s a shame there’s nothing similar in Warsaw, a 2m city.

ABE Light

I talked this idea through with Marek and Mateusz, the leaders of the Agile Warsaw community, and quickly we agreed that we should organize similar mini-conference. At the same time we didn’t want to create an event competing with AgileByExample, a conference organized since 2011 by SoftwareMill, by people we know and, I dare to say, like. Long story short, we decided to partner with AgileByExample team and create a complimentary, supporting event. That’s how ABE Light was founded.

We made several assumptions to make organization as simple as possible and fulfill the goal of making a supporting event:

  1. half a day event
  2. local (Warsaw area) speakers with a “foreign” (outside of Warsaw) keynote speaker
  3. one talk on non-software topic (a concept stolen from Tallinn)
  4. free or almost free
  5. no sponsors

Another thing was that I wanted to make an experiment and have a panel discussion session (an idea stolen from Agile in Business 2012 conference, check my review here). I will shamelessly admit that part of this experiment was for me to get an opportunity to moderate such a panel, something I never did before.

I believe it turned out great. We managed to get a nice lineup of lean/agile speakers: Tomek Łasica, Michał Rączka, Mateusz Srebrny, Tomek Szymański and Karol Traczykowski (unfortunately two others, who I really wanted to see had to cancel – Paweł Lipiński and Piotr Żołnierek). As a non-software speaker we had major Rocco Spencer, a retired officer of the American army, who gave a highly energetic talk on leadership. I believe this talk alone left noone unsatisfied. We closed with a barbecue & grill at a nearby pub, networking and socializing.

AgileByExample 2013

ABE13 OutsideABE Light led to a closer cooperation between TouK and SoftwareMill on AgileByExample 2013. This project (as they always do) had it’s ups and downs though in the end I am very happy with the results (and hope SoftwareMill is as well 😀 – check a post by Ola Puchta here). Some other time I might do a detailed post about the organization, but here I will mention that we managed to improve ABE13 over ABE12 on most if not all of the dimensions: the event was bigger (by 50%), the venue at least as spectacular as in 2012 (the cinema Kino Praha!), top-notch, world-class keynotes (Appelo, Gilb, Sutherland), great partners and sponsors plus a few details (eg. free popcorn). According to many comments and reviews – we were really successful.

One thing I want to make clear here was my goals and my motivation. At the beginning of 2013 I thought (as said above) we can make a cool event for the community in Warsaw. Beside that, I felt it was a pity that despite having the largest and most active lean/agile community in Poland, the agile conference in Warsaw was to say the least below my expectations. At some moment I had an idea of starting a new conference brand, but quickly I recalled one of my first lessons that I got as a software developer from the founders of TouK. It was about open source. When you want to opensource some code and consider founding a new project it’s always better to refrain yourself, find an existing project and contribute your code there. Everybody: you, the other founders, and most importantly – the community – is better off when we make a few good products instead of a multitude of mediocre ones. This is what I did regarding the conference. I asked SoftwareMill if they could use my help and they accepted.

So my first takeaway from 2013 is to take something important to you and try to make it better.

Public speaking

Dreams Come TrueThe second topic I will cover briefly although personally it was very important to me. In the first half of 2013 I had an opportunity to speak at several conferences both in Poland and abroad. I was speaking about safe-to-fail experiments in the complex system of TouK (see Managing developers is complex post) as well as about the foundations of a successful agile collaboration between customers and vendors (check Customer Collaboration video /in Polish/).

The reason this is an important thing to me is because in mid 2012 I set it as a goal for the following months. I had no idea how to start, I had close to no public speaking experience but I believed that some of the experiments at TouK might be interesting for wider audience. The conference season that started for me with the Lean Agile Scotland in September 2012 and finished in April 2013 at ACE! gave me at least a little confidence that our experiences might be interesting for some.

Anyway, the key point here is that it is actually pretty easy to get invited to speak at conferences, provided you decide you want to. If you are interested and have no idea how to start, check out the recording of my lightning talk delivered at ABE13 on becoming a speaker at an international conference. Anyway, my second takeaway from 2013 is to dream, set goals and make your dreams come true.

Focus on culture

EyeballsI believe that one of the most important tasks for founders of a company or higher management or executives is to create a great environment for all employees (I like how Jurgen Appelo describes his view on the role of a CEO – Chief Ecosystem Organizer – here). In my opinion, a crucial part of creating a great environment is enabling communication and knowledge & information transfer. Part of that is transparency. Part of that is providing right information to right people at the right time. Part of that is teaching people how things are done here. In 2013 I played a role in several experiments at TouK that aimed at helping create a great environment. Let me give you some examples.

Thursday breakfasts

At the beginning of 2013 I felt TouK is not focusing enough on integration across projects and creating a sense of being one team. We have quite a few project teams, but (typically for a software house I believe) these teams are not working together most of the time. Often people are even not aware of the project a fellow colleague is working on or what projects are active at a given time (by the end of 2013 there were over 60 developers at TouK). Similarly, even though during a year we are organizing a few non-work related integration events, they don’t provide an opportunity to discuss issues relevant to the whole company with the whole company.

