We recently held our very first Guild Week at Synacy last July 15 to 19. I had the privilege of organizing the event and coming up with the activities that would comprise the week. I considered this one of my first major projects as Engineering Lead and coincidentally quite a first experience for me. Intimidating, but I looked forward to making it happen.
What’s a guild?
The “guild” is an organizational concept that has been around for centuries. Artisans and workers band together to learn from each other and improve their crafts. This puts a focus on collaboration as opposed to competition and is an important push to collectively advancing a profession and establishing more value in society.
Spotify has an interesting take on organization which involves guilds, and this was one of the references I read up on when I started planning Synacy’s Guild Week.
Though our take on the guild basically exists only for a week, I hope that making it a regular thing promotes the idea of continuously improving one’s craft by learning from others.
What we wanted to do
The objective of the event was to encourage our engineers to learn from each other and particularly from other teams. The vision was to get people to group together with a new team (a guild, if you will) for a week and gain new perspectives that they could then bring to their actual work teams to drive positive change. A breath of fresh air, basically, before they go back to their day-to-day work.
The obvious challenge was time management. As with most “extracurricular” work activities, we always worry about how these things might affect our operations. To set clear parameters, we decided that only customer support and other time-critical tasks needed to be addressed for actual work. Everything else would be acceptable to defer to a later date.
Fortunately, in our case, management buy-in was not a big issue. At Synacy, there’s a strong culture of autonomy that allows us to do with our time what we see fit and “productivity” can mean a variety of positive progress. There wasn’t much of an issue with using up a few days of work to hold the guild week when the potential benefit was clear.
Remote Only Setup
One unique thing about Synacy’s Guild Week is that we organized it to work in an exclusively distributed/remote environment. The rationale is that we have engineering teams that are distributed and we wanted everyone, both on-site and remote, to have the same experience with the activities. In addition, I found it to be a good opportunity to help on-site members learn to empathize with remote members, an opportunity that they may not often get in their daily work. On the other hand, remote members get a good chance to know the on-site team a little bit better.
We used Zoom for all the group meetings we held, including the kickoff event and the hackathon demo. There was some worry about whether it would be able to handle more than 20 attendees at the same time. It held up really well and there was little to complain about the quality of the meetings.
While a lot of hackathons are compressed into 24 hours of coding, we went for a more relaxed pace, giving the teams at least 3 days to work on their ideas. This was taking into consideration the time management challenge we had on our hands and also because we wanted to come up with outputs that could actually be usable for future work.
The mix of teams was also an important consideration. As one of our objectives was to get people to learn from other teams, we made it a rule that you couldn’t work with people in your actual work teams. Additionally, to push for an equal experience for remote members, we made sure there was at least one remote member in each hackathon team.
Competition was less of a focus in our version of the hackathon. We wanted to put more emphasis on the learning process and felt that focusing on competition would water down the collaboration aspect of the activity. We did give out a “people’s choice” award on everyone’s votes to encourage an appreciation of the work the other teams did.
Another activity we set up for the Guild Week was lightning talks. The objective was to help our software developers get a chance to work on their presentation skills, at the same time sharing a lesson or two with the rest of the team. It was on volunteer basis, and each volunteer would get 10 minutes to talk and another 10 minutes to take questions. We scheduled an hour a day for 3 days to do the talks. Sounds like a plan, right?
Unfortunately, no one volunteered until well into the middle of the week. Lesson learned for me – volunteerism may not work quite as well when you’ve only got a week to prepare.
Fortunately, a few brave souls eventually volunteered to do talks for the last session. Our remote member, Clive, did a talk on cognitive biases which he called “Judgment Under Uncertainty”. June and JR, teammates in one of our on-site teams, each did a talk on fun coding tips – June on Groovy closures and JR on Typescript lambda expressions.
In place of the other canceled sessions, my boss, Mark, fortunately had a few videos ready for showing – two by Marty Cagan from the CRAFT Conference on product management and a video by Michael Feathers on paying off technical debt.
Overall, despite the unexpected obstacles, I feel the lightning talks and the film sessions were a good source of new knowledge for everyone in the team.
I’m currently loving the idea of having an “in-house, open source community” going on with the projects created during the hackathon. I remember a time when software innovation was spurred by a bustling, global open source community. These days, open-source innovation seems to have given way to more business-driven Silicon Valley startups (feel free to argue with me on this one). But I believe there’s still a huge upside to the values brought about by open-source – values of learning from others, innovating with a mindset of helping (and perhaps bragging rights), and a prevalent sense of community.
Bringing those values into a private corporate setting makes a lot of good sense. A focus on contribution instead of competition is one clear path towards a healthy engineering culture. Of course, as with anything else related to people and culture, the feedback loop on this activity will expectedly be long, but I’m fairly confident the approach will bring a lot of positive change to our team.
Interested in taking part in a dynamic corporate culture and environment of collaboration and learning? Synacy is hiring software engineers, product managers, engineering leads, and more. Check out our job site for details on job openings.