Inspired by Atlassian’s Fedex Day

My team has been after me for years to implement something like the Google 20.  Well, I’ve never felt I can afford to work only four days a week on delivering what the business asks for — 6 would be preferable.  So, we never did it.  However, Atlassian came up with the idea for Fedex days a few years ago, and this seemed a much more sellable idea, especially if we did it in December when things are starting to slow down a bit.  This year we tried it out.

We changed it a little from their format, but looking at their FAQ, there are some things we should adopt, like grabbing screenshots on the last morning in case the project breaks a few minutes before the deadline.  We also made it a two-day event, rather than just 24 hours.  Our environment is complex, and it could easily take a day just to get started.

Noon on Wednesday hit and the energy on the development floor went through the roof! Suddenly little teams of two or three formed all over the place, laptops emerged so people could work at each others’ desks, developers were huddling. Work continued into the wee hours of the morning both days. It was great!

Being the director, I decided to lead by example, and came up with my own project.  Part of my time was eaten by meetings that I couldn’t avoid, but for much of those two days I managed to roll up my sleeves and do some development.  True to form, I decided to start by learning a new language and development environment, and implemented my project in Grails.

By the end of Wednesday afternoon, I’d gone through all the tutorials I felt I needed and started on my actual project, which was to call the Innotas API to create a tool to simplify accepting timesheets.  That’s more or less when I found out that Grails is not all that much help for calling web services.  Oh well, I persevered, and thanks to Adrian Brennan, who was working on another integration with Innotas, I got my application to talk to Innotas by the time I went home, around 3 AM.

The Innotas API is a poster child for the worst API ever.  To do remarkably simple things, you need to cross the network tens of times.  It’s like traversing an XML document one node at a time over the Internet.  But I digress.

Thursday dawned earlier than expected and some of the teams were starting to struggle, including me.  I had more than half the day devoted to meetings that I couldn’t avoid.  Worse, there were no good blocks of time to get in the zone.  I was experiencing first-hand the difficulty with context-switching that my developers go through every day.  Indeed, I only got about two hours of productive time during the day, and came back in the evening.  When I left at 2 AM, I wasn’t the last to leave, and I suspect there were more working from home.

Friday morning flew by, and some of the organizational items that I’d left until the last minute became minor crises – mental note for next year!  However, I managed to get a partial demo working, which meant that at least I wouldn’t embarrass myself in the afternoon.

Suddenly it was noon, and a mountain of pizza was being delivered to our largest meeting room, which attracted the whole team very effectively.  Everyone grabbed some pizza and we called into the conference bridge for the handful of remote workers.  The afternoon would be long.

Atlassian limits their demos to three minutes.  We didn’t limit the demos this year, but next year we will.  A couple of people chose to show documents or presentations that they’d worked on, which I feel is counter to the spirit of the event.  We won’t accept those next year either.

One of the things I’d left until the last minute was figuring out exactly how we would finagle our way into the development VLAN from the conference room.  The challenges of seeing demos on various developer machines while simultaneously using join.me or gotomeeting ate up too much time.  So next year we’ll do a little practice in the week before, and we’ll get two computers going so we don’t have to wait for each demo to set up.  Well, lessons learned.

I hoped for team engagement, skills development and demonstration, and we got those in spades.  I thought we might perhaps get a product idea or two, but I was completely blown away by the number of projects that resulted in something that is almost usable in our products. We got way more value out of this initiative than I expected, and I fully several projects to graduate into our products after a little refinement.

If you’ve thought about Fedex Days for your organization, I heartily recommend finding a quiet time of the year and going for it.

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