The way I tried to address this was to start getting everybody together at a regular basis and have an open discussion covering some topic while having breakfast at the same time. The fact that TouK is providing breakfast for all employees helped to arrange it this way (some TouKers will dismiss the quality of the food). After almost a year of doing it I would call it a moderate success.

During the year topics varied immensely, from a financial situation after two quarters, to ways of marketing our services, to the bonus system, to a vision for a particular technology team. We also had a series of meetings when almost all of the teams presented their projects, what I believe had a huge impact on getting people to know each other better. I have to say that some of these meetings were difficult, some were heated, some were boring and probably all of them could have been better. But at the same time – only by doing something one can get better at it, thus I am very happy we decided to start. In the end, I got more positive feedback about this than negative.

News spam

Another experiment that earned some positive feedback throughout the year was my attempt to become a reporter and send everybody news about stuff happening at different parts of TouK. Some time ago we were preparing (monthly if I recall correctly) a short magazine with a few articles on projects, new employees and stuff like that. After some time we stopped. This time I believe it worked better even though there were no articles – just one-two sentences on every issue.

One might wonder isn’t that a waste to have a member of the board preparing a newsletter – decide for yourself but let me tell you that one of the reasons why it worked this time was that the members of the board are amongst few people in an organizations that are aware of all major things happening – from projects delivered, not delivered, to sales, to financials. And giving an overview in a form of a few sentences every month or two is not that time consuming either.

Buddies

Imagine a situation where you start in a new company and all the things you do at the beginning. On day one you are getting a comprehensive introduction with so many things covered that you get lost after first half an hour. Of course it’s true that all crucial processes are documented on an internal wiki (we all know Murphy’s laws, obviously, the documentation is outdated). Of course it’s true that you can always come and ask anybody for help (Murphy strikes back, when you decide who to ask they are on vacation). Having observed struggles of many people coming to work at TouK and inspired by a story from my wife about her company I suggested we may try to designate a buddy for every new employee.

A responsibility of a buddy is to be proactively interested in problems a newcomer might be having regarding the life of the company. We try to separate it from a project lead role – buddies shouldn’t focus on technical problems of a daily work. They should provide an answer to a non-project question at the right time (instead of all answers to all possible questions). Thus they are focusing on things like: who to ask about changing a project, what to do when ill, why noone gives any feedback, how to get final employment contract (after 3 months of probation – even though the probation at TouK is kind of unusual).

I was not involved in the process of evaluation of the buddy role beside hearing some gossips in the kitchen, but as far as I know, after practicing it on 15+ newcomers in 2013, this is a practice that will be maintained and improved.

Financial transparency

The last thing I will mention is focusing on the financial transparency. I like the way Jurgen Appelo describes what making money is for an organization – it’s as air for humans – we need it although we won’t say that breathing is our goal. There’s no escape from financials no matter how much some want it. We can only disconnect employees from the data. In TouK we believe that this would be wrong – understanding the financial aspect of the business is crucial to making better decisions in everyday work.

We started in 2012 with a change in our salary system – long story short – we made salaries public (subscribe to this blog to learn more about this later this year). In 2013 we continued – one of my colleagues created a small reporting app that we use for reporting some key indicators. This app replaced a suite of Google Docs spreadsheets that we couldn’t scale (we’ve been using GDocs since 2011 for 30+ projects, 70 people with monthly entered data – too much to handle due to lots of cross-spreadsheet dependencies). Anyway – we use our app to make all financial information radiated to everybody. And BTW – creating it (well I did two OLAP reports + some tuning) was the only opportunity for me to do any coding this year – it’s always fun to hack some software.

I consider it to be work in progress – it’s far from my vision of a financial radiator. At the moment it resembles Death by Powerpoint type of presentation – lots of numbers that are hard to understand unless you use it everyday and are used to it. But definitely it’s a good start, especially as our previous tool (G Docs) was a pain to use.

Finally

The final takeaway for me from 2013 is to find your weakness and focus on improving it even if it requires you to step out of your comfort zone. 12 months ago I felt that we are not paying enough attention to making everybody in the company play in the same team. I tried to address that by helping the culture spread as well as pushing the information down the hierarchy.

As a disclaimer I will mention that I think that focusing on weaknesses is not always a good strategy, sometimes you should rather focus on your strengths and exploit them as much as possible. The difficult part (I believe) is to figure out which of these two strategies to use in your context :).

Final notes

Recently I have watched a nice talk by Simon Sinek on how hormones control the way we behave, covering the dopamine among other things. Far from being scientific, it’s still a good watch. I recommend checking it out (here).

A long time ago I read a really great article about the ways video games are getting us addicted. If it sounds interesting you can read it (here).

The sentence I started with is not entirely true. I said I believe humans are beasts driven by achievements. Despite being true in many cases I also believe that our social relations and need of relatedness is probably more important than getting high due to achievements. And that there are many more factors that also drive us. Still, I believe it made a nice opening sentence…

Happy New Year to all Flickr friends
color line
AgileByExample
Sidewalk Stencil: You make my dreams come true
Franco Folini
Eyeballs!
Tyler J. Bolken
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